History of Public Transportation

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

America once had one of the greatest public transportation networks. This lesson looks at the development of public transportation in the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries as well as some of the reasons for its decline.

Early Public Transportation from the 1700s to the 1800s

Today, we have many ways to get around when we need to, but that wasn't always the case. In the past, when people weren't able to walk long distances, or own their own horse, they had to use public transportation. Public transportation is made up of a variety of systems of transportation available to the general public such as buses, subways, and streetcars. The first public transportation system in the United States was set up in Boston in the early 17th century, and consisted of horse carts and ferries. Decades later a similar ferry system was set up in the city of Philadelphia to carry passengers to nearby Camden, New Jersey.

As the size of American cities began to expand in the 18th and early 19th century, it no longer became practical for many urban residents to travel by foot. A number of businesses, often licensed by the city governments, began to emerge to meet the needs of the people. In the 1820s, New York City introduced a system of omnibuses and horse carts, which became the model for many similar systems in other American cities. An omnibus was a small carriage that could carry up to fifteen people, while horse carts were larger carriages that were pulled along iron tracks by horses.

Omnibus in London during 1902
Omnibus in London during 1902

Although horses were used in nearly all forms of public transportation, this was not without its own dangers. In 1872, an outbreak of horse flu in New York City killed many of the draft animals used and convinced many people that relying on a single form of transportation could lead to disaster.

Later 19th Century and Early 20th Century Public Transportation

Following the horse flu outbreak, new technologies were developed that allowed for new forms of public transportation. Of these, the two most common in the later 19th and early 20th centuries were cable cars and trolleys. Both of these relied on carriages that ran along tracks in the street and were powered first by steam and later by electricity.

San Francisco Cable Car
San Francisco Cable Car

As cities expanded and suburbs grew, public transportation became more vital to members of the growing middle class who often lived in suburbs, but worked closer to the city center. This lead to an explosion of innovation and many new forms of transportation were implemented in major American cities. Subways were high speed underground trains that ran on electricity. The first subway system in the United States was created in Boston in 1887, but the concept was quickly picked up by other cities including Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.

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