Local public transportation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mass public transportation was crucial to the growth of metropolitan areas and of industries employing large numbers of workers. In its heyday (1880-1930), it was also a profitable industry in its own right. Eclipsed by the private automobile since World War II, urban mass transit is slowly making a comeback, as rising energy costs make long auto commutes prohibitively expensive.

Looking from the vantage point of the interconnected early twenty-first century, it is difficult for most Americans to comprehend how limited personal mobility was before the development of railroads. An individual on foot traveled at a maximum sustained rate of four miles per hour. Although people in rural areas generally owned horses, the cost of upkeep in a city made them a luxury for most people. The need to live within close proximity to work made for dense housing and few open spaces. Families of workers in heavy industry suffered from pollution as well as overcrowding. To escape congestion and unhealthful conditions, middle-class men moved their families to more rural areas, rented rooms in town, and reserved the long, costly commute for weekends.Transportation;public

Early Forms

The earliest form of public transportation was the omnibus, a horse-drawn vehicle with cramped seating for twelve to twenty passengers, traveling along a fixed route. A few of these operated in New York as early as 1827. They were quickly supplanted by similar but somewhat larger horse-drawn vehicles on rails. These soon became regular fixtures of large cities. Establishing a rail line required considerable start-up capital, as well as cooperation with city government. In Boston and New York, tension erupted between private vehicle owners, who were accustomed to putting their carriages on sleigh runners when winter set in, and horse car companies, which needed tracks cleared. The car companies won the battle at the expense of undertaking street cleaning as part of their contract. Fares were too high to make this a practicable commuting method for laborers.

Steam-powered ferryboats allowed expansion of urban boundaries along rivers and estuaries. Ferries connected pre-Civil War developments at Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, and Staten Island, New York, to the city. Often, the company providing ferry or rail transport also financed a development, using the availability of inexpensive reliable transportation as a selling point for lots. In the case of Staten Island, a ninety-nine-year lease fixed passenger ferry fares at 5 cents until 1955.

Urban Railways

The growing size of metropolitan areas and the success of steam-powered railroads in inter-city transport of goods and people prompted several avenues of development. Inter-city lines such as the Long Island Rail Road, begun in 1834 as part of a rail-ferry link between New York and Boston, carried some local traffic, which increased as spur lines were built to communities off the trunk line. Civic authorities in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan, who at first welcomed regular railroads downtown, soon discovered that the space requirements, danger to pedestrians, and pollution outweighed any advantages in built-up areas.

The earliest systematic attempts to mechanize urban transit involved Cable carscable cars, with a centralized coal-fired powerhouse operating a massive continuous cable running beneath city streets (or, in the case of New York’s first elevated railway, above them). Installing a cable car system involved enormous capital outlay, running costs were high, and the maximum length of a line was only four miles. After the advent of electric Trolleystrolleys drawing power from an overhead line, cable cars remained in operation only in Seattle and San Francisco, cities with numerous steep hills. On hills, the car uses the cable as a brake on the downhill slope, returning energy to the system.

To avoid congestion at street level, entrepreneurs in New York and Chicago constructed extensive networks of elevated Railroadsrailways, providing rapid transit between areas of the city and extending suburban commuter lines downtown. At first powered by steam locomotives, these were electrified during the 1890’s. Although the “Els” speeded transport and relieved congestion, streets below them were dark and dirty. In 1893, elevated railways in New York City collected one million fares a day (transporting roughly half that number of people). They could also be dangerous. In November, 1918, an inexperienced motorman, filling in during a transit strike, ran an elevated train off the tracks at Marlboro Street Station, killing ninety-three passengers. This disaster underscored the need for greater regulation of an industry that had become absolutely essential to urban life.

Trolley cars near Boston Commons in Boston in the late 1890’s.

(Library of Congress)

London opened the world’s first underground trains, powered by steam locomotives, in 1867. Until trains were electrified, Subwayssubways were grim places from the passengers’ point of view. America’s first subway, a below-ground extension of surface electric trolley lines into the central business district, opened in Boston in 1897. New York’s subway system, which began operation in 1904, was predominantly underground from the outset. Two private corporations underwrote the cost of installing street lines in return for a ninety-nine-year exclusive lease on operations. The city provided funds to build and maintain a tunnel under the Hudson River. The only pre-1914 single construction project that exceeded the New York City Subway system in cost was the Panama Canal. These very large start-up costs discouraged other urban areas from following suit.

Decline and Resurgence

From 1890 to 1930, the mainstay of urban transportation in the United States was the electric trolley, typically operating on public thoroughfares increasingly shared with automobiles. Operating in small cities and between suburbs as well as within large metropolises, trolleys (and subways, in Boston and New York) were essential to the movement of armies of clerical and factory workers from residential neighborhoods to business and industrial districts. They also helped shape urban retailing. The city department store, with its wide variety of manufactured goods, only became a going concern when middle- and working-class people with modest amounts of disposable income could travel readily to a central location to do their shopping.

Although public transportation remained in private hands in the Northeast until public subsidies for the automobile industry made it unprofitable, municipalities in the more populist West took steps to make public transportation a public charge much earlier. San Francisco instituted a supplemental public trolley system in 1909, and the City of Detroit took over operating all trolleys in 1922, pursuant to a popular vote. After 1930, the rationale for public operation of public transportation changed. Before private automobiles became common, advocates of truly public transport argued that a service on which the average person depended should not be subject to the vagaries of corporate policy driven by profit. Later, when dependence on public transport was concentrated in the ranks of the poor, cities felt constrained to step in to preserve an essential service that–by nature of its clientele–could no longer pay for itself.

