Strait On – History of American transportation, Part 6: Urban

From horse-drawn carriages to electric trains, people could now get to work

Photo by Rusty Strait/The Valley Chronicle
Rusty Strait, Senior Reporter.

■ By Rusty Strait / Senior Reporter

The first urban transportation in the United States came into existence in cities on the East Coast in 1829, having originated in France. Urban “mass transit” has included horse-drawn omnibuses, streetcars, cable cars, electric streetcars, trolley coaches, gasoline and diesel buses, underground and above-ground rail rapid transit, ferries, and commuter rail services. It did not happen in one fell swoop. Years of inventions and improvements brought us to modern day urban transportation.
Between 1829 and 1844, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore sported the most up-to-date forms of commuter carriers. First came the horse-drawn Omnibuses, which created a lot of back problems due to unpaved bumpy roads. They were followed by horse cars running on iron rails, providing a smoother and faster form of transportation. By the 1850s, paved or brick streets made for even more comfortable rides.

A comfortable trip will encourage travel
By the year 1853, horse cars in New York City carried seven million riders a year. The government granted franchises to private entities to facilitate rapid growth in urban mobility. With an economic boom, factories sprang up faster than expected and transportation was needed to move products locally as well as nationally. Workers depended on public transportation to get to and from their jobs. Transportation was spurred by the Industrial Revolution that preceded the Civil War leading to smaller transportation companies merging into larger ones.
The wealthy class benefitted first because they could afford higher fares and annual passes. These folks did not live in the hustle and bustle of the inner city. Most resided in small towns that interspersed grassy green yards and white picket fences with larger estates in quiet bedroom communities.

Higher and higher
As intercity rail transportation grew and city streets became unbearably crowded with transit traffic, railroad geniuses hit on an idea that many thought would be disastrous. Nevertheless, New York City soon began to experiment with elevated tracks. They stumbled and fumbled with setbacks, but by the mid-1870s, New Yorkers had the country’s first rapid transit system – the “El” as it was known. Later on, Chicago would become the “El” city of the country.
Streetcars emerged as the most common form of urban transportation in both large and small communities. With the flexibility of running rails into side streets and not being limited to one direct line, they became the primary transportation for folks to get around the city for both business and social activities.

Beneath the ground
The necessity of better, safer, and cheaper forms of transportation always has begun in the big cities. Boston began underground transportation, but New York really took the reins with a far more ambitious plan. Instead of street cars, they opted for the faster and more efficient electric trains. In 1894, New York began to issue public bonds to build underground tunnels. It became such a popular form of urban transit that by 1913, New York had grown to 123 miles of rapid urban transportation. Eventually, the subway would cover all five boroughs of the big city.
By the end of World War I, the country was awash with street railways. With the spread of faster urban transportation came problems that involved labor relations, regulations, and capitalization. President Woodrow Wilson stepped in and created a Federal Electric Railways Commission to oversee matters. Inflation became a major problem. It didn’t take long before another problem would become an even more serious threat to streetcars and subways.

Photo courtesy of Washington Historical Society
A photograph around 1867 of a Washington and Georgetown RR horse-drawn streetcar in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

Look Ma’, we got our own wheels
In an echo reminiscent of today’s older generation resistant to change, the refrain heard after the turn of the century was, “We don’t need those new-fangled gadgets; they scare the daylights out of our horses!”
The automobile arrived on the scene giving not only the horses fits, but creating a financial crisis in the urban streetcar business. Model T Fords, cheap gasoline, and mass production from Henry Ford, followed by other auto manufacturers, filled the city streets with motor vehicles. It was reported as early as 1915 that there was one automobile for every 61 people in Chicago. It soon grew to one for every eleven. The genie was out of the bottle, and there would be no stopping the automobile industry. As car prices became more affordable for the average Joe, public transportation took a big hit. Then came the Great Depression. Cars, like homes, were repossessed and folks went back to streetcars. Electric trolley cars, a form of streetcar on rubber tires, came into fashion because they didn’t require rail tracks although they were still controlled by overhead electrical lines.
During World War II, public transportation profited because the automobile industry suspended production for the duration of the war. It was 1946 before cars again rolled off the assembly line. From then on, public transportation began to gasp for breath. In 1950, public transportation passengers peaked at 17.2 billion. Ridership continued to decrease until the 1970s when San Francisco led the way to multi-county rapid transit. Soon, other cities, including Washington, D. C. and Atlanta, Ga., got on board and, like dominoes, other urban communities followed suit.
In California, the Pasadena freeway became the model for urban freeways around the country. Freeways were intended to decrease time on the road. They started with simple two lanes in each direction with a median divider. All too soon, those “speedways” grew to eight and 10 lanes because of increased traffic. Today, California’s freeways have become miles-long parking lots as workers struggle to get from home to work and back, often spending anywhere from two to four hours in each direction. So much for “rapid” transportation.

And the beat goes on
Private ownership has all but disappeared as local governments took over public transit lines. Taxies have incurred competition from Lyft and Uber. There was a time when Yellow Cabs dominated the taxi business. They still have priority in big cities, but the share-a-ride citizen Uber drivers are cutting into their territories.
As our roads and railways become more clogged with vehicles, the question arises of how efficient public transportation will be in the future? Will backpack rockets propel public movement in the future? A technology still in its infancy, some predict we may one day slip on our rocket packet and pivot to the sky to our next destination. Nobody really knows. However, as people want to move faster from one place to another, there will be new ideas that may or may not become “the way” to hop from one place to another. I can’t wait to see how public transportation works out when we populate Mars and beyond.

Just sayin’.

Sources for the above article include, Moving the Masses and From Streetcar to Superhighway.

Photo courtesy of Miller Library, Pennsylvania Trolley Museum
A Citizens Passenger Railway horse-car on the St. Parks and East Liberty line. The company obtained the charter to operate Pittsburgh’s first streetcars, with a line running from downtown to Lawrenceville along Penn Avenue.

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