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February 28, 2017

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Thought I read that COP got a TIGER Grant for a study to run a streetcar from downtown (I think Cityscape) south. The suggested route would head down to Baseline and turn, I guess with the expectation of bringing the South Mountain folks into the public transit fold. Details aside, I think it's an interesting proposal and, with all the residential construction along South Mountain, it'd be interesting to see how much passing through the south part of downtown (really, about the train tracks to Broadway, at least) will cripple the idea/invigorate those property values.

The South Mountain extension is for light rail. I'm talking about a trolley that would be a downtown connector.

https://ggwash.org/view/36980/how-to-tell-the-difference-between-streetcars-and-light-rail

When I moved here in 1961, I remember seeing streetcar rails in downtown Glendale. They were eventually torn out.

Streetcars as infrastructure were relatively cheap back in the day. There wasn't anything like "utility relocation" costs, for example. You laid the tracks and overhead wires, and that was pretty much it. Neighborhoods tended to develop around them ("streetcar suburbs"), thus shaping the city itself. In Portland, these "suburbs" lingered as coherent places long after the streetcars themselves were shut down. Today's urban renaissance here is based at least partly on these niche neighborhoods where the retail didn't simply die out. It's been an incalculable boon for Portland, which has suffered many of the same post-war automobile-based disconnections as Phoenix. But hippies kept the old dreams going until the yuppies arrived in search of the "authentic". The crash pads of the 1960s can now fetch a half million dollars.

I used to live in the Coronado neighborhood near 10th St & Palm Lane. I could see the tracks embedded in the street there, although the retail was gone by that time. An urban archaeologist could point a few telltale signs of their impact but there's only a slight bit of interest since the old streetcars had so little long-term consequence for the region as a whole.

Portland has a new generation of streetcar lines, four plus miles or so, encircling the downtown core. One extends out to an original streetcar neighborhood, Nob Hill, a very pricey area now. It also runs in the Pearl District by Powell's Books, a major tourist attraction. The east line, close to where I live, is not as popular, and often empty at non-peak hours. But this is also a major hotspot for development, so its urban future now has a spine.

We're still waiting for Phoenix's light rail line to shape the urban form, and I've nearly given up waiting to see the signs, but it will happen. I would love to see people simply decide as a moral imperative to not only support more transit but actually live in the old city in order to further its evolution. Phoenix doesn't get much love in the national press, but there has been a promising uptick in development downtown. Cars separate people by distending spatial relationships. Streetcars, by contrast, used to bring us together. Making a great future happen in Phoenix will probably take individuals of conscience more than power brokers. I'll keep wishing the best for my old hometown.


Lawrence Fleming gave asu library a film, possibly depicting the last run of the trolley in 1947! https://repository.asu.edu/items/39176

I heard a cool story from a very, very old man years ago:

The streetcars would stop to let women and children board, but it was assumed that grown men were hearty enough to trot alongside and leap aboard. It was a great rite of passage for a boy the first time the streetcar didn't stop and he had to run after it.

He also said that on the weekends, townsfolk would board the Grand Avenue line with their .22s and shoot at the varmints out in the desert. There was a lot of grumbling when the city passed an ordinance banning shooting from the streetcar.

Soleri-" I would love to see people simply decide as a moral imperative to not only support more transit but actually live in the old city in order to further its evolution. "Waiting for people to do the right thing because it is in their long term interests is like asking me to give up my SS check because I tell my right wing friends it is welfare.That is why we need gov't to pass laws to do what is good for us but painful personally.

Mike, I agree government is a necessity but the problem here is that it cannot compel personal choices. Even in the more abstract arena of public policy, everything is up for debate, including public schools, passenger rail, and environmental protections. The loss of a vibrant city center has had really profound political and civic consequences for Phoenix. It shows up in the lack of vital engagement citizens have with their neighborhoods, which then spills over into the lack of vision among political and business elites. We can't fix this by fiat. My wish here is outside the realm of planning and coercion. It's just that those few people who really love Phoenix might do something aside from voting against the Kookocracy and paying their taxes. The civic malaise in Arizona shows a set of symptoms starting with the weak core of its largest city. What the city really needs is an infusion of energy and commitment from ordinary citizens who understand the issues well enough that they're willing to make their own lives its solution. Will this happen? Almost certainly not.

In addition to its wildly popular light rail, which goes from south of Sea-Tac airport through downtown and to the University District (with more to come), Seattle has two streetcar lines. One from the core of downtown into South Lake Union. The second connecting Capitol Hill with Pioneer Square. A third is planned for First Avenue.

The problem with freeways and suburbanization in the latter part of the 20th century onwards is that it was heavily subsidized. Just as airlines were heavily subsidized while railroads were heavily regulated and taxed. Freeways destroyed cities (see the City Desk story). But the externalities — the real costs — were never priced in. Freeways and roads don't "pay for themselves" and they cost enormously, from destruction to rural areas and carbon emissions to the cost of maintaining armies and fleets to ensure cheap oil.

Dan Hunting, great post, what a lovely bit of color to Jon's good post with those anecdotes!

My understanding from when I lived in SoCal was that the oil companies bought the railroads and shut them down, I never researched it to see if that was true or not, but I'm glad they've been reclaiming and rebuilding rail resources there for decades now. It would obviously have been easier and cheaper to maintain them all the way through time but better late than never and better to correct a mistake than let it linger.

Excellent piece and some really good Front Pages.

I fondly remember walking from 7th st. to 10th St. to catch the streetcar on Saturday Morning, clutching my 50 cents to go to the Rialto or Strand Theater for two movies, a couple of serials and a bunch of cartoons.
Imagine a mother letting her 9 or 10 year old son doing that today.

