With gas prices on the rise and new policies and ideas on the table, it's time to look at how we get around. We all need to get someplace and we use many different modes of transportation to do so. As we kick off 2011 at OnMilwaukee.com, we're taking an in-depth look at how we get around with a special "Transportation Week," featuring all kinds of stories about how Milwaukee gets where it's going. So, buckle up, hop on and all aboard.
The history of public transportation in Milwaukee is rife with change. From the time horse-drawn streetcars appeared on Water Street 151 years ago to when those cars became electrified 30 years later and beyond, public transportation has changed with the times.
Although there has been much discussion -- at times heated discussion -- about various forms of light rail -- it's been more than 50 years since buses became the sole form of mass transit in the city of Milwaukee.
That's because the automobile and the building of the freeway system in Milwaukee changed everything.
"It was absolutely the automobile that killed streetcar service, and the corresponding move to rubber-tired public transit," local historian John Gurda tells me.
But even before cars became all the rage, some streetcar lines were replaced with "trackless trolleys" -- rubber-tired, electric buses -- (in 1936) and gasoline-powered buses first appeared on Mitchell Street in 1920.
My co-worker Tim Cuprisin, who has written about the end of the streetcar era, recalls that many of his first-hand sources told him that what helped kill the streetcars was that they were extremely uncomfortable.
But since their demise, Milwaukee streetcars have gained a certain allure that has made them memorable to folks of certain generations.
Folks remember Mad Man Michaels' "Czarnina Kid" talking about Mitchell Street, "where the streetcar bends the corner around," in classic South Side-ese.
Even my mom talks fondly of her memories riding on the streetcars as a teenager.
There are a number of Web sites -- including this awesome one -- that pay tribute to the bygone days of the Milwaukee streetcar.
Gurda notes that there was nostalgia for the veteran means of transport even as the rolling stock came to a screeching halt. But that nostalgia was tempered by the reality that streetcars just didn't seem like the kind of transit that would carry Milwaukee into the future.
"When the last car ran in 1958, there was a nostalgic closing ceremony (at which) Mayor Frank Zeidler spoke," says Gurda, "but most Milwaukeeans had long since moved on to private transit. Streetcars were considered as antiquated as the horse and buggy had seemed to an earlier generation."
Since 1958, Milwaukeeans have relied solely on rubber tires to navigate their city.
If and when those become the mode of the past, will you be nostalgic about them? Will tears well up in your eyes when the last gasoline-powered bus rolls down Wisconsin Avenue?
Here's a brief timeline of streetcars in Milwaukee:
1860 -- First horse drawn streetcars appear on East Water Street.
1890 -- First electric streetcars hit Milwaukee streets when the city's transit underdog The West Side Street Railway gets powered on Wells Street.
1896 -- The Great Streetcar Strike.
1920 -- The first gasoline-fueled bus runs on Mitchell Street.
1936 -- Electric-powered, rubber-tired "trackless trolleys" begin to replace streetcars on some lines.
1938 -- The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company banned from owning both rail and electric utility. The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Transport Company is born to run the streetcars and Wisconsin Electric Power created to control the utility.
1950 -- The first diesel-fueled buses are added to the system.
1958 -- The last streetcar rolls down the line in Brew City on March 2.
1965 -- Two final trackless trolley routes are converted to gas buses.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.