The Design Observer Group

Posted 06.10.13

Eric W. Sanderson

Roads to Rails

Streetcar tracks awaiting installation, Toronto. [Photo by Samuel Bietenholz]

STELLA: He smashed all the lightbulbs with the heel of my slipper.
BLANCHE DUBOIS: And you let him? Didn’t run, didn’t scream?
STELLA: Actually, I was sorta thrilled by it
— Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947)

When we begin to value the land for what it is and build cities worth living in, density develops, and density makes things happen. Some of those happenings are economic, in the sense of improved productivity; others are environmental, in terms of fewer resources consumed. Density also has a lot to offer in terms of our trades of time for space.

Past transportation revolutions have been rooted in land. The railroad companies were encouraged to expand west by massive giveaways of public land; the streetcar operators were given monopolies to encourage their development; and the automobile industry received the greatest gift of all — roads — carved out of the public domain, bought or appropriated from private citizens. Many people and innumerable beasts were hurt in the process, so that other folks could be whisked on their way. Such radical efforts were necessary to make 20th-century transportation feasible, affordable and widespread in America.

A similarly radical approach is required today, but without all the giving and the taking. It’s simple. We just need to decide to make better use of the land we all already own together: the public roads. Our roads today suffer from an identity crisis. We want them to provide thoroughfares for private cars, routes for public transit, spaces for parking, lanes for bicycles, sidewalks for pedestrians, access for people with disabilities, space and light for buildings, drainage for storm water, and even room for trees and flowers! Take a look out your window — the streets are contested territory, trying to be all things for all people.

The suburbs at least did this part right: They were decisive. Streets were for cars, not for bikes or pedestrians or anything else. Sidewalks were to be narrow, ornamental or nonexistent, since it was assumed people would be driving. Public transportation was not a priority, because everyone has a car or two or three. As suburbs expanded, zoning codes mandated off-street parking for houses, offices and mini- and jumbo-malls, which like medieval castles surrounded by moats of asphalt, are best approached on a trusty steed: the motorcar.

Though decisive, these choices were all decisively wrong from the perspective of energy efficiency, national security and long-term economic productivity. Let’s see what we can do to make them right again.

Top: Spadina Streetcar, Toronto. [Photo by Erik Mauer] Bottom: Light rail, bus and streetcar, Portland, Oregon. [Photo by Kevin Zolkiewicz]

A Brief Physics Lesson
In choosing how to use our precious street space, we need to begin with the laws of physics, rules of the universe that explain how and why different kinds of transportation use different amounts of energy. Better streets will move more people and use less energy. Lower-energy forms of transportation will be easier to supply with fuels other than oil; denser cities will require more efficient ways of moving. How much energy and how many people is a matter, at least initially, of physics.

Recall that energy is “that which changes the physical state of a system”; physical state includes your geographic location. In a frictionless vacuum, the energy applied to accelerate an object would be all that is ever needed; once in motion an object would never stop. Sir Isaac Newton showed three and a half centuries ago that the energy of motion — the kinetic energy of an object — is one-half its mass times its velocity squared (½ × m × v²). This means heavier objects require more energy in proportion to their weight; faster objects require four times as much energy to double their speed. Thereby Newton gave us the first two rules to increase transportation energy efficiency:
Rule 1: Be lighter.
Rule 2: Go more slowly.
Note: Rule 2 matters four times as much as Rule 1.
The energy to put a vehicle in motion is lost when we stop at a red light or to let a pedestrian cross. It hasn’t disappeared in a universal sense because energy is always conserved, but for our immediate purposes, it is gone, turned into manifestly less useful heat, vibrations and brake squeal. The amount of energy required to get back up to speed is the same as what was lost, which suggests for efficiency:
Rule 3: Minimize starts and stops.
Note: Rule 3 explains why most cars make better mileage on the highway than in town.
Since we don’t live in a vacuum, moving requires additional energy to overcome friction. Friction for most vehicles comes from two sources. One is rolling resistance from tires scraping along the ground. It is a function of gravity, the vehicle’s mass, tire design and the road surface. Different materials scrape differently: An inflated tire rolls with 6–7 percent less friction than a poorly inflated one, enough to affect your gas mileage; steel wheels running along steel rails, in contrast, roll along with 400 percent less friction than an inflated tire. Since less friction means less wasted energy, we have:
Rule 4: Slide, don’t scrape.
Note: Rule 4 explains why trams are so successful at moving heavy loads.
The other source of friction is air. Air resistance describes how much air gets pushed around as a vehicle moves through it. It is a function of the vehicle’s cross-sectional area, drag coefficient (which measures its aerodynamics) and speed. Think Camaro vs. Lincoln Navigator: The Camaro tries to slip through the air, while the Navigator just busts through. In either case, the air resistance increases with the velocity cubed (½ × ρ × dc × A × v³, where ρ is the density of the air, dc is the drag coefficient, A is the cross-sectional area of the car, and v is velocity or speed), which means that doubling your speed requires eight times more energy, assuming no wind.
Rule 5: Be sleek.
Note: Rule 5 is why racecars and jets are streamlined.
Putting these five rules of physics together, as David MacKay does in his book on sustainable energy, means that the break-even point between rolling resistance and air resistance for heavy, rubber-wheeled vehicles like cars is about 15 miles per hour. Below 15 miles per hour your car’s weight and speed matter most in how much energy it expends. Above 15 miles per hour, shape and, especially, speed matter most. For an average car, energy consumption bends upward more stiffly as speed increases, which is why back in the 1970s, the Nixon administration introduced national speed limits of 55 miles per hour or less. These tradeoffs also present a design problem for automakers: How do you make a car efficient both in town and on the open highway? The answer is, you can’t really. But you can make different choices about how you travel.

Click image to enlarge.

In town, where motion is dominated by low speeds and frequent stops, you can save energy by choosing a mode of transportation that is lighter (Rule #1), rolls with less resistance (Rule #4) and moves less rapidly (Rule #2). Walking, bicycling and in-line skating all suggest themselves, rather than automobiles. Personal modes move a minimum of mass (our bodies plus the bike or skates) at low speeds, with little rolling resistance and smaller cross-sections. Though some of the energy is wasted in the inefficiency of our legs and backs, we don’t mind: We call it exercise. Biking beats out walking for efficiency because the small gain in vehicle mass is more than compensated for by the increased efficiency of the bicycle’s gears and pedals, making biking fast and fun, especially on paths uncluttered by pedestrians or motorcars.

Out of town, where higher speeds are required and stops are less frequent, vehicles make more sense. For fast-moving objects, like cars, energy loss is dominated by drag from pushing the air around. Under these conditions, your vehicle’s weight matters less than its shape, so you can save energy by making your mode more streamlined (Rule #5) and — unhelpfully — by moving less rapidly (Rule #2). Since making better trades of time for space is the point, especially over longer distances, the least you can do is split the energy use. More heads per cross-sectional area, like on a train, dramatically lowers the per-capita energy expenditure. The very best way to improve the fuel efficiency of your car is also the easiest way: Share with someone else.

Car pools are the only practical way to make up for the notorious inefficiency of internal combustion engines. Although it’s been over 120 years since Benz sold his first motorwagen, automobile energy efficiencies remain stuck in the 18–25 percent range, not so different from you riding your bike. (Both you and your V6 are turning carbon-based chemical energy into motion.) Cars weigh more than people, so on a per-passenger basis, their energy efficiency drops even more. Consider that if you weigh 200 pounds and drive a run-of-the-mill 3,000-pound car, then your weight is just 6.25 percent of the total mass moved. If the energy to move you is consumed at 20 percent efficiency, then only 1.25 percent of all of the energy in all of the gasoline in your car is used to move you down the road. Energy loss accelerates as you do. Electric motors for electric vehicles do a better job. Electrical engines typically obtain 80–95 percent efficiencies, because they are lighter and because electromagnetism skips the explosions and attendant hot gases, noise and vibrations of combustion. But there’s a catch. Electric motors need a constant supply of electrons to turn the wheel. Those electrons come from either a power cord connected to a power source, which is sending them in real time, as in streetcars, or they supply them on-board using a rechargeable battery. As Edison and Planté discovered in the nineteenth century, batteries are heavy because of the metals (like lead) required to hold the charge. Conventional lead-acid batteries add to the weight of the vehicle, which requires more energy to move because it’s heavier, which requires a larger battery, which adds to the weight, etc. This ugly feedback loop leads to rapidly diminishing returns, and explains why, a century after Edison and Ford gave it a go, we are still struggling to make a speedy, long-distance, affordable electric car (though we will consider a few modern takes on the Electrobat below). The physical truth is a pound of gasoline holds 350 times more energy than a pound of lead soaked in sulfuric acid. (Lithium-ion batteries, the ones in your laptop, do better — gasoline:lithium-ion, 118:1 — but are more expensive.)

SUVs zooming down the expressway at 70 miles per hour break every rule of energy efficiency, but manage to do what they do by relying on the remarkable energy density of their fuel. Aircraft, heavier and airborne, are even more dependent. Thus, if we value the ability to fly across the country, or to another continent, we might want to save our energy-rich oil for air travel. Back on the ground, we need to find a better way to trade time for space. [1]

Click image to enlarge.

A Better Car
A curious fact about cars is that most of them are designed to carry more than one person. At maximum occupancy (four to eight people per vehicle), modern cars are actually reasonable in terms of their energy expenditure: They use only 300–500 percent as much energy per person per mile as someone walking or bicycling, but go on average a lot faster. As we all know from counting heads during the morning commute, most trips in personal motor vehicles are taken by lonesome drivers. Add some carpooling trips and family errands, and the overall average vehicle occupancy for personal automobiles in America works out to 1.59 passengers per trip (in 2009).

At this kind of occupancy, a car’s energy efficiency, never great, collapses: A solo driver in a Ford Focus uses 600 percent more energy per person per mile than a pedestrian; a Camaro spends 1,000 percent as much. Thus, if you are going to drive, please share.

Hybrid cars are more energy efficient by making the best of a bad situation: They have two power trains, one electric and one internal combustion. They use a battery to start the car and run at low speeds; at higher speeds where more energy is required, or when the battery is drained, the gasoline engine takes over. Most hybrids also have regenerative braking that recaptures about 20 percent of the energy of slowing and stopping and shunts it back to the battery. (Gas cars can’t have this feature because brakes can’t regenerate gasoline, just electricity.) Despite the extra pounds required by the extra machinery and battery, hybrid cars are typically twice as energy efficient as internal-combustion-only automobiles of the same model. The problem with hybrids, beyond their purchase price, is that they still require gas as their sole energy source. Though more efficient, they are just a lighter version of oil’s chains.

Better automotive energy efficiency can be obtained from a plug-in hybrid. As late as the summer of 2012, there was only one such vehicle for sale in the United States: the Chevy Volt, though others were in the works. Plug-in hybrids are truer “hybrids” in the sense that they can use energy from electricity or from gasoline, but can get by on just one or the other. The Volt also deploys regenerative braking to save energy, and though its range is only 35 miles on electricity, that’s enough to push its energy consumption per mile to only 1.5 times as much as a person walking at maximum occupancy (four passengers per Volt), and only five times a person walking at usual occupancy. Not bad, considering the Chevy Volt weighs in at almost two tons.

Click image to enlarge.

The most energy-efficient automobiles are, not surprisingly, electric. True electric cars eschew gasoline entirely and instead receive all their energy from a power plant or a wind farm stored in a battery and delivered via a plug. The most efficient electric car on the market in 2012 was the Nissan Leaf, which at full passenger capacity is actually more energy efficient than a person walking (!), and only three times more energy-consuming per person than biking. The Leaf is the latest in a small collection of electric cars sold by Ford, General Motors and various foreign vendors over the last twenty years. Probably the best known American electric car was General Motors’ EV1, the first and only one to carry the GM nameplate, which developed a small, incredibly devoted following in California at the turn of the 21st century. When GM canceled the three thousand leases on the EV1 in 2003, insisting all its owners return them, and then crushed the cars in the desert or disabled them for museum objects, stunned customers complained, picketed and made a movie: Who Killed the Electric Car?

It turns out that many agents contributed to the demise of the EV1, not the least of which was the electric car’s old nemesis: the rechargeable battery. The EV1 originally had a range of about 60 miles on a charge; battery upgrades, using nickel-hydride batteries, like the rechargeable ones in a toy car, eventually pushed the range up to 160 miles, but also upped the cost considerably. The 2012 Nissan Leaf has 48 lithium-ion battery modules, which weighs 660 pounds, affording the Leaf about a 100-mile range between charges.

Batteries, lest we forget, also need to be charged. Fast charging requires a dedicated charging station at high voltage (240 V; the usual household voltage is 110 V). Buying a Leaf doesn’t include the purchase and installation of a garage-mounted charger for rejuvenation at home. Communal charging stations, the equivalent of gas stations, are doable, of course; we had plenty of them in electric truck garages of the 1920s. Perhaps they could be deployed again in take-out, drop-in battery exchanges such as the ones imagined back on Broad Street in 1895, if manufacturers adopted consistent standards for battery shape, size and connection.

There is another automotive solution, though, suggested by the problems of the Leaf, which is to give up on range and speed expectations based on gasoline, and instead design electric cars that work well on their own terms, in town, at lower speeds. Mrs. Ford by all accounts was very happy with her electric car, which in fact was an early prototype of what we would call today a “neighborhood electric vehicle” (NEV), a kind of souped-up golf cart. These smaller, slower vehicles have conventional lead-acid batteries and an electric motor, they charge at a standard household outlet and can speed very happily up to 25 miles per hour while carrying 1,000 or more pounds of cargo. You have probably seen them zipping about in a gated community or amusement park. The police, the military and zookeepers use them, too. The government does not allow NEVs to play with gas cars on fast-moving boulevards or highways, restricting them to streets where the speed limit is under 35 miles per hour. (35 is not bad; it’s the limit of many city streets.) Chrysler has a division that sells six models of NEVs under the brand name GEM for $8,000–$12,000 each, doors extra. [2]

Click image to enlarge.

A Better Streetcar
I wish electric cars, small or large, could elegantly sweep in and replace gasoline cars and solve all our problems with a wave of the technological wand, but I can’t see how it happens without a major breakthrough in automotive battery technology, which has eluded us for a century or more. The fact is that the only forms of powered transportation that give the kind of per-person bang-for-the-microwave-minute that we need are shared modes of transportation, particularly ones on rails: trains, light rail and the streetcar.

Streetcars are the closest we know to the ideal motorized transportation. They roll with low resistance on steel wheels on steel rails, driven by efficient electric motors attached to the grid via overhead wires or underground cables, deploying regenerative braking for stopping. And they carry tens to a hundred passengers at a time, which gives more heads per cross-sectional area, thus dramatically dropping per-capita energy use. At full occupancy, streetcars best rival walking and biking in energy efficiency. Compared to a bus, they are more energy efficient, have more leg room, offer better views and are more genteel; they are also more fun. Who doesn’t like to ride a streetcar? Once they are laid down, the rails reflect a tangible, significant investment in the city, something a bus stop can never hope to do. Some people don’t like the overhead lines, but those can be buried so as not to interfere with the view of the phone and power lines that parallel so many American roadsides.

If streetcars ran on streets where they were the only vehicle, we could make them lighter, streamlined and more stylish. They could also go faster because there would be no unpredictable cars to cross them. 21st-century streetcars can be designed for contemporary times, to reflect a community’s sense of itself. New York’s can be sleek and elegant, Seattle’s innovative and green. In Los Angeles streetcars can have sun roofs and surfboard racks. They could all provide free wifi, vending machines and cup holders.

How viable is a nation of streetcar riders? Try this out: Sometimes I play a game with my son to pass the time while we wait for the bus. We count the cars going by and say: “One – two – three – four – five – streetcar!” We count to five because five cars use about the same amount of energy as one streetcar. On some residential suburban streets, you might need to wait ten minutes to get to five cars, but on City Island Avenue, our main thoroughfare, we could have a streetcar every other minute for most of the day for the same amount of energy we already lavish on cars. On busier city streets, they’d come in a constant stream. And whereas five cars might move five to eight people, each streetcar could handle 70 sitting or 100 standing.

