Transportation Deployment Casebook/2021/Florida Streetcar

The early historic life-cycle of the Florida streetcar systemEdit

0. IntroductionEdit

Streetcar, or tram/trolley, is a major passenger transport mode in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century urban cities and has become one of the icons of the cities in that time. Now, it can only be seen in a few cities as a heritage railway for tourist attraction or in museums.

First introduced to America in the form of “omnibus”, then after electrification, streetcar networks rapidly expanded in many cities in the United States and peaked in the early 1900s, and then declined after 1930. In Florida, between the period of 1894-1920, 15 urban areas developed streetcar systems.

This article looks into this period of time to provide a detailed life-cycle analysis of the streetcar system in Florida, United States, by conducting both qualitative analysis (US) and quantitative analysis. (dedicated to the state of Florida)

1. Qualitative AnalysisEdit

1.1 Before StreetcarsEdit

Before the invention of streetcars, the most common urban public transport in North American urban cities is horsebus or so-called omnibus driven by horses operating in regular lines in the city, it is regarded as the first kind of public transportation. While other stagecoaches or carriages are mostly private, the enlarged stagecoach adopted a hop-and-go mode. In 1827, the horsebus/omnibus service emerged in New York, operating on Broadway between Posh Bond St and the Battery (Ephemeral New York, 2011). However, despite the success of omnibus, it still can not fully satisfy the needs of public transport in urban areas. The maintenance of horses or other animals and the limited working hours of horses all limited the business. The industrial revolution prompts urban sprawl and population growth in 19th-century cities, which urges an improved service of public transport. To overcome this, omnibus operators were in the look of refinements that helped to cater for the demand, which propelled the invention of the streetcar. Meanwhile, the technology of the railway is advanced by the introduction of metal rail, and the invention of the steam engine provides the building blocks for the invention of the streetcar. From this, two pathways are developed to advance omnibus: elevated rails and locomotives powered. (Schultz)

1.2 Invention and Technology EvolutionEdit

1.2.1 First recognized streetcar in the US

Based on the success of the omnibus, in 1832 John Stephenson introduced the first streetcar to New York. It was still driven by horses but running on a rail laid in the street on The Bowery. This innovative refinement allows streetcars to carry more passengers, increase the travel distance, and make the journey smoother. This improvement led to a rail network that had a larger coverage of the city. (Builders of Wooden Railway Cars, 2006)

1.2.2 Steam-powered streetcar

To substitute the primitive animal power, the steam engine was transplanted from rail locomotive to streetcar and defined as a tram dummy. Certain standards were established to ensure the operation of steam-powered trams will not cause disruption in the urban setting where lots of horses were still on-street. Safety prevention is done by enclosing the wheels, and the engine is confined to decrease the noise. To avoid generating a black fume of smoke, coke instead of coal is used as fuel. And to decrease the disruption of another emission steam, devices such as superheating and condenser were deployed to make it invisible. Despite all these efforts, steam-powered streetcars or steam dummies were hard to popularize due to the underpower issued caused by the limited engine room and the higher operating cost than traditional horse-powered ones. It is gradually replaced by electric power. (Wingler, 2019)

1.2.3 Cable-hauled streetcar

The cable-hauled streetcar is another motive alternation to improve the streetcar at the time. The cable technology has been employed by Andrew Hallidie in mines to transport ores and coals. But the idea of controlling the grip and release of the constantly rolling cable is an innovation that makes it possible to stop at the stations and to be used on streetcars in the city. After being designed by Andrew Hallidie, San Francisco was the first city in the world that owns a cable car. A powerhouse where steam engines are burning coals to provide power to drive the cable. The moving cable was put underground inside a channel, and the streetcar pulls on this cable through slots with the grip. (Cable Car Museum San Francisco) The hilly terrains in San Francisco make it an ideal operating environment for the cable car. However, the downside of the cable car system is the expensive construction cost. Hence, it is only feasible in highly demanded lines. (Schultz)

