The 1919 Dallas Streetcar system by Jake Berman.

Transportation

Dallas Public Transit Was Better in 1919 Than It Is in 2019

A spiffed up map of the old Dallas streetcar line could serve as a model for future transit efforts in the urban core.

Dallas public transit was on the right track. By 1919, the city had an extensive streetcar network that could carry riders from Oak Cliff to Highland Park, South Dallas to Greenville Ave., Oak Lawn to Fair Park, and pretty much every where in between. An artist named Jake Berman has released a new rendering of that system that is a lot easier to read than the old historic maps you may have seen. The map makes it resoundingly clear that Dallas’ public transit system was once pretty great.

In fact, the new map looks like a rendering of future dreams for Dallas transit–a way to get around the inner city and plan dense development around trafficked transit corridors. And it was all there a hundred years ago–built out, functioning, even offering commuter rail service to places like Coriscana, Waco, Denton, and Fort Worth.

And then we ripped it out. 

The early experiments with transit were born and died very quickly–within the span of a single lifetime, literally. When I was working on our Lost Dallas issue last year, I happened upon a curious historical tidbit. One of the very first Dallas streetcars was named “Belle Swink,” after the daughter of the streetcar company founder, Capt. George Swink. By the time Belle Swink died in 1956 at age 103, the streetcar , which once had more than 300 cars running along its tracks, was already headed toward the dustbin.

This new/old map is the work of Berman, a New York-based artist who has been re-imagining historic transit maps from cities around the country, uncovering a golden age of early American transit. You can buy prints of Berman’s work here. They are part of an ongoing project that is exploring lost subway and streetcar systems in America.

“This includes new maps of vanished systems like Dallas’, as well as some grand plans that never came to fruition,” Berman says. “These grand plans include things like New York’s 1865 steam-powered subway proposal, or the Houston monorail that was proposed in the 1960s.”

Realizing the project has been more difficult than you might think. Old maps are not only challenging to read, because the streetcar systems were privately owned, some of the maps deliberately eliminated their competition’s routes from their maps.

“Until 1917, there were three competing streetcar companies within the city of Dallas alone,” he says. “For these reasons, my best sources are old tourist guides, because they’ll include detailed service information that a map might not show.”

The demise of the streetcar is shrouded in conspiracy. Some accuse auto, rubber, and oil interests for buying up the lines and deliberately dismantling them in order to flood cities with their cars and buses. The real story is more complicated.

The streetcars themselves were originally developed as private entities designed to promote suburbanization–back when Oak Cliff and East Dallas were the suburbs. That proved to be an unsustainable business model. By the time cities took control of the streetcars, cars had caught on and streets were crowded with traffic that slowed the lines. Service suffered. Ridership fell. There was some misguided concern that the streetcars were making the streets dangerous–as opposed, say, to all those people who are driving around in the cars that are now involved in accidents in Dallas on average about every 17 minutes. Regardless, the city eventually decided to cast its lot in with buses, cars, highways, and super-charged sprawl.

That doesn’t mean the streetcars were destined not to work. It simply means that cities chose to favor other forms of transit over the streetcars. And the rest is history.

Nonetheless, looking at this revamped old map, it is difficult not to daydream about what kind of city Dallas could have been if we kept and built around the streetcar system. In fact, Berman is hoping the maps will inspire precisely that kind of imagining.

“I’d like for people to dream big about what a city can look like,” he says. “It’s almost inconceivable to think of the Metroplex as anything other than a suburban behemoth, but in 1919 that wasn’t the case at all.”

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