Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Riding the rails

My day job sent me to the Book Fair in Frankfurt, Germany last week, and amid the frantic schmoozing that such events require I was able to steal away for a bit and enjoy the city again. Frankfurt, my wife and mother-in-law’s hometown, remains a pleasure to visit, with museums, parks, great restaurants, shops and the kind of tree-lined neighbourhoods that movies use as shorthand for innocent beginnings and happy endings.

One reason it’s great to visit, though, was that you can actually get to the museums, shops and neighbourhoods quickly and easily, using buses, trams, trains, subways, and sub-subways that run under the first set of subways. Even a visitor with limited German and no car has the freedom to go almost anywhere they fancy; imagine, by contrast, speaking no English and trying to navigate Phoenix or Des Moines.

Of course wasn’t all museums and parks; certainly there were industrial and warehouse districts too, necessary but less of an attraction, and for all I know there may have been slums somewhere. In any area I visited, though, the streets were lovely, the traffic was light and the sidewalks thick with walkers, bicycles, cafĂ© tables and vendors. Most importantly, they felt like neighbourhoods threaded with capillary streets, rather than buildings built alongside highways. In short, Frankfurt looks like American cities used to.

It’s difficult to imagine many of the cities in my native Midwest –rivers and lakes of asphalt that fall out of sight only with the curvature of the Earth – as they were a lifetime ago. For more than a hundred years, from the 1830s to as late as the 1950s, most US cities were networked with a web of streetcars – first powered by horse teams, then electric cables – that acted as a circulatory system from one end of a city to the other, and across the generations.

Read accounts of day-to-day life in streetcar-era America – or just a city that still has them, in Europe or the Third World today -- and you see how subtly such transport changes the feel of cities. Homes in old neighbourhoods appear remarkably cosy and close together – not just slums, but upscale houses as well – because they didn’t need garages or an oil-soaked car park. People left their homes and entered the world, not their SUVs. Cities could be compact, keeping food production close to food consumption and limiting, for each resident, what would later be called an “ecological footprint.”

Streetcars seem slow to modern eyes only because we compare them to a car on the motorway; compare them to a car in the city and they may have been faster. One of the Dublin lines ran out to the suburb of Lucan a hundred years ago, and passed through town at 25 miles an hour -- a goodly speed in Lucan's daily traffic jams today.

Children could play in the street, for there were few cars. Streets in old photos appear clean and graffiti-free, not because people were necessarily more angelic in 1840 or 1940, but because thousands of people walked on them every day, so vandals had little privacy – and once graffiti was there, someone was more likely to clean it up or complain to city officials.

My grandparents met and fell in love while riding the St. Louis streetcar together, shortly before Judy Garland would sing a love song to that city’s public transportation system in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. At that point the system had been running for almost a century, and similar systems, according to Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute, ran in every American city with more than 10,000 people. According to historian Bradford Snell, 90 percent of all trips in the 1920s were by rail; only 10 percent of Americans needed a car. It echoes what my grandmother used to say, that no one she knew needed to drive.

After World War II, however, my country’s cities were transformed; most of the streetcar lines were reduced, sold, cancelled and destroyed, many by a coalition of car, tire, oil and truck companies. Those companies -- Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber, Federal Engineering Corp, Mack Manufacturing (of Mack Trucks) and the streetcar companies they bought up -- were found guilty of criminal conspiracy in 1951, and fined $5,000 each.

Snell believes the corporations were not just trying to monopolise streetcar lines – the actual charge – but consciously conspiring to transform America to a car-dependent society, and of course succeeded. Backing him up is Noam Chomsky, who accuses the corporations of committing “the largest social engineering experiment in human history.” On the other hand, writers like O’Toole maintain that rails were a “disaster,” and that market forces made them obsolete.

Certainly cars and highways were expanding during the cheap-oil window, and many rail systems were ripped up in Europe as well – Dublin used to have a network of streetcars as well that vanished around the same time. At the same time, it seems doubtful that oil, car and tire companies were buying up their competition in the hopes of expanding it. When they bought out the streetcars they didn’t just tighten belts – they destroyed the infrastructure, ripping the rails out of the streets and paving over their grooves, effectively salting the earth.

Today, unless you live in New York or some other pocket of public transport, getting around a US city presents a genuine challenge. Light rail is rare, and even bus lines can be limited, unreliable and expensive. Finding a job, getting clothes for an interview, getting to a temp assignment – all are extremely difficult without a car. Car payments, insurance and petrol can take up a sizable chunk of one’s paycheck, locking many people into an unending cycle.

Most older Americans I know used to walk everywhere, or at least to the bus or streetcar and back, getting exercise and meeting their neighbours. Today, Americans are infamous for their unwillingness to walk – I have talked to more than one European who said they tried to walk along an American street and drew rubberneckers, or were stopped by police.

Our cities are now built around the fact that there is about one car for every American. Half of all urban space exists for cars, the other half for people. Many newer suburbs don’t have sidewalks, since the expectation is that people will leave their homes mainly to get inside cars. Many new minivans have televisions, a feature that assumes children will spend a hefty chunk of their childhood in the back seat.

In my own country, a few cities have tried to restore pieces of the old transportation system, with light rail instead of streetcars – Minneapolis has the Hiawatha Line, St. Louis the MetroLink. But most of these are, or were until recently, single lines. They were a blessed relief for thousands who wanted to use them, but they ran from point A to point B without any other rail lines around. No one, when building the highway system, thought of building a highway that would run only from point A to point B without connecting to any other roads.

Even these lines only came about after decades of bickering in city councils and planning boards. Minneapolis’ Hiawatha line, for example, lingered for years in legal limbo, and while it has been wildly popular with most residents in its first six years of use, it retains the hatred of a few. Anti-rail activists paid for billboards across the city featuring the train line against a red star – perhaps implying that having freedom from traffic was like being in Soviet Russia – and even now the occasional candidate runs on a platform of ripping the rails out.

