Transportation Deployment Casebook/2021/Kentucky Streetcar

Streetcar refers to vehicles that drive on the streets. In most cases, the purpose of a Streetcar's operation is to ensure the short-distance circulation of people in the city and optimized vehicles and infrastructure. In general, the streetcar routes run on shared lanes, while some streetcar runs on isolated streets. Since the American Civil War, streetcars' appearance has provided many urban residents with a fast and efficient way of transporting from one place to another [1].People living in North America call streetcar "trolley" instead of "tram" (the European name), and this first came from the street railway opened by Sprague in Richmond, and it quickly expanded throughout North America[2].

Technological Characteristics and Main MarketEdit

The power supply system of streetcars usually requires overhead contact nets and electric motors. It is necessary to lay fixed tracks on the ground to for streetcars to move. This kind of transportation system is usually classified as the light rail transportation system. In the period after 1888, many cities mainly used electricity to drive streetcars. Electricity was mainly obtained by installing a wire above the street connecting a long pole that could touch a streetcar's roof. The wire would be connected to the electrical grid with the power generator driven by the steam engine. This in turn would provide electricity for the streetcar.[3]

The rise of the streetcar was closely related to the process of urbanization. People living in cities gradually found that their places of residence are far away from their workplaces. This also made these places inaccessible on foot. Therefore, the emergence of streetcar increased the travel accessibility at that time. Some real estate developers constructed suburbs near the streetcar lines. The streetcar system's rapid growth enabled more and more people to live outside the city and commute to and from get off work every day.

Compression and evolution of other ModesEdit

Until the 1830s, the only mode of transportation for most people was by walking. Around that period, transportation by horse-drawn carriages was no longer the privilege of the rich, and the more and more middle class began to use omnibuses. The number of people commuting to and from getting off work using this transportation system increased, leading to cities' expansion[4]. From the 1820s to 1880, the horse-drawn omnibus in North America's urban traffic began to operate on various cities' streets. The speed was only a few miles per hour[3].

The horsecar was a significant improvement to the omnibus. Although horses towed the original streetcar, the new design allowed the horsecar to roll along a fixed rail located in the street's center. The advantage of this design was that it ran on the rail. The steel wheels had less energy loss than the wooden wheel driving on ordinary roads. This allowed a horse to pull a larger streetcar and carry more passengers. At that time, horsecar's passenger capacity was about three times that of the omnibus. The experience of passengers using horsecar was often more comfortable than that of the omnibus. Besides, the lower operating cost of horsecar also brought cheaper transportation expenses for passengers (usually using horsecar was 5 cents, while using omnibus was 12 cents)[5]. However, there were still a lot of problems with horsecar. The main reason was that any animal could only work in a given period. At the same time, horses needed to eat a lot of feed, and the average working life was less than 5 years[6].

Since 1873, to find a streetcar system that can effectively replace the horsecar, the first cable car was successfully tested in San Francisco. Since then, the cable car became a means of transportation. A moving steel cable pulled the cable car and followed a fixed track. The cable car was cheaper and more stable than the horse car, but it was also a defect because the cable always had the risk of breaking, and the repair and replacement was also a complicated and expensive process. The innovation of streetcar power didn't stop. After many tests and experiments, Frank Julian Sprague successfully used electricity as a power source in the 1880s and completely changed the entire streetcar market. This was the first time that electricity was successfully used on a large scale to run the whole city's streetcar system. This mainly relied on providing power at a "power" site far away from the actual vehicle. However, some new cable car lines were still being planned. But by 1890, electric railways that were cheaper to build and more straightforward to operate began to become the norm. It was estimated that the cost of constructing a cable car line was twice that of a trolley, and the cost of operating a cable car line was six times that of a streetcar[5].

Invention of StreetcarEdit

From the 1840s, there was the idea of moving vehicles by electric current. Still, there was no practical way to generate enough electricity, and experiments to use battery power have also failed in terms of feasibility[5]. In the end, Frank Julian Sprague (1857-1934) successfully applied the power system to the streetcar. It is worth mentioning that he had excellent achievements in both vertical and horizontal transportation. As early as October 4, 1881, Sprague got his first patent," electric motor, "and applied to show it at the famous Paris Electric Exhibition, but it was rejected[7]. While working at Edison, Sprague assisted Edison in installing and operating three-wire electric light systems. Because he was dissatisfied with Edison's focus on electric lighting development, Sprague was interested in electricity. About a year later, Sprague resigned from the Edison company the following year and founded Sprague Electric Railway & Motor Company in 1884[8].

He then showed his engine for the first time at the International Electric exhibition in Philadelphia. This kind of generator could constantly work for a long time and ran under different loads. By 1886, two inventions of Sprague's company laid the foundation for the large-scale electric railways in the future. They were a fixed constant speed non-sparking motor and a regenerative brake to regenerate electricity or return it to electric drive equipment's main supply system. This design was different from the traditional braking system. In the traditional braking system, the excess kinetic energy was converted into excess heat or waste due to the brake's friction. However, during the braking process, the connection mode of the traction motor would change[9].

Early Market DevelopmentEdit

In 1880, less than 30% of Americans lived in urban environments. Still, when the First World War broke out, this number jumped to at least 50% as industrial jobs attracted immigrant labor and the country's rural population into cities[10]. In 1890, streetcar lines began to promote suburban development in cities of all sizes. In some older cities, electric railways were rapidly replacing horse-drawn carriages, making it possible to extend transportation lines outward and greatly expanded land availability for residential development. Development took place first in remote villages connected by streetcars and, second, in new residential corridors along the streetcar lines.

For the middle class of LexingtonEdit

Lexington was a walking city in 1800. Most of the urban population lived within a mile or two of the city centers, making it difficult for people living in the surrounding countryside to reach the city. Lexington's first effort at mass transit in the town was completed in 1874 when two omnibuses slowly made their way between Woodland Park and Main Street's cemetery. With the emergence of the street railway, the city's expansion accelerated, especially for the middle class to migrate to the periphery. Because ordinary railways were not in the city's core area, streetcars' construction provided citizens with a convenient way to travel to and from their workplaces[11].

For Louisville Southern ExpositionEdit

In 1854, Alfred Victor DuPont and Biderman moved to Louisville in search of wealth in the expanding American West. They invested in various businesses, but they bought a mule-drawn tram line in 1866, thus forming a regional trolley system[12]. On August 1, 1883, the Southern Exposition was organized by President Chester A. Arthur, which ended in 1887 four years later. An electric railway took tourists to the Expo site and Central Park. After this, Louisville had one of the best tram systems in the country, and the number of street railroads was at least twice that of other cities of the same size[13]. By 1890, most streetcars were electric and operated by an operator, the Louisville Railway Company. The streetcar ran through the city, connected with the intercity line, and extended to the suburbs such as Jeffersontown, Okolona, Valley Station, and even Shelbyville to go through the city center and nearby neighborhood[14].

Birth Phase PolicyEdit

Because the streetcar system had a significant impact on urban development, the population living was no longer confined to the city center; people could live in quiet places outside the commercial center, the so-called "streetcar suburbs,"[15] and the management needs to be improved on the original track. But it was still supported by the municipal government and experts.

Under normal circumstances, streetcar companies might obtain franchise rights from the municipality to operate the system within the street right of way. The city's franchise structure was different but depending on the city's current income percentage or fixed amount, most payments to the town may be a one-time payment or an annual payment. These franchises usually contained requirements that the streetcar company must follow to obtain contracts, including track and street maintenance or fixed fares (such as 5 cents)[10][16]

Growth PhaseEdit

After the Civil War, streetcar services throughout the United States developed rapidly. Before the Civil War, the population in many areas of the south did not have the population to maintain the streetcar system's operation and therefore began to industrialize to a greater degree. This industrialization led to population growth in southern urban communities and was closely followed by trams' development[10].

The Rise of Interurban lineEdit

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were nearly 100 tram stations in the Louisville area. At the same time, an elevated station about 60 feet high was built in the city. This streetcar system was called the "sky station." The streetcar ran on these elevated lines. What followed was the rise of interurban lines. This system mainly operated between cities through streetcar and took passengers to rural areas around the city[14]. In some areas, interurban lines competed with the regular passenger service on main railways or had interchanges with steam-powered railroads. This kind of system were less expensive, more frequent, than steam railroads. Simultaneously, Lexington's streetcar system connected Lexington with the bluegrass area of central Kentucky and connected with Louisville, Ohio, Indiana, and the entire Midwest[11]. The desire to establish the interurban line was to promote the convenient transportation of people and goods. There was another reason: The interurban "increases the value of agricultural land, the main reason is that, unlike steam railway, the interurban line can stop at locations in the countryside[17].

Roles of private sectorEdit

At the same time, the widespread use of Streetcar was affected by the development of the real estate. This increases the value of the real estate in the city and suburbs. Therefore, the urbanization process and streetcars of Lexington during that period are closely related, and the street railway construction in Lexington was inspired by real estate development. The most typical example is that the Belt Land Company's development of real estate around the city prompted the Belt Railway Company's establishment in April 1889. The "Belt Railroad" surrounding the city is the central part of the company's plan to develop the city's outer areas by first connecting various railroads into Lexington[11].

Policy issues: Fixed fare challengeEdit

In Lexington, Streetcar company officials rarely raised fares but rely on increasing passenger numbers for profit. Streetcar's fare was sold to customers for 5 cents each. This price remained until 1917. The main reason is that real estate speculators know that streetcar services can enhance the value of the land. Streetcar companies held real estate rights in urban fringe areas, and even if the routes themselves are not profitable, they were connected by streetcars to stimulate development[11].

