Community Curious Louisville

In our series Curious Louisville, we answer your questions about our city. For our latest installment, we’re examining public transportation. Specifically, streetcars: the role they played in the city’s past and whether they could be part of Louisville’s transportation future.

An anonymous listener asks: “How comprehensive was (Louisville’s) streetcar network at its peak? How did it connect with intercity and interurban rail? Why did we get rid of it?”

Well, it turns out, there are remnants of Louisville’s streetcar past everywhere in the older parts of town … if you know where to look.

John Owen is standing on West Market Street in the Portland neighborhood. He’s pointing to a store called “Bargain Appliances,” in front of which sit a few ovens and a dryer. The building is brick, painted white. And the two large arched former openings — now bricked in — on either end suggest it was once used for something else.

“This would have been where they would have stored the streetcars that ran on the Market Street line,” Owen said. “There are only a handful of these left.”

2520 West Market used to be a streetcar barn.

2520 W. Market St.

Owen is something of a rail enthusiast. He’s the founder of nonprofit Louisville Railway Company, which has the same name as the company that used to operate the city’s streetcars until they were dismantled in 1948. And he would love Louisville to return to its streetcar glory days.

“Fourth Street was running 24 hours a day. Broadway, Market Street, they were all running 24 hours a day with transit service,” he said. “Now today at 11:15, if you’re not to the West End, you don’t get a city bus. Imagine that for a nickel in 1941, you could go down Market Street at three in the morning with the streetcars.”

Louisville’s streetcar system started with mule-drawn cars toward the end of the Civil War. By 1890, most of the cars were electric and run by a single operator: the Louisville Railway Company.

At its peak, the company operated more than 500 cars. Streetcar lines crossed the city, connecting with the interurban lines that stretched to suburbs like Okolona, Jeffersontown, Prospect and even to Shelbyville.

But ridership plummeted during the Great Depression, and the Louisville Railway Company began digging up some of the lines and replacing them with buses. Then, during World War II, both rubber for tires and gasoline were rationed, and the streetcars were needed again.

Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

One of the original mule-drawn streetcars on display in Louisville’s Union Station.

One of the historians who knew the most about the Louisville Railway Company and the streetcars that used to traverse the city was George Yater, who also authored a book chronicling Louisville’s history. He died in 2006 but was interviewed for a film about Louisville’s streetcars by Herron Rail Video in 2001.

In the documentary, Yater remembers watching workers re-install the tracks during the war.

“On Sixth Street, I recall standing out at the end of the line and watching them put the loop back in that they had taken out about six or seven months earlier,” he said. “Now they had to restore it.”

But after the war, cities across the country began dismantling their streetcar systems again. This was a nationwide phenomenon.

The lines in 45 American cities were bought up by National City Lines, a subsidiary of General Motors, and converted to buses.

The General Motors streetcar conspiracy, as it came to be known, even ended up in some pretty prominent pop culture references. It’s a major part of the plot of the 1988 film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”: movie villain Judge Doom (played by Christopher Lloyd) lays out a vision of a modern-day freeway with “eight lanes of shimmering cement” letting travels access a “string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared foods, tire salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see.”

Why would people drive this freeway, the characters ask, when you can take the Red Car (southern California’s bygone transit system) for a nickel?

“Oh, they’ll drive,” replies Judge Doom. “They’ll have to. You see, I bought the red car so I could dismantle it.”

That wasn’t too far from the truth. GM and its companies had interests in oil and tires, and nine corporations were ultimately convicted of conspiracy to monopolize interstate commerce.

But there were other factors that contributed to the streetcar’s downfall, like the construction of interstate highways, the rise of personal automobile ownership and the VA loans that encouraged the growth of suburbs after World War II.

Louisville’s vast streetcar system fell victim to the automobile, too. The death knell was on Derby Day — May 1, 1948. That was the day Citation won the Derby (the thoroughbred would go on to win the Triple Crown).

“Derby Day operation was always a big one for the Louisville Railway Company, which had a line going directly to Churchill Downs,” Yater said. By May 1, 1948, the only remaining streetcar line was that Fourth Street line to the racetrack.

