On June 19, 1954 the streetcar system in the Twin Cities shut down permanently. I consider it one of the biggest mistakes our region has ever made as we’re now spending billions and taking decades to rebuild a similar system albeit with arterial bus rapid transit (ABRT), BRT, and light rail. There are several causes for the dismantling of our streetcar system suburban sprawl leading to decline of urban population (and therefore ridership) and suburban development that couldn’t be effectively served by streetcars; all levels of government aggressively funding road improvement and expansion projects (the largest project being the Interstate Highway System); all levels of government doing little to assist transit operations (keeping in mind that most streetcar operations including the Twin Cities’ were privately operated); local government requiring the streetcar operator to have low fares that couldn’t cover operating and maintenance expenses; and of course special interests by auto companies and auto parts suppliers seeking a monopoly on transportation. Citizen activism wasn’t around to save the streetcar system, as that didn’t start to takeoff until the 1960s when new freeways were dividing urban neighborhoods.
How Oslo Saved their Streetcars
However, dismantling of streetcars wasn’t just happening in the U.S. post-World War II. Oslo, Norway, a city with an excellent public transit system including six streetcar/tram lines, nearly shut down their system in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike the Twin Cities where we were mostly replacing streetcars with better and larger roads, Oslo planned to replace their tram system with buses and their young (at the time) Metro system, known as the T-Bane or Tunnelbanen. Citizen input, the oil crisis, and the fact that the tram system was municipally owned put a halt to most dismantling of the tram system. While some tram routes were still closed, the trunk lines live on and there have been small expansion and improvement projects. Oslo dodged a bullet, as it would take many more buses and bus drivers to serve the amount of riders their tram system receives on a daily basis (around 132,000 riders).
The longer the dismantling would be pushed back the more likely part of our streetcar system would’ve survived. Citizen activism started to take hold in the 1960s as freeways divided urban neighborhoods (one of the most infamous being Interstate 94 through Rondo in St. Paul). The Metropolitan Transit Commission was established in 1967 and purchased the assets from Twin City Lines (the private transit operator of streetcars and buses in the region) in 1970. Combine this with the oil crisis and the chances improve that the Twin Cities would’ve followed a similar path to Oslo; a skeletal streetcar network serving the urban area and small parts of the suburban area. That skeletal system would consist of what is today some of our most patronized transit routes; University Avenue, Lake Street, Hennepin Avenue, Central Avenue, Nicollet Avenue, Emerson/Fremont, etc. While it wouldn’t be the large system that stretched from Excelsior to Stillwater and Inver Grove Heights to White Bear Lake, this skeletal system would’ve provided high frequency and reliable service in Minneapolis and St. Paul plus perhaps a few crossings into inner ring suburbs.
Under this scenario going beyond the 1970s to the present day it’s likely there would have been some expansion of the skeletal system. A Central Avenue Line could have been extended as far north as Northtown Mall (though this would require grade-separation at the Soo Line, now Canadian Pacific, railroad crossing). If the Minnehaha Avenue and West 7th routes survived, they could’ve been extended to the airport and eventually the Mall of America. How it could have impacted transit planning, including the planned LRT and BRT system in our region, and land use planning in the present day, is more complicated. The simple answer is that we’ll never know for sure.
While not as fast as LRT, preserving a skeletal system would’ve saved us billions of dollars in the long run. There would need to be heavy investment in repairing or replacing track infrastructure of the streetcar lines, but it would pale in comparison to the time and money we have spent and continue to spend building several ABRT, BRT, LRT, and commuter rail routes.
Lessons (Hopefully) Learned
While we can’t undo the past, we can learn from it. The main lesson from this is ask yourselves what you want your city to look like in the decades to come, and consider the next generations when asking yourself that question. While streetcars were less cared about in the 1950s, today some of us realize the costly mistake made by those before us. The consequences of those decisions still live on as it has taken decades and billions of dollars and counting to rebuild our transit network, which as of now is still inconvenient and lacks good coverage of our region.
Disclaimer: Besides a couple of corridors including Riverview, I don’t think our region should pursue building modern streetcar lines. However, as we plan an aBRT system, a lot of segments once served by streetcars should be considered for aBRT implementation. There is no one-size-fits-all mode of transit, and having a diverse system of bus, aBRT, BRT, light rail/streetcar, and commuter rail routes will make our region thriving and livable for generations to come.