Public transportation did not impact most Americans until the arrival of the electric
streetcar in 1888. Streetcars developed rapidly after its introduction. By World
War I there were few towns of more than 10,000 population without a streetcar system.
Prior to 1920, streetcar use increased steadily, stimulated by three major influences:
These positive influences overcame the negative effect that increased auto use had
on streetcar ridership. The Jitney "Craze" The auto's first major impact on cities
was the great jitney craze during 1914-16. During this time jitneys made serious
inroads into streetcar ridership until legal maneuvering by the streetcar companies
put most of the jitneys out of business.
The first U.S. jitneys ran in Los Angeles in the middle of 1914 and before the end
of the year there were 800 jitneys in Los Angeles alone. Jitney use spread rapidly
across the entire United States from Portland, Maine, in the East to San Francisco
in the West. From a standing start in mid-1914, licensed jitneys reached an estimated
peak of 62,000 nationally in 1915.
September 1915, Motor Bus:
Most of the buses at this time are ordinary touring cars. The touring car, however,
is being superseded by the regular motor bus....While the streetcar companies are
showing a hostility, not unnatural, to the competitor who is materially reducing
their profits, we venture to predict that inside of a few years the present-day streetcar
interests will have huge investments in the more economic means of transportation.
It should be remembered that (the streetcar) interests' business is the carrying
of passengers. If a more economic method of transporting passengers is discovered,
they would be foolish to persist in their obsolete system. Never again, however,
can the traction interests have a monopoly of public transportation. They must learn
to compete, as other businesses compete.
Development of the Modern Motor Bus
The streetcar made no significant technical advances during the 1920s, whereas the
motor bus changed beyond recognition. The motor bus was not taken seriously until
about 1920, but from then on growth was explosive. Manufacturers made significant
improvements to chassis and engines during this time. The improvements in speed,
handling, and comfort made buses less costly and more comfortable. America's cities
were rapidly paving their city streets and this helped the bus.
Buses attracted new ridership because they were much faster and more comfortable
than streetcars, particularly after the introduction of the heavy-duty pneumatic
"balloon" tires during the early 1920s.Buses were also safer since they could pull
in to the curb to discharge passengers, whereas streetcars had to let passengers
off in the center of the street.
The public looked upon buses more favorably than the streetcars.
Nationwide, the reach of the alleged conspirators extended to only about sixty of
approximately six hundred transit systems, mostly in smaller cities, yet by the 1960s
nearly every system everywhere, large and small, had converted entirely to buses.
By the time the last Red Car lines were motorized—by a public agency—there was a
virtual consensus among transit managers that electric railwavs were too inflexible
and far too costly to maintain. Too costly, that is, without mass infusions of public
funding, which simply couldn’t be had at the time.
The real story behind the demise of America's once-mighty streetcars
"There's this widespread conspiracy theory that the streetcars were bought up by
a company National City Lines, which was effectively controlled by GM, so that they
could be torn up and converted into bus lines," says Peter Norton, a historian at
the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor
Age in the American City.
But that's not actually the full story, he says. "By the time National City Lines
was buying up these streetcar companies, they were already in bankruptcy."
Surprisingly, though, streetcars didn't solely go bankrupt because people chose cars
over rail. The real reasons for the streetcar's demise are much less nefarious than
a GM-driven conspiracy — they include gridlock and city rules that kept fares artificially
low — but they're fascinating in their own right, and if you're a transit fan, they're
even more frustrating.