Robert C. Post
Johns Hopkins University Press
2715 North Charles Street, Baltimore, MD 21218;
2010. 181 pages. $25 paperback.
As soon as economic conditions improve, the world will almost certainly face a rapid increase in energy costs. A number of factors face the market—expanding demand, especially in China and India; a possible peak and then decline in worldwide petroleum production; concerns about global change—any one of which could increase energy costs. The likely convergence of these factors implies the increase could be dramatic.
Concerns such as these, combined with the automobile-dependent land use patterns that have developed in the United States since World War II, suggest that it would be wise for this nation to develop a robust portfolio of transportation options. Anyone with an interest in multimodal transportation should understand the history and characteristics of the mass transportation modes, such as railroads and light rail—known in the past as trolleys or streetcars—that dominated passenger transport before the ascendance of the automobile and airlines.
It is relatively easy to find overviews of the railroad industry, but few works giving a summary view of light rail and other urban/public mass transit modes are available. Robert C. Post’s Urban Mass Transit: The Life Story of a Technology, now readily available in paperback, helps fill this void (the hardcover edition was published by Greenwood Press).
Urban Mass Transit is a short book, which is an advantage in that even the busiest policy maker should be able to find time to read it in its entirety. In fewer than 200 pages, Post describes the urban mass transit modes of the past, including omnibuses, horsecars, cable cars, streetcars/trolleys, jitneys, buses, and trolleybuses, or trackless trolleys. His description of these modes is sequential, beginning with omnibuses and ending with the near-disappearance of streetcar systems in the United States in the two decades following World War II.
is a short book, which is an advantage in that even the busiest policy maker should be able to find time to read it in its entirety. In fewer than 200 pages, Post describes the urban mass transit modes of the past, including omnibuses, horsecars, cable cars, streetcars/trolleys, jitneys, buses, and trolleybuses, or trackless trolleys. His description of these modes is sequential, beginning with omnibuses and ending with the near-disappearance of streetcar systems in the United States in the two decades following World War II.
In an authorial move that disrupts the otherwise easily understandable progression of his story, Post then describes rapid transit, which he defines as elevated railways and rapid transit/subway systems. Unfortunately, this history of rapid transit, covered in just over ten pages, leaves the reader wanting more.
The most critical part of Post’s story for contemporary policy makers is the recent revival of light rail and related modes in the United States—a development Post terms “a turn of fortunes.” This section of the book, at about five pages, is also inadequate, which is particularly unfortunate because a general-interest, overview history of this revival awaits an author.
Post’s scope does not include commuter railroads, widely known as heavy rail today; an up-to-date general history of this mode of transit in the United States also awaits an author. More questionably, Post devotes only two pages to interurbans, an almost-extinct electric mass transit mode that once connected cities and towns, and their streetcar systems, while also providing service to intervening rural areas. Fortunately, George W. Hilton and John F. Due’s magisterial survey The Electric Interurban Railways in America (Stanford University Press, 1960, reissued in 2000) is readily available.
Post’s conclusion, which questions conventional wisdom by asking whether further urban mass transit development in the United States is possible given the country’s scarce resources, is both provocative and well-stated. As Post notes, a need for dramatic changes in the nation’s transportation system presents society with huge resource demands.
These needs will compete in the public marketplace with the demands of an aging population, security concerns, a needed transformation in the energy supply, the effects of global change, and other challenges. Urban Mass Transit, despite its limited scope and brevity, provides a useful overview for those seeking a better understanding of the history—and future prospects—of urban mass transportation in the United States.