The Real Story of the Demise of Streetcars

We’ve always assumed -or have been told- that city streetcars faded away because people preferred to drive their own cars. We know from a previous post that the powerful auto industry encouraged people to prefer cars, and the story of the streetcar system is likewise more complicated than it seems on the surface. Electrified streetcars flourished in the 1880s, and cost a nickel to ride.   

Running streetcars was a very profitable business. Cities expanded, and people who found themselves living too far from work to walk depended on them. (Some real-estate developers built nearby suburbs around streetcar lines.) Over time, the businessmen who ran the streetcars, called "traction magnates," consolidated ownership of multiple lines, establishing powerful, oftentimes corrupt monopolies in many cities.

Eventually, many of them contracted with city governments for the explicit right to operate as a monopoly in that city. In exchange, they agreed to all sorts of conditions. "Eager to receive guarantees on their large up-front investments, streetcar operators agreed to contract provisions that held fares constant at five cents and mandated that rail line owners maintain the pavement around their tracks," writes Stephen Smith at Market Urbanism.

Unforeseen circumstances combined to make streetcars impossible to maintain, although if the companies hadn’t been so corrupt, accommodations might have been made for them. Read the whole story at Vox.  -via Digg

(Image credit: Grand Rapids Historical Commission)

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