There comes a time when we start to look to the past. We look at things that have already been done; things that have worked and things that have failed. Our view of the past is 20/20 because we know how everything will end up; at least to the present day. It is with crystal clear vision that we can view the past.
I thought of this most recently while passing through a very small, very rural town to the west of here. On the top of a small hill sat a small farm. The front "yard" was made up of several acres of corn now beginning to dry on stalks that were turning from green to various shades of tan and gray. My brain brought to me the musty, dusty smell that I had experienced by playing various chase games in between the neat rows of corn as a boy.
Beyond the corn, up higher on the hill, sat a farmhouse and a barn. The house: white. The barn: red. Just the way it seems it always is and always should be. The thing(s) that knocked me back from the hazy tour of my long-lost youth was (were) two wind turbines that sat on each side of the barn. My head almost snapped forward as my mind began to race quickly back to the present and to the future. I started to picture windmills in Holland that have become semi-working museum pieces. I thought of the mills dating back more than a thousand years that used the power of the wind to do the work that had frequently been done by mules and slaves. Many of these uses of wind energy have ceased because there was some mechanical contraption that had taken its place. Electricity and the gasoline engine powered the mills and the use of the wind as a power source for the most part was no longer used. Interestingly enough, we are now heading back to the wind to generate the electricity to drive the motors or computers that can do all sorts of other things. It is the mirror image of Back to the Future.
It occurred to me that the same thing is happening with streetcars. Once a common fixture of the transportation system in many major cities, the streetcar was replaced by buses and other devices and there remain very few except in cities like New Orleans and San Francisco. The street car was seen as dangerous because they were hard to stop and couldn't swerve out of the way to avoid problems. Ever heard of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team? They originated as the Brooklyn Dodgers and got their name because of the people who "dodged" or jumped out of the way of the streetcars. They were seen as (perhaps most accurately) not very flexible because they could only go where the tracks were; not unlike railroad trains. Once planners made their decision where the streetcar (or the railroad line) would go, that was it. Yes, the thinking was that growth would follow and build on existing demand. But if, for whatever reason, the demand changed or development patterns took people elsewhere, there wasn't much that could be done about it. And that's where I have a problem with streetcars.
I don't trust that planners in this day and age and in this region in particular really understand where the needs are or where they will be over the next ten, twenty or thirty years. Time and time again planners around here have missed the boat when it came to predicting needs. If they had we would have a subway system that operated in a more circular fashion rather than the straight-line north/south and east/west spoke design we have to say nothing about having more frequent stations outside the beltway. Don't get me started on the road system either. Planners and engineers are still trying to figure out what to do and every day tens of thousands of people spend hours of their lives stuck in traffic jams as a consequence. Do we really trust that where they say we need rails for trolleys is really where they should go--not just now but 20 years from now?
Steve Eldridge is a long-time reporter, observer and commentator on the Washington region's transportation issues. You can contact him directly by writing to: Steve@SprawlandCrawl.com. Unless otherwise requested, letters or portions of letters can be used within future columns. Letter writers will be identified by their first name and city/neighborhood.