Streetcars, also called trolleys, are power-driven vehicles that run on tracks through city streets. Prior to their invention, public or for-hire vehicles ran through urban areas: drawn by teams of horses or mules, the "horse railway" was of limited use, however, allowing only a few riders at a time. This method of transport was in use in eastern cities such as New York, Philadelphia, and Boston since the 1830s. It was substantially improved in 1852 when a grooved rail was developed, allowing the tracks to lay flush with the pavement. This improvement increased speed and capacity, and decreased interference with coach and wagon traffic. By the mid-1880s, more than four hundred horse-car companies operated in the United States, covering some six thousand miles of urban tracks and carrying close to 200 million passengers a year.
In 1871 American engineer and inventor Andrew Smith Hallidie (1836–1900) patented a street railway system, run by constantly moving underground cables or ropes, to which the cars were clamped. (The cables were powered by steam engines.) Hallidie's cable car system was introduced in San Francisco in 1874: the cars, which ably managed the city's hilly terrain, were a success. Soon other American cities, including Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, installed cable cars. Chicago soon boasted the most extensive cable system in the world: By 1894, more than 1,500 cars operated on eighty-six miles of track. Cable car transportation peaked in the United States in 1890, when systems in twenty-three cities carried a total of 373 million passengers that year.
In the mid-1880s, the electric streetcar or trolley was invented in the United States by American engineer and inventor Frank Julian Sprague (1857–1934). An overhead electric wire provided the power and was capable of moving several cars at once. The cars resembled railroad cars and could travel as fast as twenty miles per hour. They ran along street tracks— just like the cable cars—but the trolleys were cleaner and cheaper to operate than either cable cars or horse drawn railcars. They reduced the average fare by as much as half (from ten cents to a nickel). The new technology was embraced at an impressive rate, making the electric streetcar one of the most widely accepted innovations in the history of technology (according to Kenneth T. Jackson, author of Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States ). In 1893, just six years after the system's successful debut in Richmond, Virginia, there were more than 250 electric streetcar railways in the nation, operating on some 7,200 miles of track. By 1903 this number had climbed to more than 29,000 miles and represented 98 percent of the nation's urban rails. Except for San Francisco, where the cable cars remained a nostalgic link to the city's past, cable cars had been replaced with the electric streetcar.
As city streets became congested, large urban centers undertook expensive public works projects to build elevated tracks to run "els" (elevated streetcars) or to dig tunnels to run subways. Boston opened the first American subway in 1897; New York's first subway line opened in 1904.
The advent of mass transit in the form of streetcars and subways had far-reaching effects: Cities were no longer defined by walking distances and began to expand outward. In many urban areas, including Chicago, streetcar lines were laid well beyond existing city boundaries. Outlying areas were quickly developed into residential neighborhoods. The country's burgeoning middle class, which could afford the typical streetcar or subway fare, was drawn to life in these quiet, tree-lined outskirts—far from the congestion of the inner city, which became increasingly devoted to business. Real estate development flourished, and a house in the suburbs became the goal for many working class families who remained, by necessity, in the cities. The trolley system, els, and subways had given rise to a population of commuters and began a cycle of urban sprawl that continued throughout the twentieth century. By the middle of the century, however, the automobile had largely overtaken public transportation. Between 1945 and 1981, 75 percent of government transportation dollars were allocated to building the nation's highways and a mere 1 percent was dedicated to public systems such as buses, trolleys, and subways.
In 1893, just six years after the system's successful debut in Richmond, Virginia, there were more than 250 electric streetcar railways in the nation, operating on some 7,200 miles of track. By 1903 this number had climbed to more than 29,000 miles and represented 98 percent of the nation's urban rails.
"Streetcars." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 29, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/streetcars
"Streetcars." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved June 29, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/streetcars
TROLLEYS. SeeRailways, Urban, and Rapid Transit .
"Trolleys." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 29, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/trolleys
"Trolleys." Dictionary of American History. . Retrieved June 29, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/trolleys