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.
The Rise of Horsecars
In the beginning, omnibus—simply horse-drawn carriages travelled on roads—was the first land-based urban transit service. The first omnibus in the United States appeared in New York City in 1828. It moved slowly, held relatively few passengers, and cost a lot. Soon after, transit providers found that horse-drawn carriages with smooth iron wheels traveled on rail tracks (referred as horsecars thereafter) came with less surface resistance and more efficiency. The rail efficiency allowed horsecars to carry almost three times as many riders as the omnibus, which reduced operating costs per passenger and lowered fares.
The world’s first horsecar railway is the New York and Harlem Railroad opened in 1832. The last regular horsecar service in New York City retired in 1917. In 1926, the last regular horsecar service in the United States ceased operation in Sulphur Rock, Arkansas. Figure 2 illustrates the number of cities opening and closing horsecars in the United States between the 1830s and 1920s, which depicts the rise and demise of horsecars in American history.
Horsecars had a slow start because at first the rails protruded above the street surface (see Figure 3 left), which impeded cross movement and caused accidents for pedestrians as well as coach and wagon traffic. In 1852, French inventor Alphonse Loubat invented the grooved rail and used it to lay out the Six Avenue railway in New York City. The grooved rail allowed tracks to lay flush with the pavement (see Figure 3 right). The improvement increased the popularity of street railways and greatly facilitated the spread of horsecars in American Cities. Horsecars peaked in 1880s. In 1881, the United States had a total of 50 million population, of which 14 million lived in cities. In the same year, there were 415 street railway companies in the United States operating 18,000 horsecars on 3,000 miles of track and carrying 1.2 billion passenger trips .
There is consensus that the horsecar technology originated in the United States. In Europe, people called the horsecar technology “American Railways.” Although the United Kingdom had allowed horse-drawn passenger services on freight railways as early as 1807 on the Swansea and Mumbles Railway, the country prohibited rail installation on urban streets until the passage of the Tramways Act in 1870. The Tramways Act in 1870 legalized the private construction of rail tracks on public-owned streets and clarified the repair and maintenance responsibility associated with the affected streets. When the American George Francis Train tried to introduce street railways in London in 1861, he was arrested and fined for “breaking and injuring” a London street. In contrast, the development of street railways in American cities encountered fewer legal challenges. The United States was at the forefront of transit use and technological innovation.
Despite the innovation in rail track design, horsecars had an inherent Achilles heel: the use of horses as the motive power. The average streetcar horse had a life expectancy of about two years. Regular maintenance had already been expensive, from hay consumptions, to stables, to veterinarian care, and to blacksmiths, not to mention that thousands of horses died in sudden disease outbreaks. The limitations of horsepower had motivated efforts across the world in search for cheaper and more reliable forms of transit power. When electrified railways emerged in late 1880s, horsecars soon became obsolete and dramatically declined.
The Quest for Alternative Power Mechanisms
Before the domination of electrified railways, the transit industry had experimented streetcars powered by steam locomotives (steam streetcars thereafter) and streetcars hauled by a moving steel cable using a stationary central power source (cable cars thereafter). Both steam streetcars and cable cars were short-lived due to their particular weaknesses.
Steam engines provided power for ferry services since the 1810s and train services in low-density areas since the 1830s. However, the steam power mechanism came with many nuisances including noise, visible smoke or steam, pollution, and danger of boiler explosion that made it unsuitable for densely populated urban areas. As a result, steam streetcars were initially used for commuter services connecting suburban residents to large cities before the vehicles entered into the heavily settled parts of the city. For example, steam streetcars were introduced on the New York and Harlem Railroad (the first horsecar line in the world) in 1837, but their use was limited to areas north of 23rd street because areas south of 23rd street were heavily populated at the time.
Figure 4 shows that steam streetcars had a much shorter lifespan and a much lower implementation scale than horsecars. Implementation of steam streetcars peaked in 1880s with a limited scale and quickly declined in 1890s. About 50 cities in the United States ever had steam streetcars. In comparison, more than 400 cities had horsecar services.
