In the 1951 sci-fi movie "The Day the Earth Stood Still," pedestrians are seen descending staircases on the edge of Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. These days, the stairs are still there, but now they’re blocked off. They led to a once-busy 75,000-square-foot below-ground streetcar station built in 1949. The station has been closed since 1962.Private capital built the streetcar systems. Rent-seekers destroyed them.
Dupont Circle’s ghostly streetcar station is another reminder that America once had an extensive and efficient interurban transit system. Now, as cities from Buffalo to San Diego look to light rail — today’s iteration of the streetcar, which itself evolved from the horse-drawn omnibus — it’s worth thinking about the astonishing transit system we built and then threw away.
A century ago, there were nearly 34,000 miles of streetcar tracks connecting neighborhoods to downtowns, and towns to neighboring towns. (I’ve been told that it was possible to travel from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia on local streetcars and trolleys, although that would have been one long and unpleasant trip.)In fact, it was once possible to ride local streetcars and interurbans from somewhere near Albany all the way to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. The fastest running was between Cleveland and Toledo, and again in the Chicago area. But only an intrepid adventurer would essay such a trip. There may be such an account in the rudimentary rail enthusiast press of the day.
Overwhelmingly, those tracks were built by private investors. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was streetcars, not automobiles, that created the first suburbs.Look at video of the John Kennedy funeral. The march from the White House to the parish church is along Connecticut, and the tracks are visible. Seeking a streetcar suburb? One still exists, complete with the cars. Shaker Heights in Ohio used to be served by Shaker Heights Rapid Transit, now an authority.
If you live in an urban area, the evidence is all around you. I live in D.C., not far off Connecticut Avenue, which is broad and gently graded because of the streetcars that once ran along it. The Chevy Chase Land Co. built Connecticut Avenue across miles of farmland to take people from the suburb that still bears the company’s name to downtown D.C., eventually linking up to that now-deserted Dupont Circle station.
Connecticut Avenue’s streetcar tracks are long gone, but down in Georgetown, you can take a bumpy car ride along blocks of cobblestoned side streets where trolley rails remain in place.