Welcome to our new series, I Tried It. Milwaukee Magazine writers are getting out an about, trying all the new things our city has to offer so you don’t have to (or so you know what to expect when you do). Before you venture out, check to see if MilMag has tried it first. Read all of our I Tried It installments here.
Milwaukee has a streetcar again. Have you heard?
Of course, you’ve heard. The streetcar – or “The Hop,” as the cool kids are calling it – began operating in early November to great pomp and much success. Over 16,000 riders “hopped” on during its long-awaited debut weekend. So just what-the-hop is riding this thing really like? Milwaukee Magazine sent me to try it out.
The main knock on the streetcar is the obvious one… that it doesn’t really go anywhere. But that isn’t exactly true. If you want to get from the lower east side to the Third Ward or the train station, you’re in luck. No longer will you need to rely on… (checks)… multiple bus lines. Now, you can hop it like Peter Rabbit and cover that distance in… (checks)… roughly the same amount of time as before.
But this is being overly critical. The streetcar is about the future. Future lines that extend to all quarters of the city. Future development that will cluster along these lines. The streetcar, as it is now, it meant to be the seed from which a greener and more easily navigable Milwaukee shall grow.
But that’s the future. Right now, we’ve got the M-Line, a 2.1-mile route that runs from Ogden Avenue to St. Paul Avenue.
My wife Erika and I waited at the Ogden Avenue end of the line (just a short bus ride from our East Side apartment). Some colorful signage on the shelter listed the arrival times at the stop and laid out the M-Line’s route. After a few other people joined us in wait, the streetcar quietly ambled around the corner.
So, aside from the cool-factor, what does the streetcar have on the bus? Room, for one thing. The cars are open and roomy, with plenty of space to stand and a good amount of fixed seating. The cars are also very clean, maintaining a true “new car” smell even a few months after their arrival in the city.
And it’s a much different feeling to glide through the city on the low-set streetcar than to bounce and grind from stop to stop on a city bus. The cars are bright with large windows that offer a unique and clean look at Milwaukee. A much preferred alternative to squinting through a wrap-around ad for 1-600-Doctorb or some such nonsense on the Green Line.
As we neared downtown, it dawned on me that no one was getting off at any of the stops. Each stop only added more riders and, by the time we hit Cathedral Square, lots of people were getting on.
As a long-time rider of public transport in the city (I can still recite all four of the movie quotes they used to use on Transit TV), it struck me that this crowd was unlike any I had ever seen on a bus. These people were cheery and excited, in high spirits but still sober (not “hopped” up, you might say).
“This is the first time I’ve been downtown in years,” one rider said to another.
And there were kids. So many kids! Sitting in front of us, a grandmother sat with two young children who squirmed in their seats. She ohhh’ed and ahhh’ed in a grandmotherly way, pointing out the holiday decorations that we passed. The boy sat backwards in his seat, ignoring her to stare at me while unashamedly picking his nose.
All around us, parents similarly tried to draw the attention of their kids. “Brayden, look!” “Do you see the lights, Gunnar?” “Stop licking the floor, Flaxtyyn!”
By the time we reached the Third Ward, we decided that we had hopped enough for one afternoon. It is an impressive operation, to be sure. The cars glide smoothly and snake around corners with a gentle pivoting that makes for a much nicer ride than the bus. It’s a tidy and pleasant journey that, hopefully, will soon serve a much greater segment of the Milwaukee populace.
But for now, it remains a bit of a curiosity, a trip mostly for people who aren’t going anywhere. Yet, they seem to take that ride with joy. As for me, I’ll have to take my next trip downtown on one of those lumbering buses. Back amongst the directionless, not the destinationless.