Streetcars vs. monorails: The fight for the future of urban transportation.

How we get from here to there.
Jan. 12 2011 4:19 PM

Streetcars vs. Monorails

The future of urban transportation looks a lot like the past.

See a Magnum Photos gallery of streetcars, trams, and trolleys

(Continued from Page 1)

Jarrett Walker, a transit planner in Melbourne, argues that a kind of mode blindness can obscure the actual practicality of any transportation technology. The monorail, he notes, was in part a victim of our vision of what cities should look like, which, for now at least, is not the Futurama world of crisscrossing elevated walkways and extreme grade-separation. "The current generation of urban designers is pretty passionate about the supreme importance of the pedestrian experience at the ground plane," he writes, "and resistant to putting any substantial structure directly over a street." This theory may explain why the streetcar is ascendant. But it doesn't prove that trolleys are superior. Streetcar devotees, Walker suggests, often oversell the streetcar as a boon to mobility; there's little, in terms of speed or technology, a streetcar can do that a bus cannot.  

And we could go here into an exhaustive rabbit-hole of per-mile costs and capacity and other spreadsheet cells, but I want instead to return to Disney, and point out that—to rework Walter Benjamin's famous declaration—every form of infrastructure is at once a form of desire. Disney didn't just build monorails or trolleys to move people from A to B. They were and are an experience in and of themselves—an idea often underemphasized in transit planning.

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A common critique of both monorail and streetcar projects is that they're "for tourists." If they are—and certainly San Francisco's "historic" lines are heavily touristed—it might be worth asking: So what? Tourists need mobility and access like anyone else, and the economic value of historic streetcars, which in cities like San Francisco (where tourism is a legitimate industry) are often overflowing with tourists, clearly goes beyond ticket costs. Often the "tourist" charge is a brush used to tar urban livability schemes in general (e.g., New York's Times Square); one study of Vancouver's "Olympic Line," a 60-day streetcar demonstration project, found 82 percent of riders were city residents.  

I recently spent hours riding the historic streetcars in Lisbon, and while there were certainly tourists (the city's transit authority has just announced it will raise the price of tickets bought onboard, in part to benefit from this market), there were also plenty of residents—for whom, as a local friend observes, the streetcar is a "lifeline" to neighborhoods like Graça or Campo de Ourique. And while I would not have been particularly excited to board a bus, or even a taxi, there was an undeniable ease and grace to boarding a streetcar. As it clanged up into the Alfama, I alternated between looking at the stellar city views and the urban pageant within. Was it nostalgic? Perhaps. But it was also accessible, and seemed to be a part of the urban scrum, not some elevated train whisking away to an unseen destination. Nostalgia is not by itself good or bad, and it takes many forms. Consider modern streetcars, which despite not reaching high speeds, look as if they could. "If you want one reason why modern streetcars with rounded noses—Strasbourg, Portland, Seattle—are becoming the new norm," Walker told me, "it's that they've hit on a way to signify the future and the past at the same time. The mere fact of it being a streetcar invokes a nostalgic return-to-1920-paradise agenda, even as the rounded-nose signifies the future."

It rather puts a new gloss on something Walt Disney once said: "Yesterday is a thing of the past."

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Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.

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