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Are streetcars the answer to our transit and environmental needs?

Cities could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent or more by linking streetcars and higher-density land use.
Cities could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent or more by linking streetcars and higher-density land use.

Patrick Condon wants to turn back the clock to the streetcar era.

Condon, an urban planner and professor at the University of British Columbia, says bringing back the streetcar is the best thing cities can do to reduce their emission of greenhouse gases and become more sustainable.

Speaking last week at the University of Minnesota, Condon said most North American cities developed out of the agricultural grid system, in which the land was divided into one-mile-square parcels. Streetcars could easily be added back into cities that developed on a grid pattern and many suburbs could be retrofitted to include them, he said.

Congdon said he came to be a “train nut” late in life, and does not readily identify the older guys “in bib overalls hovering over their train layouts in the basement.”

But he argued that cities could reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent or more by linking streetcars and higher-density land use. Making communities walkable and bikeable also could help.

One major challenge would be getting public buy-in, Condon said. Half of the public “doesn’t believe climate change is a problem.”

There is, however, a certain amount of nostalgia for streetcars. Many baby boomers and their parents recall the days when it was possible to hop on a trolley and get to just about anywhere in the Twin Cities area.

900 streetcars
Up until the early 1950s, the Twin Cities had 900 streetcars and more than 500 miles of track that extended from Lake Minnetonka to Stillwater. On University Avenue, there were more than 60 cars operating during peak periods.

Annual ridership hit a peak of 238 million in 1920. It began to drop as automobiles became affordable and plummeted after World War II, when GIs returned home, formed families and sought that prized home in the suburbs. (By comparison, transit ridership last year was 91 million.)

The streetcar system came to an unfortunate end in 1954, when the last trolleys were pulled from the streets and replaced with buses financed by General Motors. In the conversion process, the transit system was defrauded by company executives and mobsters, several of whom went to jail.

The last run of the streetcars in Minneapolis on June 19,1954.
Hennepin County Library
The last run of the streetcars in Minneapolis on June 19,1954.

The history of the system is recounted in a richly illustrated book, “Twin Cities by Trolley,” by John W. Diers and Aaron Isaacs. The Minnesota Streetcar Museum also provides a brief history of the system.

Condon said there are solid environment and economic reasons for bringing back the trolley. A modern low-floor tram [PDF] manufactured by Siemens has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile of all transportation options.

Streetcars also are more affordable, with a capital cost of $20 million to $40 million per mile compared with $60 million to $100 million a mile for light rail transit.

Key density goal
The key, Condon said, is to achieve sufficient density — 10 to 40 residential units per acre — to support the investment. “You could marry transit to land use in a way where you don’t have to subsidize it at all,” he says. However, he acknowledged that achieving that density goal “is going to be very hard.”

In the Twin Cities, the typical urban neighborhood might have a density of seven to 10 units per acre, while the density in developing suburbs is more in the range of two to four units per acre. The Metropolitan Council requires a minimum of three units per acre in areas where communities want regional sewer service.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have expressed interest in streetcars, and Minneapolis landed a $900,000 federal grant to explore the idea. The city has embarked on a study of a possible nine-mile line along Nicollet and Central Avenues from 46th Street in south Minneapolis to a transit station just outside of Columbia Heights.

St. Paul failed to win a $200,000 grant to conduct a study of its own, but Joe Campbell, a spokesman for Mayor Chris Coleman, says the city is “pursuing other options” to fund the effort.

Metro Transit, meanwhile, is studying another option — a form of bus rapid transit (BRT) — in 11 urban corridors in the two cities. It is would include such features as distinctive vehicles with traffic signal priority, heated bus shelters, off-vehicle fare collection, real-time travel information, more frequent service and faster trips.

The capital cost for urban BRT would be about $2 million to $5 million per mile, according to Metro Transit planners.

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/12/2011 - 10:06 am.

    Good grief. In addition to the street cars, I remember how the rag man would go up and down the alleys in his horse-drawn wagon too. Maybe we should consider returning to that as well.

  2. Submitted by Dan Sagisser on 12/12/2011 - 10:57 am.

    This is interesting, and I’d love better public transit, but why street cars in comparison to electric busses that use overhead wires, like what you see in San Francisco. It seems like that would be way cheaper, and achieve the same environmental benefits.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/12/2011 - 11:38 am.

    If you’ve been to cities that have, or preserved their street car systems, this is a no brainer. They are cleaner, quieter, cheaper, and much more easy to navigate. We don’t need the 500 miles we used to have, but we could certainly get something going here. The problem the US created back in the 60s was we designed a system to get cars around instead of people, and we’re paying for it now.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/12/2011 - 11:55 am.

    If neither idea pans out, I’d like to see a rerouting and rescheduling of existing bus lines so that they actually go where people want to go when they want to go there. More frequent service (REAL frequent service) would be a start.

    But streetcars are great. In the past 8 years, Portland extended its initial line so that it’s now about double its original length and runs into a newly developed area along the Willamette River.