1.2.4 Elevated railway

The elevated railway is an exclusive track that is elevated above street level for streetcars to operate in order to separate the streetcars and other traffic flows on the street. This method could eliminate the mutual disruption of streetcars and other street users such as horsecars, and pedestrians. While the capacity for streetcars operating in elevated railway is increased, the construction cost also goes up. Therefore, it is only economically possible in major cities such as New York and Chicago. (Schultz)

1.2.5 Electrified streetcar

Electrification is a game-changer in the streetcar market which facilitated the blossom of the streetcar in the US. The first attempt to electrify the streetcar was through the use of batteries by Thomas Davenport in 1835. But the short range of this type of electric power tram limits its practicality. Then only after the technology development of dynamo and motor, the electrified streetcar is feasible. In 1888, Frank Sprague constructed the Richmond Union Passenger Railway in Virginia with the technology of electric cars. His streetcar is powered by a mounted motor and collects the needed electricity from the hanging cables with a trolley pole. He further refined his streetcar by his multi-unit control invention, which combined various rolling stocks together as one unit, this inspired today's subway. His streetcar system came out as a huge success which soon spread all over the US, in 12 years time, the electric streetcar took over almost the entire streetcar market. (Streetcars in The USA (Trains): Definition & history)

Originating from the omnibus, the evolution of streetcars took around a century. From driven by animals such as horses and mules to powered by electricity. The evolution of streetcars also reflects the industrialisation of 19th-century cities. Engineers from different fields propelled the evolution of streetcars with various technology and improved them from different pathways. To improve the operating environment, steel tracks are laid and elevated railways are built. To find the best power unit, several attempts are made such as steam-powered, cable-hauled, battery-powered, gas-powered, and then electrified streetcar turns out to be the optimal solution.

1.3 Market developmentEdit

The early market niche of the streetcar system is discovered by the omnibus system. After industrialisation, urban populations fastly grew, and the urban sprawl separated and increased the distance of the industrial/business zone and residential zone. A public transport mode that can be economically practical for passengers to conduct their daily intra-urban trips was in great need.  The emergence of the omnibus in New York in 1827, filled the blank of mass public transport and changed the lifestyle of many middle-class people in New York City. And then the first streetcar opened five years later in the same city, the metal rail allowing the horse-pulled car to carry more people thus increasing the supply of streetcar. The streetcar network was also expanded in the city. The later technology improvement on the motive parts such as steam engine and cable also increased the capacity, working hours, and speed of streetcar, which furtherly increased the supply of streetcar systems. However, only routes in major cities that have great demand can match the supply due to the expensive construction cost of these systems. Hence, these systems only expand the streetcar markets in major cities such as New York, and Chicago. It is not until the late 19th century after the electrification of the streetcar system, the streetcar market finds its revolutionary change. The electrified streetcar is not only quieter, cleaner, more efficient than the other old streetcar systems, which makes it the most ideal to operate in the urban area, but also more economically practical. More routes that have less demand can be covered in the streetcar network, and more people can use the streetcar service because of the lower fare cost. Furthermore, more cities that own a smaller population now are economically feasible to develop streetcars. This advancement of the streetcar system also shapes the way urban cities grow, people now can live further away from the city centre.

1.4 Policy and Growth of the ModeEdit

Sprague’s great invention in 1888 marks the wild growth of the electric streetcar, in around a decade, 15,000 miles of track was laid and took over the entire market share of the streetcar system. (Streetcars in The USA (Trains): Definition & history)

And the annual patronage rapidly increased from two billion to five billion, which is a 250% increase in the period of 1890-1905. (Young, 2015)

In those days, the streetcar was a very profitable industry owned by private investors such as streetcar builders, private bankers and so on. And later the improved accessibility which could raise the land value got real-estate developers interested in investing streetcar business. At the raising phase of streetcars, all streetcar systems no matter cable-driven, steam-powered or electrified require a large amount of upfront investment to build the infrastructure. To scale up the investment return, these streetcar owners turned into “traction magnets” that developed monopolies on the streetcar network in each city. Some monopolies were achieved by contracting with the local government and becoming municipal franchises. The contract with governments often included terms such as constant fare price, the obligation of maintaining trackside pavements.

This kind of business model foreshadowed the fading of the streetcar in the later competition of automobiles. (Stromberg, 2015)

1.5 Development at the mature phase and revival.Edit

The development of streetcars started to slow down in the 1910s and go downslope in the 1920s, which is the time that automobiles became common. The strong competition from automobiles was reflected in the drop in ridership. The inflation from 1910 forced street companies to reduce investment due to the raised raw-material cost, labour cost, and maintenance cost. And even worse, many franchises can’t adjust the fare price due to the constant fare rate agreement with the governments. And based on the fact that since the invention, the streetcar has been mostly a private sector instead of public, and it was perceived as an often corrupted business with the government, hence no subsidy or support from the public side was provided. And after the development of economics and mass transport, the market was rather mature and demanding better services from different user groups. All these factors contributed to the decades-long decline of streetcars. After the introduction of automobiles in the 1920s, automobiles, in comparison to streetcars, provided much higher mobility and degree of freedom, and they did not need to pay any fees for using the road. And politics also impacted the streetcars cruelly. In 1924, an official policy of buses over streetcars was established, despite the given technical facts that streetcar might be more advantageous than the bus in easing congestion and solving other urban transport issues. After 1924 even the streetcar companies shifted to buses because of the flexibility of buses and the cheaper investment in the bus fleet, and another important reason is that it is regarded as a way to bypass the fixed fare rule and the pavement maintenance obligation. (Schrag, 2000). The great depression in the 1920s accelerated these transitions. Then during World War II, streetcar ridership reached its highest ridership record in history due to fuel control, and the halt in automobile and tires production. Yet this can not save streetcar transit from its doom, instead, it strengthened the public’s determination to own an automobile due to the horrible travel experience on crowded streetcars. The government took over the streetcar business in the 1950s but failed to recover. (Young, 2015).  Meanwhile, all government levels were prioritizing motorways in urban planning, which promoted the automobile mode (Stromberg, 2015).

Barely any street system survived today, and the ones do mostly serve as heritage trolleys that attract tourists and remain as a symbol of city history.

After the subsidy by the federal government, collaborations between city mayors and railway companies started to happen. And in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson established the Urban Mass Transportation Act (UMTA) which allows the federal government to invest in transit projects for the value of up to two-thirds of the total project cost. Using the fund provided by the federal government, local cities started the wave of buying up private systems. When it comes to the 1970s, the growing concern of the environmental impact of automobiles, and the revisiting the priority of cars, roads in urban design enlightens the new vision of mass transit. (Young, 2015)

Since the 1980s the streetcar is making a comeback in some cities in a slightly new form, “Light Rail Transit” to tackle the urban transport issues again and compete with automobiles again on this same battlefield. Thanks to its cleaner energy, quiet operation, and high capacity. Light rail is adopted by many cites to be the solution for urban congestion, motor vehicle pollution and a favourable option of urban mobility.

2. Quantitative AnalysisEdit

A quantitative analysis has been conducted to evaluate the life-cycle of streetcar systems in Florida. The analysis period is from 1894 to 1920. In this period of time, 14 streetcar systems in various urban areas in Florida had been developed. Among these systems, there were horse-pulled tracks in small population areas such as Fernandina, Fort Meade, Daytona, Palatka, Orlando. And in major urban areas such as Jacksonville, Pensacola, and Tempa electrified streetcar networks were developed.

2.1 Data SourceEdit

The data input for this analysis (Track Miles) is extracted from “Mcgraw Electric Railway Manual: The Red Book Of American Street Railway Investment 1894 - 1920”.

2.2 MethodologyEdit

To distinguish the four different phases: birthing, growth, and maturity, S-curve is used to fit the data. The S-curve is a logistic function that contains three parameters: S(t) reflects the status in this case the track miles, t is the year, and t0 is the year when 1/2k(half of the total market size), K which is the total developed market size, and b is the coefficient.

