Below is an excerpt, please click this link to view the full pdf of the paper.
The Small-Minded Anti-Streetcar Conspiracy- FINAL
By Glen D. Bottoms, Rick Gustafson, Eric Hovee and William S. Lind
The libertarians’ anti-transit study mill continues to grind out new products, which regrettably contain more chaff than grain. We say “new” cum grano salis, because they offer the same arguments over and over. To ideologues, facts don’t count. The first thing written is the conclusion. A recent example of the genre is The Great Streetcar Conspiracy by Randal O’Toole, published June 14, 2012 by the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank. As usual, it is a child’s garden of errors, false “facts,” distortions and unwarranted conclusions. This study may set a record, even for the anti-transit troubadours: in a mere 16 pages it manages to make at least 52 false or misleading statements. We don’t know how they will top that, perhaps by claiming in their next study that streetcars are bad because of all those moving cables that run beneath the streets. Fifty-two is a lot of errors to correct; let’s get started…
On June 18, 2013, under the direction of the state of Michigan, the City of Detroit filed for bankruptcy, the largest municipal bankruptcy declaration in our nation’s history. According to the state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, the city has amassed some $18 billion (give or take a few hundred million) in liabilities, against assets of $4 billion. Those liabilities include unpaid bills, health care liabilities and unfunded pension benefits.
Since that date, we have witnessed a veritable avalanche of articles and op-eds attempting to explain why poor Detroit went bust. Each piece sought to assign blame as viewed through the appropriate ideological prism. George Will sees only labor and political perfidy. Stephen Rattner sees yet another opportunity for the federal government to play Santa Claus. Cato’s Michael Tanner identifies the usual suspects, paramount being the unfunded pension program and retiree health care benefit liabilities. Tanner also aptly identifies the city’s anti-business environment and crushing local tax burdens on remaining residents as additional culprits. Some even see a racist plot to undermine governance of a mostly black city. Mind you, some governance has to be in evidence in order to be undermined. There was (and is) scant evidence of that. Others see insensitive corporate policies that mindlessly pursued profits to the exclusion of all other considerations (some truth to that). Still others have dusted off more prosaic existential motifs as the root cause of the city’s myriad ills (capitalism’s ultimate destination, liberalism’s ultimate destination, etc.).
Whatever the reasons for Detroit’s slow slide to oblivion, no one, in our view, deigned to mention another obvious culprit. That is, the city helped fashion its own noose by slowly destroying a viable transit system at the insistence of one General Motors (GM). After pursuing a strategy of crippling transit across the country by purchasing streetcar systems through intermediaries and quickly converting them to buses, GM buses, GM could hardly stand by and let Detroit successfully operate a modern streetcar system in the very heart of the world’s auto industry.
Little known is the fact that the city of Detroit had municipalized its streetcar system as early as 1922. Only San Francisco, among major cities in the U.S., had followed that course of action (in 1912) so early in the 20th century. Unfortunately, this did not ultimately insulate the streetcar from the strong anti-transit forces swirling around Detroit. Fast forwarding to the 1940’s, the streetcar system had become a campaign issue in the 1948 mayoral election with the victor, Eugene Van Antwerp, fulfilling a promise to maintain and improve the system. The defeated challenger would have junked it. Between 1945 and 1949, the city ordered 186 brand new PCC streetcars, the most modern available, to update the system. At the same time, the system was rationalized to recognize the shrinkage in patronage, especially in the off peak, and the need to retire older equipment on marginal routes. This rationalization was naturally in line with recommendations GM had made to the city to substitute buses on numerous streetcar lines. By 1952, the transit system’s backbone had been whittled down to four well-patronized streetcar lines, all served by modern PCC streetcars. GM kept bombarding the city government with plans calling for additional conversions. Bit by bit, the city finally caved under the pressure and the last streetcar ran in Detroit in April, 1956. It is telling to note that when the last route, the flagship Woodward Avenue line, was converted, headways were 90 seconds in the peak and 2½ minutes at midday. The line required 66 PCCs in the peak and carried over 70,000 weekday passengers.
So why was converting Detroit’s streetcar system so important an event? The reasons that we are investing in streetcars across America today were just as valid in the 1950’s. The streetcar helps bring and sustain economic development and typically draws a greater clientele than the bus. It reduces reliance on the automobile (obviously a non-starter for the automobile industry in Detroit). It encourages a walkable environment and binds and encourages cohesive neighborhoods. It is also a visible investment in the community that emphatically says we think transit is important. Developers and existing businesses all note this in their investment calculations. Take that away and you insert one more factor for fostering urban decay.