  5. Submitted by David Greene on 12/12/2011 - 11:59 am.


    There are at least a few reasons to favor streetcars over buses.

    First, streetcars have a greater capacity. We aren’t talking about early 20th century modules. These are articulated vehicles. They may be close to a metro transit articulated bus, I don’t know for sure.

    Before anyone asks, LRT has far greater capacity than even streetcars, which is why we’re building LRT on University instead of streetcars.

    Second, there is an established body of evidence that shows people prefer rail over buses, for whatever reason. Personally, I attribute this to a deliberate campaign by GM (and probably others) in the ’70’s to disparage bus riders. But whatever the reason, we know that rail attracts more riders.

    Third, economic development happens around rail. The same is not true of buses. I believe this has to do with the fixed guideway and the higher ridership. People can see where the rails go and know it will be there for decades. Now, the same may be true of the overhead wires for electric buses. I’ve never heard of studies that compare electric buses to rail. It would be interesting to read such a study.

    Personally, I think electric buses would be a great addition to the system, especially hybrid vehicles that can run on electricity in dense areas and on diesel in less dense areas. They simply connect and disconnect from the electric system at the boundaries. But I still think that for high-capacity, high development potential corridors like Nicollet/Central you really want streetcars.

  6. Submitted by Virginia Martin on 12/12/2011 - 12:07 pm.

    Dan, it appears that those options will be studied too. Getting rid of the streetcars was one of the TC’s worst ideas, and of course, fueled by GM and organized crime.
    I would love to see us return to the days when people could ride from Minnetonka to Stillwater. I don’t remember that, but I do remember streetcars. They could complement our other public transportation like light rail.

    And just what purpose would bringing back rag men serve? Are we missing something essential that these could provide?

  7. Submitted by Ray Schmitz on 12/12/2011 - 12:16 pm.

    This is still old technology and entirely too inflexible for todays life style. Look at the Google self drive cars and think of a fleet of reservable 4 to 6 passenger vehicles that ran on electronic tracks in the road and avoided obstacles automatically. That way if there were a twins game on the same day and time as other events the fleet could expand and contract to meet the needs, plus call from your phone a block from the stop and a vehicle is there when you arrive, pay by card and off you go. Plus it allows door to door service.
    Power them by wind and solar electricity, which also uses that capacity when it is available, they are clean.
    Traffic, give them priority when necessary in their own lanes, after all the street cars ran on tracks in the street and are are subject to lights and other traffic problems.

  8. Submitted by Susanna Patterson on 12/12/2011 - 12:20 pm.


  9. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/12/2011 - 12:36 pm.

    Both ideas do sound good. I agree with Karen (#3), though, that if neither works out, the State should repudiate Pawlenty’s annual funding cuts and resulting cuts in service and increases in fares of the last decade. The poor, seniors (except on busy routes) and low-wage workers have taken the brunt of the hardship these cuts caused. Full funding should mean the restoration of former service levels, not just the maintenance of current levels.

    When bus service is convenient and inexpensive, many people will choose it over using their cars, especially to avoid the congestion and expensive parking ramps in either downtown.

  10. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/12/2011 - 02:45 pm.

    “And just what purpose would bringing back rag men serve? Are we missing something essential that these could provide?”

    Thanks for making the connection, Ginny.

  11. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/12/2011 - 03:32 pm.

    I remember riding streetcars in St. Louis as a lad, but I’m inclined to agree with Ray Schmitz: Streetcars represent old technology, and while that technology may not be “entirely too inflexible for todays life style,” it’s still pretty inflexible. I’m ambivalent about the development potential of fixed tracks versus the flexibility of buses or other modes. Maybe I’d have stronger opinions if I were a developer, but I’m not.

    Bus Rapid Transit leaves us still addicted to oil, though in ( I hope) smaller amounts. Genuine hybrid buses, that could run on either overhead catenary or diesel (or other fuel) engine would certainly be useful in the short term, but “short term” might well mean decades, so they’d be worth exploring further.

    The major problems with Ray Schmitz’s solution, I think, are fairly straightforward: cost and time. Scaling up from isolated “smart” vehicles to hundreds of thousands or millions of them will be a truly huge undertaking, will cost untold millions of dollars, and might well take a decade at the most optimistic end. Building “smart” roads all over the metro area, regardless of cost, still leaves unanswered the question of how this gets translated to the places that produce our food. How will rural areas deal with a transition to “smart” roads and “smart” cars? Who pays for those vehicles? those rural roads with traffic counts in the dozens, maybe a few hundred, vehicles per day traveling them?

    Having both owned my own vehicle and ridden public transit, I’m also not sure that a “fleet” of vehicles that I assume have the status of taxicabs, that is, the user doesn’t own the vehicle, will work very well after a century of our being conditioned to the idea of “owning” our means of transportation. Mentally and emotionally, the culture might well have a hard time adapting to the notion that our transportation is owned by someone/something else.