S(t) = K/[1+exp(-b(t-t0)]

To perform the regression analysis that finds the best-fit K value, the above function is derived into this linear form:

Y = bX + c


Y = LN(Track/(K-Track Miles))

X = Year

b is the intercept

c is the constant

K values are assumed based on the final year market size (Track Miles). After linear regression analysis, the best-fit K value (which owns the highest R-square value) is picked, and the coefficients of b and c are then calculated. (Garrison & Levinson, 2006)

2.3 ResultsEdit

Jacksonville Streetcar track miles 1894-1920 S-curve


Variable Value
S_max 64.143
b 0.153980933
K 70
t_i 1907.672764


The prediction has a good fit. The prediction plot reflects the overall trend, and only some discrepancies at the birthing and mature phase.


Tampa Streetcar track miles 1894-1920 S-curve
Variable Value
S_max 53.66
b 0.183541751
K 55
t_i 1902.755715


The prediction has a good fit, with several major discrepancies at the birthing and sudden increase at 1907, but accurately reflects the overall trend.


Pensacola Streetcar track miles 1894-1920 S-curve
Variable Value
S_max 21.68
b 0.111602711
K 22
t_i 1886.179591


The prediction has a good fit.

St. Augustine

St. Augustine Streetcar track miles 1894-1920 S-curve
Variable Value
S_max 10.5
b 0.013449074
K 13
t_i 1820.781762


The prediction does not fit with the record data that well, possible reason for this is maybe the St. Augustine is already in a mature phase, the track mile is in stagnation, hence the s-curve can not fit too well.

St. Petersburg Streetcar track miles 1894-1920 S-curve

St. Petersburg

Variable Value
S_max 46.11
b 0.320950045
K 50
t_i 1915.075969


The prediction fits okay, with some discrepancy at the growth phase, but converges with the recorded data at the mature phase. Possible reason for the discrepancy is the insufficient record years.

Key West

Key West Streetcar track miles 1894-1920 S-curve
Variable Value
S_max 7.1
b 0.007275486
K 15
t_i 1893.502926


The prediction has a bad fit, possible reason is that the Key West system is quite extreme: mainly in stagnant phase stays at five miles and then a sudden increase at 1907, then back to five miles. S-curve can not fit into this untypical development mode just like the St. Augustine scenario.

2.4 ConclusionEdit

The development of streetcar systems in Florida generally accords with the entire US trend, especially in the major urban regions with track networks that have more than 50 miles, such as Jacksonville and Tampa. And in the cities that have relatively small streetcar networks - track miles less than 20 miles, and small populations such as Key West, St Augustine. The streetcar systems were less in accord with nationwide trends, and more catered to the local special needs such as tourism/sightseeing.

By the US nation trend, it means after the “birthing phase” in the 1890s, the streetcar networks in all major urban cities in the nation entered the rapid growth phase after electrification. And till World War, I in 1914, and the generalization of automobiles, the streetcars systems in Florida entered the mature phase and slowed down in growth rate. Then by the end of 1920, most of these streetcars except Tampa, and Jacksonville all went into a slow decline.  

3. ReferenceEdit

Garrison, W. L., & Levinson, D. M. (2006). The transportation experience: Policy, planning, and deployment. New York: Oxford University Press.

How cable cars work. (n.d.). Retrieved March 22, 2021, from

How New YORKERS commuted to work in 1830. (2011, October 27). Retrieved March 22, 2021, from

John Stephenson car Co. - page 3. (2006, April 11). Retrieved March 22, 2021, from

Schrag, Z. M. (2000, January). The bus is young and honest. Retrieved March 23, 2021, from

Schultz, C. (n.d.). Trolley: The cars that built our cities - narration script. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from

Streetcars in The USA (Trains): Definition & history. (n.d.). Retrieved March 22, 2021, from

Stromberg, J. (2015, May 07). The real story behind the demise of AMERICA'S once-mighty streetcars. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from

Wingler, F. A. (2019, September). From the 1832 Horse pulled Tramway to 21th Century Light Rail Transit/Light Metro Rail - a short History of the Evolution in Pictures. Retrieved March 23, 2021, from

Young, J. (2015, March 02). Infrastructure: Mass transit IN 19th- and 20th-Century Urban America. Retrieved March 22, 2021, from