Streetcars: The Transit System America Threw Away
Before streetcars practically disappeared, they carried millions of people around our cities. Will light rail systems decline too?
In the 1951 sci-fi movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," pedestrians are seen descending staircases on the edge of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. These days, the stairs are still there, but now they’re blocked off. They led to a once-busy 75,000-square-foot below-ground streetcar station built in 1949. The station has been closed since 1962.
Dupont Circle’s ghostly streetcar station is another reminder that America once had an extensive and efficient interurban transit system. Now, as cities from Buffalo to San Diego look to light rail -- today’s iteration of the streetcar, which itself evolved from the horse-drawn omnibus -- it’s worth thinking about the astonishing transit system we built and then threw away.
A century ago, there were nearly 34,000 miles of streetcar tracks connecting neighborhoods to downtowns, and towns to neighboring towns. (I’ve been told that it was possible to travel from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia on local streetcars and trolleys, although that would have been one long and unpleasant trip.)
Overwhelmingly, those tracks were built by private investors. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was streetcars, not automobiles, that created the first suburbs.
If you live in an urban area, the evidence is all around you. I live in D.C., not far off Connecticut Avenue, which is broad and gently graded because of the streetcars that once ran along it. The Chevy Chase Land Co. built Connecticut Avenue across miles of farmland to take people from the suburb that still bears the company’s name to downtown D.C., eventually linking up to that now-deserted Dupont Circle station.
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