Transportation Deployment Casebook/2020/Washington Streetcar

Streetcars or trolley(car)s (North American English for the European word tram) were once the main mode of public transit in hundreds of North American cities and towns. Most of the original urban streetcar systems were either dismantled in the mid-20th century or converted to other modes of operation, such as light rail.[1]

Technological CharacteristicsEdit

Streetcars run on track laid in the streets, usually operated in single units and usually driven by the electric motor. Early streetcars were either horse-drawn or depended for power on storage batteries that were expensive and inefficient. The invention of the dynamo (generator) led to the application of transmitted power using overhead electrified wires to streetcar lines, which subsequently increased in Britain, Europe, and the United States.[2] Streetcars runs on streetcar tracks along public urban streets. Some of the streetcars include segments of segregated right-of-way. Streetcars are usually lighter and shorter than mainline and rapid transit trains. Most of the streetcars in the early age were fed by a trolley hole or a bow collector. Streetcars were propelled by power lines drawn over their routes, which carried electric current. The current travelled through an extension attached to the car, and the metal wheels against the metal tracks acted as the “grounding” for the electric circuit.[3] electric motors commonly drove streetcars, but there are streetcars driven by horse, steam and cable.[4]

Advantages and Compression of other ModesEdit

The world's first passenger streetcar was first built in the UK, drawn by a horse.[5] In the nineteenth century, as most of the streets were still paved with cobblestone, the horsecar provides a much more comfortable ride than omnibus.[3] Horses could only work in limited hours on a given day, had to be housed, groomed, fed and cared for day in and day out, which makes the operation cost significantly increase.[4] Horsecars were largely replaced by electric-powered trams following the improvement of an overhead trolley system on trams for collecting electricity from overhead wires by Frank J. Sprague.[6]

Cablecar was introduced in San Francisco in 1873. The cablecars were drawn by an endless cable running in a slot between the rails and passing over a steam-driven shaft in the powerhouse. The system was well-adapted for operation on steep hills and reached its most extensive use in San Francisco and Seattle. The cars operated more smoothly than did early electric cars, but they could run only at a constant speed. Breaking or jamming of the cable tied up all the cars on the line. With the improvement of electric motors, cablecar started losing advantage.[2]

One of the advantages of streetcars over earlier forms of transit was the low rolling resistance of metal wheels on steel rails, allowing the trams to haul a greater load for a given effort.[1] Streetcars were cheaper to build than heavy rapid transit. Back in the 19th century, buses weren't a cost-effective option due to technology limitations.[3]

Main MarketsEdit

Streetcars were mainly used for passengers, but there are existing cargo trams in operation. Streetcars were historically widely used in Europe, North America, Oceania.[1]

Invention of StreetcarEdit

The first streetcar was pulled by a horse, rolling along special steel rails that were placed in the middle of the street instead of riding along the street.[7] The horsecar provides a more comfortable, more affordable and more efficient trips than omnibus. With the invention of horsecar, the tracked were installed widely in the United States. Horses and mules could only work for about two hours at a time, so companies had to keep 8-10 animals on hand to keep just one car operating. They ate their weight in food every day, and the resulting manure littered the streets, which was more than a mild inconvenience to pedestrians. An outbreak of equine influenza in 1872 wiped out thousands of horses and slowed many transit systems considerably.[3]

Andrew Smith Hallidie developed the first cable car in San Francisco. The cable car was driven by an endless cable running in a slot between the rails with passed over a steam-driven shaft in the powerhouse.[7] The new cablecar system eliminated the need for horses to struggle to pull the carriages up the never-ending hills in San Francisco. Even though the system was certainly an improvement over horsecar, the first cable cars were quite unsafe. Cables were prone to snapping, sometimes causing dangerous accidents on the steep San Francisco hills. Most of the able cars went out of service not long after their inception.[3]

Electric streetcars were invented by Frank Julian Sprague. Frank invented spring-loaded trolley poles in 1880, which uses the wheel to travel along the wire. In 1888, Frank invented a system on streetcars for collecting electricity from overhead wires. With the existing electric motor technology, the streetcar system was built by Sprague in Richmond, Virginia. The overhead wire was installed over a city street in order to provide electricity to the streetcars. During operation, the streetcar would touch this electric wire with a long pole on its roof. Big steam engines in the powerhouse would need to turn generators to produce electricity for streetcars operation. Since the streetcar was able to use existing rails and carriages from the horsecar and cable car systems, making the switch was pretty easy.[2]

Early Market DevelopmentEdit

Washington’s earliest streetcars, operated by transit innovator Frank Osgood, ran down Second Avenue starting in 1884, pulled by horses. As horse-drawn public transportation system wasn’t entirely practical to serve an entire city as hilly as Seattle, in 1889, Some other investors started operating cablecars, like in similarly-hilly San Francisco.[8]

After 1888, many cities turned to electric streetcars. Within a year, electric streetcars had replaced more costly horsecars in many cities.[2] In 1889, Seattle had the first electric streetcars to replace horsecar. With the significant advantage of streetcar over horsecar, the boom starts. By 1892, which is three years after testing the first electric streetcar, Seattle had almost 50 miles of streetcar track, plus 22 miles of cable rail.[8]

Policy in the 'Birth Phase'Edit

Since 1840, the federal government starts promoting transport infrastructures such as railroad and streetcars. As a result, a large sum of private and public money went into transport infrastructures, which helps the birth and the boom of streetcars.[9] From 1830s to 1960s, almost all transits are privately owned. The use of the franchise was essential for the street railway, which had to intrude on public rights-of-way to lay track in the street to operate horsecars, and later, cablecars and electric streetcars.[10] By limiting the franchise of streetcars, unnecessary competition is prevented, which makes the streetcar system to overlay more areas and protect the income of the streetcar operation company. The transit industry should be recognized for having possessed an entrepreneurial spirit in the best private enterprise tradition for more than a century.[10]

Mature and DeclineEdit

By the eve of World War I, Seattle Electric (the largest streetcar operation company) was losing money due to mandated nickel fares, numerous strikes, and growing competition from automobiles and private buses. Commuters had also grown impatient with aging equipment and erratic service. After failing to buy the Seattle-Renton interurban in 1911, Seattle developed its first municipal streetcar line between downtown and Ballard in 1914.[11] With the mandated nickel fares, numerous strikes, government involvement and growing competition from automobiles and private buses, private investors become less interested in streetcars, which slows down the streetcar growth.

After World War 1, the streetcars start to decline when cars began to arrive on city streets. The mandated nickel fares make the companies more and more difficult to pay for the maintenance. Especially after World War I, the value of 5 cents plummeted, but streetcars had to get approval from municipal commissions for any fare hikes, and nobody on these commissions would approve fare increases to cover costs, because that would get them in trouble with their constituents. Since the 1920s, some streetcar companies began going into bankruptcy, when they were still their cities' dominant mode of transportation. Huge costs and the falling value of fares forced them to cut back on service, steadily pushing people to the available, increasingly affordable automobile. As they fought to stay alive during the Great Depression, many companies invested in buses, which were cheaper and more flexible. By the 1950s, virtually all streetcar companies were in terrible shape. Nation City, owned by General Motors and other oil and tire companies, had bought in a total of 46 transit networks. National City ripped up streetcar lines and replaced them with buses, which benefits GM and other oil and tire companies in a longterm by increasing the use of buses. Even though Nation City was only involved in about 10 percent of cases, but it still speeded up the process of the death of streetcars. [12]


In 2001, Portland, Oregon became the first city in North America in more than 50 years to open a new streetcar system.[1] With higher capacity, higher speed and exclusive right-of-way, the modern version of streetcar are normally called the light rail.[13] With modern technologies, light rails provide a more comfortable ride than buses. Light right could provide a higher passenger capacity than buses. Light rail has no gas emission during operation, which is really good for high raise area. Light rails are efficient to support high-density development. Pedestrians are easier to cross the light rail than traffic.[14] With the advantage, the modern light rail had become more and more popular globally. As light rail has to run no the track, once there is a disruption on the track, the light rail has to stop operation. It could take years to lay light rail tracks and causing major disruption to local economies, such as Sydney Light Rail. The initial investment is significantly higher than the buses. A new technology 'Trackless Tram' could overcome these disadvantage of modern light rails. Trackless trams are neither a tram nor a bus, though they have rubber wheels and run on streets. Trackless trams are more cyclist-friendly as no tracks are needed, which eliminate the possibility of cyclist falling over when crossing tracks. Trackless trams have a similar capacity and ride quality as light rails but don't require to build tracks.[15] The Trackless trams' vehicle-based system could interact with an intelligent signal communication feature enabling priority pass at traffic lights just like modern light rails. With the low construction and maintenance cost, trackless trams are expected to become more and more popular in the near future.[16]

Quantitative AnalysisEdit

The 'McGraw Electric Railway Manual - the red book of American street railway investment' was used in order to analyze the lifecycle of streetcars in Washington from 1894 to 1920. It was expected that the total track length forms an S-curve, the S-curve model uses the three-parameter equation below:



  •   is the status measure (e.g. miles of track)
  •   is time (years)
  •   is the inflection time (year in which   is achieved
  •   is the saturation status level
  •   is a coefficient

Due to and the quality of the historical data, adjustments were made. Only electric streetcars were analyzed in this study. The cities were grouped by metropolitan area, where each metropolitan area is considered as a system. The study was done for the state sum and each metropolitan area.

State SumEdit

State Sum Steetcar Track Length
State Sum Model Results
Variable Description Value
  Saturation Status Level 1700
  Coefficient 0.19628
  R-squared 0.93887
  Inflection Time 1908

Seattle Metropolitan AreaEdit

Seattle Metropolitan Steetcar Track Length
Seattle Metropolitan Area Model Results
Variable Description Value
  Saturation Status Level 1400
  Coefficient 0.14038
  R-squared 0.94588
  Inflection Time 1913

Portland-Vancouver Metropolitan AreaEdit

Portland-Vancouver Metropolitan Steetcar Track Length
Portland-Vancouver Metropolitan Area Model Results
Variable Description Value
  Saturation Status Level 23
  Coefficient 0.18287
  R-squared 0.74190
  Inflection Time 1912

Bellingham Metropolitan AreaEdit

Bellingham Metropolitan Steetcar Track Length
Bellingham Metropolitan Area Model Results
Variable Description Value
  Saturation Status Level 67
  Coefficient 0.06539
  R-squared 0.29178
  Inflection Time 1914

Spokane Metropolitan AreaEdit

Spokane Metropolitan Steetcar Track Length
Spokane Metropolitan Area Model Results
Variable Description Value
  Saturation Status Level 407
  Coefficient 0.34182
  R-squared 0.86133
  Inflection Time 1906

Walla Walla Metropolitan AreaEdit

Walla Metropolitan Steetcar Track Length
Walla Walla Metropolitan Area Model Results
Variable Description Value
  Saturation Status Level 29.5
  Coefficient 0.26417
  R-squared 0.88413
  Inflection Time 1906.275


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  13. "Light rail". Wikipedia. 2020-04-01. Retrieved 2020-04-01. 
  14. "Light Rail - Pros and Cons". Retrieved 2020-04-01. 
  15. Newman, Peter. "Why trackless trams are ready to replace light rail". The Conversation. Retrieved 2020-04-01. 
  16. "Autonomous Rail Rapid Transit". Wikipedia. 2020-03-14. Retrieved 2020-04-01.