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Electric streetcars, often called trams outside North America, once served transit needs in scores of North American cities. Most municipal systems were dismantled in the mid-20th century.

Today, only New Orleans and Toronto still operate streetcar networks that are essentially unchanged in their layout and mode of operation.

Boston, Cleveland, Mexico City, Newarkmarker, Philadelphia, Pittsburghmarker, and San Francisco have rebuilt their streetcar systems as light rail systems. Buffalo, Calgary, Dallas, Edmonton, Houston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Diego, Charlotte, and St. Louismarker have installed new light rail systems, parts of which run along historic streetcar corridors and in a few cases feature mixed-traffic operation like a streetcar. Portland, Oregon and Seattle have experimented with both modern light rail and modern streetcar systems.

Edmonton, Seattle, Vancouver, Whitehorse, and other cities have restored a small number of streetcars to run as heritage lines for tourists.

History



North America's first streetcar lines opened in 1832 from downtown Manhattan to Harlemmarker by the New York and Harlem Railroad, and in 1834 in New Orleans, and in 1849 in Toronto along the Williams Omnibus Bus Line.

Streetcars contributed to congestion on the surface roads, which led to elevated or buried lines. Boston created the first subway line with its Tremont Street tunnel. The automobile increased congestion and streetcars, with their static right-of-way, became an increasing part of the problem. City buses were seen as more economical and flexible: a bus could carry a number of people similar to that in a streetcar without tracks and associated infrastructure. Most U.S. streetcar systems were removed by the 1950s. Cambridge, Mass., San Francisco, Calif. and Seattle, Wash. removed the tracks but kept the electric infrastructure to run electrified trackless trolley buses.

The survival of the lines that made it past the 1950s was aided by the introduction of the successful PCC streetcar (Presidents' Conference Committee car) in the 1940s and 1950s in all these cities except New Orleans.

Conspiracy

Many North American cities abandoned their streetcar systems in the mid-twentieth century, largely as a result of the popularity of the automobile and government policies favoring it. This has prompted a popular conspiracy theory which touts a that a union of automobile, oil, and tire industries shut down tram and streetcar systems in order to further the use of buses and private automobiles. The struggling Depression-era streetcar companies were bought up by this union of competitors who, over the following decades, dismantled several of the North American streetcar systems.

While it is true that General Motors, Firestone Tire, and two oil companies purchased several dozen of the hundreds of transit systems across America, their real goal was to sell their products—buses, tires, and fuel—to those companies as they converted to buses. During the time these companies owned an interest in American transit system, more than 300 cities converted from streetcars to buses. These companies owned an interest in the transit systems of less than two dozen of those cities. The claims of a conspiracy have been repeatedly debunked by scholars from the University of California, Portland State University, and elsewhere.

Surviving systems

Not all streetcars systems were removed; the San Francisco cable car systemmarker and New Orleans' streetcars are the most famous examples in the United States. San Francisco's conventional electric streetcar system also avoided abandonment, as did portions of the streetcar systems in Boston, Newarkmarker, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, together with those of Toronto in Canada and Mexico City in Mexico. The Newark, Philadelphia, and Boston systems ran into subways downtown, while the Pittsburgh and San Francisco systems had tunnels under large hills that had no acceptable road alternatives for bus replacements. The St. Charles Avenue line in New Orleans runs down the park-like "neutral ground" in the center of St. Charles Avenue. The only system without these alternatives to street-running to survive was Toronto's. All of these systems have received new equipment. Some of these cities have also rehabilitated lines, and Newark, New Orleans, and San Francisco have added trackage in recent years. In Philadelphia, a former trolley line that was "bustituted" recently resumed trolley service using rebuilt historic cars.

In Canadamarker, most cities once had a streetcar system, but today Torontomarker's TTC is the only traditional operator of streetcars, and maintains the Western Hemisphere's most extensive system in terms of track length, number of cars, and ridership. The city added two lines in recent years, and is upgrading its other lines. Expansion is planned in combination with the city's plans for the rejuvenation of its waterfront.

New systems

Some cities have built light rail systems, some of which operate partially in the right-of-way of city streets. Other new systems are genuine tramways, such as in New Orleansmarker and San Franciscomarker, although the term "streetcar" is the only name used by the residents there. The pioneering light rail system in Edmontonmarker, which used mostly European technology, does not use street running, and tunneling in the central area accounted for much of the expense of the system. It was soon followed by installations in San Diego and Calgary that used similar vehicles but which avoided the expense of tunnels by using partial street running instead.

In 2000, Kenosha, Wisconsinmarker became the first city in North America to open a modern streetcar system since the heyday of the PCC streetcar. The Kenosha system is a downtown circulator also serving government offices, the upscale HarborPark recreational/cultural/residential district, and public bus and Metra rail service.

In 2001, Portland, Oregonmarker, which already boasted a successful light rail system, MAX, opened the Portland Streetcar. This serves as a downtown circulator between the central city core, the trendy Pearl Districtmarker and Northwest Portland, Portland State Universitymarker, and a new mixed-use development along the Willamette River shoreline. Running entirely on streets, it complements the MAX light rail system, which also runs along streets in central Portland, but which covers longer distance along routes segregated from vehicular traffic.

