116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
- An interactive Google map of many of the local passenger railway lines and routes which used to regularly operate in the Cedar Valley, along with their dates of abandonment:
- The Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern Railway (the “Cedar Valley Road” interurban and streetcar)
- The Cedar Rapids & Marion City Railway (streetcar in Cedar Rapids)
- The Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway (the CRANDIC interurban)
- An interactive map showing the growth, decline, and eventual disappearance of passenger railways and streetcars in Waterloo
Folks who have previously followed my prior work on the CRANDIC interurban are aware of my interest in local passenger railways in the early-mid 20th century; Rapp’s maps can be compared to the more limited map I have made of CRANDIC station locations, viewable here.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, Rapp’s maps once again confirm much of what I have previously written about the old CRANDIC line. Immediately apparent is the frequency in which development in the region has followed these old rail lines, decades after they have been torn up or abandoned from passenger use. Had these rail lines not been abandoned, one can only imagine the potential for denser, transit-oriented development along these corridors, and at the very least, the partial bypassing of the auto-dominant sprawl which has comprised so much of development in the region since the 1940s.
Along the Cedar Rapids streetcar line, which extended along First Avenue from downtown into Marion, imagine if the cavalcade of big box stores and strip malls at Collins Road and First Avenue had instead been built up as a dense node of apartments and walkable storefront, centered around a station at that intersection, with a rapid bus line running along Collins to the Collins Aerospace campus, and to the Cedar Valley interurban, which ran where I-380 is now.
The Cedar Valley interurban, which ran from St. Luke’s hospital, through northeast Cedar Rapids, passing Hiawatha and Robins, and also passing by small towns like Center Point and Urbana, before terminating in Cedar Falls and Waverly, is now occupied by I-380 and the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. With the extent of development that has happened in this part of town since the 1940s, the loss of this too, seems like a tragically missed opportunity for the region.
If this interurban was still in operation, perhaps like the South Shore Line in Indiana/Illinois or other regional rail models worldwide, one could begin to imagine a less car-dependent alternate reality in Cedar Rapids and beyond. Instead of sprawling out to Edgewood Road and beyond, development would be concentrated closer to rail stations, in mid-rise apartments and condominiums, row houses and duplexes, two- and three-flats, and mixed-use construction with businesses below and homes on top. The agglomeration of big-box stores, fast food restaurants, and strip malls, instead of being impossible to navigate except by car, would instead be oriented around people by foot, on the interurban station.
Children in Hiawatha and Robins, instead of being homebound when a parent could not drive them, would now be able to take the train and explore their city independently. People wishing to live in quieter surroundings, but still not have to worry about dangerous winter driving, could commute into town on the interurban. A college student from Waterloo, but attending the University of Iowa, could take the whole trek home for the holidays without needing to plan ride-sharing or have a parent pick them up, by taking the CRANDIC and Cedar Valley interurbans, with a transfer in Cedar Rapids.
In actuality unfortunately, none of this happened. Those transit-oriented commercial and residential areas never materialized, and retrofitting the suburban sprawl in the places mentioned earlier would be immensely time-consuming and expensive. Most of the rail has been torn up, and reconstructing any of this seems practically impossible when the most viable component of a regional transit revival in the region, a CRANDIC commuter rail around Iowa City, has been stuck in feasibility study purgatory since 2006. Although documents such as Cedar Rapids’ redlining map already recognized that “growth and development” in the city was “distinctly to the northeast” as early as the 1930s, it does not appear that much importance was given to sustainable transportation and land use methods, with the railroads described in the same document as “especially detrimental.”
Again, perhaps continuing as a broken record, the status quo of development in Cedar Rapids and beyond is deeply problematic. Individually, the financial burden of universal car ownership is immense — at least $650,000 over one’s lifetime as a conservative estimate, and to a tune of nearly 43,000 traffic deaths in the U.S. last year as well — a figure nearly 10 times higher than all American combat deaths in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. Collectively, the climate impacts of car-dependent sprawl are staggering, with transportation — mostly from cars — as the single largest source of emissions in the U.S., and with suburbs emitting vastly more carbon emissions than urban and rural areas alike. Spread-out development with parking galore generates significantly less property tax revenue per capita compared to even blighted traditional compact buildings on long and narrow lots, raising serious implications about the long-term fiscal viability of the modality of development which has predominated over the past 75 years.
And yet the state of pedestrian, bicycle, and transit infrastructure in the area is so terrible that driving is not only a preferable option for moving around, it is the rational option for transportation, barring insurmountable barriers such as a disability which prevents one from driving. Although we cannot go back in time (yet), I wonder about the possibility of using these historic streetcar and interurban routes as inspiration for more sustainable and equitable transportation and land use planning in the region.
One final aside — Rapp shared their work with me on Twitter, where they can be found @threestationsq. Even with all of its faults, and as the site appears to be in its chaotic twilight, I have found the site to be personally and professionally extremely useful in finding sources and research, reading discussions among advocates, professionals, academics, politicians, and aficionados alike, and establishing a niche as a freelance writer. Indeed, this column has its origin in my prior work at the Iowa City Press-Citizen, which in turn began through correspondence with Zachary Oren Smith (now at Iowa Public Radio), on Twitter. Ecclesiastes 3:20 states, at least partially, “and to dust all return,” which now appears more likely than not to happen, in part due to the sheer petulance of a billionaire. For now, it’s been a good run — but one must also wonder if this whole mess could have been avoided in the first place.
Austin Wu is a Gazette Editorial Fellow. firstname.lastname@example.org
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