It’s Not Nostalgia: Streetcars Return with Timeless Function, Appeal

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Nosatalgia:  1:  The state of being homesick   2: a wistful or excessively sentimental 
yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition

 
A recent article in the Louis Post-Dispatch took an in-depth look at new streetcar systems in the United States. The article focused on a local example, the recently funded Loop Trolley, connecting 1,300-acre Forest Park in St. Louis with the nationally recognized Delmar Loop district in neighboring University City. Entitled “Trolley revival rides on nostalgia, utility,” the article was excellent, except for its title.  
 
A reawakening appreciation for streetcars in the U.S. is not a matter of nostalgia. Instead, it’s the result of cultural changes that have been taking place for three generations and it’s these changes that are reshaping perceptions about the value of streetcars today. Just the same, no one’s really to blame for thinking that nostalgia is the key here. The U.S. is notorious for its short memory span. This article is simply intended to set the record straight.
 
But before we go on, and these are the most important points this article is going to make, what happened to urban transportation in the U.S. after the invention of the automobile in the late 1800s has most definitely been a unique national phenomenon. Clearly, what happened here differed greatly from what happened in Canada, South America and Europe even though the technology was the same everywhere. At the same time, what happened here played out very differently in different cities across the country. If you remember just those two things, you'll be an expert on American urban transportation for the rest of your life!
 
Here are examples illustrating the two points: In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, interurban streetcar systems were built in urban regions across the country.  Nearly all of them have disappeared, but at least parts of a few, such as the one in Philadelphia, remain alive and well today. Alternately, the most famous former interurban system in the U.S., the Pacific Electric in Los Angeles with its “big red cars,” was an entirely different kind of system from Philadelphia’s. It wasn’t purposely built to connect older, separate but extant towns and cities; instead it was built for the purpose of connecting very recently settled towns, starting new towns and, most of all, selling virgin land all along its routes.    
 
Trolley bus systems, trackless, rubber tired busses that ran on city streets but were powered electrically from overhead wires, were developed in many U.S. cities in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Today they are nearly all gone, but a few, again Philadelphia stands out, remained in active use for decades after World War II. And of course the granddaddy urban transportation system of them all, suburban commuter railroads, were built in all large American cities in the mid-to late 1800s but they too are mostly long gone. Still, four such systems, those in Boston, New York, 
Philadelphia and Chicago, have remained central to the life of their regions continuously since they were built. 
     
Car Culture and the Failed Appeal of Buses   
      
Looking more closely at Philadelphia, it is unlikely that journalists or historians or even transportation planners ever suggested that people continued to ride the interurbans, trolley busses or commuter trains in that city, instead of switching to cars, because they felt nostalgic about them. No, people continued to ride them because they continued to exist and they continued to be considered valuable enough to garner the necessary public support to keep them running.
 
Nostalgia, as defined above, is not the explanation for any of this. Instead, something much more fundamental is at work. In the U.S. after the late 1800s, the technology of the automobile dovetailed so completely with other profoundly deep national values, beliefs and perceptions that when streetcar and interurban systems in most American cities began to be completely dismantled after world war II, it seemed, to perhaps 95% of the population of those cities, that 
abandoning them was the obviously intelligent thing to do. Yet at the same time, regional differences were such that, in Philadelphia for example, enough people perceived such dismantlement as not sensible that the process was stopped in its tracks.
 
Today there is a growing belief that where such systems were dismantled, it was because of a General Motors/rubber tire industry conspiracy. That theory is in fact, just a myth. But that myth is growing, like the notion that streetcar systems are reappearing because of nostalgia, again due to that notorious American character trait, a short memory span. Everything that follows here is intended to refresh our memories!  
 
Car culture, tapping as it did into profoundly deep national values, beliefs and perceptions, was inevitable in the U.S. But also inevitable, for the same reason, were earlier commuter rail, streetcar and interurban cultures. Yet, has such a thing as “bus culture” ever emerged in the U.S.? No, because busses as urban transportation systems were and are peculiar hybrids incapable of tapping into any of this deep stuff. The reasons will become clear as we consider the changes responsible for today’s reawakening appreciation of streetcars.  
 
First, the opportunity for unlimited individual and family unit mobility promised by the grade-separated, limited-access urban freeway systems of the 60s and 70s was, in reality, the culmination of a trend that began with Henry Ford’s first mass produced model “T” in 1913. However, in the end, this promise was broken. As two, three and four car family units emerged in the 80s and 90s, and as cities began to be laid out so that they were entirely dependent on freeway extensions, the freeways became impossibly clogged. When not clogged, the highways dictated that everyone drive longer distances to schools and other services, requiring everyone to spend more of their income on transportation. The promise was never delivered.
 
Before the freeway systems of the 60s and 70s were built, the major streets and boulevards of American cities, where the old at-grade streetcar systems mostly ran, had become impossibly congested. The inflexibility of streetcars conspicuously exacerbated the problem. As hybrids, busses’ flexibility made them seem like at least a partial solution to the problem. However, in the few cities where completely grade-separated heavy-rail transit systems had been built no one doubted that the old, grade separated heavy-rail systems would continue to be essential for the health of their regions. 
 
