25.8.15

WHERE HAVE ALL THE STREETCARS GONE?

Apparently the Roger Rabbit legend, otherwise known as the National City Lines canard, lives on.  Well, give Vox credit for Joseph Stromberg, discrediting it.  If it reads a lot like "The Economics of the Pernambuco Tramway," it should.
Because of these factors, some streetcar companies began going into bankruptcy as early as the 1920s, when they were still their cities' dominant mode of transportation. Huge costs and the falling value of fares forced them to cut back on service, steadily pushing people to the convenient, increasingly affordable automobile.

As they fought to stay alive during the Great Depression, many companies invested in buses, which were cheaper and more flexible. Initially they operated mainly as feeder systems to bring commuters to the end of lines, but as time went on, they began to replace some lines entirely.

That wasn't enough to save most of these companies, especially as city, state, and federal governments pumped more and more money into roads.
Easier to demonize the traction magnates and subject them to regulation. But perhaps the development of personal transit will undo any transportation company.  Note that the jitney operators who sold seats in their automobiles had to be regulated as taxi companies, and with smart 'phones, jitney operators don't have to cruise the streetcar routes to find riders.


To the usual list of reasons, add government complicity in creating the suburbs, and a related Vox essay suggests that transit systems are part of the Welfare State, not necessarily for all citizens in the same way schools or libraries might be.

2 comments:

Dave Tufte said...

I beg to differ ... although slightly.

Laying down iron rails for trains is an old technology, but an improvement on its competitors: packed dirt, (wooden) plank roads, and "corduroy" roads made of logs. They all attempt to solve the same problem: gaining traction.

Most people are unaware (not you Steve, I'm sure you know this) that rails didn't start out with what we now think of as railroads. They started out a century or so before as carts that were animal powered. They rode the rails to get out of the mud.

Through that lens, the demise of the streetcar doesn't have to do with increasing congestion ... it has to do with paving.

The peak of streetcars, and its overtaking by cars and/or replacement by buses occurs ... within a decade or two of the widespread introduction of tarmac around 1900.

Congestion interfering with streetcars doesn't start to be a problem until the cars are driving around on tarmac. Of course, it's possible that the availability of tarmac actually encouraged people to buy more cars.

Stephen Karlson said...

We can add to that. The streetcar companies were responsible for rail replacement, sometimes for snow removal on the entire street, sometimes for maintaining the paving between the rails and the devil strip between the tracks. Paving or not, automobiles or horse carts or bicycles in the road or not, such rules only strengthened the incentives to replace the streetcars either with trackless trolley cars or with busses, thus shifting the costs of street maintenance to the taxpayers. Call it a variant on my corporate welfare for roadhogs theme.