65 Years Later: Twin Cities Streetcars

Streetcar Osanna Photo

Burning a symbolic streetcar in 1954, preparing to scrap the system.

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).

Img 7883

A tram (trikken in Norwegian) in a suburban area of Oslo. These particular trams were ordered right after the city decided not to shut down the tram system. By the time they’re replaced in the early 2020s they will be around 40 years old.

What Ifs

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.

Minneapolis Trikken

In an alternate reality where a small part of the Twin City Lines streetcar system had survived, one of the routes spared from the scrapper might have been the Nicollet Avenue Line (pictured here on Marquette, as streetcars never operated on Nicollet in downtown). By 2019, the streetcars that might have replaced the wooden streetcars and PCCs would be at retirement age.

 

Img 6044

A PCC (Presidents’ Conference Committee) streetcar painted in Twin City Lines colors operating in San Francisco. Had part of our streetcar system survived, there’s a good chance at least one of these would’ve been kept around and assigned randomly to routes, much to the riders’ surprise.

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.

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16 Responses to 65 Years Later: Twin Cities Streetcars

  1. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs June 19, 2019 at 9:53 am #

    I’ve also speculated on whether any Twin Cities streetcar lines could have survived under a more sympathetic management. For three reasons I’ve concluded they couldn’t have.

    With the exception of Toronto, the only North American streetcar lines that survived were really partially light rail with exclusive rights of way (sometimes in subway), because they were so much faster than buses could have been. Examples are Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and San Francisco. In contrast, almost all the Twin Cities lines ran in mixed traffic and had no time advantage.
    Inadequate capital funding to replace a worn out fleet and obsolete electric power system. Almost 3/4 of the fleet were the old wood cars, all over 35 years old. Also, the city charters required the streetcar company to maintain the pavement in the center two lanes of the street where the tracks were and plow the snow for no compensation.
    The absence of public operating subsidies.

    • Eric Ecklund June 19, 2019 at 11:42 am #

      The other lines can be debated but it looks like the University Avenue Line could easily have had its own right-of-way (if it didn’t already) for most of the route considering it ran in the middle of the street. Cutting one general lane in each direction wouldn’t be a huge loss for that road, especially after I-94 was built.

    • Andrew Evans June 20, 2019 at 12:15 pm #

      Aaron,

      This is only a guess, but I would think there would have been a push for electric buses that run on similar lines of the street cars. Those would have made similar stops, and would have had half of the infrastructure needed. If anything they would have replaced the rails, and then maybe replaced by gas.

      Sure we could talk about the oil crisis of the 70’s, but at the same time we need to talk about the trend to tear down and replace buildings, at least here in Mpls. If the streetcar system did manage to stay around, I would really wonder how it would have survived the 70’s and 80’s.

  2. Tom Quinn June 19, 2019 at 10:35 am #

    As a side note, my great grandfather bought one of the discarded street cars from Minneapolis and moved it to Warroad, MN where he put it on cement blocks and lived with his brother on the shores of the Lake of the Woods for the rest of his life.

  3. J Johnson June 19, 2019 at 11:03 am #

    There were other reasons Oslo stayed with its tram network. Norway had little or no petrol after the war until North Sea discoveries came about. So petrol was more expensive and thus the tram remained economic relative to auto into the ’60’s. It was also seen as a mobility hedge, which is indeed what it became during the oil shocks of the early and late ’70’s. After that, not sure it mattered to Norwegians through the decades what the relative economics might have been, the trams were not going away. Was in Oslo last year and actually found the trams to be rather quaint and less flexible than buses, given the routes the well-developed metro system has left them with.

    • Eric Ecklund June 19, 2019 at 11:34 am #

      Our streetcar system, even a skeletal one, most definitely would have cushioned the blow from the oil crisis. Little to no help for suburban residents, but for urban residents it would’ve been nice. The alternative is worry about gas prices and gas not being available, and it doesn’t help that most cars at the time weren’t exactly fuel efficient.