Then in the 70s, 80s and 90s, many new grade-separated and/or right-of-way separated light and heavy-rail systems were built and embraced as sensible community investments by the majority of people in more and more U.S. cities.  As a result, people began to perceive these new systems, and not the clogged freeways, as better able to provide a reasonable degree of unfettered mobility. Today, the aura of mobility generated by these systems’ separation from
at grade vehicular congestion is transferring to new at-grade streetcar systems.
 
Obliterating Our Mental Maps of Community
 
And here’s why. As the extensions of freeway systems into the exurbs partially emptied out most larger, older American cities, the arterial boulevards that had become impossibly congested by World War II, became remarkably free flowing by the 1990s, at the same time as the intense urban activity that had lined them eroded. As a result, today it is accurately perceived that at-grade streetcar lines along these routes can in some cases successfully serve as economic development tools and useful transportation systems.
 
But there is something else going on here as well. It has to do not with culture, but with certain hard-wired features of the human mind. Any kind of a rail based transportation system will always be conspicuously less flexible than gasoline or diesel powered buses. That means that, unlike busses, they are more likely to continue to be there year after year. Their weakness in one context is their very strength in another.
 
Inside peoples’ minds, where navigation through the activities of day to day life in three dimensional space takes place, streetcar routes generate a much more durable imprint or map than bus routes. It is these internal maps that people instinctively use as they make unconscious and conscious choices about getting around their cities. The deeper the imprint of the internal map, the more it stands out, the more likely the mode of transportation it represents will be chosen for getting around.
 
In St. Louis, as elsewhere, when busses were substituted for trolleys on interurban lines after World War II, ridership on these lines dropped off instantly and precipitously. The decision-makers who had advocated the change were mystified. After all, the replaced trolley cars were old and battered; the replacement busses were shiny and new. But when the frequently off-road tracks on which the interurbans had traveled were abandoned, and the new bus routes that replaced them were relegated to surface streets, something profound happened and the maps inside people’s heads were obliterated. Their subsequent transportation choices emerged naturally and predictably.
 
Beyond that, streetcars, and for that matter trains of any type, will always have a resonance, with every generation, of which busses are incapable. How many times have you witnessed a young child get excited about a family outing on a bus? But every day you see this happen on the St. Louis Metrolink system. Obviously the child’s excitement does not result from nostalgia. The child knows nothing about what happened before he or she was born. Children
simply are captivated by trains.
 
One more thing is going on here besides culture and hard-wired features of the human mind. It has to do with sociology, or with what people think and do in relationship to groups of which they are a part. Riding public transportation can be an inherently community generating experience. Remember the Trolley Song from “Meet Me in St. Louis”? The song explains this most vividly. People naturally seek, and love, a rich sense of community.  
 
But what happened with busses is that they acquired a social stigma, a stigma that never attached to streetcars, interurbans, commuter trains or heavy rail systems. The stigma said loudly and clearly: If you ride a bus, you’re not making it. Note that this stigma regarding busses never showed up to the same degree in cities with heavy rail systems like Chicago, Boston, New York or Philadelphia. That’s because a ride on a bus in those cities was often 
part of a larger trip that included the heavy rail lines. And everybody, rich and poor, rode the heavy rail lines.
 
Individualism and the Danger of Conventional Wisdom
 
Finally, with regard to peoples’ desire for a sense of community: in the U.S. a countervailing drive for individual advancement has always led us to abandon our attachment to communities and move on. Driving in a car alone, or with one’s family, is the opposite of a community-building experience. Instead, it is the very symbol of the drive for individual mobility. That explains the automobile’s resonance here, generation after generation.
 
As defined by Webster, nostalgia is an “excessively sentimental yearning.” To the degree that new streetcar systems remind people of what once was, their sudden popularity might appear to be a matter of nostalgia. However, community enhancing experiences and a strong sense of connection between one’s home and the rest of one’s community hold a timeless appeal. It is the timelessness of their appeal that is the true underlying reason for the reawakening appreciation of streetcars in the U.S. today. As all these discrete things have been happening over the course of sixty years, perceptions about urban transportation in general are transforming before our very eyes.  
 
But, and this is a major warning: Be wary of conventional wisdom whenever you see it rearing its ugly head.  It is inevitably a matter of sloppy thinking, of a failure to look closely at the history and unique features of a specific situation. It is shorthand for a more informative, more fascinating story. By the time today’s emerging perception that streetcars are just so obviously sensible becomes fossilized as “conventional wisdom,” any number of new streetcar installations will likely have failed for a myriad of reasons.  
 
Because the Loop Trolley was conceived with extraordinary attention to unique features of local history, urban geography and demographics, this writer predicts that it will be a project that is spectacularly successful. And it won’t be nostalgia-driven, but instead, the return of a timeless attraction to community that will dictate this success.
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