Playing with Trains

We’ve just enjoyed a screening of Stephen Low’s wonderful documentary entitled “The Trolley” here in our city. The theater was packed, and while Mr. Low’s film compellingly advocates in favor of streetcars, in fact defines them as critical to our urban future, I heard no voices expressing doubt about his point of view. Bring on the streetcars!

the trolley

But wait just a minute. Even among our town’s knowledgeable urbanites, overnight skepticism has emerged. Some of our progressive and thoughtful urbanist colleagues here have said that buses seem to be a much more economically realistic choice – streetcars are just too expensive.

buses in traffic

Others have pointed out that ridership for the newest streetcars in the US, such as in Cincinnati or Detroit, has fallen very far below projections – they are expensive, and they don’t carry enough passengers. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a better system, some claim: buses running long distances to key destinations with reduced numbers of stops to shorten travel time.


The BRT in LA.

Others recognize our region’s unrelenting loyalty to the automobile and suggest that only a major calamity would induce our neighbors to use public transit – bus, BRT or otherwise.  (This particular observation seems entirely accurate).

traffic jam in rochester

Yes, Rochester, NY.

And some have said that the dozen or so new US streetcar systems are nothing more than toy trains, having no real or practical impact on mobility in the cities where they have been constructed. Critics say they are busy on weekends and filled with tourists, but as weekday commuter options they are zeroes.

Okay then. Let’s step back and think about all this for a moment. Let’s note at the outset that 12 of the modern streetcar systems in the US carried a total of 20,000,000 people last year. And that 1/3 of those systems are linked to modern light rail systems that combined carry over 100,000,000 passengers annually. All of this seems to suggest that the streetcars, and especially when they are a part of a transit NETWORK, do in fact have a practical impact on urban mobility. The network part is important. We’ll come back to that.

trimetsystemBuses and trains and light rail – a network – in Portland.

It turns out that, as in most aspects of contemporary life, the truth is more equivocal and ambiguous than the claims of detractors. Or advocates.

Some of the new systems have been very badly managed from the outset and are suffering as a result. Some of the systems had their maps and routing fall victim to local political breezes, and as a result don’t go where they should, or need, to go. Some of the systems have had equipment failure (a streetcar needs to be able to run in cold weather….) that is only now seeing resolution. Some systems have had to fight an indifferent public who happily park their cars on the tracks, or crash with startling frequency into the streetcars. The reasons for the weakness of the poorly performing systems are various, complex, and almost never have to do with the streetcar as a tool, but rather who is control of the transit toolbox.

large960_blur-ef24cee4c6f60410258ea96ad928dcf5 (2)

Parenthetically, I note that even the weakest new streetcar systems have provided very substantial economic development returns in terms of new construction and added taxes, but I will leave that for a later conversation.

I do observe that some of the new systems are on the verge of further expansion, because the performance of these systems suggests that more streetcar is called for. In these cities, streetcars have proven themselves to be valuable, and while the automobile has not been banished in Portland or Kansas City or Seattle, the streetcar is increasingly providing an attractive and sustainable alternative.

KC streetcar

What certainly is true is that streetcar systems seem to work best when they are designed and operated as a part of a larger network of transit. Portland’s system, often cited as a US model for streetcar use, also includes a heavily used (40,000,000 per year) light rail system, MAX, and an excellent bus system as well. The North American model that best describes a successful transit network is in Toronto, where the subway, buses and streetcars carry about 500,000,000 every year.

Networks are also important in Seattle (population 725,0000), or Salt Lake City (population 200,000), or Kansas City (population 488,000), where streetcar use is doing well. Cities need transit of various kinds to best promote and assure non-automobile mobility. This should always be the most important measure of success: get cars off the road and get residents onto transit, in any form.

max and streetcar (2)

MAX light rail and Streetcar in Portland, image by Steve Barry.

Because in the end, automobiles are our deadly companions. We now know that our unbridled attachment to our cars, which is increasing here and rapidly across the globe, has profound consequences, and is now and will continue to impose penalties we are only beginning to be able to assess. We need streetcars, and a whole range of known and as yet unknown transit modes to help us create a useable urban future.


Every year most cities in the US will spend tens of millions of dollars improving highways. In our city the total runs to about $100,000,000 per year. We could buy a lot of trains for that amount, and save a lot of lives in the bargain.


7 thoughts on “Playing with Trains

  1. Back to the future…or forward to the past. So many of our city and near-urban neighborhoods were built and nourished by streetcars more than a century ago…

  2. Leo, they make sense everywhere. I say that with complete confidence because they once were one of the main forces shaping and defining the cities where we live, wherever we live.

  3. Doug, yes. In American cities, the streetcar was a fundamental force. I wrote a piece here in June of 2016 that elaborates on this for our city, but I think every city still has the streetcar’s powerful imprint. The streetcar stop, where we made our way to and from our workplaces mornings and evenings (or other similar destinations) featured our third places and our local suppliers – the local tavern, the green grocer, the shoe store, the hardware, the butcher, and much more. Then, usually not more than a 1/4 mile walk, and we had arrived in the bosom of our families. No carbon pollution, not much friction, no hours idling in an empty car, though the occasional drama did provide some comic relief when the car hit a fire hydrant, or some wayward soul conducting a new-fangled automobile whacked into us.We may find our way back to streetcars yet. See this film if you get a chance- it’s terrific, and Stephen Low is a wonderful polemicist.

  4. “Others … suggest that only a major calamity would induce our neighbors to use public transit.” Um, have you noticed anything just a little bit odd about weather during the past five years? (Ontario shoreline is “at the precipice of a disaster,” – Gov. Cuomo.) Have you been enjoying the April weather? In May? It’s still early in the year, so California isn’t on fire—yet. Just how much of a calamity do we need before we start paying attention? Streetcars won’t solve all our problems, but they just might be a good first step. Then there’s safety. I’m still dealing with repercussions of being sent airborne by a car three years ago. Slowly and in a parking lot. Thank God she didn’t hit me on a stroad at 50 MPH. We seem to place Death by Automobile in its own “user-friendly” category. So if a crazed guy shoots you or you fall off a high-rise building, are you more dead?

  5. Not many realize this history wasn’t confined to our cities. There was a trolley connecting Penn Yan and Branchport. In fact, one of the stops, a tiny shed, remains. The young women studying at Keuka College arrived in Penn Yan, population 5,000, by train (as anyone would) and then hopped on a trolley for the final leg to the College. My mother told me of riding it as a girl; her uncle was the conductor.

  6. Gary, just two things. First, floods and fires and raging storms and all the rest of the endless string of disasters that are now intensifying – they are not enough of a major calamity. At least not for Rochester. And probably not for California either, but for the fact that there are plenty of people there who keep trying to keep everyone focused on cause and effect. Here it won’t work until there is a large and inescapable threat to local well-being. Sadly, most cannot see any relationship between themselves and their environments.

    Second, my grandfather used to tell us that he got on the Interurban in Chicago, and rode all the way to Buffalo. He had to change trains a few times, but the trip was fairly fast, for the time, and fairly easy. Somehow, most have the idea that the way we live now is the only way that makes sense.

    Which reminds me that in the nineteenth century, mail was posted as many as 12 times a day. Without fiber optics….

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