Abandoning Detroit’s scarcely depreciated PCC streetcars in 1956 (they ran for an additional 30 years in Mexico City) sent a clear message to the citizens of Detroit that transit was not important. And Detroit transit riders weren’t stupid. They knew that the replacement buses were smaller and slower and were no match for the larger, faster, and more comfortable PCC streetcars. One advantage that Detroit could have exploited was the work done in the 1930’s to widen Detroit’s main arteries (Woodward, Michigan, Gratiot and Jefferson). This gave Detroit’s streetcars plenty of room to make the most of their advantages. But GM saw only saw opportunities for additional automobiles on those roadways, not transit.
Now back to the present. We should note that in spite of the gathering dark clouds of bankruptcy, Detroit is actually now on track to restore rail service on Woodward Avenue. A ground-breaking privately initiated streetcar project will serve the rapidly redeveloping portion of Woodward Avenue between midtown and downtown. Called M-1 Rail, the project will receive private and philanthropic grants totaling almost $100 million of the $137 million cost. The federal government is chipping in $25 million. The co-chairs of M-1 Rail, Roger Penske of Penske Racing and Penske Automotive Group and Dan Gilbert, Chairman and founder of Quicken Loans, have seen the wisdom, indeed the necessity, of restoring quality fixed guideway transit in this corridor to help spark development. They have committed $3 million of their own money to the project. The Kresge Foundation is providing a $35 million grant. The line is expected to help generate over $500 million in new development along the corridor. Construction of the M-1 streetcar (M-1 is Michigan DOT’s highway designation for Woodward Avenue) begins this fall with the first streetcar scheduled to run in the Fall of 2015. The line will be 3.3 miles in length and feature eleven stations.
There is plenty of blame to assign in the slow descent of Detroit to its present sorry state. We all know that the population of Detroit has shrunk from about 2 million in 1950 to 700,000 today. And we know most of the vaunted automobile plants (GM, Ford, Chrysler) were moved to the suburbs, rather than investing in Detroit proper. The city was riddled with freeways, destroying and balkanizing viable neighborhoods, dispersing industry and commercial activity, and facilitating travel by rubber-tired conveyance and little else. Even today, the latest plans for the Detroit region center on a new $4 billion highway widening plan. There is also a new regional transit authority and a plan for a region-wide BRT system but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
This is also a tale of political fecklessness, when a city could not summon the will to adjust and live within its means. Herbert Stein (who was born in Detroit) once famously said that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” Well, Detroit has reached this point. I can’t begin to predict how this bankruptcy will end and how any settlement will affect the municipal bond market (maybe it already has- Saginaw and Genesee Counties and Battle Creek, Michigan were forced to withdraw recent bond offerings). Detroit is only likely to be a winner if it can emerge with the necessary resources to improve and tailor city services to a population of 700,000, bereft, of course, of the crushing debts that it brought upon itself. The city will also need to get out of the way of the private sector and let it function freely.
Just remember, a key turning point for the city was in the mid-1950’s when Detroit was forced to walk away from a viable urban rail transit system. It is very likely that restoration of the streetcar on Woodward Avenue will be a key act in reviving a city that is already showing nascent signs of renewal. My money is on the private sector to successfully lead this resurgence. Detroit is not likely to capture its past glory but it can create a new path to prosperity through a newly invigorated private sector. The streetcar looks just like the vehicle to help make this happen. I’d say, all aboard!!!
Glen Bottoms is Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation and a confirmed optimist
Many urban transportation historians point to Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s successful campaign to rid New York City and its boroughs of the streetcar as one of the key turning points in crippling public transportation across the country. It set a trend that made eschewing streetcars a trendy thing to do. He was heard to comment that streetcars were as obsolete as the sailing ship, perhaps reflecting his drive to banish any “relics” from the city that reminded him of the “old country” (LaGuardia was the son of immigrants himself). Well, sixty-five years after the demise of the last streetcar in New York City, I can confidently report that the streetcar (and its similarly healthy big brother, light rail) are doing just fine.
