Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century Edited by Gloria Ohland and Shelley Poticha. Reconnecting America, 436 14th St., Suite 1005, Oakland, CA 94612; www.reconnectingamerica.org; 10 x 11.8 in; trade paperback; 92 pages, 82 color and 8 b/w photos, 19 illustrations, 3 maps; $25.00
In today’s American public transit scene, the word “streetcar” likely holds more cache than any other. Numerous heritage and modern streetcar lines have been opened in the past decade, and with an increased appreciation of the concept on the part of the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) of late, there are new proposals across the country. In Street Smart the editors attempt to address and explain this streetcar boom.
Although the book focuses on recent streetcar systems, it attempts to provide more than simply an overview of equipment and routes. Instead, the editors focus on providing the wider context, not only of how we got here, but of what streetcar systems do, and where they might take us in the future. The format is an anthology, consisting of articles and essays by professionals within the field, from planners to developers to streetcar operators. The book is divided into eight parts, including an introductory section, followed by sections on the history of streetcars, planning, financing, a set of our case studies, economic development, technical design, and a technical appendix.
The content of Street Smart is somewhat uneven, due to its anthology format. As an example, the definition of what a streetcar is: one author draws a sharp line between streetcars and their light-rail brethren, while another lumps light-rail forerunners like Pacific Electric with streetcars. In another place, one author describes streetcars as modern and relevant to today’s transportation needs, and not “quaint” parts of a “by-gone era”. Yet the editors chose to include an essay on why conservatives ought to support streetcars that calls on the imagery of Gilded Age America, with all its Queen Anne gingerbread glory, and a return to simpler times.
The tone of the work is consistently upbeat, but this is to be expected from a book produced by an organization that is promoting the mode. Indeed this is less a book for the general public than a kind of textbook for transportation planners and city-builders. To achieve this, there is a significant focus on the Portland Streetcar, which is front-and-center in most of the articles. This is relieved somewhat by Chapter 5, with its four (non-Pacific Northwest) case studies. Afterwards, however, we delve into economic development, which is almost 100% Portland again. While interesting, especially for outsiders, I’m left wondering if the editors couldn’t find examples of significant streetcar-driven development in other cities that could have been equally highlighted. The rest of the book is almost entirely technical minutiae. I can’t help but feel that this is an odd way to end the anthology; the book would benefit from a concluding chapter which might include a glance into the future of streetcar technology and ideas, as well as summarize the editors’ vision.
The book is lavishly supported with photos and other images. Some of these are quite spectacular, especially the many images of the San Francisco Muni’s historic F-Line streetcars, one of which adorns the cover. Just looking at them makes you want to jump on board. The graphic design is quite slick, and the book is printed on a heavy stock in four-color process, making it feel luxurious to hold. Reproduction, however, is uneven, with at least two images displaying some major rasterization, and a handful being slightly on the soft side.
But let’s not nitpick. Street Smart is an excellent, perhaps unprecedented book. Although slightly rosy-toned, the book is a wealth of information, and an sure primer for anyone wanting to know more about streetcar systems from a functional standpoint. It’s worth buying for anyone with an interest — professional or otherwise — in land use, transportation, public transit, or economic development.