Urban Trolley Cars — Love ‘Em or Hate ‘Em?

The Washington Post informs us that the District of Columbia is initiating new trolley car service. See Michael Laris, District’s Streetcar Line Finally Has Its First Car, Dec. 14, 2013.

This isn’t what you might call news to us old timers. Washington had extensive trolley service through the 1950s, but the local trolley line company and its holdings were acquired by the District by eminent domain, including the vast car barns located at the southern tip of the Southwest part of the District of Columbia, right by the Potomac, and next to Fort McNair.  As it happens, your faithful servant lived there in the early 1960s, catty-corner across the street from the site of those car barns which by then had been razed as part of the Southwest redevelopment project. That’s the redevelopment that gave rise to Berman v. Parker, the granddaddy of American urban renewal cases. It wasn’t the first one, but it was the most prominent one because in it, SCOTUS, in a unanimous opinion by “Wild Bill” Douglas held that in the name of “slum clearance” it was OK for the local government to take by eminent domain unoffending, unblighted, private property — specifically, a well maintained small neighborhood department store — raze it to the ground, and reconvey the now vacant land to private redevelopers who would then build privately owned, and privately occupied apartments, co-ops, and a small shopping center.

The fig leaf affixed to this plainly private, profit-making caper, to make it seem to meet the constitutional “public use” limitation on the use of eminent domain, was the provision in the local law that at least one-third of the new dwellings built on the site — which then became known as “the new Southwest” — would be low-cost housing renting for $17 per month, per room. Alas, that turned out to be bullshit. After SCOTUS approved this taking in Berman, the redevelopment law was amended to eliminate that provision. What was actually built was an area of upscale dwellings that were so expensive that in a few years they inspired the Wall Street Journal to report a rent strike by affluent tenants who made the new Southwest their home. See Amy Levine, Urban Renewal and the Story of Berman v. Parker, 42 Urban Lawyer 423 (Spring 2010) — a good read, that.

There is no question that the old Southwest was indeed a slum, and that it was ready for redevelopment. But in a familiar instance of government confusion between ends and means, how it was done was another story. Though the primary beneficiaries of that slum clearance were supposed to be the wretchedly poor local black folks who constituted the vast majority of the area’s population, and whose plight figured prominently in Douglas’ lachrymose opinion approving their displacement, in fact they were not compensated or were undercompensated and bulldozed into other parts of the District  of Columbia, where they had to settle for worse but more expensive housing.

So that is how the District of Columbia got rid of street cars.

But the District was only a part of the story. Other cities got rid of their trolleys too, and thereby hangs a story.

The prevailing conventional wisdom has it that deliberate destruction of the intraurban trolley car transportation systems was a conscious, deliberately pursued policy. Legend has it that a consortium of automobile, rubber and oil companies organized a company that bought up urban trolley lines, let them decline, so they could then be eliminated and replaced with buses that (a) were made by the car companies, (b) rode on rubber tires, and (c) burned petroleum products to get around.  See Cecilia Rasmusen, Did Auto, Oil Conspiracy Put the Brakes on Trolleys? Los Angeles Times, Mar. 23, 2003, at p. B6, and a polemical video entitled Taken for a Ride, Produced by Jim Klein and Martha Olsen, New Day Films, Hohokus, NJ.

If you are thinking that this sounds a bit like a story by a bunch of conspiracists, check out United States  v.  National City Lines, 186 F.2d 562 (7th Cir. 1951). So there may be something to that conspiracy theory. For a contrary view, check out Stephen Smith, The Great American Streetcar Myth, Market Urbanism. see http://marketurbanism.com/2010/09/23/the-great-american-streetcar-myth/ arguing that irrespective of the asserted conspiracy, street cars in American cities were on the decline, and car use was on the rise before these events, quoting New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as saying in 1935 that trolleys were “as dead as sailing ships,” and noting that FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) “was tearing up streetcar tracks in Manhattan years before the National City Lines began doing the same in less transit-worthy places.”

So take your pick of theories.

Be all that as it may, the fact is that American cities built trolley car lines, then paid good money to destroy them, and now are spending more good money bringing them back. We are sure there is a lesson buried in here somewhere, and we hope you will discern it. The really sad part of all this is not just the waste of money involved in this on-again, off-again, and then on-again again,  but also — perhaps more so — that these days America appears incapable of building trolley cars, and is buying them from the Czech republic.

But it turns out that whatever the cause for their removal, maybe those trolleys weren’t such a bad idea after all. See Joe Wessels, Panel Pushes Streetcar Project, Cincinnati Post, Oct. 17, 2007, reporting that Cincinnati officials are pushing for the creation of a $102 million streetcar system, and reporting the creation of successful new trolley car lines in Portland, Oregon, Tampa, Florida, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. The same is true of San Diego where the “Tijuana Trolley” running from downtown south to the Mexican border has become a local institution.