San Antonio is one step closer to getting her streetcars back! Recently, VIA Metropolitan Transit held a public meeting to describe six alternate routes. All six variations consist of two basic patterns traversing downtown, one north-south and the other east-west. All are in the five-mile range, well short of the ninety miles San Antonio enjoyed at one time, but a great beginning.
San Antonio streetcar service began on June 22, 1878 and supported the cities early growth and development. The very first line ran from Alamo Plaza to San Pedro Park. The first streetcars were pulled by horses or mules. These early cars were replaced when the system was electrified following the completion of San Antonio's first large power generating station in 1890. Automobile ownership became widespread in the 1920s and suburban development spread to areas like Alamo Heights and Olmos Park. San Antonio became the first major US city to abandon streetcar service. After 55 years of service, the San Antonio Traction Company and our streetcar system came to a sad end on April 29, 1933. Most of the streetcar fleet was sold for scrap or simply abandoned.
Sprawling low density growth patterns accelerated greatly in the second half of the 20th century. One of the basic features of sprawl is driving, reflecting a well-established relationship between low density development and more automobile travel. For most suburban dwellers to buy a newspaper or gallon of milk requires driving a car. The reintroduction of the streetcar means San Antonio citizens will now have more choices.
A streetcar system has the power to stimulate desirable development along the line in a way that that buses do not; a public investment in streetcar rails along a fixed route is an assurance of permanence. Developers and investors need to mitigate risk; they get no help from a bus route, which could move or disappear overnight. Emerging data from numerous U.S. cities show that developers will vigorously invest in compact, high-density development along a streetcar line, almost from the moment that it's confirmed.
The first two routes are scheduled to be up and running by 2017. Just in time! With an expected 1.6 million San Antonians by 2020, transportation and commute times are more challenging than ever before. More than any other form of transportation, streetcars have the power to shape urban land-use, development, and growth patterns. In an effort to transition away from unsustainable land and energy consuming development patterns, San Antonio is promoting walkable, mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhoods to leverage significant benefits including affordability and public health. Downtown San Antonio has always been a source of civic pride, reintroducing the streetcar will help transform downtown into a place that will truly become everyone’s neighborhood.