“They were a little nervous about trying to handle all this crowd with buses,” Yater said.

So, as the crowd packed Churchill Downs to watch Citation win the Derby, the Louisville Railway Company retired its last cars.

“They took all the people out by streetcar,” Yater said. “But the return was taken by bus.”

And that was it.

An Extensive Network Under Your Feet

John Owen isn’t old enough to have ridden on Louisville’s streetcars. But 68 years after the last car made its run to Churchill Downs, he’s still nostalgic for them.

“It’s a colorful era of history,” Owen said. “If you look back in hindsight and say, did we really do the right thing? Imagine today being able to ride all the way out to Shelbyville out on the interurban, or up to Indianapolis on the electric interurban. Imagine how that would be. How much more efficient that would be. And yet, it’s gone.”

Besides the former streetcar barns left around town, Owen has an encyclopedic knowledge of every place the former streetcar tracks are visible.

We’re standing next to King Elementary, near Shawnee Park. Near the curb, poking out of the asphalt, is a piece of rail.

“Right here,” Owen pointed. “See the crack? This is where the loop was, right here where the parking lot is for Martin Luther King School, for the Chestnut Street streetcar line. So your cars would have come here … and then back out.”

The enduring presence of these rails, buried under the asphalt, is key for Owen. He and others in the city would like to see a streetcar resurgence in Louisville. And if the old rails could be uncovered and used again, it would save a lot of money.

“I just recently saw track in three different places on Portland Avenue,” he said. “And the rail doesn’t look bad, the ties don’t look bad. They’re not rotting, they’re not rusted, they’re as sound as they can be.”

Cincinnati Bets on Streetcars

So, could Owen’s vision of a robust streetcar network in Louisville — or really, any sort of streetcar in Louisville — happen?

This brings us to some of the other questions we received that inspired this story.

Wendey Waggoner wrote to ask: “Why does the Louisville metro area not have a more comprehensive public transportation system, including either a train or subway system?”

Along that vein, Marcus Niemann wondered: “What are the city’s plans to increase non-car/bus commuters?”

Well, it turns out not too long ago, Louisville was close to investing in a light rail system. But the T2 light rail plan was scuttled in 2004, after nearly $10 million was spent studying the project. At the time, it was portrayed as a casualty of the Ohio River Bridges Project.

“It very much was (due to the bridges project) because we couldn’t get the federal commitment to the funds,” said Transit Authority of River City executive director Barry Barker. “The area was wrapped up in making sure we got the bridges and didn’t want light rail confused with the bridges in terms of funding.”

With that, Louisville doubled-down on highways and cars — a plan that just came to fruition late last month, with the opening of tolling on the new Ohio River bridges. But around the country, cities that got rid of their streetcar networks after World War II — cities like Portland, Kansas City and Washington, D.C. — are bringing them back on a smaller scale.

One of the newest is just 90 miles away in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bell Connector has been operational for about four months. It travels a 3.6-mile loop through downtown Cincinnati and the burgeoning Over-the-Rhine district, hitting spots like the baseball stadium, Fountain Square and Findlay Market.

Erica Peterson | wfpl.org

The Cincinnati Bell Connector

Cincinnati’s streetcar has been two decades in the making. One of its biggest advocates is longtime downtown resident and real estate developer John Schneider.

“It’s used really by all people,” Schneider said of the streetcar. “The opponents sort of called it the ‘hipster trolley.’ You’ll see more hip replacements than hipsters on this trolley.”

For Schneider, the streetcar is the culmination of years of work. Now that it’s been built, he turns into a de facto guide whenever he rides it, offering to help new riders navigate the ticketing system or determine where to get off.

For most of the route, the streetcar shares a lane with cars. At its stops, there are shelters for people waiting, and a digital display shows when the next car will arrive.

On a cold Thursday in December, there’s a wide range of streetcar commuters, from business people to tourists to retirees.

Besides providing a transportation link between downtown Cincinnati and nearby neighborhoods, Schneider sees the streetcar as an essential component of the resurgence of downtown development in Cincinnati.