In the first 30 years of streetcar service, the low fare mainly relied on passenger traffic's rapid growth to ensure considerable profits. However, the gradual increase in fares after 1917 highlighted the company's executives' concerns about rising costs, and the equipment itself proved to be a huge expense. The issue of ticket prices also appeared in 1918. Due to wartime inflation, KT&T and the Frankfort City Council had a ticket dispute, and KT&T tried to increase the ticket price to $0.06. Finally, the city council only approved a one-cent increase because KT&T threatened to stop the service[17].

The mature phase and decline phaseEdit

However, with the advent of the twentieth century, the city witnessed the over-saturation of streetcars. By 1917 the country's electric streetcar track peaked at approximately 26,000 miles of trackage across the country[10]. However, With Henry Ford's development of a moving assembly line, more and more Americans could afford to start a car. City streets are becoming more and more crowded because cars and streetcars were competing for the market. This difficulty became more serious during the Great Depression. The excessive extension of the streetcar system, the competition of motor vehicles and the burden of railways in other towns, the financial problems caused by original franchise terms all led to the collapse of the electric railway system. The streetcar company was required to pay taxes and pay additional fees to maintain and pave the streets, making the originally difficult financial problems even more serious. While company officials were considering addressing financial concerns,they were also forced to deal with the growing labour shortage[11]. In July 1913, local K T&T drivers went on strike, and riots followed[17].

Another problem came from jitneys, which were privately operated vehicles looking for potential customers. In particular, it can freely let passengers get off at a place closer to the destination, and the cost was much less than that of a streetcar. Although it had only existed for some time and was stopped by the court because it had no right to operate, it still impacted the entire market[18]. The technological novelty also played a role. Due to technological innovations, the Louisville Railway Company began to use more flexible buses[19]. This was mainly because the bus system didn't need to maintain costly tracks and freely changed routes and dealt with obstacles, followed by electric trolley coaches and feeder Bus lines were established in the city[20]. At the same time, as the country became more and more obsessed with cars, streetcars were also eliminated.


Although many cities have successfully planned light rails and built commercial and residential areas along the routes, sufficient population density is required to drive this type of transit-oriented development. Even Louisville, the largest city in Kentucky, can hardly meet this requirement because most areas have less than 10 people in the census. It is difficult to build a new light railway under low population density, so developing a modern streetcar system with the cheaper investment will be a very effective solution. This will again become a way to stimulate economic development and release economic development signals and promote pedestrian communities. At the same time, it will help the surrounding commercial development because the shop knows that the streetcar line will not change the route like the bus line[21][22].At the same time, compared to buses, modern streetcars can solve the congestion problem in urban commercial areas and improve air quality. This is mainly due to the large capacity of streetcars and the lack of diesel[23].The high cost is still a fatal obstacle to the streetcar development model[24], but from a politician's perspective, this model should first be seen as a driver for urban commerce and secondly as a link to traffic, which generates considerable taxes through the development of the city. It is one of the driving forces of this model.

Quantitative AnalysisEdit

The total length of the entire Kentucky Streetcar line is recorded according to McGraw Electric Railway Manual-the red book of American street railway investment'. In predicting the total mileage of the streetcar, it is necessary to find a suitable model. The S curve is mainly used here to predict the entire system. First, the S curve formula is met by finding a suitable saturation status. This mainly uses the excel table for trial and error to perform linear regression to meet the K value with the expected R -squared to satisfy the establishment of the formula. And the estimated value is shown in the table below. The value of the coefficient of determination is between 0 and 1. Although the larger the value, the higher the degree of the fitting. However, since the streetcar's total mile has a downward trend over a period of time, only the growth period data is used here for the simulation. The K value is slightly larger than the maximum track miles.The formulas required for the model are documented in the following formulas.


Kentucky state Streetcar from 1894-1920
Table of parameters of the whole state
Parameter Value
Smax 600 miles
b 0.174928
ti 1904.074
R2 0.908898


  • S(t) is the status measure, (e.g. Passenger-km traveled)
  • t is time (usually in years),
  • ti is the inflection time (year in which 1/2 Smax is achieved),
  • Smax is saturation status level
  • b is a coefficient to be estimated

From the data, it can be seen that the streetcars of entire Kentucky increased steadily from 1895 to 1915. This was mainly due to the rise of the interurban line and the acceleration of the entire Kentucky state's urbanisation process. However, as it approached 1915, streetcar reached a saturated market, mainly because of high operating costs and, with , streetcars gradually began to be rolled out across the state market.The value of R square is 0.9, which indicates that the model can fit well.From the S curve, it can be seen that the birthing phase was before 1900, and the growth phase was from 1900 to 1910. This period was also in line with the construction time of the interurban line.With wartime inflation and increasing operating costs, the streetcar market entered the maturity phase after 1910, and eventually the streetcar market reached saturation in 1915 and began to decline.


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