"Lawyer Fred Rosenfeld grew up in a house at Holly Street and Fifth Avenue. He still remembers the sound of the trolley brake when the car would stop at the corner outside his bedroom window."

Small world. He also lived in the neighborhood I grew up in, just a few blocks away from John McCain's house on Central Avenue just north of Glendale. As I recall, their house was plagued by scorpions, a problem which was correlated (in the neighborhood) with plots of land serviced by SRP irrigation (as opposed to sprinkler systems connected to the water mains). I suppose their eggs were carried in the current, or perhaps the scorpions themselves, since they are notoriously hardy beasties.

The SRP men, whom I recall wore thigh high rubber boots, could be observed with their long forked tools, at intervals, opening or closing the local distribution gates (ensconced in concrete at strategic points in the neighborhood), and lurking about in unmarked pickup trucks, keeping an eye on things (water levels?); the scruffiness of both themselves and their private motor vehicles exciting the suspicions of uninformed neighborhood residents concerned with the possibility of burglars.

Most of the houses were of the single story "ranch" variety and, in their original form, dated from the sixties, though Mr. Rosenfeld's home was two story, and many later residents, of a yuppie variety (not describing Rosenfeld), bought the plots for the neighborhood features (trees, the bridal path, bourgeois peace without the exurban baggage) and razed the original homes, building rather more expensive (and not altogether appropriate) mini-mansions (necessarily mini since the plots were not overly large in most cases, though there was one plot that possessed perhaps a full acre which was at one time planted with pomegranate groves).

So far as I know, the oldest house in the neighborhood was owned by an old man named Conde Withers, who built it largely himself, in the 1920s, when construction regulations made that feasible without specialized licenses. At that point, the neighborhood was an exurban extension of downtown.

Well, enough reminiscing.


"Finally, in 1947 a fire destroyed the car barn near 13th Street and Van Buren. The city decided to substitute buses instead of rebuilding and the system was abandoned."

I like streetcars. But why did the city decide to substitute buses? Buses must have a garage infrastructure for overnight parking, service, maintenance and repair too, so it doesn't seem as though the cost of replacing the car barn would be more than the cost of building a new central facility for the overnight parking and general upkeep of a bus fleet.

So presumably it had something to do with lower infrastructure costs and the flexibility involved with independent motor vehicles that could navigate expanded routes without the associated specialized infrastructure costs of a streetcar system which required its own electrified energy delivery grid and tracks, all of which required the additional cost of construction modifications of existing roads.

Here is an additional question for the astute and historically informed Rogue Columnist: What was the primary energy source for Phoenix's electric power generation systems at the time when streetcars were phased out in favor of buses? Was it coal or petrochemicals? And if the latter, was it not (simply given the loss of energy involved in the transmission of electrical power) cheaper to fuel buses with gasoline directly? This is not a conclusion posed as a question: I genuinely do not know.

I like streetcars. But why did the city decide to substitute buses?

Buses must have a garage infrastructure for overnight parking, service, maintenance and repair too, so it doesn't seem as though the cost of replacing the car barn would be more than the cost of building a new central facility for the overnight parking and general upkeep of a bus fleet.

So presumably it had something to do with lower infrastructure costs and the flexibility involved with independent motor vehicles that could navigate expanded routes without the associated specialized infrastructure costs of a streetcar system which required its own electrified energy delivery grid and tracks, all of which required the additional cost of construction modifications of existing roads.

Here is an additional question for the astute and historically informed Rogue Columnist: What was the primary energy source for Phoenix's electric power generation systems at the time when streetcars were phased out in favor of buses? Was it coal or petrochemicals? And if the latter, was it not (simply given the loss of energy involved in the transmission of electrical power) cheaper to fuel buses with gasoline directly? This is not a conclusion posed as a question: I genuinely do not know.

Apologies: coal can certainly be classified as petrochemical. What I meant was, coal burning power generation plants, or petroleum (oil or oil derivative product) burning?

I found some information which may shed light on the decision to switch to buses in 1947 after the streetcar park burned down. From "Power Lines: the Making of the Modern Southwest", by Andrew Needham, p. 75 (available through Google Books):

"Across the region, utilities attempted to restrain electricity use in the late 1940s, restricting agricultural pumping to the night hours when demand was low. . . Still, Phoenix experienced three blackouts between 1946 and 1948 along with numerous brownouts when voltage was reduced due to unsustainable demand."

The same page also sheds light on the evolution of Phoenix's power generation system:

"When Ocotillo was completed in 1956, the utility's generating capacity stood at 635 megawatts, all fired by natural gas drawn from the Permian Basin of West Texas, an energy source that caused few noticeable emissions and resulted in few complaints about power plants located within Phoenix's small industrial districts or just beyond its metropolitan borders."

Incidentally, was an investigation of the burning of the streetcar park conducted, and if so what was the cause attributed?

Footnote: Conde Withers was a chemist who also performed services as a professional assayist. His son (grandson?) founded a construction company which Bloomberg describes thus:

D.L. Withers Construction, L.C. operates as a construction manager and general contractor serving commercial projects throughout the Southwest, with a primary focus on Arizona. The company’s services include design-build, design-bid-build, building information modeling, and leadership in energy and environmental design. Its projects include office, industrial, aviation, automotive, retail, parking structures, cultural, religious, sports/recreation, transportation, government, labs/life science, police/fire, K12 education, charter schools, higher education, hospitality, maintenance, and tenant improvement. D.L. Withers Construction, L.C. was founded in 1981 and is based in Phoenix, Arizona with an additional office in Tuscon."

http://www.bloomberg.com/research/stocks/private/snapshot.asp?privcapid=6465289

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