What is a streetcar?

As you may have guessed or may already know, it’s pretty easy to tell from their name where streetcars operate, on the street. They are generally powered by overhead electric cable lines and run on dedicated tracks similar to railroads. The cars themselves are of varied lengths depending on the number of axels they contain, and can also be referred to as trolleys or trams. They differ from light rail in that streetcars make more frequent stops, travel shorter distances, and can make sharper turns. Here is a photo of one of the St. Charles line cars as it made its journey through downtown New Orleans.


St. Charles line downtown New Orleans, February 2005

It’s not exactly a picturesque San Francisco hillside, but the concept of moving relatively large numbers of people, up to 70 in the largest models, quickly and effectively along busy corridors is the same from one city to the next. (The extra grit can be attributed to the Mardi Gras celebrations from the night before.)

As early as the late 1800s, streetcars were the only means of public transport in cities across the US. Because the cars could make the same tight turns as automobiles, they could be installed on virtually any road and were responsible for creating the first-ring suburbs. People were able to live further from their jobs in the city and relocated their families to the quieter neighborhoods that sprang up along the lines.


Highland Neighborhood of Denver circa 1900 (Courtesy Denver Public Library)

When buses came into use during the first half of the 1900s, trolleys began their decline as the preferred mode of travel for commuters. During the Great Depression, many cities were forced to cut back on all transportation services. However, the most popular time for streetcar use came just before World War II. Soon after the war ended, the automobile and suburban single-family home partnered to create the country's new take on the American dream. The trolleys became afterthoughts and most ended up as scrap. People emptied out of cities in a mass exodus, and suburbs quickly outgrew the effectiveness of streetcars.

As cities saw the demand for mass transit decline, just about all of them switched to buses to provide the same service without the constraint of the rail. By the middle of the century, tracks had been ripped out or paved over throughout most of the country. Only a handful of streetcar systems were left in operation and it would remain that way for decades to come.

Highland Neighborhood today, December 2006