The Glory and Contradictions of American Railway Expansion, 1852-1920

Nowadays less than five percent of American workers use transit to get to work[1]—making it hard to accept that a hundred years ago transit was the nation’s main commuting mode. Transit prominence began as early as the 1850s when horse railways spread in cities. Historical data on per capita ridership rates (Figure 1) show that rail transit ridership reached the highest point in history in 1920, and overall transit ridership including rail transit ridership hit the lowest point in history in 1972. Following these time points, I divide American transit history into three distinct periods: the railway expansion era from 1852 to 1920, the transit decline era from 1921 to 1972, and the transit resilience era from 1973 to present.

This blog post is a historical analysis of the railway expansion era. The era started with the invention of grooved rail in 1852 that greatly facilitated the adoption of horse railways.  After countless technology innovations, it ended with the glorious domination of electric streetcars—a technology that was far more efficient and economical than the predecessors. The domination of electric streetcars not only accelerated railway expansion but also the process of urbanization, enabling contradictory forces of dispersal and centralization.  It created vast streetcar suburbs in conjunction with denser urban cores, as well as mobility freedom in conjunction with geographic separation of gender, races, and classes. In the following text, I present honest observations about how and why urban rail transit developed in the way in which it did between 1852 and 1920.

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New course brings transportation planners to Minnesota

CTS Blog

Visiting professionals pose with Goldy Gopher on a U of M campus tourThis fall, 15 professionals from the Shenzhen Urban Transportation Planning Center (SUTPC) came to Minnesota for a new training opportunity. The four-week course was offered by the U of M’s Global Transit Innovations (GTI) Program, CTS, and the China Center’s Mingda Institute for Leadership Training.

“The overall goal is to help to advance the participants’ professional skills and knowledge of state-of-the-art transportation research and practices in the United States, and to identify international collaboration opportunities,” says Yingling Fan, associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and GTI director.

The course, sponsored by SUTPC, focused on urban transportation planning and design. The 15 professionals were selected by SUTPC leadership. “The participants tend to be mid-career professionals in their departments who are tapped for career advancement,” Fan says. SUTPC plans to sponsor the training yearly.

The course included workshops featuring U of M researchers from multiple departments as well as…

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The economy, the environment, and the future: A student’s reflection on visiting Hong Kong

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This gallery contains 9 photos.

Originally posted on CTS Blog:
In May, the Global Transit Innovations (GTI) program coordinated a study-abroad course that took 16 University of Minnesota students to China. The intensive two-week course focused on high-density urban and regional development and included visits…

Transformation and development: A student’s reflection on visiting Shenzhen

CTS Blog

In May, the Global Transit Innovations (GTI) program coordinated a study-abroad course that took 16 University of Minnesota students to China. The intensive two-week course focused on high-density urban and regional development and included visits to five cities in the Yangtze and Pearl River Delta regions.

In this guest post, student Elmo Elsayad offers his reflections on Shenzhen, the penultimate city visited by course participants. Activities in the city included visiting Peking University Shenzhen Graduate School, touring urban villages and eco-cities, and visiting the Shenzhen Urban Transportation Center.


IMG_2363 By Elmo Elsayad

In my view, the transformation of the city of Shenzhen is a breakthrough in the science of urban morphology. As a city that has been transformed in only 30 years, making use of engineering ingenuity and innovative urban transit-oriented development, Shenzhen is a successful model of quick and mature city development.

I believe that the proximity of Shenzhen to…

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Street design and bike sharing: A student’s reflection on visiting Nanjing

CTS Blog

In May, the Global Transit Innovations (GTI) program coordinated a study-abroad course that took 16 University of Minnesota students to China. The intensive two-week course focused on high-density urban and regional development and included visits to five cities in the Yangtze and Pearl River Delta regions.

