The electric streetcar, or trolley was an American invention, and prior to WWII, the United States had more streetcar systems than any other country. If they were so popular, why did they all disappear? Well most popular ideas on the subject are (nearly) completely wrong. Here’s the real deal.

You will hear a lot of baloney about why streetcars disappeared. From conspiracy theories, to spurious, but believable claims about them being far too expensive compared to buses.

While it is true that in some cities oil companies and automakers (looking at you GM) conspired to replace streetcars with buses, and it is also true that building and maintaining electric streetcar infrastucture is expensive - these were relatively minor problems in the big picture of street railways in the U.S. Let’s look at the things that killed streetcar systems in rough chronological order.

1: The vast majority of street railways systems were under-capitalized, under-maintained, and/or haphazardly built and operated. In fact a good deal of systems weren’t even made to provide proper transport. A popular thing to do in the 1890s was for a developer to buy up a huge plot of land just outside of a city, build some houses, sell some plots, and then lay down the cheapest streetcar line they could into the city, just to ferry prospective home owners out to their new suburb. These lines would then be bought up and incorporated into a larger existing system, or they would be run to death and abandoned - or if the whole development failed, simply scrapped. Other systems were just built in towns too small to sustain their operation.

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2: In many cities streetcar operators purchased franchise rights from the city. The conditions laid down by the city would seem ridiculous by modern standards, and in many cases were not practical. Streetcar companies for instance had to maintain any street they laid rails on. They also had to get their fare rates approved by the city, promise certain levels of service, etc. The primary problem with this was that most cities would not let operators raise fares enough to operate profitably. Many companies got stuck with 19th century fares well into the 20th century. Predictably they had to go out of business or cut back service to survive. And when they cut back service, people just bought cars and most of their customer base evaporated.

3: World War II. Gas rationing meant that ridership of street railways went WAY up during the 1940s - on many systems that had already thrown out their redundant rolling stock, and torn up less trafficked lines during the 1920s and 1930s. These systems also couldn’t build new rolling stock, or replace worn out rails due to steel rationing. By the end of the war many systems were so worn out there wasn’t even a question of refurbishing them - there was hardly anything left to refurbish. For most this meant scrapping all the streetcars and rails, and buying buses or trolley buses.

4: One way streets. Supposing a line survived the war to be in good enough condition to be serviceable and a company decided to refurb or replace aging rolling stock - the next big obstacle was the adoption of one way streets after the war. On a two way street a line may only have used one set of tracks and simply reversed car direction at the end of the line. If the street became one-way, the company then had to lay a new line on the adjacent street - that is if the city would let them, and if they could afford it given how much work the existing systems needed after the war. Even trolley bus systems were killed by one way streets. Denver which abandoned rail service in favor of the electric buses in 1950, ended up selling them off only a few years later when one way streets were adopted in that city.

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5: They looked old fashioned. It’s a superficial argument, but it was a very convincing one. Streetcars were old tech after WWII. People didn’t want to be seen riding them, cities didn’t want to have them on the streets, companies knew buses looked new and provided a novelty factor that had long since vanished from electric mass transit. Some cities did buy all-new streetcars, plate them in chrome or flashy paint jobs, but most didn’t. Everything was scrapped, and the money used to buy new buses. Rails were out, rubber was in. People really wanted a new world in the 1950s, and the old rail systems just had too much baggage.

6: It all adds up. When a system wasn’t making enough money because the city wouldn’t let them raise fares, they cut back service. When service was cut back people bought more cars. When people bought more cars cities had to institute one-way streets to accommodate increased car traffic. One-way streets meant rails and wires had to be relocated to more streets, which the system then also had to pay to maintain, streets which were getting wore out faster because more cars were being used by people who wouldn’t ride the streetcar because it looked old-fashioned... and it’s no wonder they threw the whole shebang into the trash.

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There are of course, a myriad of smaller annoyances in getting a street-level rail system to work along with modern traffic (such as making a right turn from the middle lanes) but these are mere trifles compared to the big issues listed above.

So when somebody tells you about conspiracies, or oversimplifications about buses being obviously better and cheaper - remember the truth is way more interesting and intricate.

Anyway enjoy this wonderful 1952 film by John Krish (a film which got him fired) about the last of London’s trams: