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During my research into turn-of-the-century St. Louis, I came across this marvelous blog post about the history of streetcars in the city. Ryan Albritton does a detailed analysis of two maps, one from 1903 and the other from 1940, showing the development (and decline) of St. Louis’ streetcar lines and the impact of those lines on the city’s population. It’s a fascinating account, and I recommend reading it. Here’s the 1903 map:

1903 Streetcar Map

Albritton observes how the map resembles an anatomy drawing of the circulatory system, with a the heart (downtown) containing a dense network of lines on nearly every block, and an expanding fan of circulation outward into the residential areas. Lines also facilitated travel to cemeteries, parks, and the soon-to-open World’s Fair grounds. Interestingly enough, there were plenty of north-south lines, too; anybody who’s ever tried to go north-to-south in today’s St. Louis knows how difficult that is. Today’s ease of east-to-west and difficulty of north-to-south only exacerbates the city’s racial divide.

The sad history of the demise of America’s city streetcar lines, helped along by General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil as a way of replacing streetcars with buses and thus boosting their profits, is one of the tragedies of the 20th Century. Albritton cites statistics that between 1917 and 1928, streetcars in America carried 12 to 13 billion passengers annually. That’s an amazing number; think of the congestion that would be removed from our cities if such a system were in place today.

And yet this morning, I read an opinion piece in my local paper from a writer out of one of the usual sources (Heritage Foundation), complaining about the inclusion of “wasteful” mass transit funding in the federal highway bill. It’s only wasteful if you think strictly of governmental dollars and cents, not including the private expenditures on cars, gasoline, and related expenses, the growing gridlock and declining livability of our city centers, and the associated social and environmental costs of being locked into a transportation system tilted toward one person in a car, commuting from a distant suburb.

Serendipitously, I also read a fascinating piece in Politico yesterday about the growing success of Seattle’s mass transit system. Let’s hope that Seattle’s experience sparks other cities to re-examine their approaches to mass transit; nobody expects a return to the grid of electric streetcars that dominated transportation in the early 20th Century, of course, but certainly we should be imaginative enough to consider alternatives to the fossil-fuel powered systems that now rule us, and that relegate streetcars to the role of tourist novelties like the Loop Trolley and the KC Streetcar.