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The Streetcar Turns a Corner

Posted July 21, 2009 12:00 AM by John Loz

When the American automobile arrived on the transportation scene at the turn of the twentieth century, the electric trolley still dominated the urban and interurban landscape. The electric trolley's heyday lasted from 1890 to around 1930, but urban ridership in the U.S. peaked in 1923 with 12,895,000 passengers using electric-powered trolleys.

The 1920 census revealed that, for the first time in U.S. history, most citizens were living in urban areas. Between 1900 and 1920, Detroit's population grew from 300,000 to 1 million. Los Angeles swelled from 100,000 to 600,000 residents during that same time period. The Pacific Railway Company, along with many other trolley companies across the nation, expanded its trolley networks at an incredible pace in parallel with this rapid urbanization.

Along with this intense urban growth and increase of trolley lines, however, another technological advancement in transportation was gathering significant interest.

The Horseless Carriage

When the automobile first arrived on the urban scene at the end of the nineteenth century, it was seen as a curiosity at best – or a toy for the rich. Most city dwellers and rural residents could not afford to buy this "horseless carriage", as cars were called.

For most Americans, automobiles were simply unaffordable. Even as late as 1907, the average price of a car ranged from $800 to over $1000 dollars, putting it well beyond the means of the average day-laborer working in a factory. A five-cent trolley ride, however, was well within the means of a daily commuter, and a 25-cent trolley ride to the park for the day was affordable for the average day-tripper.

The traveling public also preferred a smooth ride along steel rails rather than an uncomfortably, bumpy, jaw-rattling ride in a car along unpaved, rut-plagued roads. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, rough roads helped the trolley hold the automobile at bay.

Henry Ford and the Affordable Automobile

Henry Ford helped changed all this. At its peak, the automaker's assembly line pumped out a new Model T every 3 minutes. This dramatic improvement in productivity reduced the price of one of Ford's touring cars from $850 in 1908 to just $300 dollars in 1916. Other automakers soon followed suit, using assembly lines to put cars within reach of middle-class workers.

With such a rapid decrease in price, Henry Ford's easy-to-assemble Model T's were now snapped up at a record pace. In 1908, there were only 8,000 privately-owned vehicles. By 1920, however there were almost 23 million. But Ford's innovations in mass production did more than just increase automobile ownership.

Routes and Reliability

Americans were enticed by the automobile because it freed them of the limitations of trolley companies. Trolleys had specific routes they could follow, and they didn't always stop where a passenger wanted to go. By contrast, the automobile allowed workers, businesspeople, and leisure seekers the freedom to travel wherever they wanted, despite a lack of smooth roads.

Strikes were also common among trolley drivers who demanded shorter working hours and higher wages. For example, there were five trolley strikes in Albany, New York between 1900 and 1921. Whenever the drivers went on strike, the trolleys remained in their trolley barns while the trolley companies lost thousands of dollars in daily fares.

The unreliability of trolley service soured the public's view of a trolley system that it had come to rely upon for transportation in and around the city. Residents wouldn't tolerate these interruptions of service and, out of necessity, sought other means of transportation. These included jitneys, converted cars that carried paying passengers wherever people needed to go. Eventually, the trolley strikes that happened all over the country put some trolley companies out of business.

The Rise of the Automobile

Automobiles came to compete with the trolleys for space in the congested urban landscape. This proved to be a nightmare as more cars were registered and filled the city streets. City planners and traffic engineers worked in a crisis atmosphere to deal with the intolerable congestion.

As the traveling public started to side with the automobile, trolley lines across the country faced a troubled future. Ridership decreased through the 1920s and continued to spiral downward during the Great Depression. Trolley companies went out of business, or were bought by emerging bus companies that replaced the old trolley lines with shiny new buses.

Editor's Note: Part 13 of this multi-part series will run in two weeks.


Photo Credit:

Previous Blog Entries in This Series

The American Streetcar (Part 1)

From Stagecoach to Streetcar (Part 2)

From Horse-Drawn Streetcars to Cable Cars (Part 3)

The Birth of the Electric Streetcar (Part 4)

Electric Streetcars and Trolley Technology (Part 5)

Electric Streetcars: Private Lines and Public Roads (Part 6)

The Rise of the Electric Streetcar (Part 7)

Electric Streetcars and the Industrial Revolution (Part 8)

General Electric and the Schenectady Streetcar (Part 9)

Streetcar Suburbs and Interurban Trolleys (Part 10)

Electric Amusement: The Trolley and Leisure (Part 11)


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Re: The Streetcar Turns a Corner

07/21/2009 8:52 AM

Ah. So this is where the start of the car craze began. And now we are dealing with traffic jams, car pollution and more. This is why it is so hard to convince people to use public transportation. They don't go EXACTLY where we need to go, which was once a minor annoyance in those days and has now exploded into a debilitating problem. People these days are too used to the luxuries of convenience with automobiles.


