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Streetcars belong safely tucked into our most cherished memories

Hennepin Avenue, streetcars lined up by Plaza Hotel, Minneapolis.

As a kid growing up in the late 1940s, I watched streetcars roar by my grandparents’ house on West Minnehaha in St. Paul. At 5, I wanted to be a streetcar motorman and begged my grandparents to take me streetcar riding. Over many Saturdays we covered every line in the system from Hopkins to Mahtomedi, and even managed to persuade a company official to give us a tour of the Snelling shops.

I have wonderful memories of that era, and if there were a time machine I’d dial up 1948 and go back for one more ride. Today, there are proposals in both Minneapolis and St. Paul to build that time machine and return streetcars to our streets. I wish I could dream that dream, but memories are where the streetcars belong.

Here’s why:

In 1920, 238 million people rode streetcars. Twenty years later, just 104 million came aboard, and, with the exception of a brief recovery during the gas rationing days of World War II, riders never came back. The Twin City Rapid Transit Company tried to woo them with 141 new streetcars after World War II, but a suburban building boom was getting underway, and ridership kept right on tumbling. The company lost almost $1 million in 1949 and was headed for bankruptcy. Banks were unwilling to loan money. There were no public subsidies, and there was no interest in forming a public transit commission. Worse, the Minnesota Railroad and Warehouse Commission resisted the company’s requests for fare increases to cover increased operating expense.

It cost 20 cents per mile in 1947-48 to operate buses, 28 cents per mile for streetcars. The cost difference can be attributed to the hundreds of additional employees in the shops, track and power departments and a huge capital investment in a physical plant that was slowly wearing out. Most streetcars were 50 years old and, although exceptionally well maintained, were coming due for replacement. Complicating matters, the company was running out of cash just to keep the system going, much less extend its tracks to new markets in the suburbs.

The alternative was to convert to buses and on June 19, 1954, the last streetcar pulled into East Side Station ending decades of streetcar service in the Twin Cities. The conversion was tainted by skullduggery on the part of company officials, who stole more than $1 million in a series of kickback schemes involving scrap metal and real estate sales. The culprits went to prison and the system struggled on until the Metropolitan Transit Commission took over transit operations in September 1970.

There’s a popular urban myth that General Motors was responsible for all this and conspired with oil and tire companies to do away with streetcars.  If it did, then blame anyone who bought a Chevrolet between 1920 and 1950. They’re all unindicted co-conspirators. Call it creative destruction, or progress; the fact is that the automobile was simply a more convenient way to move around the Twin Cities. That hasn’t changed and won’t change in the foreseeable future.

The sad facts

The numbers tell it all. In 1920 there were almost 70,000 licensed automobiles in Minneapolis and St. Paul By 1940 there were 250,000. Today there are almost 6 million in the entire state and despite an increase in the local population from a half million in 1903 to almost 3 million, today, Metro Transit is carrying only as many passengers as Twin City Rapid Transit did in 1903. And, barring a catastrophic increase in energy costs, or a profound change in lifestyles, or public policy, there is very little chance that these numbers, or the economic behavior they represent, will change, drastically, anytime soon.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invest in transit improvements and provide alternatives to the automobile. However, we have to make smart choices. One was the Hiawatha Line. It opened in 2004 and broke all ridership projections. This June the Central Corridor line will begin service between Minneapolis and St. Paul

As for streetcars, the sad fact is that nothing has changed since 1954. They cost more to operate. Their infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain, and they come with serious operational issues. You can’t detour streetcars around an accident or a street blockade. A mechanical breakdown can tie up an entire line.

I recall one such incident I witnessed in downtown St. Paul. A streetcar managed to derail going through a switch at Fifth and Wabasha. By the time the mishap was cleared some 40 streetcars were queued up all the way to the State Capitol. My grandparents and I were two hours late getting home. The story was front-page news. In March of 1952 we were caught in a snowstorm in downtown Minneapolis with similar results. 

