Transportation Deployment Casebook/2021/Michigan


Streetcar, also called tram or trolley, vehicle that runs on track laid in the streets, operated usually in single units and usually driven by electric motor power by an overhead wire[1]. The streetcar network was mainly providing local public transportation within cities. Originally streetcar was powered by horses and mule and only able to operate at few mile-per-hour. In the late 1880s, electric motor powered by a small battery was introduced to replace horses and mule that completely changed to mode of transportation. Electric streetcars were cheaper, cleaner, and more efficient than animals[2], less time and money were spent on maintaining the condition of horses, streetcar companies no longer had to put effort on manure produced by horses. With the more effective streetcar system, local populations in Michigan were able to commute within local cities and even further to neighbouring states as the technology and system network improved. The streetcar network aided the economy growth as people can travel longer distance.

Before streetcars and their limitationsEdit

Prior to the introduction of electric streetcars, omnibus is the main transportation methods in the United States. From the end of 1820s, house-drawn omnibus started to serve in New York City. Horses could only work for limited hours a day, and lots of daily maintenance were required to keep horses in a good condition, such as grooming, feeding, and caring. Horse-powered omnibus had many drawbacks and limitations. Horses required lots of maintenance which is time consuming and not cost effective, around $125-$200 per horse[2]. The life expectancy of horses was short. The omnibus company also had to take care of the large amounts of manure produced from the horses, which was also time consuming and ineffective. In the 1860s, omnibus was put onto rails instead of operating on road with the advent of mass-produced steel at that period. Same horses can handle as much as 10 times more passengers than before. However, this was still not quite effective as the same time and cost still required for horse maintenance.

Horse-powered omnibus


Detroit is the largest and most-populous city in Michigan. Before Detroit’s first horse drawn rail cars in 1863, omnibus and horse-powered cabs were used mainly for connecting railroad depots and boat docks. The privately owned Detroit City Railway Co. began with eight horse-drawn cars operating along Jefferson. The fare was five cents. The lines would soon expand to Woodward, Gratiot and Michigan avenues. Above, horses pull a streetcar down Woodward at Campus Martius, circa 1885[3]. By 1880, the city population had grown to 116,340[3]. The streetcar network was rapidly increasing with the population growth, the network kept expanding to reach more places. However, longer routes were more expensive to maintain using horses as they could only work for limited hours. It often required 10 horses for each streetcar. This transportation mode was becoming more inefficient with the expansion of streetcar network.

Birthing Phase and conflictsEdit

In 1886, the first electric streetcars began operating in Detroit. The line went along the Dix Avenue (now known as West Vernor) from 24th Street to Livernois Avenue. The line was operated by Detroit Electric Railway Company with the electrical system developed by Charles J. Van Depoele[4]. The system utilized double overhead wires where a train up to three cars was capable to be pulled. Although the system was quite successful all across the United States, there were some opposition by the public of Detroit had concerns on the objectionable rumbling noises and electric arching system. The Detroit Common Council had ordered to withdrawn electric streetcars in 1889 and the first electric streetcar line had converted back to horse-powered streetcars.

Detroit’s second electric streetcar line began service at a similar time, operated by the Highland Park Railway Company. Passengers could travel from Highland Park to Baltimore Avenue and make connections with the Woodward horse-powered streetcar line. The Highland Park line originally operated with a slotted third rail type system, and converted to an overhead trolley operation later on n 1889.

As American cities were walking cities[5] in the 19th century, that means most of the residents were commute on foot, they worked and shopped only within walking distance to their home. However, as electric streetcars were introduced in the 1880s, people had the opportunities to travel further away from home, which changed people’s daily life. Some decided to move new trolley suburbs.

Growth PhaseEdit

As the technology of overhead electric trolley operation became mature, the use of electric powered streetcar system was more popular. The Detroit Citizens’ Street Railway decided to electrify 50% of its streetcar system[6]. In 1892, the electric streetcars could finally begin to operate the city-base line on Jefferson Avenue. The Woodward Avenue line and Mack Avenue line had converted to electric streetcar system. Other non-electric streetcar lines were slowly converted into electric streetcar system. The three electric streetcar line had begun 24-hour service to provide non-stop service for local population in Detroit.  At the beginning of 1893, a smaller, independent Fort Wayne and Belle Isle Railway had completely converted to electric operation. The last horse-powered streetcar was removed in 1895.

