The History of Urban Public Transportation in the United States

The History of Urban Public Transportation in the United States

Americans are well-known for their fascination with the automobile. However, the United States also has a rich history of public transportation. Public transportation has played an instrumental role in the shape and personality of every major city in the United States. Since the 1800’s, cities have relied on public transportation, not only for its utility and efficiency but also its ability to captivate city-dwellers and suburbanites alike.

Most of human history, cities have been shaped and scaled for walk-ability. Cities remained small and dense, simply out of necessity. In the 1820’s, all of that would change.

The invention of steam engine allowed for greater efficiency and flexibility in powering vehicles. This quickly lead to the creation of the steamboat.

Steam powered ferry boats first made their arrival in New York City in 1817, with the Staten Island Ferry. This ferry service is still in operation today. Prior to the invention of the steam engine, most ferries were private enterprises, often powered by horses or oxen. This was achieved through the animals walking on a treadmill, which made a propeller turn in the water.

Two black and white photographs of a steam boat. Right hand corner a note reads, Staten Island Ferryboat Westfield.

The Staten Island Ferry named Westfield, commissioned in 1862.


Around this same time, the horse-drawn omnibus was becoming one of the first innovations in public transportation by land.

A double decker omnibus, with advertisements for Oakey's. Two horses are hitched to the front, being directed by a driver.

Example of a horse-drawn omnibus. Even back in the 1820’s, vehicles were used as billboards for advertisement.


The omnibus was a large horse-drawn vehicle, which was enclosed and followed a route. Similar to a horse-drawn carriage, the driver would sit in a separate seat outside the vehicle. Many omnibuses were double-deckers, with the top deck being open. Models were introduced which could hold up to 42 passengers. This required 3 horses to pull. The term omnibus comes from Latin, meaning a “carriage for all”.

With the development of greater railroad technology, the horsecar was invented. This was the same concept as the omnibus but placed onto a rail system. These provided a smoother ride than the unpaved streets of early American cities.

A postcard of a yellow horsecar with three passengers directing a mule. The title reads "Rapid Transit" Palm Beach, Fla---31.

A postcard of a horsecar in Palm Beach, Florida


While the horsecar and the omnibus introduced public transportation into everyday urban life, they also presented some problems. First, horses or mules could only be used for a couple hours at a time. This meant that the companies running omnibuses or horsecars had to keep 8 to 10 animals per vehicle. Second, the animals produced a lot of manure, which the transportation companies were responsible for cleaning up. Third, they were known to cause traffic jams in city streets due to lack of regulations.

Disease was also an issue. In 1872, an outbreak of equine influenza in North America led many horses to fall ill in major cities along the east coast. While only a small percentage died, it slowed down public transportation systems in cities such as New York and Chicago

Most of the animal-drawn forms of public transportation shut down by the end of the 19th century. A few lasted into the early decades of the 20th century.


Black and white photo of a crowded cable car.

Presidio Ave Cable Car in San Francisco, California

The next innovation in public transportation was the cable car, first introduced to the United States in New York City in 1868. The cars are powered by a stationary motor located within a cable house. To begin moving, the cable car has a device which clamps onto the cable. To stop, the cable car releases the pressure on the cable, while applying the brakes. Many cities discontinued their cable car services after cables would break and cause horrific accidents. Some cities are seeing a revival in their cable car systems, as the technology improves and the nostalgia for this form of transit increases.

In many respects, the cable car is considered the most iconic form of public transportation in America, often being associated with San Francisco, California, where their cable car system still exists today.

A black and white photo of a two car electric streetcar with large trees in the background.

One of the First Electric Streetcars in Cincinnati, Ohio 1888

One of the most revolutionary forms of public transportation in America was the streetcar (also known as the electric streetcar, tram or trolley). The streetcar is a rail vehicle where its tracks run mainly on the public streets. There are some instances where a streetcar will have it’s own lane or right of way. By the 1880’s, electric streetcar systems were being built in most major cities. Streetcars became the primary mode of transportation for many urban people in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It allowed people to live in suburban areas and commute into the central city for work. Without the expansion of the streetcar, many cities in the United States would have developed very differently, and the passenger railway systems we have today would not exist.

A dark blue streetcar sitting at a station. The marquee on the front reads Portland State Uni

Example of a modern streetcar in Portland, Oregon

By the 1890s, the first motor buses were invented. The term “bus” is a shorted version of omnibus, the horse-drawn vehicle discussed earlier, and can refer to a wide variety of public transportation. Most people are familiar with the commonly used single and double-decker motor buses. However, there are countless different types, each of which have a unique design. Examples include trolleybuses, bi-articulated buses and electric buses.

Yellow, blue and white bus. The marquee on the front reads Metro Transit.

Example of a modern single deck bus from Metro Transit in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota.

Beige and blue double decker bus. The marquee reads The Deuce

Example of a modern double-deck bus from Las Vegas, Nevada










During the 1890’s, another important transportation innovation was happening, in the form of elevated trains and underground railways.
Chicago established their elevated train system known as the “L” in 1895, making it the first rapid transit system in the United States.

Black and white photograph of an old fashioned train on an elevated deck.

One of Chicago’s first “L” trains.

In 1897, Boston opened the first public underground rail tunnel in the United States. Originally built to get streetcars off of the congested streets, it eventually came to be the first underground subway system in America.

Many major cities created their own underground railway systems in during the 20th century, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington D.C, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Baltimore and Miami.


A more seemingly unconventional form of public transportation in the United States is the monorail. A monorail is a type of railway, generally elevated, that moves a vehicle along a single track. The first monorail in the U.S. was located in Houston, Texas but it was demolished within months of being completed.


Black and white photo of a monorail system, the car is hanging below the central beam.

Called “The Trailblazer”, the Houston, Texas monorail was built and demolished in 1956.

The most notable U.S. example of a monorail is in Seattle, Washington. It was built for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. In 2003, it was given status as a historical landmark.

A blue and silver monorail car on an elevated track with several skyscrapers in the background.

The Seattle Monorail

Many have made the case against monorails systems stating that there are so many cheaper and more proven methods of public transportation out there.

The future of public transportation remains to be seen. However, we are seeing many major cities learning to embrace or rediscover the importance of having public transit access. Efforts are looking towards methods which reduce or eliminate carbon emissions while also increasing capacity, speeds, efficiency and reliability. Innovations such as bus rapid transit, high-speed rail and personal rapid transit are just a few of the ideas on the horizon.

A bridge filled with a large crowd of people, several red buses lining up to pick up passengers.

TransMilenio, a bus rapid transit system located in Bogota, Colombia.

Changing attitudes are allowing these innovations to happen and we just might start seeing cities in the United States connected by public transportation once again.

General References





Cable Cars



Subway/Rapid Transit





Posted on

March 10, 2015