Transportation Deployment Casebook/2020/Oklahoma Streetcar

Streetcars in the United StatesEdit


The term ‘streetcar’ may not be a mode of transport well known today. Some people may only have heard the term in reference to Tennessee William’s play ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, based in 1947 when streetcars rattled down the ‘Desire Line’ in the French Quarter of New Orleans. But ‘streetcars’, a term used in North America for what Europeans may refer to as ‘trams’ was once the primary form of transport in hundreds of cities and towns in the United States (US) in the early 1900s.

A streetcar is a carriage(s) that runs along metal tracks that have been laid in the street and powered by electricity. It is used usually found in urban areas and is predominantly used to transport passengers. Cambridge dictionary defines a streetcar as “an electric vehicle that transports people, usually in cities, and goes along metal tracks in the road”.

Technological CharacteristicsEdit

The essential technology characterised by this mode of transport was the use of electricity to traction the rail guided streetcar. The technological improvements in both the dynamo and electric motor during the 1870 resulted in better generation and delivery of electricity and this was an essential component in a rail guided streetcar. Other essential technological characteristics of the streetcar system include the use of overhead electric wires invented by Frank Sprague in approximately 1880 and the use of a trolley pole, invented by Charles Van Depoele in 1886, which fed the electricity from the overhead wires to the streetcar traction motors.

Main AdvantagesEdit

Prior to the implementation of the streetcar, coaches ran on rails that were laid flush with the street and hauled by a horse. The use of steam power, rather than horses, had also been used to drive the carriages. The introduction of the electrified streetcar had considerable advantages over these alternative forms of public transport. The use of a horse drawn railway was hard work on horses and required them to stay healthy and free of diseases. In addition, the cost of purchasing horses and their operational costs, such as feed, was a considerable cost to the operators. Using steam to propel the carriages on these same rails was considered by the community as being far too noisy and produced unacceptable levels of pollution. Further, steam driven engines at times were unreliable and carriages were stranded on the rails without any power. The advantages of the streetcar over these two modes of transport were that they produced less noise, less air pollution, did not rely on the health of an animal, and had the capability to service greater distances.

There has been a recent resurgence in the popularity of streetcars in some Northern American cities. The modern streetcar has several advantages over the urban bus system. Streetcars today comprise of numerous carriages that allow for a greater passenger capacity than a bus. Streetcars are less prone to traffic disruptions since they run on dedicated rails unlike buses that travel in traffic lanes shared with many other vehicles. It has been argued that streetcars are more likely to run on schedule because of their dedicated rail line and their minimum three door access that allows passengers to unload quickly. There can of course be streetcar delays, especially at intersection when road vehicles may block the rail line. Streetcars can also have the advantage of incentivising economic development around designated stops. With the ability of greater amounts of people being able to easily access a location, economic activity may flourish at that hub. Finally, streetcars are generally viewed as adding to a city’s aesthetic appeal. Many tourists view streetcars favourably and this increases tourism as well as a city’s image.

Main MarketsEdit

At the turn of the century, the population of cities in the industrialized North East and the farming Midwest of US was booming. The business that operated street railway lines were aware of the booming city populations and the fact that electricity was a cheaper source of power than horse traction. Passenger fares were low, resulting in greater passenger numbers that allowed operators to expand their railway network in the cities. The main markets of streetcars continue to be servicing commuters in cities, however they can also service the tourism market in places like Philadelphia.

Transport Prior to the StreetcarsEdit

Available transport modes and their limitationsEdit

Prior to the advent of the electric streetcar system, the main form of transport involved the use of horses. In 1827, the first ‘horse-bus’ service commenced in the US in New York City. This transport mode was simply a long large enclosed coach, capable of carrying about 20 people, being hauled by horses. This was around the time that Faraday invented the first basic electric motor and well before the introduction of electric street lighting. Street were illuminated at night using gas lighting and the streets were generally of poor quality. As the quality of the roads improved in the middle of the nineteenth century, this mode of transport grew and became the common form of transport in the US. The limitations of this mode of transport were the high cost of operating a stable of horse, the physical strain required by horses in reaching their destinations, and the susceptibility of horses to disease such as the equine influenza. From the passenger’s perspective this mode of transport involved a rather uncomfortable ride on roads built with irregular cobblestones.