Mature and Decline of streetcarEdit

Electric streetcars in Detroit, Michigan

In the early 1900s, streetcars were the main transport network that filled the national needs, over 45,000 miles of streetcar tracks were built with millions of passengers[5]. However, with the limitations of streetcar system, choice of consumers, and government policies and alternative developments, streetcars in Michigan and the entire country had started to diminish. Buses started to replace streetcars in the 1910s. Buses had a big improvement that provided a modern and more comfortable ride for commuters. They were more flexible and cheaper to operate compared to streetcars. Many automotive and oil companies were interested in encouraging the conversion from streetcar to bus. In 1937, around 50% of the country had buses as their only public transit[5].

Another reason that caused the decline of streetcar was the birth of automotive. People had more options on commuting and didn’t have to rely on streetcars. As more cars were on the road, they could drive on streetcar tracks, and the streetcar system could no longer be efficient as the road wasn’t designed for both cars and streetcars on the road as the same time.

Many streetcars’ contracts required to maintain the pavement surrounding the tracks. Those contracts had permanently locked the fare of taking streetcars, which is 5-cents[7]. With the new commuting alternatives such as cars and buses and couldn’t increase the fare, streetcar companies had faced a very difficult situation. Those companies went into bankruptcy, which forced them to cut the service further pushing people to commute with buses and cars. Some companies had started to invest into buses, which leaded to the death of streetcars.

Quantitative Analysis of the Michigan Streetcar NetworkEdit

The length (miles) of the streetcar system of Michigan from 1894 to 1920 was recorded from McGraw Electric Railway Manual – the red book of American Street Railway Investments[8]. Table 1 below is the actual and predicted length of tracks in Michigan.

Table 1. Length of Tracks in Michigan
Year Actual Length of Tracks (Miles) Predicted Length of Tracks (Miles)
1894 325.95 305
1897 360.45 506
1898 491.95 589
1899 602.43 677
1900 696.92 771
1901 865.42 868
1902 1113.12 966
1903 1166.43 1061
1904 1372.71 1154
1905 1282.91 1241
1906 1530.22 1321
1907 1532.49 1393
1908 1513.764 1457
1909 1410.29 1514
1910 1480.741 1562
1911 1594.098 1603
1912 1533.552 1638
1913 1551.764 1667
1914 1632.232 1692
1917 1711.4322 1742
1918 1781.76 1753
1919 1766.117 1762
1920 1772.417 1769


The data can be estimated a three-parameter logistic function:

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


S(t) is the status measure,  (e.g. Miles of Tracks)

t is time (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

Figure 1 below is the actual and predicted track length of Michigan's streetcar network.

Miles of Track of Michigan's Streetcar Network from 1894 to 2020

Table 2 below is the variables that estimate the accuracy of the model. The R square value is 0.9329, which can prove the model is quite accuracy as the R square value is high than 0.9.

Table2. Accuracy of the model
Variable Value
Smax 1800
b 0.216954
R square 0.932943
ti 1902

Based on the graph, the three life cycle phases can be divided as:

Birthing phases: 1880-1900

Growth development: 1901-1909

Maturity: 1909-


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. streetcar | Facts, History, & Development. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].
  2. a b 2021. Streetcars In The USA (Trains): Definition & History. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].
  3. a b 2017. Before the QLine: Detroit's streetcar history. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].
  4. Detroit Transit History. 2006. THE EARLY HISTORY OF PUBLIC TRANSIT IN DETROIT (1863 – 1890). [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].
  5. a b c National Museum of American History. 2021. A Streetcar City. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].
  6. 2006. DETROIT TRANSIT HISTORY: The Pingree Years (1890-1900). [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].
  7. Stromberg, J., 2015. The real story behind the demise of America's once-mighty streetcars. [online] Vox. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 March 2021].
  8. 1894-1920. McGraw Electric Railway Manual – the red book of American Street Railway Investments. New York: McGraw-Hill Company, Inc.