Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Street Cars Coming Back to Center City?

When it comes to American public transportation, Portland, OR has gotten a lot of press. They introduced a significant light rail line in the 1990s, expanded it in the 2000s with an extension to the airport, and put modern trolleys downtown. When people think of light rails and trolleys, they think "Portland," a departure from America's heyday of rapid rail transit when street cars were synonymous with older cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco.

An unrecognizable 12th and Market.

But despite the Rose City's comprehensive system and its "fareless square," the hype surrounds the fact that Portland's TriMet managed to successfully retrofit a fantastic system within a newer, West Coast city. Seattle, a little bit bigger but equally friendly to pedestrians, struggled for decades with the notion of light rails. For those who've never been, the Seattle Monorail is not an effective transportation solution unless you're simply traveling to the Space Needle. It's fun, and little more. But it's not the weirdest thing in Seattle. Until relatively recently, busses travels through a downtown tunnel designed specifically for trains. 

While Portland's trolleys may be sleek and clean, it hardly owns the market. In fact, a recent article pointed out that Philadelphia actually has the largest street car system in America, despite having shut down a significant portion of the original map.

The same article also highlights SEPTA's initiative to reopen a bit of that lost footprint, potentially bringing trolleys back to the streets of Center City. Additionally, SEPTA might be giving rail-fans a reason to take another look at Philadelphia. A program has offered SEPTA the funds to purchase more than 100 new trolleys, 80 foot cars that will be better accessible by being much lower to the ground.

Along many of the old lines throughout Center City, Chestnut Hill, and South Philadelphia, the electric cables have remained in place in the hopes that the trolleys would someday return. Although portions of the track have been paved over, having such an extensive foundation in place provides enormous potential, and we may again see cable cars running down 12th Street and up 11th. 

Move over Portland. We got this. 


  1. Cable cars????! Huh wha? Does the writer know what a streetcar even is? As for route 23, Septa did say they were looking at it, but never mentioned which section of the line.

    1. Short of a train set I had when I was 10, I'm not a rail nerd. I never knew there was a difference between cable-cars and street cars. Cool stuff.