People with choices don't ride buses. I'm not sure whether this is because they don't like sitting with the people who had no choice or because they don't want to be mistaken for one. The result, however, is this: Buses are America's vehicle of last resort. It follows that the LUCY bus, which Loops through University CitY, doesn't get a lot of riders with choices. This is no knock on LUCY. The bus, free with a PennCard, has been quite popular with commuters since its introduction last summer. But LUCY was born with limitations. No matter how brightly she's painted, she'll never attract riders with alternatives, even when that alternative is walking. Trolleys have no such problems. They're not just functional. They're funky. People from neighborhoods where no one has ever been on a public bus will get on San Francisco's famous streetcars. Boston's suburban elite drive almost everywhere, but they take the Green Line trolleys downtown. And in Philadelphia, students who don't use SEPTA's buses have no qualms about catching a ride on the green line. Public buses were once billed as trackless trolleys, back when the idea of a vehicle that could go places tracks didn't seemed downright miraculous. But that very flexibility is terribly unpredictable. You're never sure where a bus is going to stop, not when you're trying to catch it and not when you're trying to get back off. The only thing that is predictable about buses is that they're slow, traffic-jam prone, and terribly declasse. Trolleys, by contrast, run on schedule. They run on easily recognizable tracks that go to easily identifiable destinations. And with any luck, they'll soon be running through University City, serving riders who would never use a bus but just might decide to explore another corner of the neighborhood if there were a trolley to take them there. At present, the University City trolley loop exists only on paper. Proponents are working to secure the funding for a feasability study and, SEPTA being one of America's pre-eminent bureaucracies, there will be a complication or two along the way. But the mere fact that the proposal is being taken seriously -- it has been endorsed by virtually every area institution, organization and business -- is more than a little bit remarkable. In 1978, the year I was born, SEPTA operated 12 trolley lines in Philadelphia. Today, the number is five. Relative to trolley systems in other cities, that qualifies as a huge success story. In recent years, however, that trend has begun to reverse. Dallas and Portland,Ore., have had notable success running vintage trolleys through scenic and historic neighborhoods, and other cities have followed suit. Chalk it up to the confluence of movements emphasizing historic preservation, sprawl limitation and the conversion of cities into entertainment complexes. The streetcar revival is good for cities and bad for car companies. (Which is why you'll find the American Automobile Association on the wrong side of any public transportation funding issue.) There was a time when you could get on a trolley in Boston and keep on riding until the mighty Mississippi River got in the way. Cars were curiosities, and Americans had not yet decided that each family needed 1.4 vehicles to survive. But unlike trolleys, cars had the potential to be hugely profitable. One trolley serves hundreds of people for a lot of years. One car serves a couple of people for a couple of years. Left to choose between the two, we might have elected for a combination. Instead, the car companies bought the trolley manufacturers and put them out of business. And we loved it. We bought a new car in a new color every couple of years. We wanted big cars. Then small. Then big again. With four-wheel drives and a pick-up bed for organic groceries and highly unusual plants that flowered in preordained colors on our suburban lawns. The current trolley renaissance isn't about reversing that trend. Instead, driven by reasons that lie somewhere between practicality and nostalgia, the memory of how well trolleys once worked has become the impetus behind the movement to put them back on the streets. And I'm all for it.Comments powered by Disqus
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