Tampa once boasted a vast streetcar network that was 53 miles long. The lines carried riders all over Florida’s second largest city for just a few cents each. When the streetcars stopped running in 1946, most of the lines were ripped up.
As the city’s urban sprawl expanded, Tampa’s old streetcar routes were forgotten. Until Jake Berman unearthed them.
Berman is on a mission to map North America’s lost subway and streetcar lines. Lawyer by day and cartographer by night, the New York City-based artist has now mapped over 150 transit systems. His latest creation traces Tampa’s streetcar lines during the 1920s.
“TECO is Tampa, Florida’s electric utility, but it got its start as a combination streetcar operator" reads the map’s caption on Berman’s website. "This is what the system looked like in 1920, when Tampa’s economy was based on cigar manufacturing and phosphate mining, as opposed to the modern Tampa economy based on defense and financial services.”
The idea to map lost transit lines came to Berman a few years ago, while he was stuck in of one of Los Angeles’ infamous traffic jams. Sitting behind a Jeep on the 101 Freeway, he wondered, “Why on earth doesn’t L.A. have a better mass transit system?”
A trip to the library led Berman to an early 20th-century map from the Pacific Electric streetcar.
“A lot of this history has just disappeared from people’s memories,” he said. “It’s easy to forget over a few decades the way things used to be.”
Berman created Fifty-Three Studio, named after his grandmother’s old house number, to sell his designs. He uses his history and urban planning background to make original maps documenting lost subway and streetcar routes all around North America. Berman also creates futuristic renderings of what some cities may look like in 2050.
Tampa’s streetcar system was once so significant that two providers — Tampa Street Railway and Power Co., and Consumers Electric Light and Power Co.— waged a rate war in the late 1800s.
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Tampa Electric Co. (now part of TECO) took over the city’s 21.5 miles of streetcar tracks in 1899. In the coming decades, the streetcar routes more than doubled.
“At its peak in 1926, Tampa’s streetcars carried nearly 24 million passengers, running from 4:30 a.m. to 2 a.m,” the Times reported in 2017. "That was in a city of no more than 101,000 people — less than a third of Tampa’s population today.”
Most cities had significant public transit systems that relied on electric-powered streetcars before World War II. But by the end of the war, the only Florida cities that still had streetcars were Tampa and St. Petersburg. The last streetcar was removed in 1946.
By then, cities across the United States started ripping out their streetcar lines, said Andy Huse, a special collections librarian at USF. Men were getting paid well in the postwar economy. Women were entering the workforce in increasing numbers. Suburbia saw an explosion of housing developments.
The role of the car and car companies in the demise of the streetcar, sometimes called the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, has long been a matter of historical debate.
Huse thinks auto companies did have a lot to do with the shift in transportation after the war, at least in Tampa. “You follow the money, and it’s going straight to the auto industry” Huse said.
“Firestone, it’s Goodyear, it’s all the car brands that were big at the time —none of them were advocating to double down on the streetcar system," he said. “It’s not a conspiracy theory. It’s demonstrably true.”
The public reason the city gave for taking out the streetcar was that it wasn’t profitable anymore. Huse doesn’t buy it.
“Tampa Electric Company hadn’t raised the price in 20 years,” Huse said. “The ridership was not a problem.”
Tampa and Hillsborough reintroduced a 2.7-mile stretch of the old streetcar line in 2002. The line goes from Ybor City to the Tampa Convention Center.
“It doesn’t really go to any neighborhoods or anything, so you can’t really expect people to use it for what streetcars are meant for," Huse said. "I think it was just a really expensive optic for the tourists.”
Berman’s map provides a more comprehensive picture of what life was like back then, before terrain changed and places were renamed. He based the Tampa map on a tourist guide the Tampa Board of Trade put out in the 1920s.
“I try to make the kinds of maps that would pass muster if I were writing them as a history paper,” he said.
Like his other creations, he manually plotted the Tampa map and designed it with Adobe Illustrator, keeping popular fonts and design elements of the time period in mind.
Eventually, Berman wants to turn his project into a coffee table book. For now, he shares his work and what he learned in the process on local subreddits, like r/Tampa.
“It’s okay to dream a little bit about what things might be like the next time you’re stuck in traffic," he said. "It’s not just a fantasy. It’s history.”