The Fall of the Streetcar

Prior to the Second Urban Revolution, which saw the proliferation of the automobile and rise of the suburbs, the city was a compact and dense place. Movement was at first restricted by how far one could travel on foot or by horse. In large cities like Cleveland, these methods of transportation were replaced by streetcar networks. Streetcars allowed for quicker (and less smelly) transit, and led commuters from the busy city to the tranquility of William Stinchcomb’s new metropark system. The arrival of World War II stopped upgrades to Cleveland’s streetcar system in its tracks, and the Great American Streetcar Scandal led to the dissolution of streetcar networks across the country.1 The Second Urban Revolution brought with it the creation of the Federal Highway System and rise of the suburbs. Streetcar systems had come to an end as quickly as they had begun. The last of Cleveland’s 38 streetcar lines was converted to a bus line in 1954.

streetcarCleveland’s streetcar system.

Infrastructure Reawakened

Many argue that America is currently undergoing a third urban revolution. The two largest generations in American history—the Millennials and Baby Boomers—are transitioning into more urban settings. These demographics are sparking debates on what is to be done with a plethora of aging infrastructure. Cities across the country have adapted new uses for these underutilized assets, such as New York City’s High Line. But in a city of less than 400,000 with built roads for over one million, there is plenty of empty asphalt around the City. Miles of redundant roads contribute to reckless driving, greenhouse gas pollution, and storm water runoff. 21st century urban planners preach a road reimagination technique called a “road diet,” which reduces the number of width of lanes in order to increase road efficiency. While the idea seems counterintuitive, research indicates that road diets relieve congestion by decreasing the likelihood of speeding and reckless driving associated with wider roads. They also allow for the addition of street parking, protected bike lanes, and green infrastructure.

Relinking Cleveland

Jacob VanSickle and Bike Cleveland recently proposed an audacious plan for Cleveland’s gigantic thoroughfares. The group—along with St. Clair Superior Development Corporation and Bialosky + Partners Architects—envisions a bicycle expressway along hundreds of miles of former streetcar line. The system would place protected bike lanes down the center of many of Cleveland’s roads. The lanes would be buffered on either side by greenways, which will filter out pollution, relieve storm water runoff, and protect bikers. In many Cleveland neighborhoods, where residents may not have a car, the system could provide a safe and low-cost alternative to public transit. Furthermore, recent studies have found that protected bike lanes increase business along transit corridors. While now just an unfunded “dream,” the Cleveland Midway plan could set Cleveland as a leader in 21st century urban planning, and spur economic growth throughout the region.

midway
Map of the proposed Midway System. The portion of the blue line between MLK Blvd. and E. 55 St. in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood would serve as a model for the system.

Between the 1930s and 1950s, a front company known as National City Lines and its subsidiary, Pacific City Lines, purchased and dismantled streetcar networks across the continental United States. The Company was successful in converting streetcar networks in 45 cities—including St. Louis, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and San Diego—into bus systems. National City Lines was funded by General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California (now Chevron), Philips Petroleum (now ConocoPhilips), Mack Trucks, and the Federal Engineering Corporation.1 Many say this move by the auto industry to dismantle the streetcars played a key role in the decline of public transit across the U.S. Attorney Bradford Snell testified before congress in 1974, saying “General Motors is in effect a sovereign economic state whose interlocking control of auto, truck, bus, and locomotive production is a major factor in the decline of this Nation’s rail and bus systems.”2

1 Between the 1930s and 1950s, a front company known as National City Lines and its subsidiary, Pacific City Lines, purchased and dismantled streetcar networks across the continental United States. The Company was successful in converting streetcar networks in 45 cities—including St. Louis, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and San Diego—into bus systems. National City Lines was funded by General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California (now Chevron), Philips Petroleum (now ConocoPhilips), Mack Trucks, and the Federal Engineering Corporation.1 Many say this move by the auto industry to dismantle the streetcars played a key role in the decline of public transit across the U.S. Attorney Bradford Snell testified before congress in 1974, saying “General Motors is in effect a sovereign economic state whose interlocking control of auto, truck, bus, and locomotive production is a major factor in the decline of this Nation’s rail and bus systems.”2

For more on Cleveland’s Streetcar System: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streetcars_in_Cleveland

2 For U.S. Attorney, Bradford Snell’s testimony: http://libraryarchives.metro.net/DPGTL/testimony/1974_statement_bradford_c_snell_s1167.pdf

For more on the Midway project: http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2014/08/cleveland_bicycle_expressway_c.html