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What We Can Learn From Oberlin's Trolley

by Ben Richman

[Image courtesy of the Oberlin College archives. Originally published 12/6/19]


Imagine you want to go out to dinner or a show in Cleveland and you can’t get a ride. No one on Ober is responding and your friend of a friend who has a car is sick of giving it out to people. If you were living in Oberlin at the turn of the century you could take a 25 cent round trip trolley ride straight to downtown Cleveland! The green trolley went through downtown Oberlin and connected our quaint college town to Elyria, Cleveland and Lake Erie. Oberlin’s trolley line was built in the late 1800s and lasted until 1931, around the time many of America’s trolley lines were being decommissioned due to the Great Depression. There was also a train service that connected Oberlin to California and New York, which lasted up until 1970, when it was torn out and replaced with a bike path.

The fall of the train in Oberlin mirrored a national shift from trains and streetcars to cars. Most small towns and suburbs across the country had trolley service up until the 50s and 60s. Trolleys were key components in the expansion of American cities and many of America’s early suburbs were designed around trolley and train lines. In fact, in the 1920’s there were 17,000 miles of streetcar lines that ran across every city in the country, including cities we don’t associate with mass transit like Atlanta and Los Angeles. Often developers would build the train lines first and wait for houses and towns to develop later. Today only 5% of workers in America commute via mass transit. So what happened? The Highway Act of 1956 and the purchase of streetcar transit systems by a conglomerate of oil, rubber, and car manufacturers marked the death of trolleys in America. This decline was further affected by the fact that many trolley lines had set cheap rates, which were no longer profitable. Many urban trolleys were replaced with bus systems, which reduced congestion and could carry more passengers, but others, like the trolley in Oberlin, were lost forever.

This shift from trolleys to cars reflects a larger shift in American culture. The growth in highways in the 40s 50s and 60s reconfigured our landscape, and oftentimes, resulted in the neglect of lower-income communities. In many cases, highways trampled slums, and in turn, displaced the poor and changed the layout of cities. In places near where I grew up in northeast New Jersey, highways were also often built through historic neighborhoods in working class areas, where people did not have the means to fight the destruction of their neighborhoods, unlike the protesters that prevented a highway from being built through Washington Square Park in Manhattan. Around the same time as the the Washington Square Park protests highway 280, which connects the Holland tunnel and Newark with I-80, destroyed historic buildings and houses, while also serving as a route for white families leaving growing urban blight in Newark to the newly built suburbs to the west.

New highway cities brought about urban sprawl and commuter traffic. Americans in this time period made the choice to invest in highways and cars rather than trains and public transportation. Cars represented a new, post World War II America, based on individual liberties and private property. If you met the idyllic criteria of white America’s picket-fence dream, your family could have your own house, with your own yard, and your own car. Today, highways are an integral part of American society. In reality, highways are yet another example of a system that contributed to white flight and urban decay, and also, caused our dependence on oil, destroyed our environment, and murdered our beloved and cute trolleys!

To be fair, trolleys had many faults and won't solve all of our problems. They caused congestion and many died out from lack of use. However, the symbol of the trolley represents so much more. The death of the trolley was in many ways part of a death of investment in public transportation and a death of investment in urban centers. It was the death of walkability and cheap accessible travel. In the wake of crackdowns on fare evasion, rising ticket prices, and failing public transit systems in cities across the country it is clear that cities are in need of cheap and accessible urban transportation. Could more trolleys and trains have survived if the government had invested in public transportation rather than highways? It is very possible that subsidies on trolley lines and investments in trains could have prevented the destruction caused by highways. Though trolleys are out of date, electric trolley buses and light rails could be the answer.

Investment in better public transportation reduces pollution and could bring development and access to areas that have been neglected. Though it is unlikely we will ever get a trolley, or even a light rail in Oberlin anytime soon, you can’t blame a kid for dreaming!

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