The Return of Rail
in a transportation revolution
In the 1870s, a hodgepodge of horse-drawn
streetcars in the downtowns, mills and factory districts of
Minneapolis and St. Paul gave way to consolidated steam and
then electric trolleys. As in growing cities across the country,
trolleys transformed nearby farming villages into the first
suburbs and created the daily commute.
Gas-powered buses took hold after the technological proving
grounds of World War I, bringing about a quick shift in demand
Locally, when streetcars peaked in 1920, they provided 220
million rides per year—more than four times the number
of rides that Metro Transit bus service provides today to
a population nearly three times as large. The Twin Cities
metro had one of the most advanced transit systems in the
Thirty years later, streetcars in the Twin Cities were on
their way out. Transportation planning for the growing region
had acceded to the allure of the automobile and the operational
efficiencies of bus service.
Today, the region is faced not only with another generation
of major growth but also with exurban sprawl. Compared with
their forebears in the parkway generation, people caught in
the snarls of the contemporary rush hour are less apt to associate
car commuting with freedom. In the necessary search for alternatives,
transit is again on the rise (Urban Land reports
in May 2004 that “virtually every major city has, or
is planning, some form of urban rail or rapid bus system”).
Fittingly, Hiawatha light rail will begin operations nearly
50 years to the day after the last of the Twin Cities’
extensive streetcar system was yanked out of the ground.
More on the Twin
Cities' history of mass transit: