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Slick Vik

Who killed Houston's streetcars?

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Houston has made connection to the outside world for business purposes a major priority in its history. In the railroad boom of the mid-1800s Houston boosters raced to make the city a railroad hub, opening it up to new markets for its agricultural goods. Houston also accomplished the feat of gaining access to sea trade on Gulf of Mexico with the dredging of the Houston Ship Channel in 1908, giving it the enormous economic advantage of a sheltered inland port. Houston became even more internationally connected in recent decades by its two airports, William P. Hobby and George Bush Intercontinental.

All of these landmark transportation decisions in Houston’s history were made with the single-minded goal of economic growth. While they did help Houston to prosper financially, they make it clear that transportation has mostly been viewed as a tool for moving goods around. Human mobility within the city has not been an object of thoughtful consideration and planning, but rather something that was merely used as a tool to facilitate city growth.

Seemingly unlimited political will to privilege highway funding above other modes of transit in conjunction with real estate developers’ and banks’ interest in furthering suburban development has facilitated Houston’s boundless outward sprawl. The result is that Houstonians have no other choice than to depend on private transportation. Even if a Houstonian would prefer not to drive a car, the dearth of infrastructure for alternative transit options means that there is no way to express that preference.

In light of its car-dependence today, most Houstonians would be surprised to discover that Houston was originally built up around a passenger streetcar system, made up of over 100 miles of railways. While cars serve to explain Houston’s outward growth post WWII, the city’s original ascendency from a muddy commercial center in the mid 1800s to a city of skyscrapers by the 1920s was facilitated not by the automobile, but by the electric streetcar. In his 1997 book, Houston Electric: The Street Railways of Houston, Texas, Steven M. Baron writes,

“”For half a century, life in Houston was unimaginable without streetcars. Merchants, clerks and factory workers went to work on them. Shoppers boarded them with the day’s purchases or the groceries. Young people rode them to school and on dates. Accounts of life in Houston during the decades surrounding the turn of the century are full of references to streetcar travel, for it was the dominant mode of transportation for all but the richest citizens… even after the automobile began replacing the horse, most Houstonians still relied on public transit for everyday commuting. Only in the 1920s did this pattern begin to change significantly…”

The Beginning of Transportation in Houston

“Until the 1920s virtually every significant land development was located on or near an existing or proposed streetcar line.” (Baron)

In 1868 Houston had reached a population of 10,000 people, all living and working within one square mile of land. The city was a bustling commercial center, a major exporter of cotton, pine lumber, and petroleum, made possible by all the railroads that passed through it. That year marked the first appearance of public transportation in Houston, a mule-drawn passenger streetcar that initially operated on abandoned freight railways. With advancing technology, the mule-drawn streetcar eventually gave way to the electric streetcar and an expanding network of railways.

Streetcar Suburbs

There was always a close relationship between the streetcars and property development. The coming of the streetcar ushered the city into its first period of significant suburban development. Real estate developers, who saw opportunity for profit in Houston’s outlying land made many maneuvers to extend streetcar service to their new suburban communities, or in some cases tried to establish their own streetcar company. Houston Heights, Montrose, Magnolia Park, Houston Harbor, and Woodland Heights all originated as streetcar suburbs.

Perhaps as evidence of the long-standing anti-urban sentiment in the United States (Judd & Swanstrom) people took this first opportunity to relocate outside of the dirty, bustling central city. Dense residential areas grew up alongside the streetcar rails, creating Houston’s first instance of relatively distinct land uses, as people relied on the central city to conduct their business activity and errands but opted to live on the outskirts. However, unlike the sprawling land-use patterns of today, streetcar suburbs were necessarily concentrated around the railways, making for dense residential areas where property values were directly proportional to proximity to the trolley lines. The streetcar suburbs were not self-sufficient. They depended on the central city for their existence.

What happened to Houston’s streetcar system?

Houston’s streetcar system disappeared before WWII, and for sixty four years of its history the city had no internal passenger railways. From 1990 until 2004 (when MetroRAIL was built), Houston was the largest city in the nation without a rail system.

In the next post I will explore the factors that led to the streetcar’s demise. This story is a strong demonstration of Houston’s distinctive character, illuminating the particular interests and cultural values that have been favored by the city’s politics throughout its history.