I’m reminded that Portland is often cited as a streetcar success story, but Portland doesn’t have to contend with snowstorms and subzero temperatures.

Money better spent

It’s claimed that streetcars will attract more riders, but there is no evidence they do. Arguably, there is permanence to a streetcar line and that may be a factor in new development, but the question becomes, are we trying to encourage and indirectly subsidize developers or deal with transportation issues?

Minneapolis proposes to spend $200 million on a streetcar line on Nicollet Avenue. I loved the streetcars and regret that I’m being critical of them now, but with transportation dollars scarce, they’re a dubious use of resources, especially when that $200 million is a downpayment on years of increased operating expense and questionable reliability. Better to put the money to work improving bus service, or building a light rail line along the Midtown Greenway corridor.

John Diers is the author of “Twin Cities by Trolley: The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul” and “St. Paul Union Depot,” both published by the University of Minnesota Press. 

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Peter Roethke on 02/13/2014 - 06:04 am.

    Is there an argument here?

    In an nutshell, this article says “Everyone drives now, streetcars are expensive, and there was a bad accident back in 1952 that could be repeated nowadays because something could block the tracks”.

    There is no mention of the value capture funding concept, no admission that modern streetcars bear scant resemblance to their predecessors 60 years ago, and – aside from a casual dismissal of the rail bias phenomenon – no attempt to refute the counterarguments in favor of streetcars.

    Streetcars are not an antiquated novelty or tourist toy. They are a modern transportation mode intended to fuse dense, walkable nodes together over distances that are rather short but are nonetheless too long to practicably walk.

    The elegaic tone struck by this article is misplaced; it isn’t streetcars that we should be consigning to history, but instead the suburban view articulated here that auto transportation is the norm and that everyone else can take the bus.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 02/13/2014 - 09:25 am.

      Well said, Peter

      And you didn’t even include the author’s casual dismissal of future fuel and infrastructure costs.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/13/2014 - 09:09 am.

    There’s something to be said

    about people who prefer, no demand, transportation systems that run on fixed, permanent tracks that go only when and where the planners want you to go.

    The very idea of citizens in individual vehicles that have no pre-determined route, who go wherever they want, whenever they want, must give them nightmares of their loss of control.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/13/2014 - 01:43 pm.

      Not really, Dennis…

      that would entail the belief that every idea expanding the choices available for mass transit, in order to deal with an increasingly crowded world and more expensive finite resources, equates to tyranny. I don’t see where streetcars signal the end of individual vehicles.

      • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/13/2014 - 03:16 pm.

        It seems to me

        that solutions when dealing with finite resources would not include a system of tracked vehicles on fixed routes, eliminating the flexibility to manage those resources to meet changing needs and traffic patterns. That would be the LAST option a clear-thinking planner would recommend.

        • Submitted by jason myron on 02/13/2014 - 03:59 pm.

          Fortunately

          those planners understand the term “central corridors”…a situation that has worked well in other cities.

  3. Submitted by Chris Williams on 02/13/2014 - 09:13 am.

    False Comparisions

    I think it’s sort of dishonest to use a public ridership comparison from 1903 when even the Model T automobile didn’t come out until 1908. OF COURSE public transit before the first “everyman’s auto” will have higher numbers! That’s just cherry picking the data right there, and intellectually dishonest. Can just anybody write for Minnpost now?

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/13/2014 - 03:44 pm.

      Can just anybody write for Minnpost now?

      Well – considering that this article appeared in “Community Voices”, I believe the answer basically is “Yes”.

      Of course, that’s why I always check the author bio (if one is provided) and the MinnPost section of the article I’m reading. And why I love the comments section – poorly-supported positions don’t get much traction here, and I often learn as much or more from the comments section as I did from the article itself.

  4. Submitted by Alex Bauman on 02/13/2014 - 10:33 am.

    There is a big hole in this otherwise interesting historically-informed argument. It’s true that streetcars cost more to operate than buses, both in the 1950s and today. But streetcars can also accommodate more passengers than buses, leading to a lower cost per passenger on higher-volume routes. This is why it was the right decision in the 1950s to replace the Glenwood streetcar with a bus, but the wrong decision to replace the University streetcar with a bus (as is obvious by the current project to replace the long-suffering bus with light-rail, which is a type of super streetcar).

    Frankly, it’s a straw man to argue against a reconstruction of the TCRT system. No one is proposing to do that. Instead it’s proposed to replace some of the highest-performing bus routes with higher-capacity transit, or to add an economic-development vehicle to some areas. Please speak to the issue at hand.

    There are also some problems with your attempt at quantitative argument. Frankly the degree of motorization in a society has nothing to do with modal split. Japan has more cars per capita today than the US had in the 1980s, yet far more Japanese travel occurs on public transit than in Reagan’s America.

    Finally, it’s an easily-disprovable value statement that the automobile is a convenient way to get around the Twin Cities. In some cases that is true, but in many cases it isn’t. That’s why over 300,000 trips a day occur here on transit, some 50,000 of which are at least partially suburban. There’s every reason to think that an improved transit system can be even more convenient in comparison to the automobile. Just because you think cars are more convenient for every trip doesn’t mean that everyone else does.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/13/2014 - 12:18 pm.

      Cars Cars Cars

      Cars are a great way to travel if that’s your thing. But as Alex pointed out, they’re not for everyone. Here are just a few people who find it hard to get around with a car-centric system.

      -The young
      -The old
      -Infirm
      -The poor
      -People visiting our cities
      -People who choose not to have the expense of an automobile

      Think of a traveler from out of country who doesn’t know the rules of our roads, doesn’t know the highway layout, and already has enough of a headache navigating in a foreign country. Give them the option to get around without going to Hertz to get a rental and fight through rush hour traffic.

      Having reliable public transportation not only helps spur development near rails, but it gives people a readily identifiable route that buses just don’t convey. Buses are nice in their place–I ride them daily in the winter–but they’re just one piece of the overall transportation puzzle. We also need cars, bikes, walking, trains, planes, and ships. And streetcars.

  5. Submitted by Pat Borzi on 02/13/2014 - 10:57 am.

    Actually, quite a lot….

    …has changed since 1954. Traffic is a lot worse. The population is more spread out. Parking is getting scarcer downtown as more condos and developments replace surface lots. Gas is a ton more expensive. And more people care about the environment. All that makes discussion of streetcars (and more light rail, for that matter) viable. The Hiawatha Line ridership numbers suggest a market here for alternatives to cars and buses.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/13/2014 - 11:13 am.

    Street cars vs. busses

    I don’t the claim that buses are cheaper than street cars withstands scrutiny today. The price of gas for instance is dramatically higher in real dollars now than it was in the 1940s, and the street cars themselves are more efficient.

    Furthermore, no one is talking about rebuilding 500 miles of street care lines so the comparisons regarding line maintenance then and now are over-rated. The claim that street cars attract more passengers is likewise a very credible claim. Even here in MPLS the Hiawatha light rail attracts more passengers than any other route in the metro transit system.

    Take a look at this little website: http://beyonddc.com/?p=1733

  7. Submitted by John Reinan on 02/13/2014 - 11:40 am.

    Well-reasoned piece, but….

    Here’s one line that caught my eye:

    “Are we trying to encourage and indirectly subsidize developers or deal with transportation issues?”

    You must realize that for decades, we’ve been directly and indirectly subsidizing developers with roads,sewers and other utilities, tax breaks (the home mortgage deduction) and a myriad of other financial inducements.

    Any possible streetcar subsidy pales beside the trillions in subsidies we’ve already given for other forms of development and transportation.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/13/2014 - 12:25 pm.