“I call it a force multiplier,” he said. “It makes what’s here much more useful and much more valuable to more people.”

A study by the University of Cincinnati found the streetcar could bring up to $500 million in economic benefits to downtown. The city cites $1.39 billion of new investments in the neighborhood since the project was announced, but the real test will be in the years to come.

As we move through the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood, a sign hanging from a balcony proclaims “Go by streetcar!” On nearly every block, scaffolding covers at least one building. There are hallmarks of gentrification, like an artisan chocolate shop. Schneider points to the new development.

“Banks are more willing to loan money on buildings with fixed rail that will be there for 100 years than they are on a bus line that could go away next month,” he said.

The streetcar lets us off at Cincinnati’s Findlay Market, where Bryan Madison has owned Madison’s Produce and Grocery for the past 15 years. There are framed prints of the streetcar on the walls and baskets full of roots and vegetables.

Madison said in the past four months, he hasn’t noticed an uptick in business he can attribute to the streetcar. It’s still a novelty, and the cars are crowded on weekends. But long-term, he’s excited about the possibilities it could bring.

“We think, having been in the city ourselves, our family since 1968, we’ve seen a real benefit of the streetcar to the city,” he said. “And it’s just gonna grow.”

The first four months of the Cincinnati streetcar’s operation haven’t been seamless. The city had to change the ticketing system because it was confusing people. Drivers are learning how to coexist with the streetcar. Sometimes a vehicle double parks on the tracks, causing delays.

The Cincinnati Bell Connector was projected to cost about $148 million, with about $45 million coming from federal funds. And so far, the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority says the streetcar is meeting its ridership goals of about 16,500 people a week.

But after the first few weeks, where anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 people rode the streetcar, ridership settled in November closer to 10 to 15,000 a week. Still, it’s early and it’s winter, and the transit authority says it’s waiting for more data to evaluate.

Could Streetcars Have a Future Here?

So that’s 90 miles away from Louisville, in a city competing for residents, jobs and new businesses.

But a streetcar — or even a light rail system like the T2 proposal a few years ago — still isn’t under serious consideration here. The city’s MOVE Louisville plan was finalized last year, and it says these types of mass transit could become reality.

Really, though, the city wants to focus on where people need to go, and then worry about what form of transportation makes sense to get them there.

Jeff O’Brien is Louisville Metro’s deputy director of advanced planning. He said the most critical transportation issue is making sure people can get to their jobs via public transportation … which is something a limited downtown streetcar line wouldn’t really help.

“We have issues right now where people are living in Valley Station and having trouble getting to jobs in the east or southeast part of the county because the transit system requires they come into downtown and then go back out to their job,” O’Brien said. “Which we see as a very long ride for people trying to get to work.”

O’Brien said the study did find there’s enough density on Main and Market streets to support a streetcar line. But it’s a question of whether it’s a top priority, and whether the city could afford to make such a big initial capital investment.

“I think we need to look at our system overall and get more efficient and see how we can make the bus more competitive with the car,” he said.

Right now, the priority is bus rapid transit on Dixie Highway. TARC’s Barker describes the concept as “light rail with rubber tires,” meaning the buses come more frequently and there are fewer and clearer stops.

But they’re still buses. Barker knows bus rapid transit won’t satisfy some people’s desire for rail.

“There is a mystique that rail has that buses don’t,” he said. “And people find themselves attracted to rail, and you’ll get folks who will get out there and ride and patronize a rail service that won’t go anywhere near a bus.”

Still, he encourages them to give the bus a try. And now that the bridges project is officially finished, Barker said there could be room for some sort of ambitious mass transit project.

“OK, we’re past the bridges, what’s the next big thing?” he said. “And I certainly think we’ve got to look at that. And if you look around at the proposal the mayor has put forth for LIFT, for the local option sales tax, that’s certainly a mechanism that’s been used in any number of locations to fund projects like light rail or streetcar.”

Meanwhile, that original T2 light rail proposal is still on Barker’s shelf.

Download the story here.

Erica Peterson reports on energy and the environment for WFPL. She is also Enterprise Editor.