By Bill Marvel

Once upon a time in American cities, if you didn’t have a car you could still go almost anywhere. A network of steel rails and trolley wires laced together downtowns and neighborhoods, and ran far out into the countryside to connect with suburbs.

Photo by Geoffrey Marvel

DART trains pull into downtown Plano.

Electric interurbans ran from city to city. In 1910 a group of businessmen chartered a Utica, New York, trolley car and took it to all the way to Louisville, Kentucky, with stop-offs in Buffalo, Cleveland, and Indianapolis. A Sacramento resident could ride electric cars all the way to Oakland and San Francisco. Dallas residents could hop the Texas Electric to Fort Worth, Waco, Sherman and beyond. Los Angelinos had almost all of southern California at their doorsteps via Pacific Electric Railway.

All but the smallest burgs had streetcars. By the 1920s, more than 560 systems served American cities and towns, according to Dave Dobbs, an Austin, Texas, rail activist. But pavement was spreading, followed by rubber tires and petroleum. By the 1940s urban electric railway systems were collapsing one by one, driven out of business by the family sedan. By the late 1960s urban rail was extinct in all but a few of the very largest cities.

But once again urban American is starting to look like the 1920s. In city after city crews are laying rails and stringing wires. Some 15 new light rail systems are already in place with perhaps twice as many on the drawing boards. City dwellers are leaving their cars behind to ride the trolley to work and to recreation. And for good reason: Urban rail gets them farther on fewer resources. It pollutes less. And wherever it goes, rail is radically reshaping cities in ways that will ultimately make them easier on the environment.

Trolleys are Green

Dallas area’s DART light-rail vehicles each emit about as much greenhouse gas as a golf cart, according to DART spokesman Morgan Lyons. By switching from private car to public transportation, the American commuter could cut his CO2 emissions by 20 pounds a day. That’s 4,800 pounds a year.

Portland integrates a city-owned eight-mile streetcar loop, 44 miles of TriMet light rail, buses, and even bicycles into a public transportation network that has eliminated some 187,000 auto trips a day. The result is 60,000 fewer gallons of fuel burned, and 375 fewer metric tons of CO2 and 4.2 fewer tons of smog-producing pollutants that aren’t being pumped into the atmosphere to spoil views of that city’s fine scenery, according to the rail authority.

The biggest environmental impact is still down the tracks a few years, as urban rail begins to remake the urban landscape.

“It’s important to realize that just building rail is not the whole thing,” says William D. Middleton, who has written extensively about street and interurban rail past and present. Too often, he says, when people think of urban rail they think of the city as it exists now. “We should be building for the future,” he says.