In this guest post, student Joe Polacek reflects on Nanjing, the third stop on the course’s itinerary. While in the city, the students visited the Nanjing Public Bicycle Company, the Nanjing Construction Planning Exhibition Hall, and Southeast University.


Nanjing Skyline By Joe Polacek

What I found most striking about Nanjing was the contrast between old and new. As we entered the city, we immediately made our way to the ancient temple on a hill. We ate vegetarian dishes and walked atop an old city wall. As we descended, however, the city became a totally new, contemporary experience. The streets were wide and paved with new blacktop…

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Public participation, poetry, and planning: A student’s reflection on visiting Suzhou

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This gallery contains 6 photos.

Originally posted on CTS Blog:
In May, the Global Transit Innovations (GTI) program coordinated a study-abroad course that took 16 University of Minnesota students to China. The intensive two-week course focused on high-density urban and regional development and included visits…

International students study transportation during summer exchange

IMG_4130This summer, students from three Chinese universities spent six weeks learning about American transportation and culture as part of a training program offered by the Global Transit Innovations (GTI) Program.

Thirty-two students from Southeast University, Nanjing Tech University, and Northwest University participated in the program, which included courses on GIS, transportation planning, English speaking and writing, and cross-cultural communication. They also attended a variety of transportation-focused seminars both on and off campus, including tours of U of M labs, 3M’s Innovation Center, and the St. Croix River Crossing.

In addition, students participated in cultural activities at locations around the Twin Cities, such as Fort Snelling and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

“Our hope is that students leave Minnesota with a greater knowledge of the U.S. transportation system and a deepened curiosity to continue their studies and discover new innovations for global transportation,” says CTS director Laurie McGinnis.

The program, first offered in 2016, was developed by CTS, GTI, and the U of M China Center’s Mingda Institute.

U of M students gain first-hand view of Chinese transportation in study-abroad course

Chinese1The Global Transit Innovations (GTI) program coordinated a study-abroad course in spring semester 2017 that included visits to five cities in the Yangtze and Pearl River Delta regions in China. The course—PA 5880: High-Density Urban and Regional Development in China—was offered by the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Led by GTI director Yingling Fan, U of M coordinators took 16 students to Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong for the intensive two-week course in May.

“The course gave students first-hand experiences in two of the most densely populated regions on earth,” Fan says. “These two regions are at the center of Chinese economic development, surpassing other regions in levels of economic growth and productivity.”

Through lectures and site visits, the course explored how Chinese cities are working to satisfy the mobility and accessibility needs of the largest urban population in the world. “We looked at every aspect of urban planning, from affordable housing provisions to parking management,” says Fan, an associate professor in the Humphrey School.

In one course assignment, U of M students were paired with 16 students from Southeast University in Nanjing. Each student group (made up of two American students and two Chinese students) was assigned to a place in the city to explore globalization and rapid urbanization. “They were asked to bring what they saw and what they felt into the classroom using photos and short narratives,” Fan says. “It was a very successful activity to reflect on cross-cultural and cross-country perspectives.”

Other activities included lectures from prominent Chinese transportation and urban planning scholars; visits to universities, transport agencies, and transit facilities; and high-speed rail trips between cities (at 350 kilometers per hour).

Trip coordinators included Sherry Gray, director of the Humphrey School’s International Fellows and Scholars Program, and Dawn Spanhake, CTS associate director for development and finance. “The trip was a great opportunity to build relationships with Chinese university faculty and agency staff as we continue to build new partnerships and grow GTI’s global reach,” Spanhake says.

Fan adds that “the trip invigorated networks at various universities and research institutions involved in ongoing and future transportation research and exchanges with the U of M.” One of the host organizations, the Shenzhen Urban Transportation Planning Center (SUTPC), is sponsoring Fan’s research on travel behavior and emotional well-being (Catalyst will include a story about this research in a future issue).

GTI is an affiliated program of CTS. Its education component aims to attract bright minds to the transit-planning field and educate practitioners and agency staff.