When the auto plant here closed, this prosperous port city on Lake Michigan lost more than just its largest employer. Its sense of vitality seemed to drain away, and city leaders set out to find something that would inject life into the brick-storefront downtown while the economy went through a transition.

What they came up with was obsolete – an electric streetcar. Kenosha decided to bring back a relic that once clattered around metropolitan areas in pre-war America but was abandoned on the march to modernity.

More than a decade later, the experiment is now popping up all over. More than 30 cities around the country are planning to build streetcar systems or have done so recently. Dallas, Portland and Seattle all have new streetcar lines. Most projects involve spending millions of dollars to put back something that used to be there often in the same stretches of pavement.

“It goes along with the revival of inner cities all over America,” said Steve Novick, transportation commissioner in Portland, which has spent more than $250 million to replace the lines the city shut down in 1950. “It’s too bad that they weren’t kept here all along.”

Many city planners are convinced that old-timey cars tethered to overhead electric cables or their updated descendants futuristic and low-slung ignite economic development in a way that buses cannot, and with a whiff of romance. Embedding rails in roads is part of resurrecting entertainment districts and capitalising on the return to urban living by young professionals and empty-nesters bored with suburban life. And since streetcars run with traffic rather than on separated lines, the systems can cost as little as $50 million, a fraction of the expense of light rail.

“It really is about creating a certain kind of neighbourhood feel and fabric,” said Patrick Quinton, executive director of the Portland Development Commission.

Since Portland’s line opened, $3.5 billion in development has sprouted within blocks of the tracks. A section of old rail yards and warehouses is now the trendy Pearl District, home to galleries, restaurants, shops and housing. The system has been expanded to nearly eight miles and each weekday carries 13,000 people, who can track arriving cars on their smartphones.

Salt Lake City, where the last streetcars vanished in 1946, is set to open a two-mile (3.2-kilometer) line next month. It’s part of a planned “greenway” of parks, bike paths and trails designed to attract 4,000 new households and 7,700 jobs by 2030. For technology firms and “talent-driven companies, it’s definitely a selling point” for business locations, said Quinton. American companies are making streetcars again for the first time since the 1950s. Most new systems use sleek cabins with doors that slide open at street level.

Voters in Los Angeles and Kansas City have approved new taxes for streetcar projects.AP

More than 30 cities around the country are planning to build streetcar systems or have done so recently