Trams are so cool.

So my housemate and I were in a “what if?” / “wouldn’t it be cool if?” futuristic type conversation the other day and we started talking about lightrail. As in wouldn’t it be cool if you could catch trams in Oakland? Yes, it would, because trams are so cool. With all the recent news of the failed Oakland BART airport connector development, which not only would’ve cost a half billion dollars but also sidelined some very important issues, I had some thoughts.  I realized $500,000,000 is a lot of money. But also that there are probably better and cooler uses for it. Like a network of lightrail, streetcars!

tram in oakland

Artist's rendering of an Oakland tram.

As it is now the are two main (three if you count Lake Merritt) downtown Oakland BART stops which do little to build any community or interconnectedness. People go to work, of course, but what if I want to take public transportation to get to the Laurel district or even go shopping on an ancient burial ground in Emeryville? It’s not that easy.

Seriously: how cool would this be — if you could catch a streetcar from downtown to the hills or ride all the way from the Rockridge to the Laurel?

Oh wait, that was possible back in the day: The Key System

Bay Area Key System map

This is a map from 1911 -- that

At the beginning of the last century there was in place a vast network of East Bay lightrail, stretching from Richmond to Fremont — yes, that’s true that BART goes there now but this was like a hundred years ago, and plus the system was just so much cooler — scope the map above.

This is one of the stops on Piedmont ave.:

Piedmont Key Station

Piedmont Key System Stop (from:

And what it looks like now (pan to the left to see the tower):

Then, GM bought the system and slowly dismantled it, getting fined $5,000 for trying to monopolize transportation in the mean time, and the Key System was no more. Even with inflation, five thousand certainly puts half a billion into perspective.

So… $500,000,000 is a lot money, likely a new tram system would cost even more (right?, it just has to –) but it doesn’t mean we can’t imagine. Future urban design genius, Daniel Jacobson, (whose Stanford allegiances can be forgiven because he’s from Richmond) has some awesome, detailed ideas on his blog, 21st Century Urban Solutions. He proposes a number of potential routes that would do exactly what BART can’t: connect neighborhoods with closer stops and do it more efficiently than AC Transit. Seriously, I know I love trains but, come on, this is SO AWESOME: (it’s a map I lifted from his blog):

Jacobson’s proposal is pretty detailed so you should probably read the whole post here.

Real talk: how cool would an Oakland streetcar system be? Important caveats: gentrification, noise impact, $$, street (re)design. Thoughts? But really, aren’t trams so cool?



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4 responses to “Trams are so cool.

  1. lili

    hey kot,

    your blog is so cool — and interesting — and thought-provoking — and well-written! i’m impressed and will look forward to reading more.

  2. josh

    I like where you’re going with this 🙂 I think all the time about how almost every major city (even small ones like Santa Cruz) had street car systems at the turn of the century, before GM’s campaign to wipe them out in favor of the automobile. If they could afford it in 1900, why not now?

    • kot

      Thanks Josh. Yeah, I mean even in San Francisco the Muni system has shrunk over time. It happened more or less everywhere, I think, with some exceptions, the city of Portland being a recent one, in terms of actively expanding public transportation — the blog I mentioned above cites a crazy figure of like a 6,000% return on the initial streetcar infrastructure investment there. Which is certainly heartening but also frustrating because I cannot even imagine the amount of red tape such an undertaking would have to cut through in Oakland.

  3. Pingback: The Oakland 49ers « OK Oakland

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