It occurred to me last week that, for all the time I’ve spent talking about Boston’s streetcar system, I’ve never provided any overall background on it. Not the first time I’ve jumped into something without adequately preparing beforehand (like when I declared my major), but regardless, Boston’s streetcars have a fascinating history and legacy that deserve a look in their own right.
As early as the 1850s, Boston was served by horsecars. A simple concept, horsecars were efficient (running horse-drawn carriages on metal rails instead of roads reduces friction and spares riders’ backs) and fairly low-tech (as a wise man once said, “Grass goes in, fast comes out.”)
Starting in 1889, however, these horsecars were replaced by electric wire-powered streetcars, which were larger, better, faster, stronger and didn’t produce manure (unless things went really wrong). It was also around this time that streetcar companies were consolidated into the Boston Elevated Railway company, the MBTA’s predecessor.
Streetcar lines popped up on streets throughout Boston (including down College Ave and Broadway by 1925). New, dense “streetcar suburbs” sprang up around these lines to cover much of inner Boston. To carry streetcars through the crowded downtown streets, the Tremont Street Subway, the first subway in North America, opened in 1897.
Many subway stations built afterwards were designed as transfer points from which streetcar lines would radiate, and by no coincidence are still major hubs today. Examples include: Harvard, with a built-in streetcar tunnel that now carries buses; Maverick, with a strangely wide platform that once carried streetcars alongside trains; and Broadway, with an upper-level streetcar station that’s been used variously as a mushroom farm and MBTA disaster training center.
As automobile traffic began to rise, streetcar lines — which often ran amid traffic — became increasingly unpopular. As early as the 1930s, streetcars were being replaced by cheaper and more flexible trolleybuses (buses powered by electric wires), then diesel buses. The boom in car culture and suburbanization after World War II, and the corresponding decline of transit, only hastened this trend of “bustitution.” In the decades after, Boston’s streetcars disappeared faster than rich kids from campus during “spring break.”
The last survivors of the streetcar network are the Green Line’s B, C and E branches, which still use the Tremont Street subway. (The A branch to Watertown closed in 1969, and the D branch was converted from a former railway.) The Red Line’s Mattapan trolley also uses streetcars. But perhaps the biggest remnant of the streetcar network is the MBTA’s buses, many of which ply the same routes that streetcars and horsecars did in the centuries before.
Many plans have been floated to expand the streetcar network — for example, the Silver Line was once planned to feed into the Green Line — but besides the Green Line Extension, nothing major has come to fruition yet. But as congestion and climate change worsen, it may soon be time to ditch our polluting cars and buses, and give streetcars another chance.
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