Fares, Please! A Popular History of Trolleys, Horsecars, Streetcar,s, Buses, Elevateds, and Subways
© 1941, 1960 John Anderson Miller
She went to find a jolly hour on the trolley and found my heart instead…
The story begins in 19th century America, at the very beginning when New York was swelling with immigrants and needed some practicable means of expansion. The answer came in a kind of stage coach that ran only in the city, and as the idea of it became popular, specialized carriages were built for the idea. This kind of evolution happens a lot in Fares, Please: an old technology is tweaked a bit to a new purpose, and then later succeeded by something especially built for that purpose. As omnibuses developed their infrastructure — becoming serious businesses that could afford greater investments — they began running their carriages on rails instead of the open street. “Horsecars” were the progenitors of the trolley, but it took time for animal power to yield to mechanical. Eventually they had to because of urban expansion: as lines’ number and length multiplied, so too did the number of horses required. One New York company had to care for eight thousand horses at its greatest point prior to other means of carriage locomotion.
Eventually other means did take over: cable cars were experimented with, but were relatively expensive and lost ground to electricity after an initial burst of enthusiasm. Some manufacturers experimented with internal-combustion carriages, but electricity — despite fears of public electrocution — won out for sheer economy. (The first internal combustion engines were not, shall we say, energy-efficient.) As trolleys began taking over more and more of city streets — say, four lanes of a six-lane road — the residents of particularly crowded cities like New York toyed with the idea of running the trolleys either under the road or over it. Elevated lines were embraced as being easier than subways, but the public tired of having roaring machines overhead blocking out all the light. Subways were thus developed in a few cities like New York whose density could afford the expense.
Ultimately, it was the rate of expansion that prompted the original omnibuses to make a comeback: simply put, they were quicker on their feet. Streetcar lines required a lot of capital investment (rails, lines, carriages, support vehicles, etc) and careful planning to expand into new area. Bus companies needed vehicles, a little adjustment to the planning, and they were in business. Ironically, streetcar companies were some of the first to adopt buses — either as cheaper ways of providing the same service, or as cost-efficient ways to gather customers in outlying districts to one of the main streetcar lines. Although buses and private automobiles had gained a lot of ground in recent years, Miller remains sanguine about mass transit’s hopes going into the 1940s, in part because of the sheer demands of space: one lane of streetcars can carry six times as many people as two lanes of cars, and cities simply don’t have room for everyone to toodle about in a car. Miller probably never imagined we’d tried to solve that problem by destroying the city — knocking down building after building for parking lots, and then creating automobile-oriented sprawl and leave downtown to rot. We seem to be moving back in the direction of sanity, dreams of computer-controlled instates full of driverless cars not withstanding.
If you can find a copy of this, it’s a delightful little history. I’ve been trying to find something like it for years. There is nothing quite like a streetcar to make me think of urban America in its adolescence, roaring with energy and changing every day.
- Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Our Selves from the Automobile, Taras Grescoe
- The Great Railway Revolution: A History of Trains in America, Christian Wolmar. If memory services, Wolmar included chapters on trolleys and interurban light rail, both subjects here.
- Horses at Work & The Horse in the City, various authors