#TBT: Why Streetcars were awesome then and why they kinda suck now.

Today’s TBT is a beloved, nostalgic subject: the streetcar.

Streetcars were an effective solution to an obvious transportation problem during the industrial revolution.

I’m not going to get too in depth here, there is a ton of information out there on streetcars. The argument has been continuing for and against ever since they were pulled off the streets.

A lot of major cities lost streetcars to the Streetcar Conspiracy, but others quickly followed as the age of the automobile was ushered in.

If you want a really easy to read article that lays it out pretty simply, I recommend this article from Vox News. I found out the author actually used to come shopping in Mankato as a kid when I tweeted her about this article.

This article is just my two cents on the whole streetcar thing, so if you hate me or my opinions (I know some of you do) turn back now.

I’m going to link to very few articles because you can find so many for and against. Again, these are just my thoughts.

Streetcars were a perfect solution to, at the time, overly-dense population in a lot of cities. Before suburbia and affordable single family housing, a lot of people were living in the core of the city. What does that mean? It means all the goods had to go straight into the downtown. What was the best way to get them there? Horses. And what do horses make? Horsecrap. In my humble opinion, this was a major factor in the rise of the streetcar. Even though a lot of early streetcars were powered by horses, they still effectively reduced the number of horses on the roads and the amount of poo in the street (imagine walking in and past that all day). I heard this was a major selling point of the original automobile. They convinced people that there was no tangible pollution, unlike horses, so it would make the city cleaner.

We look back at the pictures of downtowns in the 1900s and can see that there were little to no traffic laws or self-order. A street was simply a thing that got you through the buildings. In a lot of aspects, it was pretty cool because a street was a public asset. It was able to be used by anyone, cars, horses, streetcars, pedestrians, bikes, you name it–actually I may have just named them all. The streetcar provided some order. It stopped at one place and went to another, though it was slow, it was direct and easy.

So, again, as I’m writing this my brain is just swirling with ideas on where I can take this article. I think it’s best just to ignore them and think about keeping it really simple.

Lets try and boil it down:

Streetcars in the past were way more effective than they are today for innumerable reasons. But most importantly, it was a lack of car ownership. Streetcars were the first enablers of suburbs (burbs back then > burbs today) people counted on them to get to and from work. Streetcars were also way cheaper than they are today, so the risk/return was a lot lower. Look at the Milwaukee streetcar project…

Which brings me to my next point. Streetcars today have become a political bludgeoning tool used mainly by the Democrats to showoff their “progressiveness.” Likewise on the Republican side they have become the one thing they’ll stand against come hell or high water. Modern streetcars are nice, slick and fun to ride, but they’re most likely not going to recoup their massive investment.

However, this is what I will say in favor of them. They are permanent investment zones and they work as such. People do invest around streetcars which makes them inherently more valuable, they’re also an okay investment for a future with a lot less driving.  Finally, streetcars, whether you think they’re worth the money or not, are cool and you can’t measure cool in dollars, but there is an economic return to having something flashy like a streetcar.

Here’s the end:
They’re really expensive, probably underutilized, and not that efficient at transporting people. Like any infrastructure, be wary if someone wants to buy you a streetcar only to have you upkeep it for the rest of it’s life.

Who knows, maybe in the future the cities that got them will be glad they did and we’ll all be sorry we didn’t.


Here’s my whimsical starter route for a Mankato streetcar.


As always, image courtesy of MN Digital Library.


About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.