Transportation Deployment Casebook/2020/Maryland Streetcar

Maryland Streetcars – 1890s to 1920sEdit

Streetcars in the United StatesEdit

The streetcar (as used in North America) is a rail-based vehicle used primarily for passenger transport,[1] typically operating within the public right-of-way. Specific to the electric streetcar, the technological characteristics that are essential to the operation of the mode would be:

  • Pantograph sliding on an overhead line or contact shoe on a third rail, providing propulsion via electricity. This would require infrastructure, including power source and distribution network to supply power.
  • The movement of electric streetcars requires the provision of fixed rail providing low rolling resistance, allowing for loads to be moved with less effort. As such, investment in rail infrastructure is required prior to operation of the streetcar.

Other streetcars in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century were similar but differed in their power sources (i.e. horse-drawn, steam, cable). The main advantages of the streetcar technology in the context of the study period not only to applied to Maryland. Electric trolleybuses that moved on regular road surfaces were the primary competing technology at the time. The main advantage of the streetcar system was the use of steel rails, which reduced rolling resistance, allowed smooth movement and move more rapidly than trolleybuses.

The main market the streetcar system served were relatively dense urban centres. This was prior to the advent of the personal motor vehicles thus, alternatives were limited, such as horse-powered carriages and walking. Horse-drawn carriages would have been expensive to operate and maintain, such as costs to manage horse manure, provide feed, stabling and replacing horses.

The Maryland urban scene prior to electric streetcarsEdit

In the period of the electric streetcar, Baltimore, the most populous city in Maryland, had emerged as a key manufacturing center. From 1850 to 1900 Baltimore’s population grew from 169,000 to 508,957, which placed pressure on Baltimore’s physical infrastructure. The city expanded from ten to thirty square miles in 1888. Horsecar railway companies started laying tracks on Baltimore Streets, following historic turnpike roads, which opened new suburbs for development.[2]

The other transport modes available at the time were horsecars and horse-drawn railway. The limitations of this transport mode were a key consideration by urban planners due to factors such manure, maintenance, feeding, stabling and disposal of stock.[3]

A rapidly increasing city population resulted in an evolving market for transportation. The availability of the horsecar railway lines expanded the suburbs outwards as travel times and accessibility from major employment centres improved. The improvement in accessibility stirred interest in the new possibility that accessibility could be further enhanced with new transport technology. Electric streetcars offered just that, further facilitating new suburban villages surrounding Baltimore.

Invention of the electric streetcar and technological shiftEdit

Frank J. Sprague is credited as the inventor of the electric streetcar system. His invention involved the use of overhead lines to collect electricity and was successfully first installed for use in the Richmond Union Passenger Railway in Richmond, Virginia in 1888.

Following this success, the shift from the initial horse powered cars to electric systems was rapid. By 1890 there was some 5,700 miles of horse car track, 500 miles of cable-car track and 1,260 miles of electric track in the United States; some 17% of market share within 2 years for electric systems. By 1903, 98% of the 30,000 miles of street railway lines were powered by electricity.[4]

To achieve the electric streetcar railway system, technological expertise in the fields of electricity distribution (mainly generated by coal at the time) and motor and gear design were brought together to enhance the existing street railway system in the form of the new horseless vehicle.

Early market developmentEdit

The initial market niche that the electric streetcar satisfied was the ability to operate a transport service without the use of horse-powered vehicles. Electricity proved to be far cheaper than horses, so fares could be reduced at the same time as services improved.[5] Ultimately, the cheaper fares achieved functional enhancement, serving the existing market better by expanding the market to lower income households. The improvement in services, coupled with increasing urbanisation, led to the expansion of the street railway system in Baltimore, facilitating further market development of the technology through functional discovery.

The birthing phaseEdit

The existing railway systems were already laid out from the horse car. This was a widely accepted mode by the public and government. The streetcar borrowed the railway system from the horse car and innovated on it, providing an improved service at a lower cost. With the unqualified success of the first electric system in Richmond, Viriginia, the technology quickly spread to all parts of the globe resulting in a relatively short birthing phase from 1888.

The growth phaseEdit

The Baltimore local government permitted the development of the streetcar network through profit-sharing arrangements During his mayorship, Thomas Swann agreed to allow horsecar companies to lay track on public streets in exchange for 20% of their gross proceeds to fund public parks.[6] This potentially reduced planning barriers to achieving growth of the mode within Baltimore.

The private sector grew the network on the back of the profit motive. Network growth in Maryland grew from 245 miles of track in 1894 to 450 miles of track by 1898. Some eight independent railway companies were operating by this time.

Growth in Baltimore was relatively rapid at the time and City officials responded by expanding the city. Naturally, this policy environment induced the demand for expansion transport services to meet the needs of the population. Streetcars provided a solution and so the network could expand through private capital.