The existing limitation of the horse-bus stirred the interest of passengers for a more comfortable transport experience. In 1832, a new development in horse transport called a ‘horse-drawn tram’ commenced in New York. This was essentially the existing horse bus service with the carriage running on rails rather than running over cobblestones. This resulted in a more efficient use of the horse’s power and therefore allowed more passengers to be transported. Further, the passenger ride was considerably more comfortable since the coach’s wheels were on smooth rails.

The removal of horses for traction came with the introduction of steam engine in 1870. A locomotive would drive the vehicle on the tracks previously used by horse-drawn trams. These were not popular in cities because the steam trams were noisy and very polluting. The final precursor to the invention of the electric streetcar was the cable tramway. This used pulleys and ropes to pull carriages and were enjoyed by the public because of their speed and absence of air pollution. However, the cable tramway did pose a safety hazard due to the moving cables and pulleys, in addition to the delay in stopping the engines in the case of a frayed or snapped cable.

Evolving MarketsEdit

Markets for transportation were evolving due to the unsatisfactory passenger experience of the horse-drawn tram service due to poor coordination among the operators. There were numerous operators of horse-drawn tram services and many only had a single line. When passengers travelled on more than one route, they sometimes experienced inconvenient transfers and paid double fares. Considering that the investment in electric streetcars involved considerable capital investment, many of the operators decided to merge into larger companies. Removing the small operators from the market did lead to an improved transport experience for the public. Fares were integrated, scheduling improved, more coordinated information distributed and the passenger found transiting onto difference lines a smoother process. As the passenger experience improved the market for the imminent electric streetcar system increased.

Invention of the StreetcarEdit

Technological expertise and evolution of designs and thinkingEdit

The invention of the streetcar developed drew on several experiments performed after the invention of the electric motor in 1831. It was at this time that an investigation of electric traction for rail guided vehicles commenced. In England, inventors relied on steam as their source of power and several steam engines were built and commercialised in London, but the business was a commercial failure. The steam trams were too slow and noisy, and the London public preferred the horse-bus service. Steam engine technology improved later in the century and by the 1870s steam engines were being used in the US but mainly in rural regions As previously mentioned, the steam trams were unfavourable among the public and city authorities due to their loud noise and unpleasant pollution produced by the burning of the fuel. Inventors altered their designs to reduce smoke emissions by introducing pollution control systems. Although they did partly solve the pollution problem these devices were too heavy for rails which were originally laid for horse-drawn trams.

Thinking shifted to the use of the fireless steam engine. The fireless stream engine relied upon pressurised steam generated at a central plant. This meant that no boiler was necessary on the actual locomotive which reduced the weight and removed the polluting smoke. However, these engines only had a maximum range of 15 km and if unpredicted circumstances happened like extreme traffic or blockages, they could run out of steam somewhere on the line which made for a difficult recovery.

During the 1840 and 50s there were several experiments that involved running a locomotive powered by electric batteries, but its commercial viability was not possible due to the high cost of storing power. Around the same time cable traction was being used in London suburban railway lines. Pulleys and ropes were used to pull carriages. Passengers didn’t experience the issues of pollution, noise or limited range and the cable cars were able to run at speeds of 15 km/hour. By the 1880s, cable trams were installed in many cities in the US. In many ways the streetcar was a merging of cable tramway and the electric motor. In 1893, America had approximately 800 km of cable tramway spread over 16 cities. In fact, most of these cable tramways lines were repurposed for use by streetcars by 1905. This shift from cable actuated technology to electric traction technology in streetcars was the birth of the streetcar.

The other main type of technological expertise that was utilised in the invention of the streetcar was the remarkable developments in the electric motor and means of electric conduction through overhead lines. The company ‘Siemens & Halske’ in 1883 built the first electric streetcar line however this line transmitted the electricity needed to run the streetcars through the rails themselves. This was a safety issue as it posed the risk of electrocution for pedestrians. To solve this, rails were surrounded with fencing which was less than ideal. The same company also invented the concept of overhead wire transmission and this technology allowed the streetcar to evolve.

Market DevelopmentEdit

Early Market Development in OklahomaEdit

The early market development of streetcars within America mainly consisted of three scenarios; (1) electric streetcars replacing horse-drawn trams on existing routes, (2) streetcars replacing cable tramway carriages and being retrofit with overhead wiring or (3) construction of completely new streetcar lines.

Focusing on the state of Oklahoma, prior to the streetcar introduction people and goods were usually transported via horse-bus services. Unlike other states, Oklahoma did not have an existing cable car system. Therefore, all new streetcar lines were newly constructed and did not use any repurposed cable tramway or horse-drawn tram lines. In total, between the years of 1903 to 1947 Oklahoma had streetcars in 15 of their cities. Two of the major systems in Oklahoma were the Enid City Railway and the Muskogee Electric Traction Line. As reported in their local paper, The Muskogee Daily Phoenix, on the opening day of its first streetcar “Muskogee had now passed from the ranks of an overgrown walking town to the ranks of a metropolitan rapid transit city”. Although this town did have a horse-bus service, it was limited in number and waiting times were long. Prior to the streetcar, many civilians would need to walk to their destination due to the limited and unreliable horse-bus service. The streetcar filled this niche market as it provided an economic, easy and convenient form of transport.

Niche Markets in Oklahoma and functional enhancementsEdit

In addition to serving the transport needs of the public, another niche market in Oklahoma was the transportation of goods. By 1909, Muskogee had a line serving four freight cars. One main client was the Yahola Sand and Gravel Company which required the delivery of sand and gravel from Goose Neck Bend to the York Street Station. Horse-bus transport could not match the freight capacity and efficiency of streetcars. Horses would tire quickly and could not move freight as quickly and as far as streetcars. Most importantly, streetcar freight was more economical and for this reason streetcars dominated this niche market. Functional enhancement within the freight sector was pivotal in the early years of success for the streetcar with freight activity being an important source of income for the company. In a farming state like Oklahoma and especially in towns like Enid, considered the wheat capital, streetcars serving this niche freight market were an important functional enhancement.

Functional Discovery in OklahomaEdit

Functional discovery also played a role in the development of the streetcar market in Oklahoma. The state had used horse-bus as the primary form of transportation. The state had not laid rails or cables and the public were not accustom to transportation lines serving set destinations. The introduction of electric streetcars was a marked improvement to the horse-bus service. The public was introduced to a more comfortable ride, greater ability to transport large number of passengers, and better scheduling. The low cost of electric streetcar transportation opened public transport up to a large previously non-existent market. In addition, more areas in Oklahoma State were introduced to public transportation which had previously been not economically feasible with horse-bus transportation.

Birthing Phase of the StreetcarEdit


The policies in the birthing phase of the streetcar were very much associated with the rapid growth in cities and the demands by the public for travel to urban areas. Transit operators formed the American Street Railway Association in 1882 and this body worked with city municipalities on policies relating to the operation of streetcars. One policy that was continued from the days of horse-drawn tram, and later innovated in the streetcar birthing phase, was the line franchise. The franchise set out the rights of the street service operator and would indicate the route, the number of the tracks, and the length of the contract. Franchise agreements existed with horsecar operators and this policy continued with the introduction of electric streetcars. Many municipalities granted perpetual franchises to streetcar operators in the early days and in some US cities there were few restrictions preventing the development of the streetcar system. In many cases, the operators overlooked any community concerns and structures like overhead wiring were not at all sympathetic to the overall streetscape. Once governments realised that there was money to be made by the streetcar operators, various requirements such as unreasonable paving requirements were not removed from electric streetcar franchise agreements. Franchise agreements had included a requirement to contribute to paving costs due to the damage caused by the horse’s hooves to the streets. Streetcar operators would argue that electricity did not impact on the paving and that this requirement should be removed. The policy to include such requirement was a form of indirect taxation on the streetcar operators and was sanctioned by governments and become standard across the US.

Locked-in PolicyEdit

The fare used on horse drawn trams had been the smallest nickel coin i.e. the five-cent piece. The government wanted a single fare and borrowed this policy for use in the new streetcar transport system. Operators agreed in this birthing phase to settle for a standard five cent fare in exchange for a perpetual franchise e.g. 999-year franchise. This policy was embedded in the franchise and operators were ‘locked in’ to this universal five cent flat fare policy.

Growth Phase of the StreetcarEdit

Role of Public Sector in GrowthEdit

The electric streetcar experienced high levels of growth in the US. Some cities experienced growth well before other cities. For example, the system in Richmond, Virginia commenced in 1888 with ten streetcars whereas operation in the State of Oklahoma commenced much later in 1903. The period from the 1890s up until the approximately 1910 was a period of tremendous growth in streetcars in the US. It has been estimated that the length of tracks in US cities was 2,050 miles in 1880 and increased to 5,783 miles by 1890. During this period many US cities were experiencing high industrialisation. Rural migrants as well as an influx of European migrants were being drawn to cities for work. Government policies were encouraging the development of the streetcar network to serve the working class, who remained close to cities, and the middle and upper class who would reside outside the main city. The network was built to fan out from the central business district into newly forming suburbs. These suburbs grew along the main streets, allowing the middle class to buy homes while easily getting to their job in the city.

Roles of Private Sector in GrowthEdit

The private sector, especially real estate speculators, contributed to the growth of the streetcar system. Land speculators would invest in the streetcar operations and then build new lines directed towards their land. The idea was to attract people to these land for development. Other private sectors such as electric power companies were also drawn to the streetcar operation business as they saw profitable returns in providing recently developed streetlight technology and household electricity to the land radiating out from the cities and serviced by streetcars.

Policy IssuesEdit

The policy environment at the time did influence policymaking. The government always considered streetcars systems to be a private investment and therefore as a private enterprise not supported by government assistance. Although a 5-cent fare may have been adequate to maintain a profitable streetcar operation, by the turn of the century inflation was continuing to increase rapidly and the revenue from fares was inadequate to maintain a profitable operation.

Mature State of the StreetcarEdit


By 1920, most streetcars operating in US cities were four axle cars unlike the two axle cars that dominated the market up until World War I. Further design changes in the mature phase of the streetcar included the replacement of open side cars with enclosed cars. In the mid-1930s further developments were made to the streetcar to reduce noise, improve suspension, acceleration and braking. These latter improvements were introduced to challenge the comfort of its competitors, namely the bus and automobile.

Constraints to changing MarketsEdit

By 1920, most of the streetcar operators were struggling financially and US President Wilson set up a Federal Electric Railway Commission to study the problems of the public transit system. The ‘locked-in’ five cent fare was a factor that had constrained the adaptation of this mode of transport. Streetcar operators during the growth period had been unable to increase fares to match inflation. Wages in the 15-year period 1895 to 1910 were up 105 per cent and other operating costs such as rail were up 239 percent. The Commission did recommend a fare increase but this had come too late and would not be enough to replace obsolete rolling stock or maintain tracks that had neglected, especially during the war years.


The municipality public policy on not granting the streetcars a separate right of way and the absence of financial support did make the survival of the streetcar very difficult. The streetcar operators were feeling the pressure from alternative transit competitors such as the bus and automobile during the 1920 and 1930.

Other competitive forces came the National City Lines Consortium, organised by General Motors, Firestone and Esso Oil. The consortium’s intention was to form a monopoly whereby buses and automobiles would dominant the transport market and effectively purchase products from the consortium members. This was achieved when the consortium purchased existing streetcar companies in many cities and then progressively decreased the maintenance and upgrade of the fleets.