    As it stands, I’m not at all impressed with Metro Transit as a bus service, and am inclined to agree with Karen Sandness’ first paragraph. My experience with buses is that they don’t go where I want to go without multiple transfers. I’ve taken the North Star line downtown to a Twins game, and I will continue to do that, but for other trips downtown, until I can get from my neighborhood to where I want to go without having to transfer, I’m more likely to drive.

  12. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 12/12/2011 - 04:31 pm.


    The condo building I live in is between St. Clair Avenue and Jefferson. A neighbor who moved in when the building was new (1978/79) said seven routes went right by. Today, the Randolph bus loops around to Jefferson and our building several times a day, but not in the evening and not on Sundays.

    For those of us who are able and would rather leave our cars at home, the walk over to Randolph is about five blocks; the walk to St. Clair only two but it no longer runs on weekends; the one to Grand Avenue 10 blocks. People who need to use walkers can use only the buses that loop around from Randolph because they can’t walk that far.

    The Pawlenty cuts mean that many of our residents need to arrange for rides with family, friends or senior ride services instead of being able to get onto buses that run frequently and – as you note -take you where you want to go.

  13. Submitted by Nathaniel Hood on 12/12/2011 - 04:33 pm.

    I support the decision to further study street car transit in Minneapolis and would eventually enjoy seeing an enhanced public transit system connecting Nicollet & Central / Hennepin Avenues. However – I can’t help put think that we’ve (as in locally and the Federal Gov’t) spent a tremendous amount of money on studies and not a lot of money on doing.

    Now, this may be a good start into investment time and money into the effort, but will most likely turn out to be yet another expensive feasibility study on a streetcar line that will never appear in the next two decades. The Greenway Streetcar line has been conducting studies since the late 1990s; and in the mid-2000s received something like a $300,000 grant. All of which has amounted to not much.

    Transportation projects are expensive, but they have to go up against a wall of impact and environmental studies, etc. – of which, many (and most) road projects get a pass on. The playing field isn’t level. That isn’t to say we shouldn’t look diligently into how this should work, but at the end of the day – these decisions are primarily political. Studies appear to be ways to justify these political aspirations.

    Now, that being said, I do support the line. $900,000 would better be spent on initially planning stages as opposed to another feasiblity study.

  14. Submitted by John DeWitt on 12/12/2011 - 08:36 pm.

    About 10 years ago I had a chance to meet with Andy Cotugno, then head of transportation planning for Portland’s Metro. He explained that “If all you want to do is move people from point A to point B, a bus is fine. But if you care about what happens along a corridor, you have to invest in rail.”

    Midtown Greenway update: In 1999-2000, the Midtown Greenway Coalition funded a feasibility study by Jim Graebner. That was in response to Met Council plans to build a busway in the Greenway. The corridor was also analyzed as one of the corridors in Minneapolis’ Streetcar Feasibility Study and one of the draft versions, but not the final version, noted that it might well be the first corridor built.

    The Met Council has been awarded $600,000 by the FTA for an Alternatives Analysis on the Lake Street/Midtown Greenway corridor. The Met Council will fund the 20% local match required. That analysis will include BRT on Lake Street as well as a busway and a streetcar in the Greenway itself. The proposal to build a busway in the Greenway was soundly rejected in 1999/2000.

  15. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 12/13/2011 - 09:15 am.

    I hate to point this out Ray and Ray, but the system you describe, smart transport, doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. Street cars and light rail do. You know, cars aren’t exactly “new” technology either. The thing about technology is that “new” isn’t always better, it’s about appropriate technology, not new technology.

    By the way, metro transit examines and changes the bus routes all the time, THAT was supposed to be the big advantage of buses over street cars and light rail. Obviously it hasn’t worked out to be the big advantage it was advertised to be. The problem is that efficient transport systems require planning, sprawling development makes efficiency nearly impossible. The problems that Bernice and others complain about are actually caused the fact that bus routes are changeable. Developers don’t think about transportation because in theory, they don’t have to, the routes can be changed. So they change, but you can’t please everyone because change towards means a change away, and so it goes.

  16. Submitted by Daniel Olson on 12/13/2011 - 12:09 pm.

    Jarret Walker, the transit planner behind the blog, pretty much destroyed Professor Congdon’s arguments starting with this post:

  17. Submitted by Alan Burden on 12/14/2011 - 08:19 pm.

    Dan Sagisser says: “This is interesting, and I’d love better public transit, but why street cars in comparison to electric busses that use overhead wires, like what you see in San Francisco. It seems like that would be way cheaper, and achieve the same environmental benefits.”


    According to data from the National Transit Database in 2010, San Francisco’s trolley buses cost $1.50 per passenger mile to operate. San Francisco’s Light rail costs $1.29 to operate. And the light rail number is particularly high due to the F line on the Embarcadero that uses restored vintage trolleys to provide service. Trolleys that cost more to operate & maintain.

    The National average for light rail is 70 cents per passenger mile. On the other hand, the National average for trolley buses is $1.50 so they’re right on target there.

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