Transportation Deployment Casebook/2021/Wisconsin Streetcar

Streetcar in U.S.Edit

Streetcar (tram), also called as trolley, in the United States is defined as an electrified vehicle of that travels on rails, which the streetcar system was used or still using in the mid-sized to large cities in the United States. Early streetcars were either drawn by horse or depend on batteries which are expensive. The horse-drawn streetcar made its first appearance in the United States on the street of downtown New York in 1832. In 1873, Andrew Hallidie invented and introduced the cable car in San Francisco, in which the streetcars were operated on an endless cabler that ran between the rails and passing over a steam-driven shaft in the powerhouse.[1] In 1886, the first electric streetcar in Wisconsin ran on the streets of Appleton.

Invention of StreetcarEdit

Frank Julian Sprague was the father of electric traction, who contributed to the development of electric railways. He developed the first electric motor for trolley systems in the late 1800s, which the motor he developed was the only practical and reliable motor at that time. Unlike Edison showed his interest in the electric light, Sprague turned his attention to the field of electric motor. At that time, the electric streetcar showed a more significant impact on people's lives than the electric light, since almost all the blue-collar workers need to take the streetcar to work while only rich people were able to afford electric light. Sprague first created a constant-speed, nonsparking motor with fixed brushes, then he developed the method to regenerate the power to the main supply systems of electric-motor-driven equipment, which widely used for interchange of energy in elevator groups. After that, Sprague improved the motor into a motor with three-point, wheelbarrow suspension of axle-mounted geared, which soon been widely used for an electric streetcar system in the US and overseas. [2][3]

Advantages and Comparison with Other ModesEdit

Before introducing the electric streetcar into the market, there were other mass transit modes that existed. Omnibus was one of the options, which the omnibus an animal-powered four-wheeled carriage (usually horse). The capacity and efficiency of omnibuses depend on the size of the carriage, however, even the largest omnibus can only carry twenty passengers. Although the omnibus was one of the most significant innovations in the Industrial Revolution, it was still soon replaced by streetcar and steam locomotive.[4] Trolleybus system was another of the options, which trolleybus also powered by electricity but they operated with tires on the street. Some cities in the United States, including Los Angelos, Atlanta, Chicago, etc, installed the trolley system, but soon replaced by buses.[5] Compare to other modes of transit, streetcars do have their advantages, which they provide a smoother ride, carry more passengers, and also run on clean energy. Besides the boost in passenger capacity, the cheapness of electric streetcar was another major reason why streetcar was popular in the U.S. According to the article posted on Scientific American in 1899, the operation cost per mile for the electric streetcar was 10.06 cents, which was 7-8 cents cheaper than the operating cost per mile of horse-drawn or cable streetcar.[6]

Development of Streetcar MarketEdit

The market of the streetcar system grew rapidly during the early 1900s due to expanding population in the cities. Real estate developers would build streetcar lines to promote a new suburban community, and residents would willing to move to a new suburb with streetcar system. With the establishment of streetcar, people's daily life patterns have changed, which people can travel greater distances to work and shop in the city. In Washington, the streetcar system connected the largest public market with suburb areas, which allowed local citizens to get access to a variety of local or overseas products and also helped for boosting the local economy. By 1917, there were 45,000 miles of streetcar track built in the country, and millions of streetcar passengers.[7]

The same development pattern showed in Wisconsin as well, between 1886-1888, there were only horse-drawn streetcars available in a few of Wisconsin's cities. After several years, with the construction of central power plants across Wisconsin, the market of streetcar keep growing in the state. New streetcar systems were established in multiple cities in the state, including Eau Claire, Merrill, Milwaukee, Western Superior, Janesville, Madison, La Crosse, Green Bay, Oshkosh, Sheboygan, and Fond du Lac. By the beginning of 1900, all the horse-drawn streetcars were replaced by the electric streetcar. The establishment of streetcar lines also led to the growth of suburbs in Wisconsin, such as Wauwatosa and South Milwaukee in Milwaukee, which contributed to the early formation of centralised downtown.[8][9]


Most of the streetcar companies in the birthing phase were privately owned companies, such as Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Co. The state or city government charged the street companies to regulate their installation of rails. Since each company had its fare system and operated route relate to political relationships, the system leads to the inefficient route which causing long delays and discomfort for commuters[9]

The Lifecycle of StreetcarEdit

Birthing PhaseEdit

In the birthing phase of the streetcar, the streetcars were normally drawn by horses or batteries, which horse-drawn streetcars widely used in the 1880s. In 1834, Thomas Davenport developed a small car operated by a small battery-powered which ran on a short section of track. The streetcar system wasn't developed until the 1860s, which an American, named G.F.Train, opened three lines in London and one line in Birkenhead. Then, the cable streetcar entered the market. The cable streetcar system fit for the operation on steep hills the most and reach the best use in San Francisco and Seattle, which the streetcar system was still been used in these two city. However, cable streetcar was only able to run at a constant speed, and also if breaking or jamming of the cable happened, it will affect all the streetcar. The existence of electrical and cable streetcars eliminated the problem of horse excrement and animal maintenance.[1]