Try it next time you are stuck in traffic; if you can count four cars in addition to your own, then imagine yourself relaxing in a spacious, stylish streetcar, with a small number of your fellow citizens, quietly being transported by chauffeur toward your destination through clean, unpolluted air, unhindered by congestion, able to read the paper, text your friend and admire the view. It could happen. It might be sorta thrilling: A streetcar to desire.

Here’s the plan. [3]

Bombardier streetcars, bound for a temporary line at the Vancouver Olympics, arriving at the Port of Tacoma, Washington. [Photo by Port of Tacoma]

Roads to Rails
For short distances, it’s clear we should do everything humanly possible to make walking and bicycling the preferred modes of transportation for as many people as possible. Currently, 49 percent of trips are already three miles or less, and 70 percent of them are taken by car, which suggests a huge potential. The ingredients are fairly simple: Pedestrians and bicycles need their own separate, pleasant spaces for movement — sidewalks and improved bicycle paths — and people need their everyday destinations within reach, whether they are for work, shopping or school. Better, denser towns and cities designed for people are the means to the end of making walking and bicycling the cheapest, healthiest, fastest way to go for some 189 billion trips per year.

Walking and related modes, however, are not ideal when the weather is unpleasant or when we need to travel farther than a few miles. They also don’t work for the very old, the very young and the disabled, who need modes compatible with how they move; and businesses, emergency crews and others need ways to move objects heavier than a person can conveniently carry. To obtain better trades of time for space, we still need vehicles powered by engines to apply greater energy than our bodies can. Small fleets of NEVs can help, streaming people and goods down to that paragon of motor propulsion: the streetcar.

When imagining the streetcar revolution, don’t rely on your experience of public transit today, with long unpredictable waits, dingy subway tunnels and motorbus diesel fumes. Instead, imagine what every city once had — lots and lots of streetcars running all the time (one for every five of today’s cars) along every big street. Your wait won’t be long, and it won’t be uncertain, because thanks to GPS, wireless technologies, smartphone applications, countdown clocks and a glance down the avenue you will know exactly when the next streetcar will arrive to whisk you away. As the transportation planner Jarrett Walker writes: Frequency is freedom.

Streetcars, NEVs, your bicycle and your legs are the distributed beginnings of a new transportation network, reaching into New Town districts across America and bringing people to light rail trains running along major thoroughfares. Light rails are close cousins of the subway and elevated railway, except they run on the ground. They are heavier and faster than streetcars, able to race cars at 60–80 miles per hour. In the future, these local trains will shuttle between nearby cities, delivering people to high-speed rail systems that go cross-state, and eventually cross-country.

America already has a world-class freight rail system, moving 1.7 billion tons of goods each year. Today freight railways connect to trucks for the final delivery; in the future, they will connect to streetcars, and in the cities, the old subway tunnels. Subterranean movements will be set aside for inanimate things, rather than for people. At night specially designed flatbed streetcars will pull up to businesses or neighborhood receiving stations, the post offices of the future. Curb cutouts with loops of side track will provide lading sites out of the main flow. Small containers of standard size, and designed to fit within the large containers used by the shipping industry, will travel by rail and NEV. In the morning NEVs and folks with hand trucks will make deliveries to your door.

Instead of asking the car to do every transportation job for us, as we do today, transportation will be sorted by task. We will choose modes that work better and more efficiently for different distances and prioritize investment according to a formula that prefers human power over railways and railways over cars.

Many people think American railroads are a thing of the past, and while it is true that passenger rail fell on hard times during the late 20th century, the U.S. freight rail system moves 1.7 billion ton-miles of freight (as of 2011), including nearly all of the fossil fuels that power the nation's over 4,800 coal-burning power plants. If the Interstate Highway System were converted to the Interstate Railway System, then we could have fast and furious (and energy-efficient) passenger trains, too. Current rail system: 110,772 miles; current Interstate Highway System: 47,013 miles. Click image to enlarge.

