Bring Back the Trolleys

The Thinker by Rodin

There was a time not too long ago when most people did not need an automobile. They got where they needed to go by hopping on the neighborhood trolley. Most cities and towns above a certain size had trolleys. Trolley rides were ubiquitous, cheap, environmentally friendly, quick and convenient. After seeing the DC Trolley Museum today, I could not help but wonder why we were so boneheaded as to get rid of them. We must have been out of our minds.

Oh, I know about the economic reasons that caused trolleys to disappear. They are well documented on Trolley Stop, a wonderful website full of details about our recent trolley-filled past. The automobile did them in. As automobiles became cheaper, those with automobiles often turned their cars into illegal forms of public transportation. They offered people rides for a bit less than the trolley charged. Their cars were called jitneys. Later on after World War II, cars became reliable enough and gas became cheap enough that cars finally became more convenient for many people than the trolley. Trolley ridership declined to the point where they were no longer economically sustainable. The car became king.

So here we are half a century or so later. For many of us the car is a painful and expensive necessity because we have no other options. Instead of taking us where we want to go quickly, they instead often take us where we need to go slowly. When my mother was in the hospital in June, I decided to visit her on a Friday evening. What was I thinking? A twenty-mile trip from the Northern Virginia to the Maryland suburbs during rush took me two hours, much of it on a merge ramp trying to get onto an already clogged Washington Capital Beltway. It boggles my mind that people who commute from Maryland to Virginia do this every day. They do it because they do not really have any other realistic alternatives. The trolley lines are long gone. If there were buses that could take them, they would be stuck in traffic too.

Now the only place that you are likely to find trolleys is in a museum. The DC Trolley Museum, in far northern Silver Spring, Maryland on Bonifant Road is blessed with dozens of working trolleys used in Washington, in cities across America, and overseas. They have a small but educational visitors’ center. But why read about trolleys when you can ride one instead? Most visitors to the museum buy a ticket and board one of the trolleys that pull out of the garage every hour or so. From the ding ding of the trolley’s bell to the call of the conductor to the squeal of the trolley’s brakes as it rounds corners, you can get a taste for public transportation in our recent past. It should make you wistful.

Trolleys were not just creatures of the cities. Trolleys created the suburbs. Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not expensive to extend trolley lines. So trolley companies extended them into the country and housing followed. Washington suburbs like Chevy Chase are a direct result of extended trolley lines. Many trolley companies found they needed to create interesting destinations for their passengers. The Glen Echo Amusement Park in Cabin John, Maryland was one of many such parks created by trolley companies. The profits from the parks helped keep the trolley system financially solvent.

In their heyday, trolley lines also gave stiff competition to the passenger railroad systems. At the DC Trolley Museum, I learned that there were profitable trolley lines between Hagerstown and Frederick in Maryland and many major and minor cities. These “interurban” trolley lines connected with their more urban cousins. They were also usually less expensive to ride and more centrally located.

Although trolleys were originally pulled by horses and mules, they eventually became all electric. In our increasingly polluted cities, they would now be a blessing.

In some places, trolleys are making something of a comeback. They are now referred to as light rail. Portland, Oregon is one of many cities making use of light rail. During a recent visit, Portland’s light rail system left me delighted. It took me from their airport to downtown but it also goes to many other places in the city. It cost me $1.70 and 45 minutes of my time. I could have spent $40 by taking a taxi. However, the light rail system was much more fun. It was also satisfying to see how the downtown area of Portland accommodated light rail on its streets. Some of its streets are designated for light rail use only.

This is good and as it should be. Other cities could learn a lot by emulating Portland. Many of our clogged divided highways have medians that are ideal for light rail. As usage of light rail increases and as automobiles become increasingly expensive to own it may be possible to devote some auto lanes for trolley or light rail use. I think that if we build trolley lines out from the cities toward our suburbs again then passengers will come.

The age of oil is ending, but it is unlikely that mankind will stop growing. We need to reexamine practical solutions that worked well in our past like trolleys and refine them for the present.