Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Short-Sighted Progress

Apparently Boise, Idaho is looking into putting in a streetcar. Boise's no stranger to streetcars, like most North American cities, but also like most North American cities, it's been a long time since it's had rails to ride - the original Boise streetcar system was decommissioned back in 1928, well before it became fashionable for cities to tear out the rails. The streetcar reintroduction project there is modest, just a couple of miles of track circulating through downtown, but already it's got detractors. One such opponent writes at the No Boise Street Car weblog, where streetcars themselves are castigated as "a regressive design... basically unchanged since their inception at the turn of the century."

Streetcars haven't changed in a hundred years? Okay, so where do I attach the horse?

Put the TTC's remaining Peter Witt heritage streetcar and a modern CLRV next to one another, and tell me how much is basically unchanged between them (protip: they both run on rails). By that logic, automobiles are equally regressive because they're still powered by internal combustion. But I digress.

Reading this reminded me of another note on the Transit Toronto website, regarding why Toronto still has a streetcar system of any kind. Sixty years ago, cities from Hamilton to Montreal and Vancouver to Ottawa operated, while now Toronto's are the last in the country. Toronto kept running streetcars not out of any sense of wisdom, but because it was "slow in embracing what was seen as the progressive trend."

I've written before about the Great American Streetcar Scandal that led to the demolition of streetcar systems in Los Angeles and other cities across the United States, but it does a disservice to think of that as the sole and solitary reason why most cities abandoned their streetcars. The scandal was only the most prominent expression of an idea which was commonly held at the time, that streetcars belonged to the past and not the future. It's only been in the last couple of decades that cities have realized the hollowness of this belief and begun to reinstate light-rail transit systems.

The problem is not streetcars, no matter how much whoever's behind No Boise Street Car rails about the supposed inferiority of streetcars when compared to buses that can be powered by "one of many propulsion methods - battery, electric, gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, compressed natural gas, or hybrid technology." Nonwithstanding that only two of those methods create no emissions, which is half the reason I ride the streetcar myself. No, the problem is the consistent willingness to believe that just because an idea, concept, or method is old, it is outdated and something new is automatically better just because it's new.

On the face of it, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with that kind of neophilia, but following it blindly is right up there in the hierarchy of poor decisions. Sure, some old methods lasted because at one point they were the only way to do things - like burning coal for electricity away from sources of hydroelectricity - but others lasted because they worked, and worked well. I don't think it's a coincidence that most public transit operators were grievously wounded when they stopped running streetcars. At the time, everyone was jumping ship for individual automobiles, and since buses were the Wave of the Future, that's what every city on the continent started running. Too bad that buses are widely stereotyped as "the last resort," full of strange people and stranger smells. There's a permanence and, yes, a sort of romance involved with the rails, elevating them a bit above the everyday. That's one reason why I think light-rail has been successful where it's been reintroduced.

Progress is all well and good, but like all things, it should be pursued with moderation.

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