If streetcars were so great, how come Washington got rid of them? And if streetcars were so awful, how come Washington is bringing them — well, one — back?
Answer Man will let others fight over the second question. The first one is what interests him: What were the circumstances that led to the District’s very last streetcar journey, on Jan. 28, 1962?
It is a canard that General Motors and Firestone forced Washington to abandon streetcars so they could sell more buses and tires. But nor were streetcars “unfairly” killed. Rather, their demise was the perhaps inevitable result of that inexorable, indefinable thing we call “progress.”
Or maybe we should just call it “change.”
Streetcars had District streets to themselves only until 1921, when Washington’s first successful bus system was introduced. At the time, a local paper remarked that people “are already sold on things automotive and modern.” It predicted that buses would force “the passing of the streetcar from Washington streets.”
And so they did. In 1923, three of the District’s five streetcar companies switched to buses. The last streetcar line was built in 1934. The die was already cast.
Still, the streetcar rallied in the 1940s. Gas rationing during World War II made streetcars a more practical and economical way to travel around Washington.
But labor problems came to bedevil the system while it was run by the Capital Transit Co., whose owners were churlish to unions — and who were widely believed to be siphoning value from the company while neglecting maintenance.
On July 1, 1955, Capital Transit Co. workers — including bus drivers and streetcar operators — struck for higher pay. For seven weeks, Washington commuters had to fend for themselves.
Hammered by the strike and criticized by Congress — the federal government depended on its staffers being able to get to work — Capital Transit’s executives dared lawmakers to take away its charter to run public transportation in Washington.
That’s just what Congress did.
After the strike ended on Aug. 22, something had changed. When service resumed, ridership on both streetcars and buses had dropped 10 to 25 percent. As The Washington Post reported: “Apparently Marylanders liked their strike-born habits of driving their cars to work.”
It was a quirky and wealthy investor named O. Roy Chalk who bought the franchise. (The “O” stood for “Oscar,” a name Chalk was said to despise.)
Among Chalk’s properties were a Spanish-language newspaper in New York City, Trans Caribbean airways and a rail line that transported bananas from plantations in Central America. His new company was called D.C. Transit.
As part of the franchise deal, Chalk had to agree to phase out D.C.’s streetcars by 1963. The North Capitol Street and Rhode Island Avenue lines were the first to be converted to buses. Georgia and Wisconsin avenues were next.
The moves were part of a larger effort by traffic engineers to rework how vehicles moved in and around the city. Chalk did not always agree with their recommendations. He had a soft spot for streetcars, but he also seemed to recognize that something was changing. In 1958, he warned of “strangulation” if the District government made it easier for private vehicles to travel downtown. “Washington needs more people downtown, not more vehicles,” he said.
But eliminating streetcars, it was thought, would result in better “flow.” Other benefits were touted. As The Post reported in October 1959: “Traffic Safety Officer Anthony L. Ellison said he foresees a reduction of accidents involving pedestrians crossing to and from streetcar loading platforms. Throughout the District last year four pedestrians were killed in such accidents and 244 were injured.”
Perhaps the biggest issue was money. A streetcar system such as the District’s — with electrified cables set into troughs under the asphalt — is expensive to maintain. By 1955, this conduit system was pretty beat up.
“There was a need for major capital investment that nobody really wanted to undertake privately,” said Wesley Paulson of the National Capital Trolley Museum. “Here was a system that had outlived its useful life, needed additional investment, and nobody wanted to step up and do it. And the whole movement toward automobiles and personal transit is another issue.”
Personal transit. Between 1948 and 1963, the number of automobiles registered in the United States doubled.
What killed the Washington streetcar? Look out your window. The murderer is parked in the driveway.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.