Mature PhaseEdit

From 1890 to 1920, the conventional electric streetcar system started to replace the horse-drawn lines in Europe and the United States, and also showed in the larger cities of Asia, Africa, and South America. By 1901, there are 17 electric railway companies operated 446 miles of track in Wisconsin. The growth of the electric streetcar reached its peak in the 1920s in Wisconsin, just like other American states. The largest growth of track was the Pacific Electric system in Los Angeles, which the network expanded for 1,100 miles and contained more than 700 routes. [9][10]


During WWI, streetcar companies encountered financial difficulties, which the wage and material cost increased. This caused a rise in fare prices. Meanwhile, the wide use of automobiles also hit the streetcar system. Many cities changed to bus systems for public transportation. In the United States, the streetcars began to switch to automobile and buses system in the 1930s, and the trend grew rapidly during 1940-1950. Streetcar systems around the world also declined, which no trams left running in London in the early 50s, and Paris closed its streetcar line in the 1930s.[1] After the second world war, however, most cities in the U.S. abandoned their streetcar system due decline in passengers, an increase in car ownership, and the cost to renew streetcar infrastructure. By 1965, only Toronto and a handful of US cities still operated the streetcar system along with other mass transit modes.[11]

The Renaissance PhaseEdit

The rebirth of the streetcar system in U.S cities started in the late 1980s, which the new lines were mainly used to attract tourists and support downtown redevelopment. In 2001, Portland opened the first new, modern streetcar system in North America, which this system was a strategy for the redevelopment of the central core and inner-city neighborhoods. Many cities soon followed Portland, which cities such as Washington DC, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Detroit also planning or building their system.[11]

Qualitative AnalysisEdit

An analysis of the lifecycle of the streetcar system in Wisconsin includes the following system parameters:

  • Growth Rate
  • Inflection Year
  • Developmental Phase
  • Predicted System Size

Due to the growth of streetcar system in Wisconsin in some of the area doesn't fit the S-Curve and quality of the historical data was questionable, adjustments were made for analysing the parameters mentioned above.

Raw Data of Track LengthEdit

The data of total track length of Wisconsin streetcar system combined the data of 17 cities' electric streetcar track length.

Electric Streetcar Track Length in Wisconsin
Year Track Length(Miles)
1894 258.38
1897 277.22
1899 288.13
1900 373.18
1901 384.08
1902 431.79
1903 449.35
1904 526.4
1905 579.6
1906 541.1
1907 832.26
1908 859.79
1909 886.89
1910 790.19
1911 809.74
1912 774.95
1913 764.45
1914 730.31
1917 747.879
1918 798.088
1919 743.258
1920 752.48

To find the best fitted logistic curve, the data from 1907-1911 were excluded.

The best fitted logistic curve to the mils reported of electric streetcar systems in Wisconsin showed in the following table:

Analysis Results
Parameter Value
S(max) 900
b 0.119117
t(i) 1902
RSQ 0.97

The analysis was generally accurate, however, some unexpected growth of track length has been observed during 1907-1911. This unexpected growth or descend after 1911 might due to combine of the companies during that period of time.


  1. a b c Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Streetcar". Encyclopedia Britannica, 29 Oct. 2018, Accessed 23 March 2021.
  2. "Frank Sprague - Electrical Pioneer". Edisontechcenter.Org, 2013, Accessed 23 March 2021
  3. Whelan, M, and W Kornrumpf. "Trolleys, Light Rail And Subways". Edisontechcenter.Org, 2014, Accessed 23 Mar 2021.
  4. Hepp, John. "Encyclopedia Of Greater Philadelphia | Omnibuses". Philadelphiaencyclopedia.Org, Accessed 23 Mar 2021.
  5. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Trolleybus". Encyclopedia Britannica, 2 Nov. 2015, Accessed 23 March 2021.
  6. "Electric Street Cars Are More Efficient Than Horses". Scientific American, 2015, Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
  7. "A Streetcar City: Washington D.C.". National Museum Of American History, Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
  8. "Mass Transportation In Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society". Wisconsin Historical Society, Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
  9. a b c Smith, Ken. "A Short History Of Milwaukee’S Old Streetcar System". Urban Milwaukee, 2015, Accessed 21 Mar 2021.
  10. "Pacific Electric Railway: Map, History, Photos & Red Cars". American-Rails.Com, Accessed 22 Mar 2021.
  11. a b Marshall, Sean. "Streetcars Of Desire: Why Are American Cities Obsessed With Building Trams?". The Guardian, 2015, Accessed 22 Mar 2021.