We make this happen by committing roads to rails, literally. Dedicating road space to rails resolves two problems simultaneously. First the roads turn out to be an excellent place to build railways at lower cost. The budgets of most rail projects today are based on an assumption that automobile traffic will continue ad infinitum. For streetcars, sharing the roads with cars necessitates extra staff to steer and see, extra weight for safety, limited choices about alignment (the technical term for where the rails will go), and extra expenses for switching and signaling. These problems are exacerbated for light rail and high speed (trans-region) rail systems that must have dedicated space to operate; they literally have nowhere to go in today’s world because all our land is already given over to established public and private uses. (I shake my fist at you, John Locke!) What remains of the rail lines of the nation are mostly already spoken for by the freight industry (mixing freight trains and passenger trains is not recommended — different speeds, different agendas). As a result, the budgets for current railway plans, like the beleaguered high-speed rail plan for California, are swollen with funds to purchase right-of-ways and construct tunnels, overpasses, elevated lines and other extraordinarily expensive acts of engineering necessary to find a route without disturbing the dominant car.

Making the counter-assumption of no cars provides extraordinary relief — now there is lots of space and reduced costs. Roadways are already engineered for transport, with bridges and tunnels in place. The electricity is already there in the power lines paralleling many roads. Dedicating roads to rail means that capital costs drop dramatically because land acquisition and grading expenses evaporate; it also means eventually we need less land dedicated to mechanized transportation, so we have more room for sidewalks, bike paths, parks and garden cafés. Instead of dedicating a third of our city space to transportation, perhaps we can get by with only a quarter or a fifth, meaning that broad swaths of city land could become available for other uses. Think what we can do with all those parking lots!

Deploying railways down Main Street provides a second great advantage: It competes with the cars that remain. As streetcars on streetcar-only streets become more prevalent, they will force cars into a smaller number of crowded car-only streets. As congestion worsens for automobiles, and fuel costs rise, and free parking — and then all parking — vanishes, more people will see the wisdom of giving up on cars entirely and join the rest of the nation walking, biking and on the rails. You can still get to work and your trip will be faster and more pleasant. Driving will persist in rural areas, where work necessitates infrequent trips over long distances, and on a recreational basis. (I’m particularly fond of the drive over the magnificent Million-Dollar Highway in Colorado.) Driving will become a hobby, not a burden.

Click image to enlarge.

Do you hear that jingling in your pocket? That’s the 20 percent of your income now freed to be deployed elsewhere in the economy. Some of it will go back to transportation, but spent on an as-needed basis. Rather than writing out the insurance, registration and car payments in lump sums each year, regardless of how much you drive, now you pay only when you ride. (Businesspeople call this process replacing fixed costs with variable ones.) Or we could establish a system where everyone makes a down payment — say, 50 percent of what we used to pay — and then all local transportation is free. You show a badge stating that you are a resident of New Oldtown, USA, and climb on board. Exchange privileges give you free access in other towns, too.

To get the process started, we need to redirect funds from roads to rails. In 2008 government at all levels (local, state and federal) spent a collective $182 billion of taxpayers’ cash on capital and operating expenses related to roads and highways; the same year, we spent another $51 billion on transit projects. That’s three dollars for cars for every one dollar for passenger trains and buses. Reversing this ratio would have enormous immediate effects on shared transportation in America without costing taxpayers a cent more than we are already paying.

Construction costs for new streetcar systems in the U.S. over the last decade have run between $2 million and $20 million per track-mile. (Streetcars have grown in popularity over the last decade; as of summer 2012, at least 35 cities had streetcar or light rail lines.) If we assumed that we could achieve the lower end of this range through economies of scale and by building rails on roads without having to deal with car traffic, then a $150 billion investment could buy 75,000 track-miles. If we assume track density and alignments so that everyone lived within a quarter-mile of a streetcar line, then those 75,000 track-miles could serve 18,750 square miles of urban area. If those towns and cities were inhabited at a density of 5000 people per square mile, encouraged to move there by New Town districts, home-to-work rebates and the new system of gate duties on fossil fuels, then those streetcars could serve 94 million people. If in a burst of enthusiasm and economic growth, the residential density pushed up to 10,000 people per square mile (remember that’s only one-seventh of Manhattan density), then 188 million people could ride those streetcars, or 60 percent of the American populace.

