Streetcar redux: Trolleys relieving congestion, saving energy and fighting pollution

NewOrleansHUDRedStreetcarRiverfrontCanal[1]In America, highways – known also as freeways, toll-ways, parkways and turnpikes – rule. Fact is, this country is crisscrossed by no less than four-million-lane-miles of road.

It was no accident that America plunked down that many lane-miles in so short a time, either. Good, bad or indifferent, credit for this goes to the Interstate Highway Act, passed during the Eisenhower administration in 1956.

The idea behind these thoroughfares is quite simple: improve access, reduce travel times. While the first is true absolutely, the second isn’t necessarily so. In fact, before long conditions had worsened, highways became congested and travel times slowed with a resultant gradual degradation in air quality.

Not surprisingly, with such explosive growth in road and highway building, something was sure to give, that “something” being the significant amount of lost ground in the electric street railway realm.

Even predating Interstate Highway Act passage, in 1950, “More than 100 electric transit systems were replaced with buses in 45 US cities including Los Angeles,” according to the California Environmental Protection Agency Air Resources Board.

Though the streetcar was indeed down it definitely was not out.

This fact was borne out in the Fall 2012 RAIL magazine, Edition 31, which deals almost exclusively with streetcars – known also as trolleys or trams.

In “Now Trending: Streetcars,” in the magazine’s “From the Editor-in-Chief” section, Scott Bogren writes:

“Simply put, more Americans than ever before are living in our cities. Now combine this population growth with skyrocketing fuel and energy prices and crippling road congestion. A variety of new studies are now pointing to the fact that younger Americans are moving to cities in ever larger numbers – and these urban residents are eschewing cars as their only means of transportation. Lastly, surveys regularly reveal that Americans want to live closer to where they work – and they also want to live in walkable, livable communities that are pedestrian-friendly. At the same time, cities and their leaders are seeking to enhance multi-purpose zoning areas that combine retail, commercial and residential spaces. Take all of these facts and trends, mix them all together and what emerges is an ideal incubator for…streetcars.”1

And streetcars are not just some short-lived fad. When a line goes in, it’s a sign of permanence – an indicator the system will be around for quite some time as they are in it for the long-haul.

“Project proponents must be clear throughout the planning, construction and implementation phases that new rail transit options are investments designed to span generations and last for centuries, and – as such – require more than just a few days, weeks or even years to solidify their role,” according to information brought out in “Commentary: RAIL Magazine’s Priorities for Streetcars and Light Rail.”2

But, it isn’t just this. Streetcar systems – along with their light rail cousins – are congestion relievers.

Using Portland, Oregon as an example, between 1990 and 2000 metropolitan area population had grown from 437,000 to 529,000, a 21 percent increase. In the city’s central core where urban densification was on the rise and with concomitant congestion, a solution was needed to address and help mitigate this condition. And this is exactly where the Portland Streetcar was able to answer the call.

“Traffic congestion downtown has decreased and air pollution dropped, Portland officials said,” wrote Matt Leedy in “Rails COME ‘ROUND again: Fresno looks to the past for public transportation that could enliven, spark downtown development,” an Aug. 6, 2007 The Fresno Bee front-page newsstory.

“‘We’ve used transit to stimulate development and reduce our reliance on automobiles,’ said Steve Iwata, a Portland transportation planning supervisor,” wrote Leedy in citing Iwata.

And not only has this approach worked, but has worked quite well, apparently.

As RAIL Editor Rich Sampson in “The Real Story of the Portland Streetcar” notes, “As early as 1988, city leaders and planners began considering ways to augment the growing MAX light-rail network – which was primarily designed to move people from across the region to and through downtown Portland – with a new form of mobility that would better circulate trips within the core districts within and adjacent to downtown.”3

What residents of the Rose City had found was with the introduction and addition of the Portland Streetcar, that new mobility form had arrived.

And due to their proven track record, not surprisingly, no less than 38 total American light rail- and streetcar-related projects are already in the pipeline.4

Talk about American streetcar lines getting a second wind, this would be it!


  1. Scott Bogren, “Now Trending: Streetcars,” “From the Editor-in-Chief” section, RAIL, Edition 31 (Fall 2012), p. 2.
  2. “Commentary: RAIL Magazine’s Priorities for Streetcars and Light Rail,” RAIL, Edition 31 (Fall 2012), p. 4.
  3. Rich Sampson, “The Real Story of the Portland Streetcar,” RAIL, Edition 31 (Fall 2012), p. 25.
  4. Yonah Freemark, “Openings and construction starts planned for 2013,” The Transport Politic, Jan. 1, 2013,

Published by Alan Kandel