26 August, 2008

A PROPHETIC ARTICLE FROM 1972

From the Washington DC, Gazette, Sam Smith, nailed the future of transit in this country. Freeways were the future, or so it seemed, and air travel would replace all others in longer markets. In fact railroads might be gone altogether in 20 years. Progressive cities would marry themselves to modern city buses, and more asphalt and concrete. Old buildings were to be torn down for sparkling new cities of the future. Suburban sprawl and urban exit was at it's zenith. Washington D.C. not unlike Jacksonville, was busy destroying it's history and creating auto-centric sprawl that would eventually cover large parts of two states. Here in the deep south, Consolidation and urban renewal were the war cries that destroyed historic Brooklyn, LaVilla and Fairfield, any "undesirables" that couldn't be contained with outright destruction were cut off by freeway grades, fences or fly-overs. Such were the times just 10 years after the last Washington D.C. streetcar was abandoned, in fact Jacksonville was 36 years "Ahead" of D.C. in this line of thinking.

Out of this smog choked murky dusk, came a spark of light. Perhaps Saint Elmo's Fire moving down some unseen trolley wire in the minds of a very few people. Bring back the Trolley's was only whispered, a lapel button here and there, maybe a hushed talk, then Toronto said no to abandonment. Following on their heals came Boston and San Francisco, who decided not only to keep the streetcars but expand them. Suddenly their was the light of a new dawn. Into this Sam Wrote the following incredible article with the foresight of an Old Testament prophet, he nailed it.


THE NEWS BEFORE IT HAPPENS:

A 1972 LOOK AT STREET CARS

Sam Smith, DC Gazette, March 1972 - The end of January marked the tenth anniversary of the last streetcar run in the District. Curiously, only Jack Eisen of the Post, the local freeway lobby's favorite journalist, bothered to note the event. The City Council might have commemorated the occasion were it not engrossed in hearings on how to get DC Transit's O. Roy Chalk to remove an estimated 86 miles of streetcar track remaining in the city. Mayor Walter Washington might have joined also, but he was too busy trying to get congressional approval of a bond guarantee for the Metro subway system.While generally sympathetic to the streetcar as a historical phenomenon, Eisen offered this ex cathedra assurance: "Streetcars as we knew them will never again run in Washington." Why not? Certainly logic does not rule out their return. Streetcars are efficient. Trolleys operating on surface streets can carry nearly ten times as many people per hour as automobiles and fifty percent more people than buses. Streetcars , while not non-polluting (since they require electrical power), at least remove the pollution from where it has its deadliest effect - high density center city areas. Further, streetcars are a pleasure to ride, are devoid of the noxious fumes created by buses and are aesthetically pleasing.One of the major reasons streetcars went out - and will have a hard time returning - is that they compete directly with the automobile. At the time of their demise, anything that competed with the car was considered unpatriotic, anti-Christian and perhaps even a bit perverted. A decade later, as we wheeze our way through the atmospheric swamp that covers our major cities, we are beginning to view the car with a bit more skepticism. Not enough, to be sure, to do anything serious about restricting its use, but the first glimmers of comprehension are there. A generation that built its foreign policy on faith in Chiang Kai Shek and its domestic policy on faith in General Motors is beginning to doubt its wisdom. Now that Mr. Nixon has gone to China, perhaps his next major journey can be a ride on a trolley.It is hard to write of streetcars without succumbing to nostalgia and laying oneself open to charges of infantile romanticism. But the reason one feels nostalgia is, after all, because one misses something one thinks was good. And since the choice of transportation modes is in part determined by psychological factors, as any Freudian analysis of the automobile in American society will point out, a system that engenders a certain amount of romantic attachment may also guarantee itself ridership as well.Recently the city of Toronto reversed itself and decided not to end streetcar servi^ there. Said Ralph Day, chairman of the local transit commission, the streetcars are "liked by all users and detested by all motorists." Day has given us here a capsule criterion for the ideal urban transportation system. If we are to be-serious about building mass transit we must confront the automobile directly.It is not enough just to provide alternatives to the car; we must put obstacles in its path.One of the many fraudulent aspects of the Metro subway is that it is really designed not to compete with the automobile. One need look no further, than the freeway plans. The highway lobby hasn't whittled its ambitions one inch because of the prospect of Metro. Every freeway that was planned before Metro is still being pushed by highway builders. . . .Metro has plenty of other problems as a mass transit system. It costs too much, for one thing. . . As the largest single public works project in the world's history, Metro hardly qualifies as an economy. There is no doubt that DC could get more mass transit for its money by not building a subway and turning instead to a mixture of surface mass transit including rail commuter lines, streetcars, buses and jitneys.Secondly, Metro has already disrupted many communities in the city and will disrupt many more. Businesses and homes are being lost as Metro reveals its true nature as not merely an underground transportation system, but an aboveground land development scheme. Metro joined urban renewal as a major element in the city's reverse land reform program, which takes land out of the hands of the many and puts it in the hands of a. few. A surface transit system would not have been as amenable to such cynical and deceitful expropriation of land.Thirdly, Metro is primarily another means of providing safe, fast entrance and egress to DC for non-taxpaying suburban parasites. A streetcar system, along with other surface transit facilities, would be much more orientated to the needs of the local citizenry, as it was when it existed.Fourthly, Metro is inflexible. Where Metro goes, it will stay. The cost of adding new lines, or abandoning them, would be astronomical. Since a city is always in a state of flux, there is a need for a transit system that can bend to meet changing situations. A surface system is much more adaptable. . .Let us not forget that we live in the city that, more than any other, has surrendered itself to the automobile. Of course, it began a long time ago. The original L1Enfant Plan of 1791 proposed that 59% of the area of the federal city be set aside for highways. Thanks to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the Congress, the first highway lobby was restrained somewhat, but L'Enfant's successors have more than made up for the loss.Other cities have shown considerably more wisdom, and today some of these transit-oriented towns are taking another look at streetcars. Eisen reports that "Boston and San Francisco, aided by the U.S. Department of Transportation, have agreed upon the specifications for a new generation of trolleys to equip their remaining lines. . . San Francisco even has plans - and the promise of federal money - to expand its electric streetcar system as well as to renovate its cable car lines." And one of the least nostalgic men around, DC Transit's O. Roy Chalk himself recently wrote Eisen: "Maybe the reason passenger losses developed (in the transit industry) was not higher fares but elimination of trolleys. It is an interesting concept.How about a new trolley system, instead of a subway, with automatic (i.e. reserved) trolley lanes?"If a streetcar system were built here, there is no reason that it should be a replica of the former one. The reserved lanes suggested by Chalk would be one improvement. Use of cars in tandem, as is done in Boston, is another. The streetcar could be just one element of a rational, flexible, urban-focused, economical transit system. . . The unused commuter rail lines that lead into the District could be turned into mass transit systems. And a range of bus types, from small jitneys (like airport limousines) to double-deckers, could supplement the rail systems, replacing the single-size buses that DC Transit uses on nearly all its routes. It is not likely that the government or business interests will press for these improvements.It must come from the riders. The whole history of mass transit in this country is one of politics first, riders last. When jitneys started competing with streetcars in the early part of the century, the trolley companies got the courts and state legislatures to drive them out of business.Later, as Eisen points out, "A national transit holding company allied with bus-manufacturing interests. . . embarked upon a deliberate program of replying trolleys with buses in dozens of cities from Baltimore to Oakland." And, of course, the bus companies got their come-uppance not long after as the auto craze was fostered by a combination of highway builders, car companies, and cooperative public officials.The other day I saw an official of the Department of Transportation wearing a button that proclaimed: "Mix Your Modes." It's a nice sentiment, but one that has yet to gain credance in local transportation planning. Yesterday's fad was the freeway; today it's Metro. But monomania won't solve our transit problems. We have lots of different places to go and we need a variety of ways to get there. Streetcars should be one of them. Then getting there will no longer be half a pain

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The arguments rage to this date, "Should have never been built," "waste of taxpayer money," "Doesn't go anywhere," "Nobody rides it..." etc. Bottom line is we have it, and it is finally showing signs of life. Simple extensions to the Stadium, San Marco, and the area of Blue Cross in North Riverside would turn this little train around. Addition of Park and Ride garages and multimodal transit terminals at the end points would bring on the crowds. The video must have been shot on a Sunday Morning, as downtown is certainly as packed with life as any other major City on weekdays. Jacksonville is a city of Bikes, joggers, walkers, buses and cars, one almost wonders how the photographer managed to find this quiet moment.

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