Railways, Urban, and Rapid Transit

views updated


RAILWAYS, URBAN, AND RAPID TRANSIT systems have since the 1830s been indispensable to large cities and advantageous to smaller ones, moving many people while using relatively little space. While sail-powered ferryboats served Manhattan in the colonial era, non-waterborne local mass transportation service in the United States began in 1827 with the introduction of a horse-drawn carriage in New York City. Abraham Brower's Accommodation held twelve passengers, charged one shilling, and initially ran 1.75 miles along Broadway between Battery and Bond Streets. In 1831, Brower designated his third coach an omnibus, a term first used in France around 1815 to designate horse carriages used for transit service. In North America the term was eventually truncated to "bus."

Similar horse-drawn carriage (or omnibus) service appeared in Philadelphia in 1831; Boston, 1835; and Baltimore, 1844. By 1836, New York City alone had over one hundred omnibuses. Generally, these carriages were similar in structure to stagecoaches. Drivers sat on an open raised bench, and passengers pulled a leather strap attached to the driver's leg to disembark.

Horse-powered Railways

In 1832, the New York and Harlem Railroad Company introduced the first horse-powered rail car, also designed by Abraham Brower, which ran between downtown Manhattan and Harlem. Cities subsequently adopted the street railway over the omnibus for the first large-scale urban mass transit systems, citing the quieter and more comfortable ride afforded by rail cars and the mechanical efficiency derived from less need for horsepower. Prominent streetcar manufacturing firms included J.G. Brill and Company of Philadelphia; Jackson and Sharp of Wilmington, Delaware; and the Saint Louis Car Company. Their designs shifted away from the stagecoach and omnibus prototype to structures more reminiscent of later electric streetcars. Horses maintained an average speed of four miles per hour and worked approximately five hours per day for five years; thus, a single streetcar running fifteen hours per day behind one or two animals required three or six horses for power.

The world's oldest continually operating street railway service began in New Orleans in 1835 and ran along St. Charles Street. Additional streetcar networks appeared in Brooklyn in 1853; Boston, 1856; Philadelphia, 1858; Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cincinnati, 1859; and in other cities thereafter. In 1882, 415 street railway companies employed 35,000 workers who drove over 100,000 horses and mules, hauling 18,000 streetcars and carrying 1.2 billion annual passengers along 3,000 miles of track.

Weaknesses inherent in an industry relying on animal power were illustrated by the Civil War, when both Federal and Confederate governments requisitioned railway horses for military use, and by the Great Epizootic, an equine influenza epidemic in 1872 that killed thousands of horses in major cities. The development of alternate power sources spurred the decline of horse-drawn mass transit: although street railway mileage increased nationally between 1890 and 1902 from 8,000 to 22,500, the share of railway service relying on animal power fell from 75 percent to 1 percent. The final horse-drawn streetcar in revenue service operated in New York City on 26 July 1917.

Cable Railways

After the rise of horse-powered streetcars but before the widespread adoption of street railway electrification, some cities used moving cable to transmit mechanical energy from large steam engines to streetcars. In 1869, Andrew Hallidie invented a system in which a cable, running in a groove under the street and between railway tracks, gripped and released a streetcar to move it forward. Mechanical brakes stopped the car after the cable was released. While cable cars had previously been used in mines and for funiculars, San Francisco in 1873 began to implement them as components of a streetcar network along five lines totaling 11.2 miles. Eventually fifty-nine companies in twenty-seven cities operated cable-powered streetcars, including Denver, with forty-four miles of cable railway; St. Louis, fifty-five miles; and Chicago, eighty-six miles.

Cable-powered railways ran at an average speed of six to eight miles per hour, double that of horsecars. As workers, tempted by the faster rides, moved farther from their places of employment, property values along railway lines increased. The 1884 introduction of electrified streetcars, however, allowed railways to transmit energy through small copper wires instead of complex systems of large cables, wheels, pulleys, and underground vaults. The two technologies competed from 1888 to 1893, when total track mileage for cable railways peaked at 305. Soon after, most cities with cable systems switched to electric power, the last of which were Tacoma, 1938, and Seattle, 1940. Only 8.8 miles of cable railway remain along three lines in San Francisco.

Electric Street Railways

Werner Siemens in 1879 provided the world's first electric rail demonstration on a 350-yard track at the Berlin Industrial Exhibition. In the United States, revenue service on electric-powered streetcars appeared on the East Cleveland Street Railway in 1884, on the Baltimore and Hampden Railway in 1885, and on the Court Street Line in Montgomery, Alabama in 1886. Frank Sprague's Union Passenger Railway in Richmond, Virginia began service in 1888 over twelve miles of track, and is generally considered to be the first successful electric street railway. Other cities rapidly adopted Sprague's model; and by 1891 two hundred streetcar systems nationwide were electrified or were planning to electrify. The synonymous term "trolley" derives from early devices mounted atop overhead wires and pulled, or trolled, forward by the car's movement.

Between approximately 1880 and 1920, streetcars were an essential part of city life. Residents often depended on them for work, school, worship, shopping, and social activities. Ten-mile-per-hour electric railways effectively expanded residential city limits by allowing commuters to live farther from their workplace. Many street railways expanded into subsidiary ventures, including interurban railways, electric power companies, and amusement parks. Massachusetts street railway companies alone owned thirty-one such parks in 1902, generating profit from admissions as well as from additional streetcar ridership.

Major electric streetcar manufacturers included Brill, St. Louis, Pullman, Osgood-Bradley, and G.C. Kuhlman. Nineteenth-century cars were generally made of wood and were either "open," without sides for warm weather

use, or "closed," with sides. Twentieth-century cars were primarily constructed from steel and included articulated models, in which two separate body sections connected into a single unit with a bend in the center, allowing for increased hauling capacity and productivity. Innovations included the 1916 Birney Safety Car, a smaller, lightweight model requiring one operator instead of two. Although the Stone and Webster Company built 6,000 Birney cars between 1916 and 1921, they quickly went out of favor because their low weight and small size led to choppy rides and insufficient capacity for passengers. In 1929, twenty-five industry leaders formed the Electric Railway Presidents' Conference Committee to research car design improvements. The resulting Presidents' Conference Committee, or PCC, streetcar featured improved electric propulsion, acceleration, and braking systems, and began to be distributed nationally in 1936.

Trackless Trolleys, Elevateds, and Subways

Several other forms of urban mass transit coexisted with the electric streetcars. Trackless trolleys were similarly powered by electricity, but ran on rubber tires and drew current from an overhead wire system rather than through steel rails. First used in Hollywood in 1910, they replaced electric streetcars on Staten Island in 1921 and spread to Philadelphia in 1923, Chicago in 1930, and elsewhere. National trackless trolley usage peaked in the early 1950s, with about 7,000 cars running along 3,700 route miles in thirty-two cities. By 1990, about 1,200 cars remained, operating on about 600 route miles.

Elevated railways of the late nineteenth century were variations on standard steam-powered rail, except for Manhattan's West Side and Yonkers Patent Railway, which began cable rail service in 1868 and switched to steam in 1871. Early elevated steam engines, called "dummies," wore shrouds resembling railroad coaches in order to avoid frightening horses below. Manhattan's so-called els, the West Side and the Manhattan Elevated Railway (1877), carried 500,000 daily passengers by 1893 and facilitated residence farther from the workplace, but also darkened roads beneath and caused fires by dropping cinders. Additional elevated railways operated in Brooklyn (beginning 1870s); Kansas City (1886); Sioux City, Iowa (1891); and Chicago (1892).

The nation's early subways represented the first significant expenditures of public funds on urban mass transportation projects. Subways in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia all followed a public-private financing structure, in which a public body sold bonds to finance construction, then leased the system for operation to a private company. "Cut and cover" construction methods were standard: workers uprooted the street surface, excavated, constructed the facility, and rebuilt the pavement. This process severely limited access to adjacent businesses until the addition of temporary wooden plank surfaces in the 1910s.

Boston opened the first 1.7 miles of its Tremont Street subway in 1897, and three additional lines, each using different rolling stock, opened in 1901, 1904, and 1912. New York City's first 9.1 miles of track began service in 1904. Between 1913 and 1931, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company constructed most of the city's modern subway network, and the city-owned Independent Subway System inaugurated service in 1932. All three systems were unified under municipal control in 1940. Philadelphia subway service, which included elevated rail outside the central city, comprised the Market Street Line (1907) and Broad Street Line (1928).

Decline of Urban Mass Transit

For several reasons, electric streetcars, which in 1920 dominated mass transit in virtually every city with a population over 10,000, declined in usage after 1926. Contributing problems within the industry included financial and political corruption, deliberate overbuilding and overcapitalization, and a flat five-cent fare that generated low revenue on long-haul trips. The industry faced competition from motorized buses, introduced in 1905 on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, and from jitneys, large automobiles providing irregular transit service along popular streetcar lines beginning in 1913 in Phoenix. While street railway executives responded by initiating their own bus service and by advocating strong regulation of jitneys, they could not meet the challenges posed by the private automobile, which changed how people thought about urban travel and created desire for personalized service not held to fixed times and routes.