Public transit systems transported roughly the same numbers of people in 1920, 1930, and 1950, but the proportion of people using public transportation declined, except during gasoline rationing in World War II. Gas-powered buses replaced electric trolleys. In the long run, the total costs of running an electrical light-rail system are lower, per passenger mile, than those of a bus, but a trolley company paid to build and maintain tracks and overhead wires, whereas the city paid for streets out of its general fund. Planning in large sections of cities such as Los Angeles that expanded exponentially after 1920 assumed that residents owned automobiles. Those residents demanded, and got, a publicly funded road system to support their cars.

Between 1950 and 1970, absolute ridership on public transportation in the United States declined by half. In smaller cities, the only remaining bus service was often the school bus system. To preserve a workable level of service for the urban poor, cities were forced to take over the assets of failed private transportation companies. Poorly maintained facilities and a high level of crime discouraged middle-class commuters from using public transportation.

After 1970, civic authorities in a number of large cities realized that unrestrained urban sprawl facilitated by exponential freeway development was a swift ticket to environmental and social degradation, and that rapid mass transit offered a solution. In 1962, an act of Congress established the Federal Transit AdministrationFederal Transit Administration as part of the Department of Transportation. The federal government provided money to cities to build and upgrade mass transit systems, including subways and light-rail systems.

Metropolitan areas with successful programs developing and expanding mass transit based on subways and above-ground light-rail included Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Philadelphia; and the San Francisco Bay area. However, as of 2005, New York City remained the only American metropolis where a majority (55 percent) of residents commuted by public transportation. In Washington, D.C., the figure was 40 percent, and in Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, 25 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, less than 5 percent of commuters in Phoenix, San Diego, and Houston used public transportation, even though federal money also helped upgrade systems in these cities.

The history of the Atlanta system illustrates one of the success stories. Established by the Georgia State Legislature in 1965, Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) purchased the privately owned Atlanta bus system in 1972 and immediately reduced fares. During the 1970’s, $800 million in federal grants underwrote construction of a regional electric light-rail system, which operates as a subway in the city core. Between 1972 and 2000, MARTA logged 3.5 billion fares. Nationwide, overall ridership on public transportation rose by 31 percent between 1995 and 2006.

Access and Discrimination Issues

After World War II, reliance on public transportation became increasingly concentrated in the ranks of the poor, including racial minorities, the elderly, and people with physical and mental disabilities. Simple economics, reinforced by prejudice, meant privately run transit companies offered these people inferior service. The Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott (1955-1956), sparked when Rosa Parks, an African American woman, refused to sit in the rear seats of a segregated city bus, established that official segregation in public transportation is unconstitutional. De facto segregation remains a problem. When municipal transport systems focus their energies on light-rail systems to outlying suburbs, it is often at the expense of core areas, where obsolete equipment and overcrowding are still prevalent. Flat fares charge inner-city dwellers more for miles traveled.

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 introduced opportunities and challenges for public transportation systems. Some federal money is available for infrastructure modifications to provide better access for people in wheelchairs, but the increased costs of operation are usually borne by the municipality. This in turn can force cities to curtail services to other sectors, such as poorly paid service workers, who can ill afford to subsidize the transportation needs of the handicapped. Although the growth of public funding in public transportation has produced many benefits, it has also diverted energies away from the central purpose of moving the urban masses at low cost to the pocketbook and the environment.

Transit Systems of the Future

Of the major technological advances in contemporary mass transit, automated guideway transit (AGT) trains, which require no driver or conductor and operate mainly as airport shuttles, and magnetic levitator (Maglev) trains deserve mention. There are no Maglev systems in operation in the United States. Monorails, once hailed as the wave of the future, have proved of limited use. For the foreseeable future, electric light-rail systems represent the most practical solution for most commuters.

In the short term, large employers who relocated to outer suburbs may find it cost-effective to run, or contract with, private bus companies to transport workers from residential neighborhoods, rather than demanding extensions of existing municipal public transportation systems. Several Silicon Valley companies, such as Google, have already begun such operations. The demand for public transportation is certain to grow, in which case, some services will again become profitable for private industry–but only if the laws regulating transport companies permit them to avoid less profitable routes or provide subsidies for those routes to compensate for the expense of maintaining them.

Further Reading
  • Cheape, Charles W. Moving the Masses: Urban Public Transit in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, 1880-1912. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980. Scholarly work emphasizing the impact of public policies.
  • Cudahy, Brian. Cash, Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990. Thorough and comprehensive in scope; devotes considerable space to financial aspects of transit development.
  • Demoro, Harre, and John Harder. Light Rail Transit on the West Coast. New York: Quadrant Press, 1989. The opening chapter provides a succinct factual background on the political, economic, and social factors that brought about the revival of trolleys. Essays on six West Coast light-rail systems are included.
  • Hayden, Dolores. Building Suburbia: Green Fields and Urban Growth, 1820-2000. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. Though the focus is on real estate, the importance of mass transit in early suburban development receives thorough coverage.
  • Wolinsky, Julian. Light Rail Transit: Planning, Design, and Implementation. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1982. A collection of papers from the Third National Conference on Light Rail Transit, which was held in San Diego in March, 1982. Provides a background in light-rail transit development and technology. The Transportation Research Board, the part of the National Academy of Sciences that produced this report, held a number of conferences and issued a number of other special reports on light-rail transit issues.

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