What does it take to undo a conspiracy? Looking back at trolley history, at the turn of the 20th century, every city with a population of 10,000 or more had streetcars, according to Daniel Parolek’s presentation to the Congress for the New Urbanism, cited in Jeff Speck’s Walkable City.
Great public transit, it was reasoned, stood in the way of car sales. So General Motors joined forces with some powerful allies to put a stop to it by buying up trolley services in more than 40 cities through a shell corporation. Once they had control, they converted them to bus lines. Then they got bus-ted. In 1949, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, GM and Mack Trucks were convicted of conspiracy. If you don’t know this story, you should really read more about it.
What was the punishment?
A judge thought there wasn’t much that could undo the wrong. His response was to fine them next to nothing because bigger fines wouldn’t bring back the trolleys.
The judge was incorrect. Cities can bring back the trolleys. Portland, Ore., lead the way in 2001 by reintroducing trolley-like rail lines into its city. Salt Lake City, which at one point had almost 150 miles of light rail, started running its new streetcar system in December. Other cities are following suit.
In many cities, however, there are only faint signs of the former trolley systems.
In Mobile, Ala., azaleas line the median on Spring Hill Avenue, where one of the trolley lines used to run. In Chicago, potholes that open in winter often reveal old trolley rails that have been paved over for today’s car-dominated streets. In Portland, trestles from previous trolley lines are now posing safety hazards.
Here is just a quick sampling of the cities that used to have streetcars. While the conspiracy certainly hastened the demise of the electric trolley, it wasn’t the only factor leading to the decline. But imagine if it hadn’t happened and streetcars had continued to exist and even thrive in cities like:
Detroit: The city most known for its car-culture had trolleys into the 1950s. The Detroit Department of Street Railways oversaw more than 360 miles of track in and around the city. There’s even a chance that Detroit will get trolleys again.
Kansas City, Mo.: The city used to have both cable cars and then electric trolleys well into the 1950s. The system connected both urban and residential areas. Kansas City is looking to join the movement of bringing back trolley service as soon as next year, but at least one fan thinks it will never be the same.
Bellingham, Wash.: A network of streetcar lines connected the city and, via an interurban system, nearby Mt. Vernon.
Mobile, Ala.: As mentioned, Mobile had mule-drawn and then electric trolleys along Spring Hill Avenue and Old Shell Road. They were also phased out and replaced by busses in 1940, and most of the rails were sold for scrap during World War II.
Iowa City, Iowa: It might not have been the best route, but the Iowa City Street Car Co. ran five lines in and around Iowa city and even connected to Cedar Rapids via an interurban train. Service on the trolleys was phased out for busses in the 1930s.