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The American Conservative and the 50th anniversary of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

This year is the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Influential conservative magazine The American Conservative (a conservative political organ which hasn’t been given over to Tea Party reactionaryism) has an interesting article commemorating the occasion. Of particular interest to Portlanders, even if you disagree with every word of it, is this bit by TAC transportation expert William Lind:

The first three chapters of Jane Jacobs’s definitive book The Death and Life of Great American Cities are on sidewalks. Had she lived in a city other than New York and written thirty years earlier, her fourth chapter might have been on streetcars.

New York had streetcars, but unlike other American cities it also had (and has) a comprehensive transport system. Subways and streetcars have somewhat different urban functions, but New York City’s subways did ensure that, once the streetcars were gone, public transportation remained the choice for most New Yorkers.

Elsewhere, the ripping up of streetcar lines and their replacement with buses also ripped the urban fabric. Most people like riding streetcars, but almost no one likes riding a bus. The substitution of buses for electric streetcars drove most former streetcar riders to drive.

When people took the streetcar to town — and every American city or town with 5,000 or more people once had streetcars — they also spent a lot of time on Jane Jacobs’ all-important sidewalks. There, they performed multiple functions: eyes on the street, office worker, restaurant diner, shopper, theater-goer and more.

Once they drove into the city, their time on sidewalks dropped and with it shrank the number of roles they filled. They drove as close to their (usually single) destination as they could, parked, and walked only as far as necessary. When their business was done, their car drew them like a magnet and as soon as they could press the starter pedal they were gone. Stores, restaurants, and theaters moved to the suburbs where parking was easier. In time offices followed, and the city’s sidewalks emptied except for the occasional beggar or wino. My home city, Cleveland, lost its streetcars in 1953, and the downtown’s decline began. If Ohio had tumbleweeds, they would now blow down Euclid Avenue.

Cities such as Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin that have brought streetcars back have found the sidewalks come to life again. So have shops, theaters and restaurants. Streetcars are pedestrian facilitators, more so than subways. People walk, take the streetcar, then get off and walk some more.

Cities need streetcars. They are not a cure-all; if people do not feel safe on city sidewalks, nothing will move them to walk there. But if a city can restore order, streetcars are more likely to fill its sidewalks with people than anything else.

Lind repeats a point made by many others about streetcars: they are an extension of the sidewalk. Personally, I would like to think that busses can also play the same role (and in many cities, including Portland, they do). One point which must be made, and is made in Zef’s article on the trolleybus, and in this site about Portland’s old trolleybus system (thanks to Douglas K.) which was dismantled three years before Jacobs’ book was published, is that back when many legacy streetcar and trolleybus systems were converted to gas-powered bus; the busses of the time were noisy, foul-smelling things; far more so than modern diesels (let alone hybrids).

Often we here get wrapped up on regional transit solutions–light rail, commuter rail, express bus, and BRT–and treat the stopping patterns of local service as a liability. It is a liability when one must depend on local service for longer-distance routes; but it must be remembered that quality local service is an important assert for any urban area.