      Subsidies

      I would ask the author why this is an either/or proposition. Why not both? Yes, we are encouraging more dense development. And yes, we are also dealing with transportation issues. This is not a binary problem we’re solving, but rather a solution that will help on several fronts. The dense development that springs up along rail lines brings in more people, which encourages more shops to service those people, which creates a positive feedback loop. And that helps to bump up the street car’s ridership numbers, making it more viable.

      As Mr. Reinan correctly pointed out, we’ve subsidized the car culture for many decades with roads and utilities, many of which are now aging and need repairs. Let’s not pretend that cars are some cheap mode of transportation that conforms to everyone’s needs and pocketbooks.

  8. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/13/2014 - 12:31 pm.

    Figures

    Maybe I missed it in the article, but I caught street car figures from the 1950s in the article, but not comparable figures for today’s street car systems. That to me seems like a glaring hole in an otherwise well researched article. Are costs today the same, higher, or lower than they were 60 years ago? Why are those figures missing? I imagine that the systems we have in place today are more efficient than they were in 1950 or 1903.

    Personally, I see the $200 million spent on the initial line as a bargain compared to some of the road expenditures we have. What is the Stillwater bridge costing us? $750+ million? And that’s just a single bridge, not an entire road.

    No one’s suggesting we go hog wild and rebuild the entire street car system, but let’s have a little equity here between cars and mass transportation.

  9. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/13/2014 - 12:34 pm.

    Generating Plant

    Just as an ironic side note, my office has a view of the old street car electrical generating plant on the Mississippi. This plant provided the electricity for the street cars back the early 20th century. Built in 1903, it currently provides steam for the U of M buildings and was remodeled about eight years ago. It’s a pretty spiffy piece of architecture!

  10. Submitted by William Lindeke on 02/13/2014 - 12:52 pm.

    People like riding them for valid reasons

    Streetcars are expensive, yes. But they’re also quiet, comfortable, intuitive, energy efficient, and easy to get on and off. That’s why people like them so much.

    You can argue that people shouldn’t like streetcars if you want. But it’s irrelevant, because in places where they’re well designed (i.e. not Tampa), people like them a lot.

  11. Submitted by James Hamilton on 02/13/2014 - 01:43 pm.

    You seem to have

    started a fire, John.

    From my bungalow in St. Paul, I can only comment on the current effort here. From what I’ve read of the St. Paul concept, it’s a nonstarter. We have a population of roughly 290,000 people, with a density of about 5,500 per square mile. That’s about the same as 1940 and down about 20,000 from 1950 through 1970. We couldn’t make streetcars a go then, with what was no doubt a greater need for public transportation. We had factories downtown at the time, factories which employed thousands who lived in St. Paul neighborhoods. Where do St. Paul workers live now? Those I know tend to be from the suburbs.

    7 corridors were reviewed initially, one per ward. (Coincidental or political? I leave it to the reader.) The preferred line at this point is along 7th St. from Arcade on the east to Randolph on the west. If you look at a map, you’ll see that this line would run through only a small portion of the residential neighborhoods of St. Paul, from Arcade to Mounds Blvd and from 7 Corners to Randolph.

    Here’s a link:

    https://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&ll=44.935276,-93.099861&spn=0.053833,0.111065&t=h&z=14

    The areas north and south of the line between 7 Corners and Randolph are bounded by I35E on the north and the river on the south. Access from the north is limited to the few arteries which cross I35E: Randolph, St. Clair and Grand.

    Where are the riders that are expected to use this line? Are they expected to take a bus to the streetcar and then transfer? Where exactly is it that people are expected to be going on this line, downtown? If they don’t already work there, I can’t imagine why they would except for the rare visit to the Science Museum or Excel. There’s no reason to go there to shop. You can’t see a movie. So, what’s the draw?

    Some say it will spur housing development. Where? It seems to me that many of the high density housing proposals for the West End have run into little but opposition as existing residents demand suburban amentities (ball fields, parks, etc.)

    Count me unpersuaded on the merits of streetcars, for this corridor, at least. And if you want to convince me that modern streetcars can work in our climate, please point me to an example.

