The great streetcar myth

Andrew Smith
5 min readDec 27, 2023
A streetcar in New Orleans. Photo by Diego Delso, used by Creative Commons license

The Great Streetcar Myth is a well-worn tale that continues to make the rounds. It gained traction in the 1988 film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” but it’s a common tale told among urbanists and railfans.

There are a few versions, but they’re all similar to this.

“Once upon a time, everyone in America rode in streetcars, interurbans, passenger trains and subways. We rode the rails and were happy. We loved living in densely-packed cities, walking to the stop and watching the streetcar take us where we needed to go.

“Then, one day, big, bad General Motors (or Firestone or Big Oil or someone else) stepped in and said “WE NEED PROFITS” and they bought all the streetcar lines and transit and shut them down so we’d all have to buy cars and — if we wanted transit, ride buses — and the entire country turned into a dystopian hellscape of traffic and pollution overnight. It’s the auto industry/Big Oil/tire industry that took away our beloved trains and MADE us live in suburbs and MADE us buy cars and drive everywhere. If it weren’t for that, we’d still be living the idyllic streetcar-and-interurban-and-train-based life we had before World War II.”

There’s a reason why mythology exists — stories can make us feel good about ourselves. But it’s mythology for a reason.

The reality is much more simple. From the onset of the Great Depression through the end of World War II — a span of a decade and a half — there was very little housing built in the United States. Few could afford new homes during the Depression, and then all materials went to the war effort. Then, suddenly, the war ended and thousands of young men returned to civilian life. Many were newly married and didn’t want to live in their parents’ homes. They had military pay, the GI Bill to pay for college and were attractive employees. They found jobs and started families and needed a place to live.

William Levitt applied Henry Ford’s mass production techniques to housing construction and created a new form of community — the master-planned suburb. Whole towns were built out of cornfields, and the houses couldn’t be built fast enough to meet the demand. Built on inexpensive land far from the city center, his towns were not on existing streetcar or transit lines. But that was not a problem, as the new residents could afford cars, which could get them from their origin to their destination without having to wait on the next train to come.

Many streetcar and interurban lines had gone bankrupt before the war, but the resultant lack of demand after the war killed off what was left.

Meanwhile, our new settlement patterns meant the new suburbs weren’t served by existing fixed-line transportation. Buses — which were smaller and thus scaled to the new, lower levels of demand — replaced them. Buses also had the advantage of being able to change routes to meet demand, rather than being stuck serving the areas of the city that were settled decades before.

People decided they liked suburbs, the size of the single-family homes, the availability of cheap land and the freedom provided to them by car ownership. One car became two in a lot of families. Three bedrooms became four in many suburban homes. We chose that lifestyle and communities developed to provide that for us.

The planning decisions of the era reflected the decisions people were already making, and accommodated those choices.

Meanwhile, intercity passenger rail went through a precipitous decline at the same time. While it had been on a steady decline since 1920 — with WWII travel restrictions providing a brief respite — it cratered in the 1950s. Again, the triumvirate of Big Car, Big Oil and Big Tire gets blamed, but that makes no sense.

After all, rails can move either freight or passengers. Freight has long been profitable. A single train can haul well over 100 cars — and given the size of each car, that likely replaces what would have been hauled by more than 200 semi trucks. Not only that, but trains provide safety by hauling hazardous materials and keeping them off highways. Trains can move large quantities of goods long distances, and they are in high demand. Meanwhile, a long-distance train might replace 100 automobile trips, but those trains don’t get people from their origin to their destination, so automobile usage is still needed.

If Big Oil and Big Tire had its way, it would be all about passenger rail being prioritized over freight on the tracks, because they would sell a lot more oil and tires fueling hundreds semi trucks than seeing all of that cargo being hauled on a single train, while the dent in auto usage by passenger rail was largely a rounding error even in the late 1950s and 1960s, and especially is so now. After all, that’s what happens in Europe, where passenger trains are prioritized for political reasons on state-owned railroads, dumping freight onto trucks and highways. Even with that, passenger rail amounts for 8 percent of European travel. People say they like trains, even if they don’t actually use them.

Intercity passenger rail declined due to demand shifting to other modes of transportation — air travel began to grow and highways and increasing car ownership provided more convience for shorter-distance trips.

There was no conspiracy to tear down the streetcars, subways, interurbans and passenger trains. They collapsed and declined due to the individual choices millions of people made. When you realize decisions are not made by a central planner, but are decentralized and made by individuals each trying to maximize their own self-interest, you put conspiracy theories aside and accept reality.

We Americans prefer the suburban life, we prefer the freedom provided by personal, private transportation and no amount of conspiracy theorizing or central planning will pull us away from that reality. Planning decisions should continue to reflect that reality, not direct it.

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Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith is an economics instructor at New Palestine (IN) High School and an adjunct instructor for Vincennes University