There used to be a trolley....
The decline of many American cities is accompanied by the line “there used to be a trolley”. Cities are haunted by these old transit systems. If you ever see a wide avenue median: chances are, there once were tracks running along it. Even small cities, like Durango, CO had a streetcar system.
In general—and certainly in North America—if your city didn’t get a subway system before World War II, it never will. The political will is lacking, and the costs are disproportionately higher than they were 100 years ago. Even as we have more sophisticated machinery, computer aided design for engineers and the ability to mechanize much of the work.
There are exceptions elsewhere, like Munich, always a streetcar town, which aquired a subway network for the Olympics in the 1970s. But the impetus for tunneling is pretty weak overall.
Those early underground systems, built by pioneering engineers in London and New York and Paris, with their cut and cover methods, digging down from the street, would never be permitted now. (They also had workers with picks and shovels, and yet were still cheaper than building today with modern technology). Environmentalists, NIMBYs, not to mention union shenanigans and graft, push up costs beyond what is feasible for any city. The recent extension to the Second Avenue Subway cost $2.5 billion a mile.
But at least if your city had a subway, they didn’t rip it out. Trolley (and some commuter rail) was fit for the postwar abolition axe. There are plenty of places that had trains and trams, once upon a time. In the early twentieth century, housing developers of new suburbs would often pay for the extension of a tram or commuter rail line to reach the homes. It was a win-win: the city government got extended transit routes, and the developers got a more marketable project by being able to offer transport links.
These days, the cost of extending a commuter rail line even a few miles is well beyond the average tract developer (and would never be recouped in the sale of new houses). The disproportionately high costs of extending rail is a big part of why it has stalled in so many places. Yes, there are the issues of environmental types who, much as they claim to support railways, will always stall anything being built because it might harm the habitat of the lesser spotted spitting snail or whatever. And land owners don’t take kindly to a railway being built across their land. Look at the fiasco of the high speed rail project in California to see why many people think the whole idea is impossible.
Some of you may be familiar with the ghost stations that exist in cities now, stations no longer operational but that can sometimes be seen from passing train cars. There’s another kind of ghost station: the kind that appeared on transport plans but were never built. City archives are full of these ghost maps, of ambitions never realized, of network plans abandoned, due to costs, political will, other priorities. Sydney is one example. For decades there were vacant lots, owned by the state for this future railway. People bought houses anticipating that the rail was on its way.
But Sydney, like so many cities, learned it was much easier to just widen a highway and tell everyone to use a car.
Nonetheless, the fact that there are places that had transit services and now do not is especially painful. I’ve lived in cities where a heavy rain would create potholes on the roads, uncovering streetcar tracks still buried below. Like remnants of a lost world.
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