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Transportation

Out of Darkness, Light Rail!

In an era of austere federal funding for urban public transportation, light rail seemed to make sense. Did the little trains of the 1980s pull their own weight?
San Diego's Trolley, the first U.S. light rail system, kicked off the 1980s craze for this hybrid mode.
San Diego's Trolley, the first U.S. light rail system, kicked off the 1980s craze for this hybrid mode.Sam Hodgson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

When San Diego opened its light rail system in 1981, Mayor Pete Wilson declared it “a good idea whose time has come again.’” The bright red train cars, known as “the Trolley,” harked back to the urban railway that spanned 165 miles across metropolitan San Diego until 1949. As in so many North American cities, that streetcar system was ripped out as the automobile era dawned.

But the San Diego Trolley was built with a different spirit and purpose than its predecessor. It was light rail. And from San Diego, the new mode would spread across North America. Far cheaper to build than a subway, faster than a streetcar, and perhaps more alluring than a bus, light rail was seen as the answer to congested highways, growing populations, and civic fantasies of a dozen U.S. cities in the 1980s and early ‘90s.