Due to the nuisances of steam power as well as the increased demand for high-capacity and rapid transit, transit companies experimented elevated railroads using steam power above urban thoroughfares between the 1870s and 1890s. Steam engines used for elevated urban railways usually had modifications to make them more suitable for running in residential areas. The wheels, and other moving parts of the machinery, were usually enclosed for safety reasons and to make the engines quieter. Condensers that took the exhaust steam into the boiler water tanks were used to reduce emissions. Elevated railways and steam engine modifications came with high capital costs, which made steam-powered elevated railways mostly a big city phenomenon (see Figure 5). Wide implementation across American cities were practically impossible. Nonetheless, steam-powered elevated trains were the earliest form of rapid transit because vehicles operated on their own right-of-way rather than in mixed traffic.
Another temporary solution for the transit industry was cable cars. Cable cars used power generated from a stationary central source (known as the powerhouse or cable driving plant) to haul rail cars by a continuously moving cable running at a constant speed. As shown in Figure 6, the cable slot lies between the two tracks of the railway, and individual rail cars stop and start by releasing and gripping the cable as required. Because the moving cable was powered by large steam engines at the powerhouse, nuisances such as noise, smoke, and danger of explosion were limited to the stationary powerhouse and distanced away from the running rail cars.
Despite the advantage of removing nuisances from the running vehicle, cable cars suffered from high infrastructure and maintenance costs. The whole system involved cables, pulleys, underground vault structures beneath the rails, and a central powerhouse with stationary engines. Cables were always under the threat of breaking. Cable repairs required complete service cessation of an entire cable route. In addition, the cable had to run at the same capacity regardless of the service level, which meant excess power consumption. Given these weaknesses, even fewer cities implemented cable cars than those implemented steam streetcars.
Implementation of cable cars in the United States started in the 1870s and peaked in the 1880s (Figure 7). The first successful cable car operation began in San Francisco in 1873. Note that San Francisco was not the first American city with cable car installation. The first installation was in New York City on an elevated railway in 1868. The line had numerous mechanic problems, which was shut down, sat idle for months, and later rebuilt and reopened with steam locomotives in 1871. The success in San Francisco was largely attributed to Andrew Hallidie’s development of an effective and reliable cable grip mechanism, to grab and release the moving cable without damage. Cable cars were especially effective in hilly cities because a moving cable with constant speed could help the car to both climb and descend at a steady pace. It was no coincidence that San Francisco had the first successful cable car. News reports had suggested that Andrew Hallidie conceived his design in San Francisco in 1869 after seeing a horsecar sliding backward when going up the hill, killing the horses.
Following the success in San Francisco, about two dozen cities in the United States began building cable car networks. However, most cities closed their cable car systems in the 1890s when railway companies adopted electricity as the more efficient transit power. By 1913, only twenty miles of cable car track were still in use, compared to over 300 miles that had laid across the United States. As of today, San Francisco is the only American city with a surviving cable car system of three lines totaling 5.1 miles.
The Unstoppable Railway Electrification
Wide implementation of electric streetcars took more than 15 years since Russian engineer Fyodor Pirotsky began the world’s first railway electrification experiment in 1875 in Saint Petersburg. Pirotsky’s system used rail tracks as conductors for electricity transmission with one rail carried the direct current and the second rail functioned as a return wire. Although Pirotsky successfully demonstrated his system in September 1880, the demonstration did not attract sufficient commercial interests due to safety concerns: Rail-based electricity transmission is risky because horses and pedestrians could potentially receive electric shocks when crossing the tracks.
In Germany, Siemens & Halske (the German electrical engineering company that later became part of Siemens) had experimented electric streetcars almost around the same time as Pirotsky. In May 1881, Siemens & Halske built their first commercially operated electric streetcar line using rail tracks for electricity transmission (similar to Pirotsky’s design) in Lichterfelde, a suburb of Berlin. Streetcars on the line travelled at a maximum speed of 40 kilometers per hour with a maximum carrying capacity of 20 people. Credited as the first regular electric streetcar service in the world, the line was upgraded with an overhead wire in 1891 and did not cease operation until 1931.