In other words, scratches on the back of an envelope suggest that after only a few years’ worth of spending the money we already spend on roads, everyone in the country could have access to a streetcar, assuming that they inhabited happier, healthier, moderately denser locales than where most people currently live. [4]

Transportation in a democracy needn’t be complicated, but it does need to be clever. Here is what not to do: (a) Do not give away the land to railroad companies that then exploit the public; (b) Do not give monopoly access to companies and then limit the fares, thus ruining the companies; (c) Do not provide free roads and subsidies for cheap oil, damaging the economy, national security, and the environment; and please (d) Do not let the government run transportation companies, because then everyone loses. Here is a better way: (e) Let the government own and manage the public infrastructure in the public interest; let companies run the railways to make a profit and serve the people, subject to market competition; and let the citizens ride the rails to success, while speaking politely and specifically about necessary improvements. Click image to enlarge.

What Happened?
I know what you are thinking: If streetcars are so great, why didn’t they succeed the first time around? And don’t we need to know why they disappeared if we ever hope to rebuild them? It’s like a beautiful forest eerily silent because all the animals have been hunted to extinction: We must understand why the forest is empty to fill it again. I don’t think the answer to why the streetcar expired is as simple as some commentators have indicated — that there was a great conspiracy to replace it with automobiles, and that was that (though some unsavory things did happen). Rather, the answer lies in the uneasy institutional relationships surrounding land, transportation and money during the time of the first great streetcar blossoming at the turn of the last century.

The trouble started because city governments thought it was clever to give monopolies to the streetcar companies. In the heyday of the Standard Oil trust and the Selden patent, monopoly was considered good practice in transportation. Granting local, long-term exclusive franchises induced companies to make large upfront investments in infrastructure (the railways and the rolling stock), relieving the government of those costs. In return companies would recoup their expenses plus profits indefinitely through a captive ridership and real estate development.

To limit the monopoly power, however, local governments controlled the fare. At first, both sides agreed that five cents a ride was a fair deal. In the deflationary environment of the late 19th century, when the real value of every nickel was spiraling upward, each fare paid represented accelerating profits for the companies. For a time, they and their real estate subsidiaries made money hand over fist; a list of the richest men in America of 1900 included municipal transit magnates Peter A. B. Widener, Thomas Fortune Ryan and Nicholas F. Brady.

We don’t speak of Widener, Ryan and Brady in the same reverential tones we do of the Rockefellers, Fords and Carnegies because the streetcar kings’ glory days faded fast. Inflation, labor strikes, World War I and competition from electric and motor vehicles overtook the streetcar. Owners wanted to raise fares to keep up their lines, but government, subject to public pressure, refused. (New York Mayor James “Jimmy” Walker became famous by beating back a fare increase in 1928, for example.) Unionization was on the rise, demanding a greater proportion of profits, and during World War I, the War Labor Board instituted mandatory pay raises for railway workers, including on the streetcar lines, to compensate for wartime inflation.

With no way to raise revenues to cover their costs and with development along the lines already peaking, the companies had to make cuts to stay afloat, which meant deferring investment and reducing service. Even though ridership continued to increase through the 1920s, the trams and trolleys crowded with passengers were beginning to fall apart. Meanwhile, the automobile companies — producing vehicles that were newer, faster and affordable, if relatively energy inefficient — had all the capital they needed. After 1931, the Texas Railroad Commission and interstate commerce legislation ensured everyone paid consistent, low prices for gas.

Gas and rubber rationing at home during World War II extended the streetcar’s era for a few more years, but by midcentury, when General Motors, Firestone and Standard Oil of California cobbled together their racket to replace the last streetcars with buses and then close the bus lines, the streetcar industry was economically crippled, the victim of deferred maintenance, high costs and subsidized competition; the GM conspiracy was just the coup de grâce.

