Nowadays less than five percent of American workers use transit to get to work—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.