Today's traffic jams can be blamed on decision to abandon streetcars Baltimore Glimpses

January 20, 1998|By Gilbert Sandler

IF you have lived in Baltimore for five or 50 years, you've probably said, ''Traffic's getting worse.'' And you're right.

If you were to chart the problem, you'd draw a line, starting at the left side of the page, that would steadily rise, showing the increasing traffic that crowds our roads. Under that line, you could draw a second one representing the number of roads and parking lots built to accommodate the growing traffic. The distance between those lines at the far right of the page is a major problem.

Among the reasons for this problem that urban planners point to: The expansion of our highway system hasn't kept pace with the burgeoning traffic; we lack a second track for the light rail; the Mass Transit Administration's planning is hampered by legislation that requires 50 percent of its revenue to come from the fare box; and land to provide for additional parking is painfully hard to come by.

A key issue haunting the Baltimore region is how our car-dependent culture is going to resolve our traffic woes. While we ponder that issue, let's consider how we used to get around.

It wasn't so long ago that many people relied on streetcars or trolleys for transportation in Baltimore and outlying areas. For example, if you lived along Pennsylvania Avenue, then you probably took the No. 18 downtown at some point. For years, the No. 25 went from the Belvedere Loop through Mount Washington to downtown. No. 31 ran along Garrison Boulevard.

But as the population spread to the suburbs and more automobiles were purchased, public transportation ridership dropped. By 1965, ridership had plummeted 75 percent from the 1940s, said Don Halligan, regional planner for the Maryland Department of Transportation.

Two events probably hastened the death of Baltimore's fabled streetcars.

First, in 1945, the Baltimore Transit Co. (which owned and operated the streetcars and buses), came under the control of Chicago-based National City Lines, a bus-minded holding company that specialized in ''modernizing'' transportation operations. The company immediately went to work replacing our streetcars with buses.

Second, in 1953, Mayor Thomas D'Alesandro Jr. hired Henry A. Barnes, the controversial traffic commissioner from Denver, to unsnarl and speed traffic. Barnes made many major thoroughfares into one-way streets; he also expanded traffic lanes and made other changes that were incompatible with streetcars.

But even before Barnes arrived, the streetcar was endangered. In 1947, the first large replacement of streetcars by buses began. Eleven years later, only two streetcar lines remained. In 1963, they, too, were replaced by bus lines.

Baltimore, which in 1885 became the first U.S. city to put trolley cars into commercial use, bid goodbye to the streetcar Nov. 3, 1963. About 4 a.m., the No. 8 streetcar (Towson to Catonsville), filled with trolley lovers from as far away as New York, lumbered along Frederick Road to its last stop.

It would go down in history as the last regularly scheduled streetcar in Baltimore.

Gilbert Sandler writes from, and about, changing Baltimore.

Pub Date: 1/20/98

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