Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Putting good ideas back on track
By Aki Pagratis
It looks like streetcars will, once again, be gliding through 22 major U.S. cities in the coming years thanks to a change in the U.S. federal transportation policy.
Last June, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) reversed policies of President George W. Bush that favored rapid transit, but made it difficult to spend federal funds on green alternatives. The FTA announced that it would now start evaluating applications on the basis of land uses and the economic development transit projects would bring to a city. Speed and efficiency will no longer be the only criteria. Convenience, quality of life and long term economic benefits will now be the primary focus.
The FTA announced that it would now start evaluating applications on the basis of land uses and the economic development transit projects would bring to a city.
In December, DOT announced that it would make grants of up to $25 million each for ‘urban circulator systems’ such as streetcars and rubber-tire trolleys. It noted that these systems foster the redevelopment of urban spaces into walkable mixed use, high density environments.
“A streetcar does not save any travel time,” said Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar Inc. in Oregon. “Rather, a streetcar makes movement within a city more convenient, and helps build up relatively dense, walkable, mixed use corridors. It also reduces dependence on automobiles.”
In the past ten years, he added, Portland has seen an increase in private investment along the Portland Streetcar line, by $3.5 billion USD. Up to 53 percent of all downtown development has been within a block of the streetcar line.
Who derailed the streetcar?
But if the street car is cheaper to operate, better for the environment and good for local economies, why did it ever disappear? To answer that question we have to look back to the beginning of the last century.
In the early 1920s only ten percent of Americans owned cars. The vast majority of commuters traveled by train, or by streetcar. The streetcar was a reliable and efficient means of travel, the city air was clean, and the streets where less congested. But although this arrangement worked well for city dwellers at the time, it did not work for the country’s largest car manufactures.
“We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can…turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars,” Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s president at the time, was quoted as saying in a 1996 PBS docudrama titled Taken for a Ride.
The documentary contends that in 1922, Sloan created a front company called National City Lines, Inc. (NCL), with the intention of undermining the country’s rail-based public transit systems. In 1936, he got other specialized conglomerates on board and reorganized the NCL into a holding company. The defined mission—to acquire all local transit systems in the United States and dismantel them.
"Once [NCL] purchased a transit company, electric trolley service was immediately discontinued, the tracks quickly pulled up, the wires dismantled," noted Edwin Black, in his 2007 book, Internal Combustion: How Corporations and Governments Addicted the World to Oil and Derailed the Alternatives. He said that GM buses soon replaced the trolleys, and commuters, bothered by the uncomfortable bus ride and toxic exhaust fumes, soon abandoned public transit altogether.
In 1949, GM, Standard Oil of California, Firestone, and others were convicted in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products. The verdicts were upheld on appeal. The punishment? The corporations involved were fined $5000, their executives were made to pay $1 each.
The public mood today is shifting. Citizens are becoming increasingly frustrated with public policies that support the destructive behaviour of greedy multinationals. Obama’s sweeping electoral victory is one example of this. People are demanding change—new policies that will take citizens into account, improve our quality of life and foster new economic development. Interestingly, though, sometimes we have to look back in time to put good ideas back on track.
Cities working on plans to construct streetcar lines within a year or two are:
- Little Rock, Arkansas - Los Angeles, California - Sacramento, California - Fort Lauderdale, Florida - Atlanta, Georgia - Boise, Idaho - New Orleans, Louisiana - Baltimore, Maryland - Grand Rapids, Michigan - Charlotte, North Carolina - Cincinnati, Ohio - Columbus, Ohio - Lake Oswego, Oregon - Providence, Rhode Island - Dallas, Texas - Fort Worth, Texas - San Antonio, Texas - Salt Lake City, Utah - Arlington, Virginia - Kenosha, Wisconsin - Tucson, Arizona - Washington, D.C.
Awesome footage of a streetcar traveling down Market Street in San Francisco in 1905.
Who Killed The Electric Streetcar?
Produced for PBS Frontline by the Center for Investigative Reporting