I recently sat in a room with high profile developers- discussing the potential integration of local businesses into their revitalization project. The conversation morphed into the business models of yesteryear – an old Baltimore crab shack nobody could stop talking about and big open markets. The developers snickered, “that’s not practical. Nobody buys fish with the head on it anymore.” And it was true. The one time I attempted to clean a fish, I ended up slimed at my kitchen table, plucking bones with the pliers of my shiny purple Leatherman while YouTube videos on ‘how to fillet a fish’ streamed in the background. In so many respects, we’ve all succumbed to an updated way of life, but that doesn’t negate the nostalgia of ‘back in the day’ practices.
The Streetcar is one of these elements of nostalgia. A slower steadier pace through the streets of Baltimore, the romanticized memory of the trolley bell instead of car horns and exhaust. It seems like such a simple and practical solution to congestion, to the point that several groups across Baltimore have started to explore the possibility of bringing back the Baltimore Streetcar.
While the Baltimore Streetcar system began operating in 1885, 1929 was its peak year – with over 400 miles of track traveling in all directions. The Streetcar ran north on Maryland Avenue and Charles Streets, East and West on North Avenue, Northwest on Pennsylvania and Madison Avenue, and through Locust Point on Fort Avenue. With circulation every 1-15 minutes, almost anywhere in the city could be reached within a half hour. What began as a cable car system was replaced with a standardized unit of electric streetcars in 1899, enabling workers to live farther from the center of the city, thereby facilitating city growth. You can still see waiting stations on Bedford Square and Overhill, the Park Terminal near Druid Hill Park, and on Charles Street the old Streetcar Barn sits north of Penn Station. Segments of the tracks are still breathing beneath the asphalt and cobblestones on Key Highway and in Fells Point, and the massive coal burning power plant on Pratt street – 190 feet high with four smokestacks – pay homage to the transit that was.
In 1914, the streetcar system began to decline. The depression, suburbs, rise in car use, and reported illegal purchase of street car properties by GMT, Firestone, and other car-focused companies was known as The Great American Streetcar Scandal. Baltimore’s last streetcar ran in November of 1963.
Decades later, the interest has returned to the city. Sparked by overcrowded streets, hours lost in traffic and rising gas prices, new groups are exploring transit options – one of which is the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign. Nearly a decade ago, The Charles Street Development Corporation studied the potential of a fixed rail streetcar in the Charles Street district. Aiming to complete a 7.5 mile route, this study was complimented in 2008 by a specialized focus group: the Charles Street Trolley Corporation (CSTC). CSTC was formed to delve more deeply into the feasibility of a streetcar, and aimed to oversee the finance, operation, and governance of the project, with the intent to develop the best possible transit system for the Charles Street Corridor. Founded on the belief that a trolley system would boost business and development activity through connection of important cultural, historical, and educational destination, the outcome was presumed to enhance urban livability and bolster connection between city and suburb. Two Years ago, Jimmy Rouse, fueled by his passion for streetcar resurgence, hired Robin Budish as the director of the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign. Together the two began outreach and shared information on the benefits of returning this type of transit to Baltimore. As the crowd grew and information was passed from change-maker to change-maker, it became evident that people were more willing to listen and consider transit options when they were presented with a comprehensive view of a complete transit system. Local representatives including Adam Gross of Ayers Saint Gross Inc. and Bill Struever of Cross Street Partners were early advocates for the contextual transit integration, and thus the Baltimore Streetcar Campaign put together a group called Transit Choices. Transit Choices has about 40 participants and works to find a unified vision of transit, believing that the presentation of systems working together, rather than in isolation, would garner more momentum publically and politically. In essence, Transit Choices seeks to support the development of a transportation system which attracts and serves residents, students, businesses and visitors to grow Baltimore.
The question of practicality, of course, remains. If accepted, would the Streetcar run often enough to make it worthwhile? Do people really want streetcars, or are we just hungry for an alternative to the bus? While I’m not a transportation planner, I do recall that building more lanes does little to alleviate traffic. More lanes isn’t an alternative to traffic, it is a facilitator of congestion. Baltimore’s DOT Strategic Transportation Safety Plan wants to improve safety in our streets for pedestrians and cyclists, and members of the city government including Nate Evans, Bill Hwang, and Barry Robinson are active members of the Transit Choices group – speaking highly to the widespread communication that Robin and Jimmy are facilitating.
Nationwide, streetcars are returning. Cincinnati, Dallas, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, San Antonio Atlanta, DC, and Charlotte are all bringing back streetcar systems under the premise of enhanced mobility, increased tourism, and urban development. Many of Baltimore’s current bus lines are on our streetcar lines, following the same routes. While the implementation of a streetcar isn’t a blanket solution to our city transit woes, the future of public transportation might just be a flashback towards the past.