The demise of street railways was also fueled by government policies that invested heavily in road construction and improvement, levied especially high taxes on railways relative to public utilities and private businesses, and permitted low-density suburban development not conducive to profitable streetcar service. Decreased ridership resulted from the shrinking workweek (from five-and-a-half to five days after World War II) and from shifts in commuting patterns away from downtowns. Meanwhile, industry leaders were distracted from responding to these challenges as they struggled to appease their constituent groups quarreling over the primary duty of mass transit: riders and employees saw the railways as public service utilities, while investors and executives perceived them as profit-bearing private enterprises. Except for a spike in patronage during World War II, when fuel and tires for private automobiles were rationed and new car construction virtually ceased, urban mass transit declined steadily after 1926 before leveling off in 1973.

Federal Policy

The federal government entered the urban transit arena following passage of the Transportation Act of 1958, which facilitated the elimination of unprofitable railroad lines and resulted in the discontinuation of many commuter routes. Responding to calls for assistance from city officials, Congress passed the Housing Act of 1961, which authorized the dispersal of funds, under the jurisdiction of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA), for urban mass transit demonstration projects and capital improvement loans. The Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 and its 1966 amendments, which increased funding, signaled strong federal support for the development and improvement of urban transit and for the planning and construction of coordinated regional transportation networks. Still, between 1961 and 1966, federal expenditure

Table 1

U.S. Urban Mass Transit Patronage, by mode(1870–1980, in millions)
* Between 1920 and 1970, cable-powered street railway figures are included in the electric-powered street railway column.
source: Brian J. Cudahy, Cash Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America, (New York: Fordham University Press, 1990), 249.

on urban transit under these acts totaled only $375 million against $24 billion allocated to highways, airways, and waterways.

In 1966 federal authority over mass transit shifted to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and in 1968 to the Urban Mass Transportation Administration within the Department of Transportation. Subsequent key legislation included the Highway Act of 1973, which gradually opened the previously sacrosanct Highway Trust Fund for transit use; the National Mass Transportation Assistance Act of 1974, which enabled use of federal funds for operating as well as capital expenses; and the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982, which established the first guaranteed funding source for urban transit from a new one-cent gasoline tax. The Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act of 1991 and the Transportation Equity Act for the Twenty-First Century (TEA-21) of 1998 increased federal funding for mass transit—TEA-21 authorized $41 billion for transit over six years, including funding for research on magnetic levitation for urban rapid transit use.

Transit Revival

Drawing on federal funds provided under the Urban Mass Transportation Act, cities including San Francisco, Miami, Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta, and Los Angeles built rapid transit systems in the second half of the twentieth century. Electric streetcar service, now called light rail, reappeared in San Diego in 1981 and thereafter in Buffalo, Sacramento, San Jose, Portland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and elsewhere. Development of new rapid transit systems and expansion of old ones continued nationwide in the early twenty-first century as cities struggle to improve traffic conditions, rejuvenate central business districts, and improve access between virtually autonomous suburbs.


Bianco, Martha J. "Technological Innovation and the Rise and Fall of Urban Mass Transit." Journal of Urban History 25, no. 3 (1999): 348–378.

Cheape, Charles W. Moving the Masses: Urban Public Transit in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, 1880–1912. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Cudahy, Brian J. Cash, Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990.

———. Under the Sidewalks of New York: The Story of the World's Greatest Subway System. Revised ed. New York: Stephen Greene Press/Pelham Books, 1988.

Mallach, Stanley. "The Origins of the Decline of Urban Mass Transportation in the United States, 1890–1930." Urbanism Past and Present, no. 8 (Summer, 1979): 1–17.

Middleton, William D. The Time of the Trolley. Milwaukee, Wisc.: Kalmbach, 1967.

Miller, John Anderson. Fares, Please! A Popular History of Trolleys, Horse-Cars, Street-Cars, Buses, Elevateds, and Subways. New York: Dover, 1960.

Smerk, George M. The Federal Role in Urban Mass Transportation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

Jeremy L.Korr

See alsoElectricity and Electronics ; Land Grants for Railways ; Railways, Interurban ; Suburbanization ; Transportation and Travel ; Urbanization .