In 1882, Siemens & Halske introduced electricity transmission using overhead wires. At first, the company designed overhead wires as slotted copper or wrought iron tubes, in which ran a shuttle-shaped current collector drawn along by a flexible cable connected to the streetcar. Siemens & Halske successfully implemented this early system on the Mödling-Hinterbrühl line in Austria in 1883 and the Frankfurt-Offenbach line in Germany in 1884. Because the overhead tubes needed to be perfectly smooth and clean to remove mechanical and electrical resistance, the construction cost of this early system was very high and its implementation was quite limited.
In 1885, a new device introduced by Belgium-born American inventor Charles Joseph Van Depoele revolutionized the way to collect current from overhead wires. In Depoele’s design (see Figure 8 left), a trolley pole was mounted with springs on the streetcar roof and the springs maintained the tension to keep a grooved conductive wheel in contact with the wire. Within four years, Walter Reichel of Siemens & Halske presented another new design of current collector, namely the bow collector (see Figure 8 right). The bow collector can be regarded as the predecessor of pantograph collectors that use frames to hold long collecting rods or shoes against the wire. Compared to the trolley pole design with a grooved wheel, the frame design combined with long collecting rods or shoes provides more stability to the wire contact, allowing higher travel speeds.
Technology improvements in current collection devices alone were not sufficient for perfecting electric railway systems. Electric streetcars did not get a major boost until 1888, when American inventor Frank Julian Sprague developed the world’s first large-scale electric street railway system—the Richmond Union Passenger Railway in Richmond, Virginia. Sprague conquered a number of challenges with a comprehensive system that incorporated a number of inventions with major significance, including improved trolley pole design, wheel suspension, a method to regenerate or return power to the electric motor for economy and braking, and a non-sparking motor that could maintain constant revolutions with varying loads. In June 1888, when the whole 12-mile system in Richmond was operational, it carried up to 70,000 riders per week.
Sprague’s success in Richmond proved the efficiency, safety, and financial viability of electric streetcars. Within two years of Richmond opening, over a hundred electric railway systems using Sprague’s equipment were built or under contract, including systems in Italy and Germany. Nonetheless, the United States is leading the world in railway electrification. In 1900, Britain had 572 miles of electric street railways, Germany 1800 miles, while in the United States virtually all street railways had been electrified and there were 15,000 miles. Horse, steam, and cable operation of streetcars had virtually disappeared from American cities at the turn of the 20th century.
Moreover, railway electrification made subway development possible. Although the London Underground had operated stream-powered trains as early as 1863, concerns over smoke-filled tunnels and the massive construction costs had deterred American cities from building subway systems. In July 1894, Massachusetts Legislature passed an act calling for the creation of the Boston Transit Commission (BTC), which was the first public transportation agency in America with bond issuing authorities to finance subway construction. Boston voters accepted the act in a special election held in the same month. In September 1897, nine years from Sprague’s introduction of electric streetcars in Richmond and three years after the creation of BTC, Boston opened its first subway in the United States. Public money was also required to build the subway system in New York City. The first subway line in New York City opened in October 1904, 36 years after the opening of the City’s first elevated line.
As shown in Figure 9, railway electrification peaked in the 1910s. In 1920, more than 800 American cities had electric streetcar systems with nearly 48,000 miles of single electric railway track (underground, elevated, and street electric railways all included). In the same year, Americans made 13.8 billion trips using electric street railways and 1.8 billion trips using electric underground and/or elevated railways. As shown in Figure 1, the national per capita rail transit ridership was 146 trips per person in 1920, which is unprecedented and since unsurpassed.
Contradictions and a Compromised Urban Life
Sixty years of railway expansion had a tremendous influence on the shapes and sensations of American urban life during the late 19th and early 20th centuries . It not only simulated greater transit use by wider segments of society, but also opened up accessible, cheap suburban land outside the urban core for accommodating the rapidly growing urban population in American cities. The industrial boom after the Civil War had drawn farmers and immigrants to American cities at record numbers. In 1860, 80% people lived in rural areas. The percentage dropped to 49% and more people lived in cities than countryside in 1920. Streetcars played such a dramatic role in suburbanization and expansion of cities that real estate developers and railway companies combined their forces. Between the 1900s and 1910s, many transit companies held real estate interests and many real estate developers entered into railroad businesses. Both groups promoted aggressive railway expansion even in cases where the rail service itself was unprofitable.
