MUNI 1190 rolls along Market Street in San Francisco (credit: Western Railway Museum archives)

  • The vintage streetcar is the icon of a new chic urbanism
  • A journey through time with a streetcar known by many names
Tracks To The Future: Streetcar Comeback

By Peter Boisseau

The Freelance Bureau

Slipping gratefully away from the hurly burly of Interstate 80, I follow the narrow black ribbon of Route 12 as it snakes its way through a wind-swept delta, finally spotting the sun-bleached clapboard outline of my destination.

The old railway station at Rio Vista Junction was once a stop on the interurban streetcar between San Francisco and Sacramento. Now it's the Western Railway Museum, a sort of retirement home for all things rail, including a fleet of old streetcars. One in particular I've travelled across the continent from Toronto to see.

I find MUNI 1190, the streetcar formerly known as KC 551 and TTC 4752 at various stops on its long journey, sitting in a field of knee-deep yellow grass. It's still wearing the faded cream and burgundy colors of the Toronto fleet of the 1950s. "They're like time machines," museum curator John Plytnick says quietly, standing behind me. Brushing cobwebs aside as I step through the doors, I see what he means.

All over the world, from Hiroshima to Strasbourg and Manchester, streetcars are rolling along rejuvenated downtown streets, while other cities scramble to get on board.

Modern transit systems might be the great hope to combat urban decay, congestion, pollution and suburban sprawl. And while a new generation of "light rail transit" is leading the way, the allure of classic streetcars is an important part of it. Witness the fleet of wooden streetcars in Memphis, or the jam-packed "Red Ladies" of New Orleans. The vintage streetcar is the icon of a new chic urbanism, a nod to the past with an eye to the future.

Agents of Urban Sprawl

“Streetcars were the first agents of suburban sprawl, and now we want to use them to knit our cities back together again," says city councillor Doug Alexander of Atlanta, which resurrected streetcar lines to boost tourism and development.

"Getting rid of the streetcars was not something that was done for good reasons, so it makes all the sense in the world to bring them back."

My streetcar rolled off the assembly line in 1947, one of the last batches of the so-called PCC class of cars with the distinctive Art Deco look that rejuvenated a flagging streetcar industry in the 1930s. By the time KC 551 arrived, Kansas City's once mighty streetcar fleet was once again in decline.

Conspiracy theorists like to blame an unholy alliance of oil and car companies for the disappearance of the streetcar across North America and beyond. But even some rail buffs concede streetcars at least laid the seeds of their own destruction.

Post-war North Americans were more in love with the car than ever, and far-reaching streetcar lines were used to spur suburban development. KC 551 was one of the last streetcars to run on the Country Club line out to the site of America’s first suburban shopping mall.

These days, there are malls so big they need their own shuttle buses to get customers around.

A Renaissance of Rail

In the “developed” world that includes Japan, Europe and North America, there is one car for every two people. Thousands of deaths each year are attributed to air pollution and smog from car exhaust. And urban planners worry the future will be even worse without a radical shift toward transit.

If China and India alone reach just half the level of car ownership of the developed countries, the world's car population will double, says Hirotaka Koike, an urban planning professor from Utsunomiya University in Japan, which is seeing a "renaissance" of its own once-abandoned streetcar systems.

“If we don't do anything, the traffic jams will get worse, and the impact will damage the world's environment," says Koike, who visited Toronto to study the streetcar system that has helped keep people living and working in Toronto's downtown core.

"The sustainable society of the next century has to have good public transport. And within the city, especially in the downtown area, the streetcar is a must," says Koike.

Largest Fleet in the World

As Kansas City phased out its streetcar system in the 1950s, it sold KC 551 to the Toronto Transit Commission, which was snapping up streetcars as fast as American cities were getting rid of them. KC 551 was re-christened TTC 4752 and became part of the largest PCC fleet in the world, sailing along the bustling streetcar-a-minute St. Clair Avenue route.

In 1973, TTC 4752 was sold again and arrived on the streets of San Francisco, which was in such frantic need of spare cars it simply slapped on the new MUNI 1190 designation and sent it out in Toronto colors. When it was retired in 1979, it was snapped up by the Western Railway Museum as an example of the last of the PCCs in San Francisco during that era.

When urban planners talk about streetcars today, they usually mean the largely European-influenced systems that are bigger, faster and more accessible to the people with physical disabilities, not older versions like the PCCs. They often make a distinction between streetcars that run along the street or existing roadways, and light rail cars that run exclusively on their own tracks above, below or apart from street traffic.

Most experts agree combining the old with the new creates urban development and a destination point for tourism at the same time. A bus route could be here today and gone tomorrow, but a streetcar line has a sense of permanency. You can see where it goes and where it's coming from.

Streetcars Boost Tourism, Development

Dallas now boasts a heritage trolley line as well as an expanding a light rail system that connects suburbs to downtown. "We're seeing the resurgence of the streetcar as a tool to economic redevelopment," says John Landrum, chief executive officer of the non-profit McKinney Avenue Transit Authority.

Sitting in the plush green interior of a restored pre-war Hiroshima streetcar, MUNI Historic Car Coordinator Karl Johnson smiles as he recalls that years ago, San Francisco actually considered scrapping its cable cars and taking streetcars off some downtown routes.These days, people line up day and night to ride those quirky old cable cars and are drawn like magnets to the brightly-colored PCCs on Market Street and Fisherman’s Wharf heritage streetcar lines.

"For the most people, it's a way to get around. But we also developed a tourist thing around it," says Johnson. The ripple effect has also drawn riders back to MUNI's modern light right system and subway too. Almost half of the working population now uses transit.

The allure of the streetcar is all part of the fight to get people out of their cars. "Things like light rail and trams are sort of socially acceptable across the whole width of society, and buses quite simply are not," says Bob Tarr, secretary general of the UK's Light Rail Transit Association.

For the Love of Streetcars

It's a Friday afternoon back in Toronto, and only a handful of passengers are sharing the streetcar with me as it plods along in traffic. The driver opens the door and waves to a barber sweeping the steps of his shop. The barber teases the driver about the traffic slowing her down.

Looking out the window at a TTC yard on the other side of the street, I see the fleet's two remaining PCCs, looking quaint and squat beside the lean European styling of their modern-day counterparts.

I'm reminded of a story. The mayor of Tel Aviv was being driven to the airport when he spotted one of the city's bright red streetcars. "It's nice, but why can't a bus do that?" the mayor asked his driver, Richard Soberman, a University of Toronto civil engineering professor who had struck up a friendship with the visiting dignitary.

"Well a bus can, but it's the perception," Soberman told the mayor. "We're in love with our streetcars."

©2002 and ©2018 Peter Boisseau 

In the nearly 20 years since an earlier version of this story appeared in enRoute magazine, streetcar and light rail expansion has continued as part of the new urban transit mix in many cities. And KC 551, the streetcar that rolled along the streets of San Francisco as MUNI 1190 and Toronto as TTC 4752, continued its long journey, returning home to Kansas City in 2006 as a tourist attraction at the city's Union Station, before recently being put into temporary storage for a downtown revitalization project. No doubt, like a time machine, it will appear once again to a new generation in the near future. Stay tuned. -- Ed

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Toronto streetcar system and future expansion -- Wikipedia