    • Submitted by Peter Roethke on 02/13/2014 - 04:10 pm.

      Examples

      The capital of Finland, Helsinki, has a substantial streetcar system. The climate of Helsinki is broadly similar to that of the Twin Cities. The streetcar system works very well.

  12. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/13/2014 - 06:35 pm.

    Ask yourself this question …

    Why do you drive ?
    Then read this quick and easy to understand presentation by local writer/graphic storyteller Andy Singer.
    http://www.amazon.com/Why-We-Drive-Present-Automobiles/dp/1621064867

  13. Submitted by C S on 02/13/2014 - 11:01 pm.

    rail is inflexible

    Rail is inherently inflexible, when there is a breakdown, accident, or a medical emergency everyone gets held up until the blockage has been cleared.

    I think if we put the same effort into partitioned bus lanes (for less money than light rail) we would have a cheaper, more reliable (because of its flexibility) and faster system. Emergency vehicles could be allowed to use the bus lanes also, bypassing traffic and clearing traffic accidents earlier.

    What happens now when lightrail or northstar or amtrack can’t run? They put the people on buses.
    What happens now when most of the people taking the train, do not live within a mile of it? They hop on a bus to get to the train.

    Buses are great when there are enough of them and when they have enough room (rather than crammed into street not designed for them) They are quicker loading than they used to be when more people use go cards (beep!) rather than digging around and feeding in coins and bills. For a lot of stops they don’t even stop unless someone requests a stop or is waiting to board at that stop. They are poised to get more efficient as digital communications and monitoring are used to add more buses when needed at busy times.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/14/2014 - 07:40 am.

      Flexibility

      Buses are certainly flexible, but that is not the only factor in play here. Please read some of the many excellent comments above for more data.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/18/2014 - 10:28 am.

    Public subsidies

    The historical fact that Mr. Diers actually overlooks is the decision to not subsidize the street cars back in the 50s. While we probably didn’t need 500 miles of street cars we made a decision to scrap the entire project ostensibly because it couldn’t turn a profit. I would point out that the busses that replaced the street cars also eventually failed to turn a profit, to this day they’re subsidized.

    Many cities all over the world retained street car service very successfully but only acknowledging the fact that transportation doesn’t turn a profit unless you’re selling airplane tickets. It wasn’t the lack of profits or the costs that killed our street car line, it was the decision to keep them in private hands and expect them to be profitable that killed them. Had we converted the lines into public transport and subsidized them they would have worked just fine. We would have ended up with a smaller and more efficient multi mode public transport system.

  15. Submitted by John Mark Lucas on 02/20/2014 - 11:42 am.

    It takes all modes

    From the title, I started reading this article with a contrary opinion but half way down, I was reminded of a thought I had earlier about London’s current effort to test electric buses in actual service. Dublin was also very successful in increasing bus ridership with their Quality Bus Corridors. Yes perhaps, technology has moved on and with electric buses a reality, the electric streetcars should be relegated to the past.

    I wish it was that simple though and that we did not have the transit bias here regarding buses. But the reality is that it took more than the number 16, 50 and other bus routes running along University Avenue to revitalize this corridor. It’s early days I know, but you do not have to look hard to see the $1.7B worth of building works that have started since LRT construction began. I know there are other contributing factors but clearly the permanency of the LRT investment (note Fed paid half of the $957M cost) was the catalyst. So for now, $200M may be a big pill to swallow but I take comfort that there are also parallel investments in enhancing bus services. I particularly look forward to seeing bus rapid transit operating along Snelling Avenue in the near future.

    Money better spent on a Greenway light rail? Not so sure, seems like redevelopment potential may already be limited given recent construction, and also reminds me of ongoing Southwest LRT discussions. For me, the most worthwhile transportation investments should not only serve exiting destinations but also (and more importantly) create new destinations. And so far, fixed rail service (even with its disadvantages) might just be all that we are ready for.

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