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Who killed Baltimore’s streetcar system?

Streetcars on Fayette Street near Calvert Street in 1952.
Streetcars on Fayette Street near Calvert Street in 1952. (Baltimore Sun historical photo / Baltimore Sun)

There’s news that Baltimore’s public transit system is likely to be trimmed as a cost-cutting measure now that so few people have been riding it during the pandemic. This round of cuts brings up another time and another set of urban planning priorities.

Baltimore was once girdled by streetcar lines that wrapped from Bay Shore Park on the Chesapeake Bay in eastern Baltimore County to Ellicott City in Howard County.

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The Baltimore Transit Company (BTC) annual report of May 1960 tells a revelatory tale about how public transit in Baltimore was treated 60 years ago, when there were still 101 individual streetcars operating on 56 miles of trackage. It was a system that patrons, sometimes grudgingly, admitted worked pretty well.

But those who drove to work in their own cars felt that individual streetcars, which often carried more than 100 persons, needed to disappear.

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The BTC had converted dozens of streetcar lines to bus operation at this time, but two heavily patronized trunk routes survived, and the transit company (it was still privately owned and, to read the complaints in the report, heavily taxed) did not want to surrender them to bus operation.

“The heaviest traveled lines .... are the two remaining streetcar routes. Catonsville-Towson and Belair Road-Edmondson Avenue are radial routes extending from the central business district through the more densely populated parts of the city ... Each is served by feeder bus routes in the suburban areas and crosstown lines within the city.”

The annual report also said, “The remaining streetcars used on these two lines are modern and attractive. They are the largest vehicles in the company fleet, seating 56 passengers. The inside of these cars is well lighted, comfortably heated and has ample aisle space.”

The two routes were the backbone of traversing Baltimore in 1960. The No. 8 traveled York Road, Greenmount Avenue, crossed downtown and then headed to Catonsville via Frederick Road. The No. 15 served Northeast and West Baltimore, via Belair Road and Gay Street, downtown and the heart of West Baltimore.

These routes were popular with riders because the cars, traveling on fixed rails, were so reliable. Literally, if a passenger missed a streetcar, there was usually another visible in the offing.

Both of these trunk lines crossed downtown Baltimore on Fayette Street, which then accommodated two-way traffic.

And it was this street, Fayette, that became a contentious issue. Fayette Street passed through the freshly rebuilding Charles Center, which was emerging as the business community’s dream of what a modern and progressive city should be. Streetcars were deemed old-fashioned and ill-suited to Mid-century Modern architectural ideals.

The report forecasts why Baltimore’s streetcar system would be sacrificed entirely.

The report stated: “The reason for the proposed conversion of these lines [to buses] is not the condition of the streetcar system or the prospect of the operating economy but the insistence of the city upon elimination of them to accommodate automobile traffic in downtown Baltimore.”

When the report was issued, downtown Baltimore was in the midst of a campaign to tear down blocks of old buildings and replace them with new office structures and underground parking garages.

“Traffic-Transit Commissioner Henry A. Barnes states that the success of the Charles Center and Civic Center programs is dependent upon the conversion of the two remaining rail lines to bus operation," the document said. The report also cited David A. Wallace, director of the Greater Baltimore Committee’s planning council, as saying that the “success of the Charles Center depends quite heavily” on increasing one-way streets.

The forces that espoused one-way streets prevailed. Baltimore’s beloved streetcar system was converted to buses in 1963.

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It would take another two decades until an underground Metro system opened. Light rail arrived in 1992.

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