The Streetcar City

I have been spending a fair amount of time recently trying to understand the streetcar city we once had. Say in 1929 or so.

Why, you might ask? Well, for a couple of reasons. First, the routing of the streetcars of so long ago is nearly identical to the routing of today’s bus system. This may seem counterintuitive to some who realize how much this place has changed in the last 80 years or so – sprawl has emptied the city, changed where we live and work, vaporized downtown retail and entirely changed our patterns of urban life. But the routes, right down to the route numbers for many routes, are intact. More about this later.

And then I got to wondering about how it was to move around the city in those days. In 1929 we had subway, streetcar, bus, and trackless trolley (electric buses running on power from overhead lines) in addition to interurbans and long distance passenger rail. Today we have bus. And our cars, endlessly our cars.

Anyway, I found a map of the streetcar, bus, and subway routes from about that date, and I have been puzzling over it for some time. Here’s the map:

The solid lines are streetcars, the dashed lines are buses, and the subway is a doubled line with dashes inside. There were something like 10 bus lines and about 15 or more trolley lines.

Remember this: in those days the city was nearly twice as populous in nearly half the land. There was not yet a large non-city population (regional population). Downtown was, well, downtown: bustling, filled with jobs and retail and entertainment – the destination. The map shows so many routes going there because that’s where everyone wanted, and needed, to go.

The fare was a dime – about $1.25 today – and there were transfers so that you could change streetcars, or change modes, from streetcar to bus to trackless trolley. (Today there are no transfers – it’s a buck a ride, and another buck on the bus you have to transfer to).

In fact the streetcar transfer was invented here, by a man named John H. Stedman, 1843 – 1922, in 1892. Notably, Stedman also invented the fuzzy pipe cleaner. He’s buried here in Mt. Hope Cemetery.

I digress. There were also weekly passes. For a buck, you could ride anywhere anytime, all week.

The streetcars were pretty comfy, actually. We know this because Mr. Stone photographed their interiors in 1918, as they were disinfected during the influenza epidemic. Take a look.

In the winter, the cars were heated by coal-fired stoves. During WWI coal was rationed, so the railway system positioned coal stations across the city where a conductor could get a handful of coal lumps to keep the home fires burning.
This guy looks like he is having a real ball.

Perhaps I have digressed again.

In the 20s, the streetcars ran from 6:00am to 12:00pm – 18 hours a day. But here’s where the comparison to today starts to get a bit, well, revealing.

At peak, the headway – the distance between trains – was about 5 minutes. The longest headways were in the evenings, and were about 15 minutes.

Today, the bus system runs about 20 minute headways at peak, and off-peak headways sag to about an hour or more.

And if you were inclined, there was an interurban between Rochester and Syracuse that ran every 30 minutes.

So over 80 years ago, you could move around our city almost as quickly on the streetcar/subway/trolley/bus system as in your car today. Maybe we’re not as smart as we think we are.

And you could get to Syracuse, downtown to downtown, from here as fast or faster than you can get there today, in your car. Hmmm.

Now, a short glimpse at today’s bus system. Here are a couple of images of the bus routes today. I have taken these from the RGRTA website. They offer a 14mb image of the system map that is pretty nearly impossible to use – slow to download, gigantic, and cumbersome, at best. Come on guys – the 1929 map is a snap to use.

First, the overall system:

Looks kind of familiar, yes?

And now a snapshot of the system in downtown:

So in 1929, you could get downtown (you wanted to go downtown) quickly, and transfer easily to other parts of the city.

Today you have to go downtown (you may want to go there, or you may want to go elsewhere, but you have no choice), usually pay a second fare to transfer to another bus, and go out of downtown to your destination.

Lots has changed in our region in the last 80 years. As I said at the outset, we no longer live, work, shop, or loiter in the same places we did then. But here’s the thing: it was a 20 minute city then, and it’s a 20 minute city today. Except that in those times, it was 20 minutes using transit. Today, you are in your car.

