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Debate: Why Did Trams Die in the 20th Century?

A Toronto professor pushes against Christian Wolmar's assertion that the tram's demise can be connected to anti-worker policy. For one thing, trams never went away in some cities.
July 1, 2016, 10am PDT | Philip Rojc | @PhilipRojc
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Neal Jennings

The history behind the gutting of public transit during the 20th century has been hotly debated. In a recent piece for The Guardian, Christian Wolmar argues that class snobbery contributed to anti-transit policy, with the middling classes preferring the more stately private automobile. Thomas R. Klassen doesn't entirely agree. "[Wolmar] argues that trams were eliminated 'because they catered for the working classes.' But surely that is too simplistic."

Klassen notes that cars quickly became working class transport. "As important in explaining public transit policies is that employment and residence patterns altered dramatically after the second world war. Moreover car ownership – for a while – became the nearly realised dream of many working-class households. In the 1950s and 60s it really did seem that public transportation, with the exceptions of subways and inter-city trains, largely would fade away."

In places like Toronto and Melbourne, trams survived the trend away from transit. "Toronto's trams have survived and prospered for two reasons. The first is that public-transit policymaking in Toronto was, and continues to be, so muddled and slow that politicians never got around to eliminating streetcars." The other, Klassen suggests, is simple good branding.

It's also important to remember that in places with a rising middle class, notably China, people prize both transit and car ownership. Driving has more cachet, but we have yet to see any of North America's historical transit-phobia. 

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Published on Tuesday, June 7, 2016 in The Guardian
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