Monday, September 3, 2007

Sometimes Old is New

I recently visited San Francisco where I saw the usual gaggle of tourists lined up to ride the Cable Cars. Now don't get me wrong, I love the old cars myself. They represent a past that few cities have been able to preserve. But what really caught my attention were the Trolley Cars! The San Francisco Railway Museum has been actively engaged in building a Museum in Motion. They are making trolleys relevant again as a solid part of a public transportation system. The cars span many years and several vintages: old U.S. trolleys and so-called "PCC's". The cars have been refurbished and put back into active service. What a great idea!

A hundred years ago, every self-respecting city of even modest size had it's own trolley system. The trollies were born with the advent of efficient electric motors and generators in the late 1880's. Electricity was at least a decade or two ahead of the gasoline engines that powered automobiles. Trolleys and automobiles co-existed for the first half of the 20th century. With America's ever-increasing love affair with the car, however, the trolley lines were doomed. By the early 1950's most were gone. The lines were often taken over by unscrupulous businessmen who sold the assets for a quick profit. The tracks were ripped out, the cars scrapped, and the car barns torn down. Now, if you are lucky, you might still see a trolley car running on a mile or two of track as a tourist attraction (as I do in Minneapolis).

Folks here in the Twin Cities are now engaged in a (largely partisan) debate over whether we should extend the Light Rail line to more points than the single line we have today. I hope we do. San Francisco can help other cities to see how it can be done. San Francisco's trolleys are not just a tourist attraction. The newly refurbished cars are part of a working public transportation system that ties the past to the future. And the people love 'em. Sometimes Old really is New.