Transit infrastructure often falls into the background of urban spaces. Mundane and practical, it is assumed to be built, or not built, because it best fits the needs of a city. On a closer look, transit moves through clearly marked trends: streetcars in the 2010s, light rail enjoyed a long period of success from the 1980s through 2000s, and before that was the jet age metro systems of the 60s and 70s.
The Failure and Success of Great American Transit is a series that picks apart the reasons behind these trends along with explaining the form and functionality of different types of transit. Every wave of transit has its own story of politics and planning that shaped the systems built. As a storytelling device, the series relies on the fictional midwestern city of Washburn created in the city building game, Cities: Skylines.
Each episode examines a specific type of transit, first on the national scale and then through a story of how it would have been built out in an individual city. Follow along as we discuss the conditions that created a transit trend, and the lasting impacts it had.
Since the early 2000s, streetcars have re-emerged as a fixture in cities across the United States. Many Americans look back fondly on streetcars of the early 1900s, and resurrecting these dormants lines seems like an obvious choice for rebuilding our transit networks.
In the first episode of the Failure and Success of Great American Transit, take a look at how the modern streetcar boom is different from the streetcars of our past. A wide array of factors created the modern streetcar, from urban renewal to national interest in manufacturing, streetcars were slated to pull the nation through a recession and restore the urban fabric.
As the boom has begun to fade a decade later, learn how it played out and which cities ultimately failed and succeeded in their new streetcars.
Early History of Streetcars
Decades after their demise, streetcars still hold a powerful cultural memory in the United States. In a step back to the dawn of urban transit, this video covers the history of streetcars from the earliest days through to the peak of the industry in the late 1910s.
Follow along the evolution of streetcars as they grew from small horsecars to sprawling networks of electric trolleys. In this video, we will also cover the close relationship between the streetcars and the new suburbs they created in their wake. Examine how real estate development and streetcars were intertwined to serve each other in the first wave of suburbanization in the United States.
Visitors to Washington D.C. are captivated by the Greco-Roman architecture of the nation’s monuments to government. The impressive architecture extends below the city streets as well, whisking visitors between sights is one of the most advanced heavy rail systems in the country: the DC Metro.
Metro and its cousins in Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami, and the San Francisco Bay Area are part of a generation of transit systems that began in the early 1960s, as cities began to grapple with the limits of urban freeways.
In this video, we cover the plans for new metros that sprung up across the country and the new role for the federal government in implementing them.
Inclined railways are a rare form of American transit lifted almost directly from their European predecessor: the funicular. Very few are left operating and today most of them are kept around as nostalgia pieces for tourists.
In this episode of Failure and Success of Great American transit, we examine the niche conditions that created inclines. Their brief success is linked mostly to industry in a handful of hilly cities, and their demise reflected a general shift away from hyper-localized forms of transit.
The History of Buses
Boarding at the front of buses and exiting through the rear is a common paradigm in American transit. It is far from the most efficient layout, and despite how common it is cities have been considering changing how riders board buses. This video examines how the setup came to be, through a combination of fare collection and labor practices.
We look at what lies ahead as well. In many cities, the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily altered bus boarding to encourage distancing between riders and drivers. It is uncertain how long this will last, and what buses might look like in the aftermath of the pandemic.