Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Old Stigmas Vs. New Streetcars

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, November 15, 2011 --  

America's streetcar renaissance is more about style than transportation. In times of austerity, this is a tough sell.

The shiny new trolly tracks stretch over two miles through Washington's downtrodden H Street corridor toward downtown. Trendy bars and restaurants are slowly replacing the check cashing stores, nail salons and bullet-proof glass Chinese takeouts that have dominated the street for decades. Despite being at the core of neighborhood renewal plans for over a half decade, streetcars are still missing -- delayed by a belated repeal an 1888 law banning overhead streetcar power lines in the city's historic core.1

That a law intended to preserve the aesthetic vistas of historic Washington has slowed the deployment of a streetcar line is ironic, because aesthetics are precisely what America's streetcar renaissance is all about. Ever since trolleys disappeared from most American cities in the '50s and '60s, urban idealists have pined for their return, noting that streetcars are smoother, quieter and more stylish.2 On Washington's H Street, streetcar service shut down in May 1949, replaced by buses that follow the same route to this day.3

Without question, Washington's buses are loud, smelly and give a bone-rattling ride. By comparison to slick 21st century streetcars and trams like those in Baltimore, San Diego and other cities, bus systems look like clunky PCs next to shiny Apple laptops. Why on earth did Americans abandon their streetcars?

If you believe the urban idealists, it was all a conspiracy by General Motors and the tire companies to replace clean streetcars with filthy automobiles.4 While there is some truth that companies accelerated and profited from the conversion, the reality is that the mid-20th century public wanted to replace streetcars with buses -- they saw it as progress. Right before the shutdown of Washington's H St. trolley line, the Washington Post reported in an almost giddy tone that "complete change-over from streetcars to buses... will finally take place the morning of May 1. The change is expected to speed up traffic for northeast Washington residents. It also is expected to speed up traffic on crowded Benning Rd. and H St NE."5

Unlike slick streetcar systems today, by 1950, streetcars had seen better days. In the decades after the First World War, systems started losing money because regulated fares that did not keep up with inflation -- operating costs doubled after the war while revenues declined.6 Reinvestment plummeted, leading to service declines and run down streetcars. More affluent riders who could have paid more and demanded better service were buying cars and moving to the suburbs in droves.

Meanwhile buses had real advantages. Brand new buses had up-to-date and cleaner interiors. They could go farther afield to destinations not served by tracks. And to a public in love with the automobile, there was absolutely no stigma associated with a diesel powered engine.

But the absence of a stigma didn't last. As white flight to the suburbs accelerated, urban neighborhoods like Washington's H Street corridor were abandoned to poorer black residents. Eventually, black riders were the only people who remained on the H Street bus line. By the 1970s (with a few notable exceptions like New York, Chicago and San Francisco) suburban whites had all but abandoned public bus transit to poorer black residents of the inner city. Bus travel had developed a stigma that remains to this day.

It is this enduring prejudice that is behind the revitalization of the streetcar. Many white Americans still won't ride the bus, but they love streetcars for their quaint look. The preference for streetcars is all about image and style. Just as Apple owners look down on those who use PCs, rail riders look down on those who take the bus.

If all things were equal, this snobbish preference might not matter. But something certainly is not equal: cost.

While there is much debate about whether operating costs for electric streetcars are higher or lower than that of buses, there is no question that the capital expenditure needed to lay track and run wires makes streetcars outrageously expensive without somebody else to foot the bill (e.g. federal grants.)

And while it is true that buses get an unfair subsidy from not having to pay for public roadways, fair or not, the reality is that those roadways are already there. Perhaps it was a mistake for American cities to rip up streetcar tracks a half century ago, but it happened, and laying new track in dense neighborhoods is terribly expensive. Washington, DC's proposed 37-mile system is estimated to cost $1.5 billion -- about $40 million per mile!7

But aren't the aesthetic advantages worth the extra costs? Given that people regularly pay over twice as much for their Mac laptops than the price of comparable Windows machines, style clearly is worth more to consumers. But given that public transit is highly subsidized, it's not consumers who are footing the bill for streetcars -- it's taxpayers. Is it really fair to charge other taxpayers billions so some folks can have a more stylish ride? Is it really fair to charge other taxpayers for white people's racist hangups about riding the bus? If so, perhaps a public relations campaign toward erasing bus stigma would be more cost-effective.

Clearly, in a time of municipal bankruptcies and federal cutbacks, expensive streetcar projects of dubious benefit are going to get a lot more scrutiny than during boom times. With deep-pocketed congressional boosters in H Street's backyard, completion of at least part of Washington's streetcar plan is a good bet. Other cities might not be so lucky.


1. Washington Post, Overhead Wires Bill Passes DC Council, June 29, 2010

2. The Infrastructurist, 36 Reasons That Streetcarts Are Better Than Buses, June 6, 2009

3. Washington Post, Buses Start on Benning Line May 1, April 17, 1949

4. Bianca, Martha J., Kennedy, 60 Minutes, and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of The Decline of Urban Mass Transit, November 17, 1998

5. Washington Post, Buses Start on Benning Line May 1, April 17, 1949

6. Jones, David W., Mass Motorization and Mass Transit, 2008, p. 35

7. Washington Post, D.C. Council may find streetcar funds, May 26, 2010