The few accidents – about one a year, when a driver foolishly tries to drive in front of an oncoming train -- have made screaming headlines and memorials from anti-rail groups, while the thousands of car-on-car accidents in the same city are not used as an argument against more roads.

Critics of such public transportation lines claim that the trains are mostly empty, a claim easily disproved by anyone who’s ever tried to squeeze onto one. Even if that were true, for example, no one ever points out that the cars on the highway are also mostly empty.

Another charge made against streetcars and light rail, and the usual excuse for the post-war destruction, is that they don’t make money. But how much money did the road in front of your house make last year? How much money does our asphalt make, or our electric wires, or our sewage pipes? The questions are ridiculous because these are not moneymaking enterprises; they are basic infrastructure, one of the legitimate reasons for paying taxes or having a government.

One problem is that recent light rail projects – again, take Minneapolis for example – committed to an ambitious plan involving house demolitions, rerouted streets, and earth berms and walls to protect nearby homeowners from having to see a colourful train go by or hear its electric hum. As impressive as the Hiawatha line is, other cash-strapped cities might look at that project’s $700-million bill and write off the idea of light rail altogether. But other cities don’t need to buy real estate and tear a path through neighbourhoods to build public rail. Your city, and every city, already has hundreds of light rail paths already cleared for rails, running like arteries to all the major population and business centres --- they’re called roads.

Take Dublin, whose Luas line runs right through the city’s crowded shopping district. Like Minneapolis or St. Louis, Dublin built back its rail system recently, a small but happy fraction of the network it once had. Here, though, officials here set rails right into the asphalt like streetcar rails, and the train runs down the city streets – which are also narrower than most American streets and turn tight corners.

Conservative activists Paul Weyrich and William S. Lind, in their 2002 paper Bring Back the Streetcars!, said looking at old photos of streetcar cities “is almost painful. It reminds us of a world we had, and have lost. But it does more than that. From the standpoint of public transportation, it points not only to the past, but also to a possible future.”

Almost two dozen US cities are considering streetcar systems, according to recent news reports, and such projects could be a godsend for restoring the urban communities, low carbon emissions and easy transportation that we used to have. They could pull together political groups that never imagined having common cause; urban activists who want to revive urban neighbourhoods, suburbanites hit by waves of recession and fuel prices, environmentalists who like the potential for zero emissions. To lobby city and county hall, however, these groups would have to accept a responsibility from which many Americans have fled; to work with people who believe different things than you do.

Unfortunately, streetcar or light rail projects grow more difficult each year; unless the world discovers a surprising new source of energy or a new bubble propels the US economy aloft again, cities are unlikely to build new subways or Els, and new ground-level transport will have to endure a volatile market, lack of funding and spotty delivery of supplies and replacement equipment.

Buses, of course, service every major city, and in abundance can fill the streetcar gap. Anyone who rode buses in a variety of cities, however, can tell you that many bus systems struggle as well. As mentioned, some bus lines habitually run late or not at all. They can be expensive for the financially-strapped people most likely to need them. In many places they carry a stigma of poverty. Many cities lack bus lanes to allow buses to bypass traffic, meaning that bus rides are no faster than driving one’s own car.

Of course, most US states will struggle even to maintain the existing bus or light rail lines, even as the need for them grows. Most state and local governments are desperately scrambling for new ways to cut corners – turning out streetlights at night, shortening the public school week, shutting down services. Cities across the Western world are shaving off their basic transportation services as well, and they will be the first to go in a crisis.

Which is a perfect reason for anyone reading this, whatever your party or position on the political map, to learn to be an activist. City and regional governments are often harried, unappreciated and malleable in a way that the federal government is not. This is an issue that anarchist Noam Chomsky and Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich can both get behind, and so could Tea Parties, Green Parties and many other parties in your area. All of you deserve to have at least as much freedom and mobility as American city-dwellers enjoyed in pioneer days.

Otherwise, what little we have will disappear while we fight over other things, until the next economic dip or fuel crisis turns every neighbourhood into an island.
Next week: tips for keeping the public transportation system alive in a bankrupt city.


Documents of court case UNITED STATES, v. NATIONAL CITY LINES, Inc., et al.

Bring Back the Streetcars! A Conservative Vision of Tomorrow’s Transportation, by Paul Weyrich and William Lind, 2002

“The StreetCar Conspiracy: How General Motors Deliberately Destroyed Public Transit,” by Bradford Snell, The New Electric Railway Journal, Autumn 1995.

O'Toole, Randal (2006). "A Desire Named Streetcar How Federal Subsidies Encourage Wasteful Local Transit Systems" (pdf). Cato Institute. (559): 1–16.

Span, Guy "Paving the Way for Buses-The Great GM Streetcar Conspiracy" Part 1 || Part 2, San Francisco Bay Crosssings.

“22 Cities that May Have New Streetcar Lines Within 2 Years,” Scientific American, 18 April 2010:

Photos, top to bottom:
The Frankfurt S-Bahn. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons.
St. Louis circa 1925 - photo courtesy of
Map of the St. Louis streetcar system circa 1940 -- the distance from north to south is about 25 miles. Public Domain.
Map of the Dublin streetcar system, circa 1920 - map covers a similar area. Public Domain.
Los Angeles today. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce.
1950s streetcar in Howth, outside Dublin, in the 1950s. Public Domain.
The Hiawatha light rail in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of WikiCommons.

1 comment:

Ronald Langereis said...

Hi Brian,
You're absolutely right. Here's a live webcam in Amsterdam city centre. Wait for the trams to pass. It may take a few minutes.

All the best,