When I proposed the question the previous post, I didn’t expect it to be so difficult to answer. After much searching for quality information about Houston’s streetcars, I finally found a book in the Woodson Research Center at Rice’s Fondren library by a writer named Steven M. Baron, who had noticed this gap in the popular conception of the Houston’s history also. So this jaunt through a period of Houston’s forgotten past will mostly draw from what I learned from Houston Electric: The Street Railways of Houston, Texas.

Streetcar vs. Jitneys

As Streetcars had operated on the same 1890s fare for decades, Houston Electric (the streetcar company) eventually ran into financial trouble. Additionally, they were burdened by the city’s requirement that they bear the costs for paving streets where they extended their railways. This would essentially usher in their eventual downfall by subsidizing greater ease of mobility for private automobiles.

In 1914, the first formidable challenge to the streetcar system arose in the form of jitneys, private cars that entrepreneurial drivers used as shared taxis for hire, charging a rate that undercut the streetcar fare. People would pack into the jitneys, even hanging off the sides of the car. Streetcar ridership went down noticeably, but still remained the uncontested backbone of Houston’s transit system.

The streets became congested with jitneys, and collisions with streetcars became perilously frequent. The city eventually accommodated a plea from Houston Electric (the streetcar company) to begin regulating the jitney services, enforcing a registration and licensing system for jitney drivers.

Enter: The Bus

In 1924 when the city denied Houston Electric (HE) a fare increase to account for inflation, the company resorted to a federal lawsuit. In a city referendum that year, HE agreed to drop the lawsuit in exchange for the city’s abolition of jitney service. HE also agreed to build 8 city-specified extensions of the streetcar system as well as 3 new bus lines, thus turning itself into a hybrid bus and streetcar service.

Over the next fifteen years. a number of factors led HE to gradually phase out their streetcar lines in favor of bus routes. As Houston got more and more spread out, it began to make less economic sense to extend the railways when a new bus line could be established for a much lower initial cost. New suburban developments would make deals with HE to establish express bus routes to them, agreeing to subsidize the cost to compensate for low ridership. Streetcars remained the city’s transit backbone, but it was no longer considered essential to further development

The streetcar may still have worked for the more densely settled inner city, but the cost of track maintenance and reconstruction were rising. As the tracks and streets aged, HE deemed it more cost-effective to substitute with buses than to rebuild the tracks. This also “relieved HE of the burden of having to pay a portion of the paving cost as required by the city. As a result, the city’s paving program appears tohave been the greatest single factor in determining the order in which the streetcar lines were abandoned” (Baron).

While Houston’s population was increasing, streetcar ridership remained stagnant, as more and more people embraced the car. When businesses and other non-residential development began popping up in the suburbs it was clear that people were using the car for more than just their commutes. Houston was already well on its way to becoming the car-dependent city it is today.

The official abandonment of the streetcar system occurred in 1940 in a deal between the city and HE. The mayor of Houston had an interest in gaining ownership of the interurban route, most of which was operated by HE. His main motive was a project he had been championing, a proposed multi-lane highway to Galveston (which would eventually become the Gulf Freeway). In exchange for the right-of-way on the Houston-Galveston interurban corridor and $50,000 the city would take on the expensive task of dismantling all of the street rails, making HE’s transition to buses complete. “The death of Houston’s streetcar system was thus, in a very real sense, tied with the birth of Houston’s super-highway system” (Baron).

It is interesting to not that while the bus was touted by Houston Electric as being a more ‘flexible’ means of transportation, most of the routes continued to follow the old street line rails.

So it was not simply preference for the car but the convergence of a complex set of factors, such as real estate interests pushing outward development beyond the feasible reach of streetcars, financial trouble, economic considerations that made buses a more appealing option, unfavorable policies and political decisions (denial of fare increase, the paving requirement, etc.) and city boosterism in favor of superhighways that led to the demise of Houston’s streetcar system.