The mature phaseEdit

In 1899, the myriad of independent railway companies was consolidated to form the United Railways and Electric Company. By this time, the network was reaching maturity at 357 miles of track (by 1920 it was at 418 miles of track). The consolidation allowed for the separate systems to be modernised into a cohesive system to effectively serve the metropolitan area. Through the consolidation, the fleet of streetcars were standardised.[7]

By 1915, jitneys were becoming a prevalent competitor to the streetcar.[8] The United Railways and Electric Company sought to adapt to the changing market by setting up the Baltimore Transit Company. This would have been an attempt to avoid “lock-in” and adopt the “escape” strategy posited by Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970).[9]

Streetcar map of Baltimore

Opportunities to “re-invent” the modeEdit

In the present day, the modern streetcar mode still exists albeit at a much smaller scaler than its peak in the early twentieth century. It has also taken on another form via light rail, which differs only in capacity through the coupling of multiple units. Streetcars served the market in the absence of the point-to-point transport offered by the personal automobile. Potential opportunities to reinvent the mode so that it can better serve the needs of today and tomorrow could be:

  • Integration into dense urban areas where there is a high cost for private vehicle use (particularly ownership and storage). This situation would attract ridership in the absence of the personal automobile. A dense environment would ensure there is adequate market size to justify the cost of implementing the system, by allowing for suitable scale and diversity of trip purposes.
  • Being an on-street rail system, the spatial requirements are well-defined and potentially compact. This could be leveraged to incorporate into the urban form, particularly within pedestrian-only rights-of-way where traditional bus and car transport would not be able to operate.

Quantitative analysis of the Maryland Streetcar NetworkEdit

The Life-cycle modelEdit

The life-cycle metaphor is useful in understanding the behaviour of a transport system over time (Garrison & Levinson, 2014). This behaviour is generally represented through three phases:

  • Birthing/innovation phase,
  • Growth development phase
  • Mature phase

Assuming the data forms a logistic function, S-curves are useful to model, track and predict systems within their lifecycle. The model can be represented with the following three-parameter function:

S(t)= K/(1+e^([-b(t-t_0 )]) ) where:

  • S(t) is the status measure, (e.g. passenger-km travelled, miles of track)
  • t is time (usually in years),
  • t0 is the inflection time (year in which 1/2 K is achieved),
  • K is saturation status level, and
  • b is a coefficient.

Therefore, knowing K, t0 and b, the system size in any given year t could be predicted. However, the only data generally available would be the current system size whereby K and b would have to be determined iteratively and tested with linear regression.

Analysis of the Maryland Streetcar networkEdit

Historical financial and company data from the McGraw Electric Railway Manual – the red book of American Street Railway Investments was used to develop the lifecycle of the streetcar network in Maryland between 1894 and 1920. Data on the “miles of track” was published in this document for the streetcar systems in each city in the USA, which have been extracted to develop a lifecycle model (see Table 1). This data was also compared against the predictive model using the equation provided above. Table 1: Miles of track within the Maryland Streetcar network; actual and predicted

The above data is represented in Figure 1 below. Note that missing data has been linearly interpolated.

The model provides the following outputs:

  • The inflection point of the system, t0, whereby the rate of growth was no longer increasing was the year 1901.
  • The saturation status level, K, was 910 miles of track.
  • The coefficient, b, is 0.079614.

The model accuracy was tested using linear regression with a predicted K value. Assuming K = 910, the regression analysis output was R-squared = 0.9, which indicates that the model curve could be a good fit. The t-statistic for the variables are greater than 2, indicating that the relationship is statistically significant.

Life cycle phasesEdit

Based on the model, the three distinct life cycle phases could be seen as:

  • Birthing: 1880-1890.
  • Growth development: 1890-1910 (inflection at 1901).
  • Maturity: 1910 onwards.


  1. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Streetcar. In dictionary. Retrieved March 31, 2020, from
  2. Baltimore City Planning Commission, City of Baltimore Comprehensive Master Plan, accessed 31/03/2020,
  3. Eric Morris (Spring 2007)."From Horse Power to Horsepower" Access. No.30. Berkeley, CA: University of California Transportation Center. pp. 2–9.
  4. Dalzell, F. (2010) Engineering invention: Frank J. Sprague and the U.S. electrical industry. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
  5. Christian Wolmar, “In praise of the tram: how a love of cars killed the worker’s transport system”, The Guardian, 6 Jun 2016,
  6. Baltimore City Planning Commission, City of Baltimore Comprehensive Master Plan, accessed 31/03/2020,
  7. Helton, G. (2008) Baltimores Streetcars and Buses, Arcadia Publishing
  8. Ghosts of Baltimore, “Cruising the Baltimore Streets in a Jitney”, 12 March 2019,
  9. Garrison, WL, & Levinson, DM 2014, The Transportation Experience: Policy, Planning, and Deployment, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, Cary.