In 2007, transit authorities in Seattle, Washingtonmarker opened the South Lake Union Streetcar, connecting the neighborhood south of Lake Unionmarker with the transit core of downtown Seattle. Residents of the area began referring to the system as the "South Lake Union Trolley" giving it the amusing but unfortunate acronym of "SLUT".

New light rail systems have since opened in many other cities, starting with the ground-breaking system in Edmontonmarker , and now including Baltimoremarker, Buffalomarker, Calgarymarker, Dallasmarker (DART), Denvermarker, Edmontonmarker, Houstonmarker, Greater Jersey Citymarker (HBLR), Los Angelesmarker, Minneapolismarker, Ottawamarker, Phoenixmarker, Portlandmarker, Sacramentomarker, San Diegomarker, St Louismarker, Salt Lake Citymarker, San Josemarker, and Vancouvermarker. Additionally, all the surviving PCC operators have replaced their PCC cars with light rail vehicles, although restored vintage PCC cars are still in regular operation on Boston's MBTA Red line Ashmont-Mattapan High Speed Line, and on San Francisco's F Market line, a line popular among tourists. This line recently underwent an expansion tothe Fisherman's Wharf area and a second line along the Embarcadero to the east is in the planning stages.

In development

The Atlanta Streetcar organization in Atlanta, Georgiamarker, is involved in developing plans for a modern streetcar to connect the downtown tourist attractions with the King Center area just east of Downtown (see also the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Sitemarker).

Vancouvermarker is building a new system around the Olympic Village connecting parts of the south central areas and will open with the 2010 Winter Olympics and will go for a one-year trial run using the route of the Vancouver Downtown Historic Railway. There have been proposals for it to loop around to Stanley Park and go around Pacific Boulevard.

In Tucson, Arizonamarker, where the Old Pueblo Trolley heritage streetcar line has been in operation since 1993, the city government is planning construction of a modern streetcar line.

The First Hill Streetcar is a proposal to build a new streetcar line in Seattle, Washington.

Recently retired

A trolley in Detroit, Michigan operated from 1976 until 2003. The Detroit trolley faced a steep decline in ridership after the Detroit People Mover system was installed and the tracks and carbarn for the former narrow gauge trolley have been removed.

The Waterfront Streetcar in Seattle, Washingtonmarker operated from 1982 until 2005 when the line's carbarn was demolished to make room for the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Heritage streetcar systems



Heritage streetcar systems are used in public transit service, combining light rail efficiency with tourist's nostalgia interests. Proponents claim that using a simple, reliable form of transit from 50 or 100 years ago can bring history to life for 21st century visitors. Systems are operating successfully in over 30 U.S. cities, and are in planning or construction stages in 40 more. Heritage systems currently operate in Charlotte, North Carolina; Little Rock, Arkansasmarker; Memphis, Tennesseemarker; Dallas, Texas; Tampa, Floridamarker; Kenosha, Wisconsinmarker; and New Orleans, Louisianamarker are among the larger.

In the province of British Columbia, Vancouver has the Vancouver Downtown Historic Railway system that will be expanded to cover the south downtown area. In Nelson, British Columbiamarker, a small town to the north of Spokane, Washingtonmarker, the Nelson Electric Tramway Society has rebuilt and runs a restored Streetcar 23 along the lakeside and Baker Street. In Whitehorse, Yukonmarker the Miles Canyon Historic Railway Society has operated the Whitehorse Waterfront Trolley along the Yukon Rivermarker since 2000.

Over 50 years after the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire opened on Broadway, the revival of streetcar operations in New Orleans is credited by many to the worldwide fame gained by the streetcars made by the Perley A. Thomas Car Works. These cars were operating on the system's Desire route in the 1947 play and later movie of the same name. Some of the original cars have been carefully restored locally and continue to operate in the 21st century.

Examples in North America include San Pedro, Little Rockmarker, Dallas, Denver, Memphismarker, Tampamarker, Seattlemarker, Charlottemarker, the new Canal Street line in New Orleans, and the reintroduction of the historic Girard Street line in Philadelphia.

Other individual heritage streetcar lines include:





Museums

Unlike a heritage system a streetcar museum may offer little or no transport service. If there are working streetcars in a museum's collection any service provided may be seasonal, not follow a schedule, offer limited stops, service only remote areas, or otherwise differ from a regularly scheduled heritage line. Some North American streetcar museums include:





See also

General articles





System lists





Specific systems

Operating





Not operating







Car builders and types

Structures

Standing





Not standing





Notes

  1. Scott Bottles, Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City (Berkeley, CA: UC Press, 1987)
  2. Christine Cosgrove, “Roger Rabbit Unframed: Revising the GM Conspiracy Theory,” ITS Review Online, 3(1), tinyurl.com/2bcg2t
  3. Martha J. Bianco, Kennedy, 60 Minutes, and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of the Decline of Urban Mass Transit, Portland State University Center for Urban Studies Discussion Paper 98-11, November, 1998
  4. Cliff Slater, “General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars,” Transportation Quarterly 51(3, Summer 1997): 45–66, tinyurl.com/yuth5m



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