Top: Removal of streetcar track, 3rd Avenue, Seattle, 1943. [Photo via Seattle Municipal Archives] Bottom: Concrete pour for new streetcar track, Jackson Street at 2nd Avenue, Seattle, 2013. [Photo by Gordon Werner]

Shared transportation in America is still haunted by the demise of the streetcar and its aftermath. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, government realized it had made a terrible mistake in its handling of the streetcar lines, and responded by making another terrible mistake: It took over transit. With a young president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, in the White House in 1960, northeast politicians like Richardson Dilworth, mayor of Pennsylvania, and Senator Harrison “Pete” Williams of New Jersey, despairing of ever reversing the flight to the suburbs, saw an opportunity to win federal support to at least bring people back downtown for shopping. Thus began a subsidy war pitting us against us. With one hand, the government subsidized transit as a way of encouraging urban renewal, while with the other hand, it rolled out pavement for cars on a continental scale to help people flee town. In the epic battle of cars vs. transit, in the age of cheap oil, free roads and low-density sprawl, transit couldn’t win, no matter how big the subsidies. And many people questioned why we were writing checks for both in the first place. They still do. Like a gardener who planted two seeds that are now competing with each other to the detriment of both, we have to choose which will survive. One already seems to be failing. [5]

What Business Does Best
Resolving the problems of public transportation means reforming the relationships between government, business and the passenger once again. This time, we have to be realistic about the strengths and interests of each and play to them. Government owns the roads and looks out for the general welfare, for people today and in the future. Business is good at making a profit given a fair and competitive market with clear rules. Passengers know where they need to go and how much money they have.

Here’s what I think we should do. Let’s imagine that the government makes long-term investments in the necessary infrastructure for streetcar and other local rail systems. The public, via our self-instituted government, will own the tracks, signals and maintenance yards and manage them in the public interest on the public land. The people will then rent out the rail lines to private companies to provide transportation services. The companies bring their knowledge of efficiency and the ability to flex and innovate; they also bring their own rolling stock and labor agreements. Passengers get a better bargain as a result.

Every few years, municipalities put out bids for contracts of limited duration, for example, three years. Short-term concession agreements ensure that companies are under the gun to provide excellent service, or the municipality will seek a different vendor next round. Companies are relieved of the capital costs of the rails and the real estate buys that have been the traditional argument for the necessity of long-term arrangements. The public runs the contracts on essentially a nonprofit basis, only asking for rent based on what is necessary to maintain the infrastructure, insure the rails and keep up with inflation; no subsidies are involved, but no profits either to support other aspects of government. Contracts express the public interest: minimum levels of service, coordination across lines, bracketed fares, non-discrimination, electronic notifications and bonuses for on-time service records and minimal passenger complaints. Within those bounds, companies are free to deploy service as they see best, including adding service to enhance profits. They can run more trolleys to accommodate the morning commute or the rush to the ball game.

In some cases, in coordination with the local authorities, companies might collect fares up front on an annual basis from residents, and then everyone could ride for free, with exchange privileges across connecting lines, facilitated by the same technologies that credit card companies use. Private service providers invest profits in advertising, better rolling stock and transit-oriented development (e.g., shopping centers, housing stock) near the value-added transportation corridors, thus enhancing the market and bringing additional private funds into the towns and cities growing around them. New jobs will be created directly in service industries (steering and maintaining streetcars, local freight delivery, track maintenance), in manufacturing supply chains for streetcar construction, and through agglomeration economies generated by connected American neighborhoods, towns and cities.

Detail of Market St. Railway Mural, San Francisco. [Mural by Mona Caron]

Once the streetcar is rooted within communities, then we will have the basis for a high-speed rail network between cities, not before. When streetcars and light rail systems bring people to the periphery, then high-speed rails can develop along the existing highway systems to connect cities across the vast expanses between. (In the meanwhile, temporary garages on the edge of town can store the cars reserved for rural travel.) Over time we transform long-distance travel from cars and trucks to trains, so that the Interstate Highway System morphs into the Interstate Railway System, with the federal government owning, maintaining and coordinating regional rails, and private companies instead of government-owned corporations (like the hapless Amtrak), providing the service. Gate duties alter the economies of fuel and land, and higher functioning American towns and cities facilitate walking, biking and public transport. The goal is to make American travel affordable, pleasurable, sustainable and easy, a system to last for centuries, not just until the oil or the money runs out.

There is one final benefit to turning transportation over to the smooth whirr of electric motors: Those motors will use electricity. To produce it, we could continue to burn the black fossil fuel MacKays [6] or build more radioactive nuclear power plants — or we can see the roads to rails program as a welcome opportunity to get our MacKays from warmer, breezier, brighter sources: the gifts of earth, wind and the fire in the sky. [7]