Who Killed the Electric Streetcar?



The "1207" at Granville, submitted by Peter Finch
The "1207" at Granville, submitted by Peter Finch

Somewhere around the year 1950, a number of trends crossed paths. As in art, as in geometry, an individual statistic or trend does not tell very much:  two related trends might arouse suspicion or curiousity, but with three or more, a pattern emerges.


  Somewhere near the middle of the 20th century, the trends toward urban living and away from rural living intersected. In 1900, Canada’s rural population had been about 80% [which includes those living in small villages]. By 1999, less than 4% were actually farming. Exact breakdowns would be difficult to determine, since World War II dramatically altered demographics, and the post-war immigration policy requiring many newcomers to adopt a rural address in no way suggests that they were actually involved in agriculture.

  Though far from an exact science, it can be fairly said that the drift from country to city was concurrent with the emergence of the nuclear family, and with the decline of interconnected communities based on family ties and location.

  This was great news for the energy industry, since nuclear families would require less efficient independent services previously shared amongst extended families. Housing, heating, lighting, transportation and food resources would all have to be obtained individually. In post war Canada, demand for oil products was dramatically lower than production: by 1950, world demand was only 4.5 billion barrels, while production was surging toward 10 billion barrels.

  Clearly, there was a market to be developed, and the oil companies and automobile manufacturers were not slow to recognize it. Even during the late 1920s, they saw that their main competition lay in public transit. When Henry Ford rashly predicted “a car in every driveway” people were sensible enough at the time to recognize the absurdity of it. Ford’s perhaps apocryphal, offhand comment proved to be a summation of the automaker’s “Mein Kampf.”

  By 1900, Canadians had enthusiastically embraced electric power. As early as the 1880s, practical applications were becoming evident nationwide, and a transportation revolution was unfolding. Enter the electric streetcar. Rocketing from a fall fair demonstration to a reliable mode of transportation within two decades, nearly every town capable of supporting a streetcar system soon had one. At least 55 municipalities in Canada laid rails in their streets; another two dozen interurban systems sprang up, and about a dozen more specialized in freight haulage.

  In the early decades of 20th century, electric railways seemed unstoppable. Their ridership cut across class and racial boundaries, they promoted excellent urban planning, supported farm communities and were a new source of identity and community pride.  

  The neighbourhoods that developed around street railways had a decidedly egalitarian flavour: the banker lived on the same street as the miller; the teacher, the shopkeeper, the doctor and the blacksmith were all neighbours – and their children all went to the same school. While recent development is now erasing this, it is still evident in the surviving architecture of the Cedar Cottage neighbourhood in Vancouver B.C.

  From the point of view of the auto makers, all of this was an impediment, and the common denominator had to be identified and neutralized. By the early 1930s, American auto and tire manufacturers had colluded with the oil companies to develop a ‘final solution.’ Kill the streetcar.

  This was carried out in a deliberate and methodical way. Much in the way Monsanto is currently buying seed companies, the conspirators used the stresses of the Depression to buy streetcar and interurban systems whenever and wherever they could. It was a very simple logic – buy the competition.

  One by one, systems were bought and shut down, replaced by motor buses. Upkeep had been minimal in tough times, so the streetcars were losing their lustre. Hardly competition for the shiny new buses produced by Ford, Mack, Fageol and Yellow Coach Co. By the time transit users discovered that they had been ‘taken for a ride,’ it was too late: the tracks were gone and the streetcars all conveniently burned. Frustrated with crowded, smelly, unreliable buses, people who had the money to do so bought cars. Those of lesser means were left to envy what they could not have.

  World War II brought a brief reprieve for the streetcar in the cities that still had them. Ridership was high, maintenance low, and the advent of new streetcar technology suggested that new streamlined PCC cars would bring about post war infrastructure investment, and breathe new life into sagging inner city neighbourhoods.

  But it was not to be. The investments were made, but only toward building roads, effectively subsidizing automakers, oil companies and tire manufacturers, and the growing trucking industry. The end result was that all of the streetcar and interurban systems were threatened with extinction. In Canada, the systems that survived the Depression were still running in 1945; but by 1950, there were only a handful left, and by 1960, only one remained.

  A hybrid technology did emerge from the ashes of the streetcar systems. While cheap fuel and free bus tires convinced many cities to “modernize” to gas and diesel powered buses, many power stations still dotted the urban landscape, and reusing these to support trolley buses was the logical move.

  Once again, it would appear that clean energy transportation would triumph – but not if the oil companies or car manufacturers could help it. It isn’t entirely clear how it was done, but between 1960 and the present, nearly every trolley bus system in Canada has been scrapped and passenger rail of any kind reduced to an insignificant role in most cities.

  Despite the covert activities of governments at all levels, one thing is becoming clearer.  People want a return to the streetcar, and to the community values that grew with it. That much is evident when you ask people who ride and operate Vancouver’s Downtown Historic Railway (DHR).  

 Compromised by Olympic Village construction and without an advertising budget, or even a payroll, the DHR runs along the south shore of False Creek between Cambie St. and Granville Island in summer months operating two of the survivors of BC Electric’s once impressive interurban fleet.  

  A growing number of eco tourists and rail fans seek out the DHR. Nostalgia for some, for others, a symbol of the way things aught to be. Rumours of expansion or even the permanent return of modern streetcars are almost universally applauded by the growing community of riders, some of whom cheerfully schedule their weekend activities to include a bit of ‘time travel’ and a chat with the Transit Museum Society members who volunteer to help remind (or reacquaint) people of a gentler, ‘greener’ era.