Streetcars, Desired

Blame it on Blanche DuBois, but streetcars are sometimes typecast as old-fashioned conveyances.

Don’t tell that to urban planners in Seattle, Washington and other cities where streetcars are landing starring roles. “There’s an increasing need for high-quality circulation options within city centers,” says Ethan Melone, rail transit manager of Seattle’s growing system.

Streetcars, which draw electricity from rails or overhead lines but share traffic lanes with other vehicles, meet that need.

It’s not just efficiency that matters, says Patrick Condon, author of Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities. “If we’re ever to succeed in cutting greenhouse gases, we need to trade car trips for zero-greenhouse-gas walking, biking, and transit options,” he says.

For its history and scenic range, Condon favors Toronto’s system, which dates to the 19th century, and Portland, Oregon’s model, which turned derelict areas into hip ’hoods. New lines in Tucson, Arizona, St. Louis, Missouri, and Washington, D.C. will debut in 2014, reviving streetcars as the in-vogue way to go.

This article, written by contributing editor George W. Stone, appeared in the February/March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler.