Lentis/The Disappearing American Streetcar


In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, electric streetcars (also known as trams, trolleys, or trolley-cars) were a ubiquitous form of public transportation throughout the United States. By 1920, almost all major American cities, and many towns, had one or more electric streetcar system. However, by the end of the 20th century, the streetcar had all but disappeared from American life. By 1970, only a few cities still had active streetcar systems.

This chapter seeks to analyze the factors behind the rise and fall of the American streetcar industry.


1880s: Early Streetcar SystemsEdit

The first commercial electric streetcar system in the United States was installed in Cleveland in 1884 by the East Cleveland Street Railway Company. [1] However, it suffered technical difficulties and did not prove commercially viable, a fate shared by many contemporary systems. The line remained in operation for less than a year.

The Richmond Union Passenger Railway began service in 1888, and would go on to become the first commercially successful electric streetcar line in the United States. The Richmond Union design served as a template for successful streetcar systems in cities around the world, and its designer, Frank J. Sprague would eventually be known as the "Father of Electric Traction". [2]

1890-1920: The Boom YearsEdit

The period between 1890 and 1920 represented the heyday of the streetcar in the United States. New streetcar systems proliferated, and by 1920, almost every city or town in the United States with a population of at least 10,000 had at least one streetcar system. [3] Most of these systems were privately owned and operated, funded by fares paid by passengers. Streetcar ridership rose steadily throughout this time, peaking at 13.8 billion riders per year in 1920. [4]

During their period of popularity, streetcars exerted an influence on other aspects of American life. "Streetcar suburbs" like Chevy Chase outside Washington, DC were a precursor to the larger-scale suburbanization that would later be enabled by the automobile. [5] "Trolley parks" like Coney Island in Brooklyn were built by streetcar companies in order to boost demand on weekends. [6] These trolley parks paved the way for the modern American amusement park.

1920-1941: Streetcars in DeclineEdit

Streetcar systems experienced a significant decrease in ridership during the 1920s, with ridership dropping almost 15% between 1920 and 1929. During the Great Depression, ridership experienced an even more precipitous decline. By 1940, annual streetcar ridership was less than 6.5 billion riders per year - less than half the 1920 peak. [7]

The 1920s and 30s also saw the emergence of the modern motor bus. Between 1917 and 1937 the percentage of cities that relied exclusively on buses for mass transportation rose from near 0% to almost 50%. [8] In many cases, this change came at the expense of streetcar systems, which were replaced by the new bus systems.

1941-1945: WWII Increases DemandEdit

Streetcar ridership rebounded during World War II, reaching a peak of almost 10 billion annual riders in 1940. [9] At least part of this affect is likely attributable to the wartime rationing of rubber and gasoline, which reduce the supply of other transportation options. [10]

1945-present: Postwar DeclineEdit

After World War II, streetcar systems experienced a steep decline in ridership from which they never recovered. By 1970, annual ridership in the United States had declined from 10 billion in 1945 to less than 200 million. [11]

Over time, the vast majority of transit systems have been decommissioned, destroyed, or replaced. Electric streetcars, once ubiquitous throughout the cities of the United States, now only exist in a handful of cities.

GM and "The Great American Streetcar Scandal"Edit

In the 1930s and 1940s, two related holding companies, National City Lines (NCL) and Pacific City Lines (PCL), were formed with the express purpose of purchase local streetcar systems throughout the United State and replace them with buses. [12] The ownership group of these holding companies included:

  • General Motors (GM)
  • Standard Oil
  • Mack Truck
  • Phillips Petroleum
  • Firestone Tire

By 1947, the holding companies controlled transit systems in 45 cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Baltimore, and San Diego, and had converted almost all of these systems to buses. [13]

In 1949, the ownership group of the holding companies was convicted in federal court of a conspiracy to monopolize the sale of buses and other products to local transit operators, such as those sold by NCL and PCL. The companies involved were punished with only a nominal fine. However, they were acquitted of conspiracy to monopolize the ownership of the local transit operators. [14]

These events did not receive much public attention until 1974, when Bradford Snell, an antitrust lawyer with the U.S. Senate, delivered an incendiary testimony to the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly. Snell's testimony begins:

For forty years, a war has been raging in this country between automobiles and mass transit. It has shaped American society. It began as an economic struggle among competing methods of travel. It became a relentless campaign to destroy America's rail and bus systems. Unless government intervenes, it will end only when public alternatives to private automobiles are no longer attractive. This is the war General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler have been waging against public transit.


Snell goes on to contend that GM and the other automakers have engaged in a deliberate attempt to destroy mass transit in America, and therefore increase American dependence on the automobile. The NCL/PCL streetcar holding company case is one of the key examples he points to of this behavior.

Snell's testimony ignited a firestorm of controversy within the public over who is to blame for the death of the American streetcar.

Other Factors in the Decline of the StreetcarEdit

Although the GM "conspiracy" delivers an engaging story, other observers point to more mundane causes for the decline of the streetcar.

Competition with Other Modes of TransitEdit

The BusEdit

The first buses in the US were small vehicles, which started operation in Los Angeles in July 1914. By the end of the year, there were several hundred buses in service, despite not yet being a profitable business. An estimated 90% of buses at this time held only 5 passengers, with an operating cost of around five cents per mile. The bus operators could not offer a trip fare high enough to cover these costs and low enough to remain competitive with streetcar fares, causing many to go out of business.[16]

However, buses were beginning to become more competitive by 1920, with data from 1919 suggesting that an efficient bus service was able to turn a profit.[17] Part of this change is due to the introduction of larger buses, capable of holding more passengers and decreasing operating cost per passenger. Buses were also gaining more popularity with commuters through the introduction of more comfortable pneumatic tires and faster, more consistent service,[18] while also enjoying the appeal of being a new technology associated with a feeling of progress.[19]

Some railways began introducing bus services to complement their existing streetcar routes. However, the purpose of these buses soon came to be the avoidance of replacing degrading streetcar infrastructure. Unlike modern roads, railway companies were responsible for maintenance, repair, and construction of the rails and electric lines used to run their streetcars. When a line was due for replacement, railways needed to ensure that the streetcar service would be able to recuperate the large investment costs in providing the infrastructure. Beginning around the 1920s, the railway companies were finding that operating bus lines, even if run at a loss, could be cheaper than the lifetime cost of constructing and operating replaced streetcar routes, given an overall streetcar ridership due to increased competition from buses and personal automobiles, and economic difficulties during the Great Depression.[20].

Streetcars in smaller cities were more vulnerable than those in larger cities. The capital investment in setting up and maintaining trolley infrastructure is independent of the surrounding population, but the revenue received from ridership is directly related. In smaller cities with fewer people, streetcars were less likely to earn a return on the infrastructure investment and were more likely to be replaced than in a large city, where a railway can expect high ridership from the high volume of total commuters. This contributed to the replacement of electric railway systems to bus routes in cities during the period from 1917-1937.[21]

The Personal AutomobileEdit

Automobile ownership increased dramatically during the early 1900s. Cheaper automobiles and more paved roads made personal automobiles feasible for many Americans, reducing the demand for public transportation[22][23]. As early as 1928, there was more than one car for every five people, allowing many commuters to simply drive themselves to where they needed to be.

The overall effect of these factors indicates that the decline of the electric streetcar was in progress well before the GM led takeovers of several lines in US cities. Decreasing ridership along with increased cost relative to motor buses encouraged many cities to scrap their streetcar lines independent from external coercion, leading to the inevitable end of the electric trolley.

Regulatory IssuesEdit

Another factor in the transportation shift was the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, which was passed to regulate electric and gas utilities. Prior to the legislation, many streetcar lines were operated by electric companies, allowing the streetcars to run using low-cost electricity provided by the electric company. However, the act prevented one business to provide both services, separating the electricity suppliers from the streetcars operators and increasing streetcar operating costs[24].

Many streetcar companies also had their fares tightly regulated by municipal government, which prevented them from raising fares when operational costs rose.

Increased Traffic CongestionEdit

Increased numbers of buses and automobiles led to more congestion in American streets. Traffic became an issue as more vehicles flooded the limited road space, constraining streetcar movement and slowing overall speeds. Public opinion shifted against streetcars as people decided that the streetcar lines could be removed to free up road space for more automobiles, and to ease stresses on traffic patterns[25].

Suburbanization and Related Social TrendsEdit

During the post-war boom, people migrated away from cities in favor of the suburbs. The lower population density in the suburbs makes any sort of mass transit more expensive, inefficient, and slow. Streetcars in particular had to face higher infrastructure costs per commuter because of the lower total ridership, and would need to keep the rate of rail construction at the same pace as suburb growth. Buses' greater flexibility in routing and independence from specialized tracking consequently made them a more appealing candidate to provide transportation for the suburban populations.

Generalization & Causal ReductionismEdit

Despite clear evidence showing streetcars were failing decades before General Motors became involved, many Americans still believe that their demise was caused exclusively by GM and its accomplices. This even includes politicians such as Robert and Edward Kennedy, activists like Ralph Nader, and a host of other journalists and scholars [26]. This flawed reasoning is a perfect example of a logical fallacy known as "Causal Reductionism." First described in the late 1700's by Scottish philosopher Thomas Hume, this occurs when someone unreasonably assumes that an outcome was produced by a single and simple cause, when it reality it may have been caused by a number of factors, none of which are entirely to blame [27].

An extreme example of this might someone telling a police officer “I ran my car off the side of the road only because that squirrel ran in front of my car.” The officer would respond “That might be true, but it probably to do with the fact that you were texting and drunk.” This kind of reasoning is obviously very flawed, and prevents participants from fairly examining all sides of an issue. This is also a very generalizable phenomenon, and is pervasive across much more than just the streetcar issue, including business operation, new product development, academic projects, etc.

Similar CasesEdit

1994 Black Hawk Friendly FireEdit

On April 14th, 1994, two US Air Force F-15 fighter pilots misidentified two US Army UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters as Iraqi Mi-24 "Hind" helicopters and destroyed them both, killing all 26 military personnel aboard, along with civilians from the United States and five other countries. After a lengthy investigation which culminated in a 3,630-page report, several issues were discovered that contributed to the accident:

  1. The two F-15 pilots did not communicate with each other to confirm the identity of the helicopters
  2. The Identify From from Foe (IFF) transponders on the F-15's and/or the Black Hawks were not operating correctly
  3. There were misunderstandings about air operational procedures applied to helicopter missions
  4. The crew commander giving instructions to the F-15 pilots was not properly trained, and he and his staff made several mistakes
  5. There was confusions as to how the rules of engagement applied for the northern Iraq no fly zone
  6. The Black Hawks did not have radios capable of communicating with the F-15's

Although these factors clearly show the complexity of this accidental shoot-down, the government demonstrated that even it can fall victim to Causal Reductionism. Rather than focusing on a combination of reasons, the Air Force formally placed all the blame on Jim Wang, an allegedly narcoleptic crew commander who failed to give feedback to the F-15 pilots. He was the only soldier disciplined via court marshall, and was eventually acquitted [28].

1996 Mount Everest DisasterEdit

On May 10-11 of 1996, eight people died attempting to summit Mount Everest, marking the single deadliest year in the mountain's history. This event was very widely publicized, heavily analyzed, and led to the creation of four novels and one feature film. Like most tragedies, this one had many causes:

  1. Numerous delays in planning and arranging the expedition
  2. Multiple groups of climbers left at the same time, leading to an unusually high amount traversing the mountain at once (34)
  3. Several fixed lines necessary to traverse crevasses were missing, forcing the expeditions to stop for hours as the Sherpas assembled them
  4. Delays led to bottlenecks of climbers, causing unsafe climbing conditions
  5. Supplies of supplementary oxygen bottles were too low
  6. The expedition disobeyed their established safe turn-around time, forcing them to descent down the mountain at night.
  7. Jon Krakauer, a journalist and member of the expedition, felt the team's decision making abilities were hampered by insufficient oxygen, nutrition, and rest for the last several days of the hike [29]

Again, despite the intricate nature of an Everest expedition, most of the causes behind this tragedy were ignored, and the blame was frequently placed on the three expedition guides, who supposedly accepted hikers with far too little experience [30]. One of those leaders, Anatoli Boukreev rebutted against those claims in a later book, claiming that "...citing a specific cause would be to promote an omniscience that only gods, drunks, politicans, and dramatic writers can claim." [31]


By examining the disappearing American streetcar alongside the similar Black Hawk and Everest disasters, it becomes clear that individuals, groups, and even governments can be vulnerable to Causal Reductionism. In order to avoid falling into this trap, these entities should take this advice from Scott Snook:

"We cannot fully capture the richness of such complex incidents by limiting ourselves to any one, or even a series of isolated, within-level accounts… [we must] capture the dynamic, integrated nature of reality.[32]. "


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  2. http://www.ieeeghn.org/wiki/index.php/Milestones:Richmond_Union_Passenger_Railway,_1888
  3. http://www.nctrans.org/_nctm/files/5d/5db41427-0cb7-43b0-baf1-a6ecc54e46ae.pdf
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  18. Jackson, W. (1920). The Place of the Bus. Electric Railway Journal, 56. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/
  19. Chambliss, J. (2008). A Question of Progress and Welfare: The Jitney Bus Phenomenon in Atlanta, 1915-1925. Faculty Publications. Retrieved from http://scholarship.rollins.edu/as_facpub/33
  20. Jackson, W. (1920). The Place of the Bus. Electric Railway Journal, 56. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/
  21. Bus Transportation, February 1926, p. 72 and January 1938, p. 54
  22. Burness, Tad., Cars of the Early Twenties, Chilton, 1968, p. 110.
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  28. Snook, Scott A. (2000). Friendly Fire: The Accidental Shootdown of U.S. Black Hawks over Northern Iraq. Princeton University Press.
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