Streetcar suburbs such as Baltimore’s Roland Park, Cleveland’s Shaker Heights, and Atlanta’s Adair Park had many characteristics that made them distinct from the automobile suburbs developed decades later. Unlike low-density and centerless automobile suburbs, they were relatively compact, and typically had a town square or business block that served as the community focal point. They featured tree-lined streets with wide sidewalks because walkability remained important for accessing commercial centers, and of course, nearly streetcar stops in the neighborhood. To some extent, streetcar suburbs were smaller and flatter versions of the earlier walking cities before public transportation.
Figure 10 shows an artist’s conceptual painting of proposed development in Roland Park—a planned streetcar suburb in Baltimore, Maryland. In the concept design, a streetcar stop was right next the median strip of the main boulevard; both sides of the streets had wide sidewalks, and a group of houses surrounded a private recreation park. According to an article printed in 1908 in the Baltimore Sun, the Roland Park Company had constructed about 20 miles of sidewalks and planted many trees and formal gardens. There was a business block at the streetcar line terminus and right next to the fire-engine house and the public garage and stable. The business block had a drug store, grocery store, bakeshop, and physician offices.
Moreover, railway expansion did not solely created the suburbs; it also created denser urban cores. The rail lines radiated from central business districts increased accessibility to and from downtown, which had a centralization effect by increasing land values and creating the economy of tall buildings in the core. The contradictory forces of centralization and dispersal created a compromised urban life for American families during the railway expansion era:
- Although urban railways made the new and vast suburban land accessible to middle-income families to spread their homes, they still had to seek their livelihood in the old and crowded central city.
- Americans not only sought suburban environments filled with glass, trees, and fresh air, they also sought suburban environments for privacy and homogenous communities. Railway expansion enabled residential segregation of races and classes, and yet rail vehicles and stations became essential public spaces and forced contact between people of varying races and classes.
- On gender, railway expansion perpetuate traditional gender roles by exacerbating spatial distinctions between urban (work) and suburban (home) spaces. Yet, it also provided mobility freedom for women—who in general lived more spatially confined lives than men did.
The United States was at the forefront of transit use and technological innovation between the 1850s and 1910s. During this era, horsecars—a flawed transit technology relied upon living horses and had natural limits—were replaced by cleaner, faster, and more reliable electric streetcars that could journey well-beyond the city once tracks were laid. With the creation of streetcar suburbs, railway expansion had tremendous effects on American urban development. It also created complex and contradictory social issues that foreshadowed the rapid decline of transit and the explosive popularity of automobile in the 1920s.
This blog post is written by Yingling Fan at the University of Minnesota. It is the first of the three posts that describe the three distinctive eras of American transit history. The next two blog posts will present historical analyses of transit decline and resilience:
- The transit decline era from 1921 to 1972: Transit significance dramatically declined in the 1920s. Excluding exceptional war-related conditions during the 1940s and early 1950s, the sharp decline did not end until 1972. Historical analyses show that socio-political contests dictated the abandonment of electric streetcars and the wide acceptance of automobile technology. While some of the contests deliberately weakened public transportation in American cities, others had unintended negative consequences on the entire transit industry that was mostly privately owned before 1964.
- The transit resilience era from 1973 to Present: In this era, rail transit ridership resurged across all rail modes. Although bus transit ridership continued to decline, the decline was at a much slower rate. New, promising bus transit options such as commuter bus and bus rapid transit have emerged. American historians have suggested that government funding and public ownership marked a turning point for transit and a “transit renaissance” began in the 1970s. I emphasize that the observed transit renaissance originated from the resilient nature of transit itself. Underlying the support for government funding and public ownership was a wider public recognition toward the intrinsic benefits of public transportation in environmental and social dimensions.
 Data source: American Community Survey (ACS) 2016 Data Release
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 Although the London Underground promised a smoke and stream free experience with “condensing engines” that took the exhaust steam into the boiler water tanks, many riders reported ample steam and noticeable sulfurous fumes. Source: http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/ladart.htm
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