As a kid growing up in a car-centric American city, my first introduction to public transit came from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’ bright-red Trolley conveyed me and all my fellow television neighbors from the rug in front of the living room console television to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
It was just a model train, but even as a very young child I understood the metaphor. Through this magic streetcar, everyone could get from their current location to a very distant one, all at once, and efficiently. Trolley was recognizable and dependable. Unlike Lady Elaine or Prince Tuesday, Trolley never let you down. It was a profound, quiet endorsement of the effectiveness of mass transit.
Of course, it was also a pretend one: the Neighborhood of Make-Believe was just that: a fantasy to which Trolley was yoked. Or so it seemed; The careful, repeat viewer—which was everyone, of course—would later notice a revelatory detail that unlocked Trolley’s even greater power. In the show’s opening credits, the camera pans over Mr. Rogers’s scale-model neighborhood. Just when the episode title appears, there’s Trolley, trundling down the quiet streets of the ordinary world!
For those who grew up with Mr. Rogers and now have their own families, it’s a little difficult to watch the old show. It aired its last new episodes in 2001, two years before Fred Rogers’ death. PBS stopped syndicating the show in 2008, although episodes can be found occasionally on local stations and on some streaming services, including Amazon Prime Video. In its place, The Fred Rogers Company has co-produced a new series for a new generation: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.
The show is a Mr. Roger’s universe spin-off, an animated cartoon about Daniel Tiger. Well, about Daniel Tiger the younger—the son of the depressive, orphaned Daniel Stripèd Tiger puppet from the original Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The elder Daniel has grown up psychologically healthy despite his traumatic youth, thank goodness. He apparently reunited with his Québecois father, Grand-Pere (who was Collette’s grandfather in the original show, so continuity is suspect), and had a son, also named Daniel, whose misadventures in toddlerdom the new series recounts. The show also reprises other Make-Believe characters and their broods.
Trolley’s role is reprised too, but, the streetcar’s function is entirely different from its precursor. When Daniel and his family want to go somewhere, they simply walk outside to catch Trolley. It’s always already there, waiting, empty. Daniel’s posse climbs aboard and off they go. And new Trolley is no longer bound by rails, but conveys itself, driverless, along the modest roads and pathways of the neighborhood. It deposits its passengers directly at their destination, then disappears.
In other words, Trolley isn’t a trolley, at all. It’s an Uber. An autonomous Uber, even.
Trolley is also a very important character in Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, one far more central than in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Not only does it convey Daniel and his family and friends around the (seemingly small and walkable?) neighborhood, but also it serves as the object of Daniel’s total obsession. He’s got a trolley bed. A trolley toy. Trolley bath towels. Daniel worships trolley (Ding! Ding!). Which means, metaphorically at least, that Daniel worships a hypothetical autonomous car hailing service rather than a mode of public transit.
It might seem harmless, like a young boy interested in fire trucks. But when I think about Trolley’s impact on my own early respect for trains and buses, I wonder if it’s something more.
If today’s Trolley is an introduction to automated car hailing rather than to public transit, the tenor of Daniel’s obsession changes. Trolley ceases to become a symbol of public transit, and instead becomes an emblem of privatized, technologized car hailing. It would be like a kid unpacking a Hot Wheels car in order to enjoy the glee of playing Uber. (Which, let’s face it, probably already happens somewhere.)
Trolley’s potential impact on the show’s very young viewers changes too. It’s not that original-Trolley somehow inspired a life of committed public transit use. Rather, that it offered an inroad, so to speak, for understanding the existence and function of trains and buses. That may not sound like much, but it meant that just about every American kid of the 1970s and 80s, most of whom were utterly surrounded by cars, got an early peek at an alternative.
The original Mr. Rogers Neighborhood trolley offered a subtle, implicit endorsement of public transit. Like so many effective media messages, positive and negative, it did most of this work by introducing something unfamiliar to most of its very young viewership—a rail-bound vehicle that transports lots of people at once from place to place—and then by normalizing that idea through repeated exposure on every episode. People ride transit, no big deal.
The new show does the same, but with a very different target. Functionally, Trolley becomes a quiet, implicit endorsement of something that has not quite yet arrived: autonomous car-service transit. For the very young who are its target audience, by the time they’re old enough to remember having watched it, Trolley’s version of transit might seem completely ordinary. Just hop outside and wait for your personal trolley to arrive. Isn’t that how you get places? What a beautiful day in the neighborhood.