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Commentary: Trolley idea needs an overhaul

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 26, 2009 - My wife and I are passionate fans of mass transit, and we don't just cheer from the sidelines. For seven years, she has relied on MetroLink to get to work downtown each day from our home in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood. Since the opening of the South County expansion, I have taken it, as much as its practical, to my job in Webster Groves - though for me it is more costly than driving, definitely slower and usually involves taking my bike on the train.

Not surprisingly, we long ago became dues-paying, card-carrying members of Citizens for Modern Transit, the nonprofit advocacy group for mass transit in St. Louis. If we were a little better-looking, I'm sure they would feature us on the cover page of their newsletter.

But I've always had this nagging doubt about MetroLink and, by extension, about the citizens who so vigorously promote it. Is light rail really the best, most efficient means of getting people from point A to point B, or is support for urban trains less about practical efficiency than about some "modern citizens'" incurable nostalgia for little engines on fixed tracks.

Once I learned that Citizens for Modern Transit had begun promoting plans for the restoration of trolley service on the Delmar Loop, including a vintage 1950s era trolley, the issue was settled.

For the Love of Choo-choos

Who in his or her right mind could think that a costly, un-airconditioned, handicapped-unfriendly, jolty, bumpy trolley system could possibly be worth restoring? Answer: only people obsessed with choo-choos. And we are not talking about kids here. These are grown men (and a few women), some of them apparently with deep pockets and serious civic clout.

I do not doubt that St. Louis desperately needs a mass transit option to get people from Headz 'N Threadz in the Loop to "Donuts" at DeBaliviere and Pershing. I know that everytime I get a new cap at Headz 'N Threadz, I develop this intense hankering for deep-fried desserts, and the fact is that - inspite of what the American Planning Association says about Delmar being one of America's 10 Great Streets - there are no donuts on the Loop. Besides, I am just fundamentally in favor of mass transit. You build it (and you pay for it), and I will certainly come.

Fifty million dollars, however, seems like a lot of money for this particular toy at this particular time in our city's history. I can see that there are advantages for the tourist industry in this kind of urban nostalgia. But for $50 million we could probably recreate an entire faux 1950s streetscape - "Mad Men" meets Tombstone, Ariz. - complete with Jon Hamm, the actor who plays Don Draper (a St. Louisan after all) standing outside Blueberry Hill and making urbane but cryptic comments to the passersby every Saturday from 3-5.

Why bother with a trolley? Maybe we will all be excited at first by the novelty, but how much sustained passion can a trolley produce among people other than choo-choo aficionados? The argument that businesses will choose to locate along a trolley line simply because it is there is pure propaganda. Few if any businesses have been spawned by the MetroLink line, and even the retailers who happen to be located near MetroLink stations, like the supposedly "pedestrian-friendly" Boulevard St. Louis, have often turned their back on the stations. Retailers in St. Louis simply do not orient themselves toward mass transit - regardless of its form.

Reinvent the Bus

If we are really interested in moving people around cheaply, efficiently, comfortably and with an element of fun, then let's think about how to reinvent the bus. Buses, after all, have the advantage of flexibility. Their routes can be adapted to the time of year, to the tastes of a fickle public, and to changes in retail and employment patterns. Buses could carry riders not just from Delmar to Donuts, but from the U City lions to the lions at the St. Louis Zoo and even beyond. A really cool bus could do so much more for this city than a cheesy old trolley.

"But stop right there!" you are thinking. "Did this guy just put the words 'cool' and 'bus' into the same sentence? Is he kidding? Doesn't he realize that no one rides the bus who has other options - certainly not middle class white people, certainly not the urban hipoisie?"

I have heard these arguments. They are all over the Internet. The problems with them are two-fold. First, they're wrong. Middle class people all over the world ride the bus, and many of them are white. (Nothing so far learned about the genetic make-up of white people suggests an inherent inability to take the bus.) All over Europe, the buses are full with riders from across the class spectrum. Even a few American cities (Madison, Pittsburgh) have bus systems with broad popular appeal. Second, the argument against buses always assumes that a bus is a bus is a bus: that the ugly, uncomfortable, noisy, smelly and perpetually unreliable monstrosities that middle-class white folks know and dislike today must also be the buses of tomorrow.

But the awfulness of our bus system is not some celestial accident. In the movie "Crash," a budding young gangster explains why he will never ride the bus. "You have no idea why they put them great big windows on the side of the buses," he tells his friend. "One reason only: to humiliate the people of color who are reduced to riding them." 

It is a funny scene but it makes a serious point. The condition of the buses in most American cities is intertwined with the history of racial and class discrimination. The middle classes won't pay to upgrade the buses because, in their heart of hearts, they feel that the young gangster is right. Buses are like homeless shelters and soup kitchens. We've gotta have 'em (we're not cruel after all), but it is probably best if there is a little bit of misery and humiliation connected to them. In any case, you don't serve lobster bisque at the soup kitchen.

It is because of this mindset that everywhere you look, if you bother to look, people are waiting for buses in the hot sun or the cold rain. No benches. No shelters. No reliable schedules. We are plagued with lumbering, bumpy vehicles that make your back hurt just looking at them, and somehow most taxpayers think this is just fine.

Morbid Fascination with Past

But imagine you were going to create a bus that went from the Loop to Forest Park and had $50 million to work with. Imagine a sleek, comfy, quiet, electric bus - maybe a double-decker one with an open top or a space-age vehicle with cool, rounded and retractable windows. We could have buses on hydraulics that descended to pick up people in wheelchairs, the elderly and parents with strollers. The system could have GPS monitoring, with LED displays at every stop telling passengers where the bus is and when it is going to arrive. You could have nice benches and decent shelters. What is not to like about that, oh white people?

Maybe Vince Schoemehl was right when he said that St. Louisans need to get over their morbid fascination with the past. Rather than giving ourselves over to dreamy nostalgia, we should try some genuine forward thinking, creative thinking. The advocates of the trolley talk about $4 million a year in operating costs for their proposed line. That kind of money could get you some pretty classy bus drivers.

We could have hunky guys in Armani suits with masters' degrees in hospitality and certification in defensive driving. Or how about degrees in zoology or art history, or both? "Welcome aboard passengers: before we enter beautiful Forest Park, perhaps you would like to hear a few words about the evolution of the giraffe or Anselm Kiefer's concept of "art as atonement"...And maybe some fresh donuts with that?"

Perhaps this is a far off dream, but at least it is a dream that would take us somewhere new. In the meantime, stop that trolley!

Warren Rosenblum is an associate professor of history at Webster University. He, his wife and two daughters live near bus lines, a MetroLink station and the proposed trolley route on Delmar Boulevard.