You could argue that the streetcar (or "trolley" or "tram," depending on where you are as you read this) was the last form of public transportation to hit its stride before the rise of the private car took place, stealing residents away to the newly-created suburbs for good.
First introduced in the 19th century as a horse-drawn affair, later improved through the use of steam, then electric, power, the streetcar disappeared in the 1950s nearly as quickly as it appeared more than a century before. Why build fixed infrastructure like rails and wires when a city bus can go virtually anywhere?
Certain cities have retained their streetcars, of course. New Orleans and San Francisco still runs their grand old versions, and more modern examples can be seen in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. But they're not as ubiquitous as they used to be, relegated to certain neighborhoods, usually the ones they helped create.
A recent report in Progressive Railroading notes that at least 80 U.S. and Canadian cities are exploring or planning streetcar systems, in a stark reversal to the last 60 years of decline. (We covered Atlanta's moves on SmartPlanet last year; ditto Washington D.C. and Charlotte.)
That spells business opportunity for manufacturers like Siemens, Alstom and Bombardier, all of which are used to building trains, not trams, for the continent.
A quick rundown of recent goings-on, summarized from Julie Sneider's detailed report:
The question is what the impact of increased streetcar ridership will be on cities themselves. Will it help reinforce the cultural border between city and suburb, public transit and private car? A transit system is a nice start, but too many urban neighborhoods already served by such systems lack other kinds of infrastructure -- grocery stores, community centers, restaurants -- that help justify the decision to not purchase a car.
Streetcar builders see potential in North American market [Progressive Railroading]
Diagram: United Streetcar
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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com