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In reply to #1

Re: The Streetcar Turns a Corner

07/21/2009 1:22 PM



People these days are too used to the luxuries of convenience with automobiles.


is like saying we're too used to luxuries like hot and cold water, central heat, and refrigerators.

The reason most people don't ride public transportation is exactly that - it's too public. If the lines don't go where you need them to go, it is not a viable means of transport. A century ago, downtown areas of most cities, and the near-outlying neighborhoods were not nearly so spread out as they are now. The trolley that dropped you 3 or 4 blocks from your destination could be lived with. But a bus line that leaves you two miles from your office building now, is simply not realistic.

I've had jobs where I could take 'public' transport, and I much preferred to be able to when possible - but transport strikes, canceled trains, and so on made it a hit-or-miss effort sometimes, and being stranded 35 miles from your home at 11PM because the last train out to your station was canceled sours you rather quickly.

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature can not be fooled." - Richard Feynman
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Re: The Streetcar Turns a Corner

07/21/2009 4:10 PM

Are we not used to the luxury of hot and cold water, central heat, and refrigerators? When the power went out last winter for days, was there confusion and chaos when people couldn't keep their food cold or their homes warm or just stay clean? I would say that there was quite a scramble when these things, which all stem from necessities (refrigerator/water-food, heat-warmth, and heat-shelter) disappeared. People take for granted what they always have. Few people would have any idea how to keep food from spoiling in the summer if the power were to go out for any length of time, other than to depend on a friend to store their food.

The luxury that I was referring to was not automobiles in itself, but the convenience that it carries. Convenience that you can drive right into the parking lot at work instead of being dropped off a 5-10 minute walk away from work by a bus. Convenience not so different from the remote that provides you instantaneous enjoyment by pushing a button as opposed to moving around to press a button on a television/radio/etc.

You make valid claims that one reason that people don't ride public transportation is due to lack of direct transport to where you need to go. I am reasoning that part of this is due to lack of convenience. Automobiles provide ample convenience when they lead you directly to where you need/want to go. Some people would not choose a bus that drops you off blocks away from your house because of convenience. When push comes to shove, given the choice between public transport and automobiles, people will choose automobile.

If you do not have a choice, you learn to adapt. If I didn't have a car to get places, I would tailor my day around when the bus can pick me up/drop me off. While I may be soured that I missed the last opportunity of the day to get home, I would adapt and find another way home.


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Re: The Streetcar Turns a Corner

07/21/2009 1:40 PM

So then it would appear that strikes and the lowering of the price for an automobile beat out the electric trolley, and ushered in buses.

In Brazil I hear they make buses act like subways.

(No bus driver messes with money, and platforms at door height facilitate boarding and disembark obviating any need for things like Kneeling buses to acommadate people in wheelchairs.)

I keep wondering how to make an electric road to combine for vehicles the best of all possible worlds.

My ideal vehicles of all sizes would use batteries to get to the electric road.

What nano material and design could power all vehicle truck and car motors?

What is the cheapest safest electric power feed any electric motored vehicle could pick up once it got to that electric road?

What if actually all electric vehicles had an overhead, and under pick up, for in the desert an in the highway underneath feed where it hardly rains, and never snows, may be practical, whereas in the mountains overhead or side feeds would be called for due to snow.

And yeah, what if all freight trains going anywhere were required to have at least one passenger car? During the last Depression an era of hobos and riding the rails was created. Hell, Cable puts some money up for Public Access, and C-Span.

Modern city planners know that putting living spaces together with working spaces is efficient. I'm making a comparison to train transport which was not in the past so dedicated to one or the other of freight or passenger, and may be a thing to wisely return to.

Without rebuilding everything, their may be little things we can do internal to our economic needs, like make all trains on all routes of rail, carry both freight, and passengers. P.S. John these writings of yours spur me to rejoin with my thoughts, and it was as a result of interacting I came to the idea of requiring passenger cars on all trains as an experiment meant to obviate the likely increase on desperate means of travel hard times compel. Canada is recommended as a good deal for US students partly for the discounts for students on travel.

If I was a Speechwriter for Obama I might write: "We are in a time of adventure, as great as any other time, for any other nation. Using what we have in place now, most efficiently is the imperative if we are to defend ourselves from our enemies, and from ourselves."

Then I would explain that progress is fun and free rides for job searchers on their way to North Dakota to build windfarms, is a cool social experiment.

Really all I'm trying to do is get a laugh out of Anonymous Hero...

You don't get wise because you got old, you get old because you were wise.
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