All About The Street Car, Trolley and Subways

Written by Carly Hallman

In the 1830s, engineers came up with the idea to create some sort of electric vehicle that could move large groups of people quickly and efficiently. To reach that goal, engineers created trolleys, light rail systems, and the subway.


Trolleys are passenger vehicles that are powered by an electric rail system, overhead wires, or, in older cases, horses. The horse-drawn trolley was actually an important step in evolving trolley technology because it demonstrated how efficient steel wheels on tracks could be; in fact, for a brief period of time, the trolley was more important than electric lights because it was an invention that everybody was using. In most cases, trolleys and trams used metal rails like a train, but the rails were laid over streets that they shared with other vehicles. There were a few types of trolleys available for people to ride: Some made many stops in urban centers, while others provided nonstop service from one town to the next. Most trolleys and streetcars were connected to an overhead wire that provided power.

Light Rail

Light rail service was the natural step forward for trolleys. Light rail trains have a dedicated right of way and travel at higher speeds. By the 1930s, the need for light rail became evident due to the need for faster moving vehicles in dense urban areas. Today, light rail development is growing all over the world because of overloaded highway systems; it’s a cheaper option for cities with lower densities than building a subway.


A subway provides light rail service in underground tunnels for commuters in dense urban areas. Subways use an electrified rail to supply power; traditionally, they are run on DC power and DC motors, which were more efficient when subways were first being built during the 20th century.

Trolley and Streetcar History

  • Denver’s Digitized Streetcar History: A University of Denver graduate student digitized every streetcar line in the town’s existence during its entire 78-year run.
  • The Desire Line: Streetcar Loss and Rebirth in New Orleans: The Desire streetcar line in New Orleans was a popular streetcar for commuters, but in the 1940s, conversations began to arise over whether or not it was more beneficial to use a bus instead of a streetcar.
  • Historic Streetcar Systems in Georgia: The old streetcar tracks may be no more in Georgia, but the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration have created markers in the metro area to pay homage to the old system.
  • Early Texas Streetcars: Streetcars in Texas trading and agricultural towns were popular and affordable, costing just 5 cents a trip.
  • The Real Story Behind the Demise of America’s Once-Mighty Streetcars: In the 1920s, most city-dwellers took public transportation to work, but today, only 5% of workers use public transportation, most of them clustered in population-dense cities.
  • The Trolley and Daily Life: In the 19th century, American cities were all walkable, but adding trolley systems meant that cities were able to expand while still making it easy to travel into and through town.
  • The Streetcar Era: In the first half of the 20th century, streetcars helped cities thrive by creating “streetcar commerce” along their lines.
  • Street Railways in Seattle: The first electric streetcar in Seattle entered service in 1889, and the urban area quickly thrived.
  • Streetcar History: Streetcars first appeared in 1886 in San Diego and ended up playing a key role in San Diego’s growth until the 1930s, when private cars and city buses took precedence.
  • The History of Streetcars and Cable Cars: The first cable car was patented in 1861 as a way to spare horses the difficult work of bringing people up and down San Francisco’s steep roadways.

Trolley and Streetcar Museums

  • National Capital Trolley Museum: The National Capital Trolley Museum is located in Maryland and is open on Saturdays.
  • Seashore Trolley Museum: This Kennebunkport, Maine, museum is open May through December to help visitors learn and appreciate the role of public transportation in history.
  • New York Museum of Transportation: The goal of this museum near Rochester, New York, is to collect, display, interpret, and preserve artifacts from the history of New York transportation.
  • Oregon Electric Railway Museum: Stop by anytime during the summer months for a trolley ride, a tour of the car barn, and a visit to the station to see the historical displays.
  • Baltimore Streetcar Museum: A permanent collection of exhibits, displays, tours, videos, and photos and authentic streetcar rides are available at this Baltimore, Maryland, museum.
  • Connecticut Trolley Museum: The Connecticut Trolley Museum has dozens of pieces of rail equipment from trolley cars, interurban cars, railroad cars, and service cars from all over the United States!
  • Pennsylvania Trolley Museum: Go on a ride to the past with a tour and demonstration trolley line here.
  • Fort Smith Trolley Museum: You can get a unique experience of seeing electric-powered streetcars, railroad equipment, and other transportation technology at this Arkansas museum.
  • Electric City Trolley Museum: Be a guest at this collaborative experience of electric railway equipment in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Subway and Rapid Transit History