Streetcars to return to Washington D.C. in 2013

I’m a big advocate of streetcars, and I think an investment in an integrated network over the coming decades could fuel Savannah’s economy and culture for decades to come.

The Washington Post has a great piece today — primarily a nostalgic one — about the streetcars of yore and the plans to open a new line in 2013: Streetcars to return soon to the District

The piece touches upon some history that has largely been forgotten. General Motors and other companies with a vested interest in making the country more dependent on automobiles played a key role in the demise of the nation’s streetcars:

Beginning in 1936, National City Lines operated as a holding company that bought transit systems “where streetcars were no longer practicable” and converted them into bus lines. National City grew and absorbed similarly minded companies. By 1950 it had converted systems in 45 cities, including Baltimore, Newark, New York, and Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland, Calif.

The investors in National City included Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, General Motors and Mack Trucks.

When gasoline suddenly became scarce and expensive during the 1973 oil crisis, a U.S. Senate committee looked into the demise of the streetcar system and heard testimony of a GM-led conspiracy.

D.C.’s plans:

The District has laid out a plan for 37 miles of streetcar lines across the city, a $100 million commitment. Tracks were installed on H Street during a recent overhaul, and the first trolley cars are to run down them in the summer of 2013.

I’m a bit puzzled by how the District is going to get so many miles for that little money — that’s considerably cheaper than estimates I’ve seen.

But just imagine how Savannah and other cities would be transformed if we had the streetcar networks that we used to have. The St. Charles Avenue line in New Orleans can be seen in this pic — what a great example of the various opportunities that lines create. Streetcars take different roles in the streetscape in different cities, but in New Orleans this line is a linear park. It becomes the buffer of a divided road that helps eliminate the need for traffic lights. The relatively heavy use eliminates the need for more than two travel lanes for cars. The line is a tangible connection between the past and the present — that’s the type of connection that residents and visitors feel viscerally even if they’re not thinking about it.