Like many cities, Cincinnati once had a thriving streetcar system

Cincinnati was one of numerous big American cities that once heavily relied on the streetcar:

They were everywhere. For nearly a century — from the 1850s through the 1940s — streetcars were the most common way for Cincinnatians to get where they were going.

According to a report to common council in 1887, Cincinnati City Clerk Edwin Henderson said council had filed more than 70 ordinances relating to “street railroads” to date, and Henderson’s report detailed 25 routes in service at the time.

At their peak, Cincinnati’s railway companies offered commuters dozens of streetcar routes with nearly 250 miles of track.

Compared to other transportation options of the time, streetcars had numerous advantages: more consistent and producing less visible waste than horses, they were less noisy and followed street patterns compared to trains, and were faster and offered a larger range than walking. Streetcars opened up all sorts of new areas to development as residents could travel further on their daily commutes or regular trips.

Outside of the occasional attempt to revive a streetcar line, often for tourism purposes, most cities today do not contain visible evidence of the popularity of streetcars. Cincinnati is a city that is trying: a plan is in the works for a 3.6 mile loop that connects employment and residential areas. Still, across the broader city and region, cars reign supreme with their ability to go anywhere and offer drivers individual choices.

Urban streetcars may primarily serve tourists

Streetcars once ruled American cities but more recent projects in many cities may primarily be used by tourists:

Some new figures further strain the connection between streetcars and core city mobility. Florida State planning student Luis Enrique Ramos recently led a comparison of ridership factors on U.S. streetcars versus those on light rail. (The work, not yet published, was presented at a recent conference.) What he found was that streetcar ridership was unrelated to service frequency, bus connections, and job proximity — the very factors that make light rail attractive to everyday commuters.

In other words, streetcars serve a completely different population of travelers than light rail does. Which population is that? Ramos and collaborators can’t say for sure, but they have a theory: tourists. Just look at the hours of operation for the Tampa streetcar — beginning at noon on weekdays? — and ask yourself who rolls into work after lunch. (And please do let us know, because we want that job.)

None of this is to say that streetcars aren’t necessarily worth it. Commutes make up a fraction of total travel in metro areas. Trolleys can operate very effectively in dense cores by running along a dedicated track, and when they arrive frequently they can promote a lively pedestrian culture. When paired with mixed-use zoning, trolleys can also lead to significant economic development (though arguably less than other modes, like bus-rapid transit).

That leaves emerging streetcar cities with a mostly-tourist attraction they hope will generate business — an amenity that feels similar in spirit to a downtown sports stadium. Again, sometimes city taxpayers conclude that an arena is worth it, and many cities no doubt feel the same about trolleys, cost overruns notwithstanding. But residents who hope the streetcar will improve mobility should be careful to consider whether they’re paying for a ride, or getting taken for one.

Some interesting factors to consider. Tourism is often seen as a significant force in many cities as it is a way to increase tax revenues as well as improve a city’s image. Streetcars can often be viewed in nostalgic terms, something that often fits a community’s appeal to tourists. Yet, if the streetcars aren’t an integrated part of a larger transportation system that serves residents and tourists, is the money spent worth it?

When streetcar use exploded in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was a driver of sprawl: it opened up development in new areas because it could cover more territory than railroads by using roads. In other words, the streetcars were pioneers. Today, building new streetcar systems also requires modifying roads and the neighborhoods already exist. The article suggests buses may be a more appropriate modification to the existing streetscape because they are more cost-effective and might better serve residents. At this point in time, streetcars serve very different purposes and it requires work to implement them into a community.

Chicago’s once-thriving streetcar system

Like many American big cities, Chicago once had a large streetcar system:

Those cable cars were preceded by horse-drawn streetcars, which began service in 1859, and were replaced by electric-powered trolleys, beginning in 1890. By the mid-1930s, 3,742 streetcars were running on tracks laid along 529 miles of streets in a grid that provided Chicagoans a streetcar stop within a few blocks of where they lived, worked or shopped. Trolley wires extended into vast areas of the Northwest, Southeast and Southwest sides far from the nearest “L,” making it the adventurous Chicagoan’s system of choice for exploration…

For their part, aldermen and legislators knew the value of changing a “no” to a “yes” vote on a streetcar-line franchise. Each innovation in motive power brought with it safety concerns, upon which politicians could hang a price tag for overcoming their reservations.

The advantage of streetcars compared to the “L” or railroads, both of which helped make Chicago famous, was that it could cover more land and fill in the development gaps between the more infrastructure intensive types of transportation. While the streetcars were eventually replaced by cars, which could serve the same function and allow drivers more independence and privacy, streetcars helped kick off mass suburbanization in the late 1800s.

See more about Chicago streetcars here on this page about Chicago Surface Lines which operated Chicago’s streetcars until 1947. According to this, Chicago had quite the system that quickly went from peak to bust:

The continuous reorganization was finally completed by the Unification Ordinance of 1913, which stipulated that all lines would come under the management of a single operating association called the Chicago Surface Lines (CSL), and unified operations commenced in 1914. Four companies formed the CSL: the Chicago Railways Company, Chicago City Railway, Calumet and South Chicago Railway, and Southern Street Railway. At this time, Chicago had the largest street railway system, the longest one-fare ride, the longest average ride, and the most liberal transfer privileges in the world.

The 1920s saw continued growth despite the increasing competition from the automobile, and while the 1933-1934 World’s Fair and wartime demand supported ridership, the underlying companies were bankrupt. Creditors’ bills were filed against the Chicago Railways in 1926 and the Chicago City Railway and Calumet and South Chicago in 1930, resulting in the appointment of receivers and bringing their property into the custody of the Federal District Court. In 1944, the proceedings were converted to those under the Bankruptcy Act, and trustees were appointed. By 1958, the Chicago Transit Authority, which took over the Chicago Surface Lines in 1947, had abandoned the remaining trolley lines, which were “bustituted.” Before that, CSL had introduced gasoline buses for light routes in 1927,and trolley buses to the northwest side starting in 1930.

In Crabgrass Frontiers, a classic on American suburbanization, historian Kenneth Jackson gives reasons for the decline of streetcars: the automobile started taking away customers and many streetcar lines were locked into municipal contracts that didn’t allow them to raise fares even as they needed money to maintain infrastructure and compete with the automobile.