The Rise & Fall & Rise of Streetcars in Milwaukee

Sep 11, 2017

There are many things brewing in downtown Milwaukee. Perhaps the most notable project this summer has been the laying of the tracks for the new Milwaukee Streetcar, which has torn up roads throughout downtown and the Third Ward.

Residents have many lingering questions about the new streetcar, but the most persistent one seems to be: Why? Like many cities, Milwaukee once had a streetcar system that was removed in the 1950s. 

READ: A Look Back at Milwaukee's Original Streetcar System

"There was a certain period in the 1920s and 1930s when the streetcar was the predominant way for people getting around in urban America."

"Cities all over the country had very extensive streetcar systems. In fact, there was a certain period in the 1920s and 1930s when the streetcar was the predominant way for people getting around in urban America," says Yonah Freemark, creator of The Transport Politic website and a PhD student in city planning at MIT. 

But as these streetcars started to age, their popularity waned. According to Freemark, as buses became more widely available they were touted as a cheaper and more efficient alternative to the streetcar networks, which required maintenance for the tracks and the electrical systems.

Now, more than a dozen cities have streetcar plans in the works (many of them located in the Midwest), and Freemark says the reasons for returning to streetcars sound pretty familiar. 

"It's almost like the same story told in the opposite direction."

"It's almost like the same story told in the opposite direction," Freemark explains. The same complaints that were made about streetcars in the 1950s are being made about modern buses, which some see as old, unreliable, and uncomfortable. 

Freemark says that many of these cities see streetcars as a way to help economic development, while improving mobility. But streetcars aren't necessarily more efficient than buses in getting people where they want to go, and some streetcar systems (like the one in Washington D.C.) have suffered as a result. Most streetcars in the U.S. share the road with cars and buses. 

Credit The Milwaukee Streetcar / Facebook

"That's done because it's essentially cheaper to implement and it requires less political confrontation between the car drivers and the street cars themselves. However, that has the negative effect of producing a transit system that actually is not that reliable and can be kind of ineffective for people who want to get around quickly," he explains. 

There are transportation options that are decidedly more efficient than streetcars, specifically subway systems and light rails. But there's a catch.

"The biggest difference between these three options is basically the cost. You know, streetcars are relatively cheap, subways are very expensive, and so every city has to figure out which one they can afford and which one makes the most sense for their commutes," says Freemark. 

"Streetcars are relatively cheap, subways are very expensive, and so every city has to figure out which one they can afford and which one makes the most sense for their commutes."

There are ways to make streetcars more efficient for commuters. In many European cities streetcars are generally called tramways. They're separated from traffic and utilize larger cars, which Freemark says makes them "2-3 times faster." They also tend to be part of a larger public transportation plan. 

He explains, "For example, the major tramway project that's been built in Paris is a circular line that goes all around the city, and basically it allows people to connect between existing metro subway lines without having to go to the center of the city."

In the U.S., many of these streetcars are designed to be used independently from existing transportation. Freemark says the Milwaukee Streetcar's connection to the Intermodal Station allows riders to connect to some existing public transit, but it doesn't seem to sync up with the buses generally used to get around the city. Those connections might be influenced by the expected user base for the streetcars. 

He says, "The streetcar is designed as sort of a tourist-approaching thing and as a result it won't get much ridership, it won't be very quick, and you know, for locals... it might not be the most effective way to get around."