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Sunday, December 23, 2007

"Who killed the Streetcar?" Part I

Ever wonder what happened to Pittsburgh's Streetcars? I'm sure many of you, like I, have wondered, why did the streetcars of Pittsburgh, and most major US cities, disappear? The blog, Carectomy, ponders the question "Who Killed the Streetcars?" and provides some evidence, via About.com, that the auto manufacturers were behind the demise of the streetcar.

From About.com

GM first replaced trolleys with free-roaming buses, eliminating the need for tracks embedded in the street and clearing the way for cars. As dramatized in a 1996 PBS docudrama, Taken for a Ride, Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s president at the time, said, “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.” And they did just that, with the help of GM subsidiaries Yellow Coach and Greyhound Bus. Sloan predicted that the jolting rides of buses would soon lead people to not want them and to buy GM’s cars instead.

The book Supercapitalism covered GM and it's power and ability to dictate the US economy in the 1940's and 50's. The following sentence pretty much sums up the power of big corporations during those times: "If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars."

Back in January of 2007 the Pittsburgh Tribune Review's Bill Steigerwald wrote a column on the revival of streetcars in a number of US cities.. He wrote that Pittsburgh would be better off investing in reviving it's system of streetcars instead of the billion dollar tunnel to nowhere known as the Northshore Connector. But Mr. Steigerwald, along with a Port Authority official, says don't count on a streetcar revival here in the burgh.

It's a shame Port Authority is blowing so much of its fiscal and political capital on "The Tunnel to Nowhere." It's a blatant waste of taxpayer money that is certain to be as underused as the rest of Port Authority's inventory of expensive busways, rail lines, tunnels and parking garages.

In a better, more rational, more imaginative transit world, instead of tunneling under the Allegheny River the Port Authority would throw away several hundred million dollars less and put together a modern streetcar fleet.

Think how much cooler it'd be to have sleek European streetcars quietly plying Downtown's lonely streets again -- instead of hundreds of smelly, thunderous buses.

Think how much cooler it'd be to have streetcars -- with big windows for viewing Pittsburgh's fabulous sights -- climbing the Hill (past the new arena) and looping out to Oakland and back. Or to have streetcars on bridges zipping over the Allegheny to the North Shore's ball fields and gambling parlors.

A streetcar system still would be a waste of taxpayer money -- state and local. But because it'd be above ground it would tie parts of the city together, attract tourists and make the act of riding it an end in itself.

It'll never happen. Port Authority has over-invested in giant buses and tunnels. The "T" is already under Downtown. For Pittsburgh, streetcars -- last seen on Downtown streets on July 2, 1985 -- are forever part of the past.

I'm hoping this isn't the case. I believe that public pressure, along with a campaign for the revival, can bring back some of city' streetcar lines. As I said in a previous post, at a minimum the city should consider a streetcar line between downtown and Oakland and also downtown and the Strip District. The streetcar lines would be much cheaper to install and would take a lot less time to implement than the proposed light rail extension.

Besides taking cars off the road, there would be many ancillary benefits associated with streetcar lines in the city of Pittsburgh . Riding a streetcar through Bloomfield's business district, and then down through the Strip District on the way to downtown would be a draw for tourists and locals alike. The lines between downtown and Oakland would help to develop the uptown and lower hill district neighborhoods - and would come in particularly handy when there are games at the new Penguins arena. What's not to like about that?

Opponents of these lines say that driving a car between those areas would be more difficult. Sure, but isn't the point to stop driving your car all the time?


nathan said...

I've thought about the idea of having streetcars on streets slowing down traffic, and I don't really buy it.

Tracks could be made to have the streetcars pull slightly over to the right when picking up passengers, and on many roads in PGH, don't buses stop traffic in the same way?

And really, where is everyone in such a hurry to get to anyway?

I'd love to see more streetcars, particularly one running from Station Square (connecting the T) to the South Side Works. Traffic NEEDS to be alleviated in the South side, and this could be a great way to do it. All of the locals can leave their cars at home, and people coming to visit can park at the many garages near the Works or down in Station Square and then just streetcar their way up and down Carson.

But instead they'll widen the road and promote more cars...which will definitely happen.

If you have a cup out in the rain and it can only hold 8 ounces, it is because of the size of the cup. Make the cup into a 1 liter pitcher and it'll hold 1 liter and no more.

ie, right now people avoid South Side for the traffic, but make it a wider road and you'll simply have less people avoiding it, more people mucking it up.

T J Sawyer said...

This article in Transportation Quarterly from 1997 pretty thoroughly debunks the "GM killed the streetcar myth."


It contains some pretty good historic detail on streetcar and bus ridership as well as showing that the decision for any trolley company to move to buses was an economic one. The trolley companies owned the overhead wires and the tracks. Maintenance and paving expense were on their dime. You can imagine the issues when it was time to replace tracks or repave the street and you had the alternative of buying some buses that would also allow you to extend the line!

I recently came upon another factor that might be considered "contributing." I was reading the Moose Lake (MN) Star for June, 24, 1887. In the section of national news there was a report of 122 accidents caused by falling trolley wires in the previous five months.

Schultz said...

That blog post did not do the streetcar story justice - more to come on that but here is the synopsis of the GM story:

The book "Internal Combustion", by Edwin Black, trumps your article and any other argument that says GM was not behind the death of the street car and American rail transit. GM led a cartel consisting of Standard Oil, Firestone, and a number of other corporate entities who bought up street car lines in cities across American and, sometimes overnight, remove the rail lines and replaced the lines with buses manufactured by GM and it's partners.

This, combined with the creation of Super Highways, which were the brainchild of Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense ( a former GM executive who owned millions of dollars of GM stock ) led to the systematic death of the streetcar.

rekopurl said...

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