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Where are Baltimore’s Streetcars?

Baltimore, 1943. What your grand momma used to ride. (Photo Library of Congress)

At its peak in 1929, Baltimore’s streetcar system had over 400 miles of track. Lines went in every direction – North on Maryland and Charles St, east and west on North Ave., northwest on Penn and Madison Ave., through Locust Point via Fort Ave.  Almost every part of the city could be reached within 1/2 hour by streetcar. Most of the stations were mini-communities within larger neighborhoods – step off the streetcar, and you would see a bowling alley, a pharmacy, general store, and some newsstands right in front of you.  To see how comprehensive the system once was, check out the Baltimore Transit Archive streetcar route map from 1895.  Another streetcar map from 1924 can be viewed here. The odd metal tracks you sometimes see peaking out from the asphalt on Key Highway and in Fells Point are the last decaying remnants of a once great transportation system.  A Rome within Baltimore.

What happened? The depression, the suburbs, cars, and poor management were factors in the system’s demise. But the primary reason why Baltimore, and most other cities, dismantled their networks had to do with monopolistic and unscrupulous  practices by GM, Firestone Tire, and other companies who had financial interests in eliminating competition to make way for cars and buses.  A conglomerate of powerful corporations illegally bought streetcar lines out. While some people think healthy competition led to the “best product” (automobiles/buses) winning, monopolistic practices are often overlooked.   In free market competition, the best product at the equilibrium market price will usually win.  Well, except in cases where one competitor completely buys out and dismantles the competition.

Modern Day Portland Streetcar

Dismantling our streetcar system had a deleterious effect on mobility, urban growth patterns, and the environment. Baltimore should bring these systems back like Cincinnati, DC, and Charlotte are doing. Here is why:

  • Economic development – We have ungodly blight in some neighborhoods, and even some of our better main streets are struggling with vacancies and lack of foot traffic.  Streetcars encourage new businesses, increase street life, and make nearby development sites more attractive. See this report on the economic benefits Portland’s streetcar had.
  • Mobility – Faster than buses, more convenient and accessible routes than light rail, a comprehensive streetcar system could be a game changer in getting around Baltimore without a car.
  • Tourism -  Tourists are more likely to take a streetcar to a museum or to the Inner Harbor than they would a bus.  Streetcars would also attract more choice riders.  Though MTA buses are fine vehicles, fixed rail transit is a more comfortable ride with straight-forward routes which encourage out of town riders.
  • Style - You can’t discount the experience.  Streetcars are more comfortable and quieter than buses.
  • Other cities are doing it – Yes, this is a good reason, despite what your parents told you. FTA Urban Circulator grants are serving as the impetus for streetcar projects all over the country. In 10 years, not having at least the beginning of a streetcar network will be like not having buses today.  More people are going to expect streetcars as a transportation mode and as an urban amenity in larger cities.  We shouldn’t be left out.

There is some momentum. Charles Street Development Corporation initiated a streetcar study for Charles Street.  The ridership numbers for the Charm City Circulator, with routes that roughly mimic possible future streetcar alignments, are also promising. Now is the time to be bold. If we could put a man on the moon, we can bring streetcars back to Baltimore.

*Shoutout to the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. Go visit.