Opportunities to ‘re-invent’ the mode todayEdit

Streetcars should be used as a means of improving access to a region for the public. Any opportunity for streetcar development today should keep this in mind. Streetcar development has been full of stories about transit companies funded by land speculators, utility companies and motor vehicle influencers who used their investment as a clever way of profiteering. For this reason, streetcar development today would best be served if owned and controlled by government as part of an integrated transport masterplan and therefore a public good. Government would subsidize the high costs involved in upgrading rolling stock and maintaining operations. They would need to work closely with the public to ascertain appropriate routes and public uptake. There are many transport options in developed cities from train, bus and now ride sharing car services. Streetcars are attractive from an environmental perspective and can be tastefully integrated into city planning. However, the introduction into cities may be problematic due to the existing transport options, anticipated public uptake of the streetcar services, cost of land acquisitions and longstanding transport preferences of government.

Quantitative Analysis of Oklahoma Streetcar NetworkEdit

Data UsedEdit

The actual length (in miles) of the streetcar system in the State of Oklahoma was recorded from McGraw Electric Railway Manual from the year 1894 to 1920. It is important to note that Oklahoma did not have any tracks laid prior to the introduction of electric streetcars. The records indicated that the Streetcar system commenced in Oklahoma in 1903.

Once the length of track for each system in the State was recorded, they were tallied to obtain the total length of track for the State of Oklahoma for a particular year. This data can be seen in table 1 and has been plotted in figure 1 below:

Year Length of Tracks (miles)
1903 7.250
1904 10.790
1905 21.500
1906 118.000
1907 134.230
1908 197.900
1909 208.300
1910 176.500
1911 213.050
1912 226.210
1913 236.424
1914 258.588
1915 270.070
1916 312.434
1917 325.094
1918 329.094
1919 386.820
1920 392.820

Table 1: Length of tracks (miles) in the State of Oklahoma

Model and its accuracyEdit

The data was then used to estimate a three-parameter logistic function to obtain a curve that best fits the data. This lifecycle model of the streetcar system can be characterised using the following three-parameter logistic equation:

S(t) = Smax/[1+exp(-b(t-ti)]


  • S(t) is the status measure (tracks laid)
  • t is time,
  • ti is the inflection time,
  • Smax is saturation status level
  • b is a coefficient

Using the data and after performing a series of regressions, parameters were calculated for ti, Smax and b. These are shown in table 2

Variable Value
ti 1911.462
Smax 405.0
b 0.346364

Table 2: S Curve parameters

Using the parameters from table 2, the logistic function equation was applied to produce a curve of best fit. This can be seen by the S Curve in figure 1. This model helps us understand how things may develop but is not a fully dependable representation of reality. The model can be fit for different saturation status levels and one of these saturation levels will best fit the data, but this is a limitation of this prediction model. It should be noted that the data was missing for some of the years and interpolation was required. This may have a slight impact on the accuracy of the model.

Figure 1: Streetcar System in Oklahoma State: Length of tracks (miles)Edit

Streetcar System in Oklahoma State Length of tracks (miles)

Interpretation of ResultsEdit

The plotting of the actual length of the electric streetcar system in years 1903 to 1920 in the State of Oklahoma indicated growth in the period 1905 to 1909 and then a sharp drop in the following year to 1910. From about pre-World War I period up until 1920 the actual results still show growth but at a decelerating rate

The S Curve highlights that there was a very brief birthing stage. This may be because the streetcar arrived as late as 1903 in Oklahoma State. It had been commercially operational in many of the other large cities of US since the 1890s. The S Curve shows exponential growth in the length of the streetcar system in the state of Oklahoma not long after its introduction to the State until the inflection year i.e. 1911. The inflection year is the year in which the concavity of the S Curve changes and represents the point of maximum growth. The S Curve indicates a growth period from approximately 1904-1911.

From 1911 the S Curve indicates an exponential decline up until 1920 as it moves through the maturity stage.