Transportation Deployment Casebook/2020/Minnesota Streetcar


Streetcars played a major role in the rise of public transportation around the world and continue to show their presence in the modern transportation mix. Invented by Frank Julian Sprague in 1888, it came into existence in Richmond, Virginia USA, where the installation of a 19-km circuit sparked a nation-wide track network spanning over 72,000 kilometres by 1917 (National Museum of American History, 2020). Being one of the pioneering technologies of public transit for mid-sized towns and cities in industrial America, the Streetcar made its mark as an engineering marvel before the use of automobiles, serving millions of Americans through the turn of the century.

Early Street Car Design of the 1900s

Defining Technological CharacteristicsEdit

The streetcar was defined as a public transit vehicle that was most clearly identified by its utilisation of rails in the streets of urban centres. Comprised of a carriage, wheelset (wheel-axle combination typical of railroad modes) and electrical trolley pole, the streetcar rode a pair of rails embedded in the road alongside other traffic modes. The streetcar was powered by via its ‘trolley pole’ which was an erected rod that contacted a set of overhead wires to power the vehicle. Streetcars were typically electrically powered by these overhead wires but earlier models were horse-drawn or even powered by a slot in the road where an electrical cable run beneath the tracks (American Public Transportation Association, 2019).

This arrangement is what gave birth to its colloquial name of “Trolley”, but streetcars have also been referred to as a “Tram”, especially in Europe. Whilst the above names are synonymous with the streetcar, the streetcar is still commonly misconceived as ‘light rail’. There are a few technological differences in their features that a quintessential to the streetcar model; (NACTO, 2012) (Whelan & Kornrumpf, 2014) (American Public Transportation Association, 2019)

Technological Differences between Streetcars and Light Rail
Technology Steetcar Light Rail
Method of Power Overhead span wire Catenary
Motor Type Sprague Stationary Electric Motor Heavy DC/AC Traction Motor
Motor Speed Capacity 10-20 kmph max 30-40 kmph max
Construction Materials Early models utilised wood to maintain a lightweight profile, later models were fabricated from thin sheet steel panels for improved strength with minimal weight increase. Most models were made from high-gauge steel and more robust components for additional strength due to larger size, faster speeds and more passengers.
Travel Distance Less than 16 km More than 16 km
Carriage size 120 passengers, approx. transportation of 1440 passengers/hour 500 passengers, approx. transportation of 12000 passengers/hour
Mobility Min radius >20 m Min radius >26 m

The Advantages of the StreetcarEdit

The streetcar had several advantages over other modes of transport of the time, as well as many social benefits for users at the time of its invention. Being introduced to society amid the rise of Industrial America (1876–1900), the newfound mode of transport acted as a catalyst in the national urban boom. Often referred to as the ‘walking era’, pedestrians only had the options of foot-travel and horse driven transport when undertaking intracity travel. Streetcars offered a faster means of transport within towns, reducing destination times, energy expenditure and improved comfort when travelling. In addition, streetcars reduced the amount of foot traffic and horse drawn carts/carriages around the dense city centres by encouraging commuters of the streets and roads and into streetcars. This not only minimised the possibility for vehicular accidents but also and reduced city congestion. (Nguyen-Phuoc, Currie, De Gruyter, & Young, 2017).

Apart from its major upgrade in the speed of individual travel, the major advantage of the streetcar was its enabling of travelling further distances within shorter periods of time. Most notably, the streetcar triggered intercity links between suburban communities and town centres. This facilitated suburban sprawl and expansion of city hubs; communities were built around these routes which improved housing availability, new opportunities for work and more convenient access for leisure activities and socialising. (National Museum of American History, 2020)

City of Minneapolis, Streetcar service. 1900s

Lifecycle of the Streetcar in MinnesotaEdit

Existing Climate and Birthing PhaseEdit

American Context (1890s - 1920s)Edit

In the 19th Century, the cities of America were walking cities. This is because most of the population shopped and worked close to their place of residence. The streets were shared by pedestrians, bicyclists, farmers’ wagons, carriages and street cars (National Museum of American History, 2020). As transportation of the public evolved, many city residents were able to travel greater distances, allowing easier and more efficient travel to work, shop and socialize in town. A sweeping technological revolution caused a change in city streets and the pattern of people’s everyday lives. As the electric streetcar systems continued to be built in the upcoming decades, Americans would see an evolution in their modes of transport. From horse powered cars and walking to steam powered cars to them electric trolley cars (Library of Congress, 2020). The turn of the century saw the American nation establish itself as a world power and saw the strength of a nation’s industrial capacity (Library of Congress, 2020).

Minnesota at the Turn of the CenturyEdit

In 1870, Minnesota’s population was 439,000. Europeans immigration and settlement hit an all-time peak after the Civil War as farmland was attractive. In the two decades coming, the population number tripled. The North Pacific Railway and Saint Paul Pacific Railroad advertised many opportunities in the railroad industry to invite immigrants to reside in Minnesota (Lass, 1998). It was recorded that St. Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, known as the Twin Cities, had one of the fastest rates of traffic congestion growth in the USA. (Carter, 2003)

Business District, Milaca Minnesota, early 1900's

Early transportation market environment in the US & Minnesota & the limitations of their existing modesEdit

Prior to the 1890’s, transportation was slow. American cities shared the streets with horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians and cyclists. Improved streets allowed more traffic, however the traffic remained slow as pedestrians were still able to cross roads at any point. (National Museum of American History, 2020) Faster modes of transport were dependent on expensive storage batteries, though were inefficient. (Ray, 2020).

The early Minnesota horsecars were modest in size and was equivalent in weight to the average horse. A single car could shuttle 14 people and had a max speed of 6 mph, which was the max safe speed the horse could attain. Originally a mode of choice, horse drawn carts posed major disadvantages. With such high overhead, the lines were not cost-effective, and employees sometimes waited several weeks to be paid, not to mention the odor and health risks associated with horse pollution were a real concern. It was very expensive maintaining the horsecar lines with increasing costs of the car, the six horses that were needed to operate the car, horse food, driver and conductor wages of 12-16 hour days (Cameron, 2017)

The 1873 invention of the cable car increased travel efficiency. The cars were pulled along by a looping cable running in a gap between the rails and being driven by a steam-driven shaft in the powerhouse. The well-adapted system allowed people to commute over steep hills. The cable cars operated smoothly but ran only at a constant speed, therefore, any experience in breaking or jamming of the cable tied up all the cars on the line. Most cable trackage was replaced by electric cars by early 1900s (Ray, 2020)

The public embraced the new system of the cable car, however, concerns regarding its level of safety were speculated. Fear of flying sparks from the wheels or from lighting strikes, electrocution of horses or drivers if they attempted to cross a cable car track and snowstorms putting electric cars out of business. Despite the speculations, the growing popularity of the lines resulted in the Twin City Rapid Transit Company to cover all horse-drawn car routes to electric routes by 1902 (Cameron, 2016).

How did these limitations of the current modes of transport trigger the invention of the streetcar?Edit

From 1902 electric street cars replaced horse-drawn cars in the United States. With consideration to its current design and function of the cars, gradual improvements were implemented. To gain a greater carrying capacity, the four wheeled cars were replaced with 8 heavy duty wheels, and wood was replaced with steel. It became essential for a growing city to be in possession of a streetcar line so that lines can be extended further out into other towns and communities (Ray, 2020).

Though the horse car and cable car systems gave residents increased access to mobility and stimulated urban growth in the Twin Cities, the electric street car had a profound impact on the evolution of transport. Travelling faster and further in what was to become the nation’s finest mode of public networks of transportation. (Cameron, For thirty years, electric streetcars ruled Twin Cities streets, 2016). The efficiency of the public transportation network in Minnesota always had room for improvement.

Policy InfluenceEdit

The development of the streetcar system in Minnesota was driven by a variety of policies that enabled its spread throughout the state. Several policies were adopted from the precursor railway industry, but new policies were introduced by private owners and the local government to manage its progress.

Land Development and Land Designation Policies – The main commodity that streetcar systems consumed was land. May it be for laying tracks, constructing stations, or building car yards for servicing and maintenance, streetcars required increasing amounts of free land. The state government of Minnesota and private investors saw this need and adapted several of its land designation policies used for railways to acquire and lock-in land (Cullingworth & Caves, 2013).

Private Ownership and Fare Regulation Policies - Policies underlying the private ownership and monopolisation of streetcar businesses meant that fares were not regulated by the government and customers had no option but to pay. The Twin City Rapid Transit Company (TCRT) had claimed and merged all streetcar transit in Minneapolis and St. Paul which allowed them complete control over the fees for travel, independent of governmental statutes (Cameron, 2016). In turn, this created a positive feedback loop that provided the economic capital needed to expand streetcar networks, maintain tracks, and upgrade cars.

Discrimination and Segregation Policies – The birth of the streetcar in Minnesota coincided with its worse period of social racism and discrimination (1900–1930). While several African American communities were scattered throughout the state, the suburb of Near North in Minneapolis housed the largest concentration of African Americans (Miller, 2020). All these minority communities are housed on the outskirts of city centres due to the state’s restrictive property policies and deed clauses. This forced private streetcar corporations to extend their networks to city edges to ‘tap-in’ to these densely populated communities and increase market coverage.

