“This article is part of a three-part series on streetcars and economic development. Read the articles by Yonah Freemark and Gabe Klein. The opinion expressed here is that of the author and does not represent the Urban Land Institute nor its membership as a whole.
Once upon a time (1888 to be precise), the United States and the world launched a huge building boom for urban streetcars. Companies like Twin City Rapid Transit laid miles of track in fast-growing cities, extending well past the built areas to serve greenfield sites for emerging suburbs waiting to be platted and built. They did this because the streetcar promoters benefited directly from the land sales. The availability of a new, fast transit system connecting to downtown made houses much more valuable. The fares from the new passengers covered the operating costs of the system.
Networks continued to grow until the 1920s and 1930s, when the bloom came off the boom. The new motor car served the prospective suburbanite just a bit better than the sluggish streetcar. By 1950, the streetcars were upward of 60 years old and needed a major infusion of capital to be maintained. Instead, they were abandoned en masse across the United States for buses in a process that in the transportation field has been termed “bustitution.”
More on StreetCars and America: Freemark: Transportation First, then Economic Development | Klein: Streetcars and the American Commitment to Rail
The causes of the decline of the streetcar remain a sore point with urbanists, but this was a global phenomenon that happened in any country rich enough to see mass motorization defeat mass transit. The U.S. transit crisis—a collapse of demand and thus revenue beginning shortly after the peak of transit demand during the rationing of fuel and rubber during World War II—affected not only streetcars, but also commuter trains and urban subways.
In response, the federal government began implementing large capital subsidies in the 1970s, funding systems like the San Francisco region’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), Washington, D.C.’s Metrorail, and Atlanta’s Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). Beginning in the 1980s, the underwhelming performance of this new generation of heavy rail—especially systems like those in Baltimore and Miami—led the federal government to support, instead, newly rebranded light-rail transit (LRT) systems.”
Levinson, David. Urban Land 11 June 2015.