      As for the Oslo trams, they look modern to me. Considering how packed it can be during rush hour it would take a lot more diesel buses and drivers to carry the same amount of people. That would mean more traffic on the streets, and with less confidence in buses people would switch to cars and make matters worse. That’s what the Twin Cities has been dealing with since the streetcar system closed.

  4. Lou Miranda June 19, 2019 at 11:50 am #

    Perhaps the lessons learned should be not to trust the promises of corporations with vested interests.

    Today’s analogy is Uber, Lyft, autonomous vehicles, and perhaps e-bikes and other “micromobility” options, which are all just another name for the privatization of transportation.

    Most subways & transit lines of yore started as private companies (perhaps they have a hold on innovation that government-run entities do not) but were eventually taken over by public transit entities that provides the public services we have today.

    Make sure our state legislature provides sufficient funding for those public entities, like Metro Transit, and minimize the use of cars on our streets, especially in urban areas & nodes.

    • Lou Miranda June 19, 2019 at 12:03 pm #

      By “autonomous vehicles & e-bikes”, I meant the private, rentable networks of such.

      Study after study shows that Uber, Lyft, et al., creates more congestion & pollution as more mostly-empty cars circulate.

      Public, rentable AVs & e-bikes have their place, but are not the end-all, be-all that their cheerleaders make them out to be. Cars of any ilk (electric, autonomous, etc.) don’t make a lot of sense in dense places. And the most common use cases for e-bikes could be solved with better land use, transit, and walkable/bikeable neighborhoods.

      As Mr. Ecklund states, we need multiple kinds of transit, both commuter/intercity with stops spread far apart and going out to the suburbs, as well local buses with frequent stops, and aBRT which is somewhere in the middle between those two extremes. We need overlapping transit networks, much like we have overlapping car networks (interstate, local highway, arterials, & local streets).

    • Eric Ecklund June 19, 2019 at 12:05 pm #

      That’s also an important lesson. Some people seem to believe autonomous cars will be a cure-all for our transportation issues, but there is no cure-all.

  5. Scott June 20, 2019 at 3:42 pm #

    Nice post. I lived in Oslo for a semester in college and still marvel at how such a small city with a metro-area of only 1 million can have such an extensive metro, bus, tram, and commuter rail system. Most of that system converged into a subway tunnel under central Oslo making it fast and reliable. And, before someone says “Norway is rich because of oil”, I’ll remind you that it was a poor country well after North Sea oil was discovered in the 1970s. Most of Oslo’s transit network was built prior to that time and has continued to expand the following decades.

    Just last night when attending the Twins game, I was frustrated by how slow LRT is as it runs at-grade in downtown Minneapolis. Then, I read the article about how SW suburban transit continues to experience delays on Marquette Ave because of traffic congestion. Wish downtown Minneapolis could have a transit tunnel like Oslo making buses and trains run faster.

    • Eric Ecklund June 21, 2019 at 12:39 am #

      I would hope in the 2030s there will be serious consideration of a LRT tunnel in downtown. If a 5th LRT line is proposed in downtown then it would become necessary to have a tunnel.

  6. steve June 20, 2019 at 6:39 pm #

    I just came back from Hong Kong and Toyko with massive amount of people yet their trains and buses seems to be moving , here with small system we can even manage to move the buses/trains out of downtown on time .
    Today the Transit Agencies are all complaining about Mpls traffic downtown .
    Build more highways only increases the traffic adding more buses exacerbate the problem.35W does not need BRT, it need trains that iare fast and frequent.
    The LRT is a big joke it take 10mins to get out of downtown and stops at almost every light.
    Mpls/St Paul offers lot of lip services and pander to the cars and keep building excessive parking with high subsidy Even MET COUNCIL is subsidizing driving and waste Millions on P/R when the money could have build more rails to the North /South Metro.

  7. Frank Phelan June 23, 2019 at 7:22 pm #

    You guys are red lining the jargon meter again.

    What is the difference between aBRT and BRT?

    If I can’t google the answer in under two minutes, you’re just to inside-ry.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke June 24, 2019 at 10:49 am #

      Short answer is dedicated right-of-way.

      • Frank Phelan June 25, 2019 at 7:00 pm #

        Bill, which has the dedicated right of way?

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