Market Development and Growth PhaseEdit

Functional EnhancementEdit

Shopping - At the turn of the century, the streetcar was gaining momentum and mass market proliferation throughout Minnesota. Being one of the larger cities of the time, Minneapolis and St. Paul had thriving shopping district where residents would seek groceries and other essential items daily (National Museum of American History, 2020). In fact, the shopping and retail industry of Minnesota (and the US for that matter) was growing exponentially as well, attracting several travellers and residents to the stores. The town of Edina in Minnesota would see the first indoor shopping mall open years later – a statement to the attention it’s stores received (Meyer, 2018).

Southdale Centre, Americas first indoor shopping mall – Edina, Minnesota

Industry - At the time, the twin Cities of Minnesota; Minneapolis and St. Paul were home to some of the largest iron, flour milling and logging industries in the country (Muscato, 2020). Employing thousands of labourers, the streetcars serviced these workers by aiding their commute the foundries, factories and mills situated across the cities. Each of these booming industries in Minnesota were so reliant on the streetcar that “for a brief time, the trolley was more important than the electric light because while only the wealthy had electric light in their homes, almost every blue collar worker was riding the trolley to work” (Whelan & Kornrumpf, 2014). The invention ensured worker punctuality and better productivity, ultimately generating more revenue for these businesses.

Minneapolis Industrial District 1914

Functional DiscoveryEdit

The growth seen by the streetcar in the urban area of Minnesota could also be attributed to the new opportunities and prospects it developed. The growth of the entire metropolitan area was transformed by the streetcar system. It shaped the character and development of the Twin Cities.

Marketing - Between 1890 and early 1900’s, around 53,000 people worked for the Twin City Rail Transport. The streetcar created opportunity for businesses to flourish. In the centre of a Trainman’s day stood the car house of station. This is where services were able to be performed such as haircuts and men’s clubs, as well as libraries and pool tables were available. Attendants were paid if they were dual skilled for these amenities. It surfaced opportunities for businesses to market their product and service on the side of the street cars to gain further recognition in and around their cities (Diers & Isaacs, 2007).

Real Estate - The possibility of suburbs were a result of being able to commute further than before. It was the streetcar that was able to expand these reaches and allow the development of other suburbs to be easily accessible by the communities. By the 19th Century, communities and suburbs were enjoying the new kind of surroundings and Americans began to live more freely, yet still able to easily commute to their workplaces and to go shopping.

The development of other suburbs allows civilians to relocate from the city to the suburbs. Due to the high immigration rate, residents were able to relocate to quieter communities, or leave the city to a less congested community. The rise of division became more prominent with those being less wealthy were living nearby the city and therefore those of different races and ethnicities started to intertwine. People’s lifestyles were changing due to having more responsibility in the suburbs. Maintenance and upkeep of gardens, yards and homes were the new reality. Walking to the shops and to work was no longer an option. The street care became the main mode of transport with men predominantly travelling into the city. Women became isolated, until The Chevy Chase Land Company established over 1700 acres of street line cars, facilitating the public’s needs for transit (National Museum of American History, 2020).

New Distribution Systems - The invention of the new streetcar saw the opportunity for new distribution systems for businesses in the Minnesota district. Like many big cities, residents shopped frequently at several large markets for their daily necessities. The rail system provided businesses to transport their goods from stockyards to their market stalls or to regional distributors, farmers were able to send their produce to wholesalers and retailers and national advertising hit a peak due to these distribution systems and Brands were becoming common household names due to recognition (National Museum of American History, 2020).

Maturity and Decline of the StreetcarEdit

Streetcars ruled the streets of Minnesota between 1910 to the 1930s. The transportation mode reached it peak in 1922, where over 850 km of streetcar track was sprawled across the state and guiding 1021 active streetcars (Prosser & Hofsommer, 2007).

1913 map of Twin Cities Rapid Transit Routes

Over the next few decades beyond 1920, the electric street cars and trolleys were made obsolete. Accompanied by government and corporate policies, the limitations of the streetcar system increased, and consumer choice steered toward the development of other alternatives being the bus and the car. The development of new bus systems began in the 1910s. Commuters considered this new mode of transport to be luxurious due to its modern feel and comfortability. Buses became more affordable to run than streetcars and they were more flexible in times. It was decided that buses made more business sense for the transit companies. Well known companies such as General Motors and Firestone Tire and Rubber Company took interest in the design of this system and encouraged the decision for the street car to be converted to the bus transportation network.

In conjunction with the bus system, Americans chose the automobile, another development that made sense to the social environment of residents. The main form of commuter in the nation was now cars. It was the option of choice considering it was affordable and a growing number of people could purchase and run them. It was in 1962 that the last street car ran in Washington D.C (National Museum of American History, 2020)


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