Take France for example. Since 1985, new urban tramways have been opened in nineteen French cities (with an additional six systems to open over the next five years). Many of these have expanded their systems and three new systems opened in 2012. Three other cities which never abandoned their trams have renewed their systems. The new French tram systems also have many characteristics of light rail systems, including the general requirement to provide exclusive rights-of-way for trams except at intersections. The French took the lessons of the oil shortages of 1973 and 1979 to heart and adopted a long term strategy to improve mobility choices for French urbanites and provide a high quality, viable alternative to the automobile. Their overarching vision was to create healthy, pleasant, attractive urban environments where short trips could access jobs, education, recreation, retail activity and health facilities without relying on the automobile. These systems were also designed with connectivity to other modes in mind. Each system (except Brest) has easy access to the local train station and expanding travel options (including high speed rail).
Now shift to the United States. It may be surprising to some but American cities have built 20 new light rail systems since 1981. Click below on our website for the details:
In almost all cases, these new systems have been successful, registering steady ridership gains and pressure to extend into areas not yet served.
Now enters the streetcar. To date, a total of nine (9) new streetcar systems are under construction (and one extension to an existing streetcar system) and firm plans for a further ten (10) streetcar projects are progressing across the country. This has sparked the usual hue and cry from the naysayers. They blare that streetcars are obsolete and they get in the way of automobiles (and slow down traffic), and are expensive. But, maybe, just maybe, streetcars reflect and address the trends that many have detected across the country. The outward migration of people and their cars into the suburbs appears to have been slowed and actually reversed in some cases. Young people and young families are moving back into the city, drawn by the attraction of being in close proximity to their jobs, being able to walk to shopping, entertainment and recreation, and (in some cities like Portland, OR and Seattle, WA) take a short streetcar ride to these destinations. Survey after survey has revealed that many people are making the calculation that rather than spending two hours in their cars commuting, they want to move closer to jobs, recreation, shopping and the like in urban centers and have more time to spend with their families and enjoy other pursuits. To our delight, we conservatives (along with a large contingent of other different political persuasions) are finding that streetcars bring economic development, reinforce walkable environments, and encourage and cement cohesive neighborhoods. It should also be noted that where streetcars are popular, so are biking and walking (and walkable environments). As an added bonus, streetcars also end up helping reduce our over-dependence on foreign oil by reducing the need to hop in the car for trivial journeys.
It is also interesting to note the emerging trends that a number of studies have validated. These studies find that Americans are driving less (down 9% since 2008) and that many young Americans are not getting drivers licenses (In 2010, 26% of young Americans do not have a drivers licenses versus 21% some 10 years earlier). This latter trend says that many young people are forgoing owning an automobile, an increasingly expensive proposition (it now costs about $8,000 a year to own and maintain an automobile).
Yale Professor Robert Spiller was recently quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that “Young people don’t read newspapers, they don’t have landline phones and maybe they won’t buy suburban houses anymore.” The same article noted that the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Benjamin Bernanke, who is feverishly trying to revive the American economy through overworked printing presses, has commented a number of times that there are some things even aggressive monetary policy can’t change. The age of social media (smart phones, i-pads, tablets, texting, twitter, Facebook and the like) has diminished young people’s need for an automobile, indeed to see the automobile as a rite of passage.
It is against the backdrop of these developments that projects such as the 37 mile streetcar system proposed for the District of Columbia and the Columbia Pike Streetcar in Arlington are being promoted by local officials. Both the DC and Arlington projects are squarely aimed at this market and are well positioned to capitalize on the streetcar’s strengths. As the urban core continues its transformation, quality transportation as provided by the streetcar will become even more important.
It is interesting to note that in a recent US News and World Report list of ‘The Ten Best Cities for Public Transportation’ in the U.S., nine of those cities have rail transit service (and the 10th is building an automated rail system). And seven of these cities are either operating, constructing or planning streetcar systems. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
Today’s opponents of streetcars clearly have a well-“oiled” ax to grind. Otherwise, why would they rely on obfuscating strategies rooted in misinformation? Why else do we get titles such as ‘The Streetcar Swindle’ and ‘The Great Streetcar Conspiracy,’ hyperbolic titles saturated with fear of a future that won’t benefit entrenched interests? And finally, why do we get desperate “hail Mary” passes to derail the Pike Streetcar with suspect claims that opponents are simply doing everyone a favor?
With all the compelling evidence that urban centers across America are undergoing dramatic change, it’s time to make sure that the venerable Streetcar has clear sailing to a better future.
Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation, based in Arlington, VA