 

http://houstontransit.blogs.rice.edu/2011/04/16/who-killed-the-houston-streetcar-part-2/

 

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where in that timeline did those GM/FoMoCo/Chrysler Corp conspirators collude with the locals to privilege the auto over rail? ;)

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where in that timeline did those GM/FoMoCo/Chrysler Corp conspirators collude with the locals to privilege the auto over rail? ;)

 

I doubt it, but I'd bet it had more to do with Houston forcing extra burden on the company. Forcing them to install roads anywhere they built track? Not letting them raise prices?

 

I was going to guess that 1 in 5 people had a car in the 1930s in Houston, and I wasn't far off (if this source is accurate):

 

http://www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/facts/2010_fotw617.html

 

that shows that through the 1930s that in the USA (I doubt we'll find accurate data for Houston) that car ownership per 1000 people hovered around 200. Certainly that had an impact, but one can only wonder how convenient it was to drive everywhere, every day back then? Were there gas stations on almost every street corner as there are today? Parking lots everywhere? 

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I don't have time to read all of this right now, but I've previously read that Humble Oil (Exxon)bought and destroyed the electric streetcars.

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I doubt it, but I'd bet it had more to do with Houston forcing extra burden on the company. Forcing them to install roads anywhere they built track? Not letting them raise prices?

 

I was going to guess that 1 in 5 people had a car in the 1930s in Houston, and I wasn't far off (if this source is accurate):

 

http://www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/facts/2010_fotw617.html

 

that shows that through the 1930s that in the USA (I doubt we'll find accurate data for Houston) that car ownership per 1000 people hovered around 200. Certainly that had an impact, but one can only wonder how convenient it was to drive everywhere, every day back then? Were there gas stations on almost every street corner as there are today? Parking lots everywhere? 

 

If there is a sufficient transit system you don't need a car. A car is actually a financial albatross in that situation.

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If there is a sufficient transit system you don't need a car. A car is actually a financial albatross in that situation.

 

Which is why no one in London owns a car, right?

 

My Granddad lived on 17th near Yale from 1914 to 1920 or so. They drove everywhere if his Dad was around, otherwise they walked or took a cab. Of course it helped that his Dad was a car salesman.

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Which is why no one in London owns a car, right?

My Granddad lived on 17th near Yale from 1914 to 1920 or so. They drove everywhere if his Dad was around, otherwise they walked or took a cab. Of course it helped that his Dad was a car salesman.

People can be stubborn but that's their own pride talking. If you are in London and you drive you are stubborn. It's far cheaper to get a pass to ride the tube then drive and pay petrol and insurance and find and pay for parking.

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Even London has parts of town where transit isn't very good. I had some meetings there some time ago at an office that was over a mile from the nearest tube station, and half a mile from the nearest bus. And this was in Fulham, which is not exactly remote. Walking from the tube to the office was less than pleasant when the weather was cold and wet.

 

Houston developed as a car city, once they became affordable. The density here was never high enough to make widespread use of streetcars viable, as there were no geographical limits on growth. It was far easier to move out rather than up, and far easier to spread some oyster shell to make a road than to lay some tracks. I'll have to ask my 89 year old neighbor if she remembers much about the street cars.

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No, but I'd still want one.

If I had enough money, I'd buy a car because I wanted it.

In fact, I might buy a big fat truck and a camper for travel. And a trailerable sailboat. And maybe a classic Alfa Romeo just to drive around town on Sundays. And of course, a five-car garage would need to be attached to my home. It's more space than I need in a garage, but sometimes I like to spread out.

If I have the money, then it's no problem.

Most people's financial situation would lead them to taking transit if it was good and thorough. A car is a significant purchase and when you factor in gas and maintenance and insurance it is very costly indeed

Even London has parts of town where transit isn't very good. I had some meetings there some time ago at an office that was over a mile from the nearest tube station, and half a mile from the nearest bus. And this was in Fulham, which is not exactly remote. Walking from the tube to the office was less than pleasant when the weather was cold and wet.

Houston developed as a car city, once they became affordable. The density here was never high enough to make widespread use of streetcars viable, as there were no geographical limits on growth. It was far easier to move out rather than up, and far easier to spread some oyster shell to make a road than to lay some tracks. I'll have to ask my 89 year old neighbor if she remembers much about the street cars.

Half a mile or even a mile isn't really a long walk. That's an American mentality that everything should be as close as our driveway.

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