Is this progress? Maybe. Maybe not.

15 thoughts on “The Streetcar City

  1. My thanks to colleague Mike Governale, of and Reconnect Rochester, for help with data for this post.

  2. This is a wonderful glimpse into Rochester’s rich past! For anyone who believes streetcars could never return to Rochester, transit ridership in Rochester is currently through the roof… over 60,000 boardings every day and rising! Many of our bus lines are running over capacity. And as RTS adds more buses to meet the demand, guess what, those buses are filling up as well. At a certain point the cost justification for upgrading certain lines to fixed rail will become impossible to ignore. This streetcar post is more than just a history lesson – it’s a blueprint.

    Nice work as usual Mr. Decker!

  3. Great article! I looked at the old streetcar map and noticed the line from Main St to Glenhaven (#15 & #13). They are still visible today just west of Shelford Rd in Irondequoit. We used to call them the “Trolley Tracks” when I was growing up and used the pathway for riding our bikes. Check it out on Google Earth… I think it’s used now primarily for power lines.

  4. Thanks, folks, for the kind words. Mike, I think we’re getting close to the kind of numbers that could make a fixed rail system viable.

    And now that there seems to be a growing tide of support for getting rid of at least a part of the inner loop, the chance to incorporate fixed rail in this redevelopment looms large.

    As we know, fixed rail has historically had a powerful impact on adjacent redevelopment – I have written about this here often – and if we planned a route along the old/new loop, along with other possible alignments, we might see things happen more quickly than we might expect.

    As ever, opportunity is everywhere around us….

  5. …and then…as RPH said tonight…”there is that wonderful feeling of being a part of something, a system created to help you get from here to there…a system where you just go out and plug into it…” which now only exists in big big old cities…nice post…xo

  6. Thanks! And, as Roger rightly observed, we here did once have a system you could just “plug into.” As did most cities – even small ones – your city included. We should all look back at our cities in the teens and 20s and 30s so that we can have firm images in mind of what we have lost in favor of the “freedom” of the automobile.

    As I said to a colleague at breakfast this morning, when American cities began to destroy themselves in favor of the car, we set ourselves on a very expensive course – building endless roads and bridges and parking lots and whatever else we could to allow for easy passage. And now the bill for all of that has come due, and we can’t pay it.

    We can’t pay to maintain all that we have built, and we can’t manage our city budgets when 50% of our downtown land is in parking lots instead of generating real taxes. Not to mention pollution, the cost of oil, and a thousand other consequences. Time’s up folks.

  7. Very interesting article! I moved to Rochester only a few years ago and have limited knowledge of how the city has evolved over time. The description of the system back in the 20s reminds me of what currently in place in European cities (where i grew up). A lot seems to have been lost in favor of the automobile. I had no idea Rochester’s downtown was so lively back then.

  8. Thanks, Sara. Yes, we have lost much, like so many other cities, in favor of cars.

    But yes, this city once was nearly paradise. I don’t mean it was neat and tidy – it wasn’t. And I don’t mean free of morons, wackos, hunger, illness, or any other of the normal traits of human civilization. But it was robust, dense, walkable, vital, bustling, much more sustainable, and unique.

    I recall the words of the French writer Fontenelle, who said: “It takes time to ruin a world, but all it takes is time.”

  9. Family lore has it that my Father, H.S. Partridge, took my sister and me on the last trolley in Rochester. Maybe mid 40s? When did it stop running?

  10. I found this so interesting! My dad was from Syracuse NY. Before he died, he told me how interurban tracks ran in front of their house on W Onandaga. He said it went out of business during the Depression, and people would pull up railroad ties to cut and burn for firewood. Does this sound right? Did interurban use the same kind of tracks as the railroad? He was 12 when the Depression started and in his 90s when he told me this.

  11. The interurbans ran on their own tracks, separate from other rail lines. So your dad was ripping up particular interurban ties.

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