In 1873 cable cars were introduced in the city of San Francisco as a means of public transportation. Cable cars still operate along several city routes. Transporting both tourists and commuters, the cable car shown here is coming up Hyde Street.
Modern public transportation systems originated in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. Horse-drawn carriages provided for-hire transportation between major towns in Europe, but service was erratic and slow. The hackney carriage, a small horse-drawn coach, was used within large cities. It resembled the modern taxicab in terms of service and operation. Eventually, larger wagons such as stagecoaches were used to carry passengers along established routes within a city, and in 1819 regular service routes were operational in Paris. A similar service began in New York City in 1827. The stagecoach was followed by the omnibus, a horse-drawn wagon designed for efficiently transporting several passengers over short distances. George Shilliber, an enterprising coach builder, built the first omnibus for use in Paris, and he eventually started an omnibus line in London in 1829.
In 1832 horse-drawn streetcars were introduced in New York City. These streetcars resembled omnibuses but ran on iron rails in the street rather than on wagon wheels. The rails reduced friction considerably, allowing horses to pull the rail cars more easily than regular wagons could be pulled. The more efficient streetcar gradually began to replace the omnibus in many cities. By the 1860s most U.S. cities had horse- or mule-powered street railways franchised by the city.
Another type of propulsion for streetcars came from Andrew Hallidie, who devised a cable system that ran along the length of track. Streetcars gripping the cable were pulled along. The first successful cable car system was opened in San Francisco in 1873. Cable cars could reach speeds of 21 km/h (13 mph) and did not require the use of horses. Horses were reliable, but they produced large amounts of waste, which usually lay in the street, and the horses were often subject to disease. Cable cars were popular, and cable car systems were installed in about 30 cities, but these systems were eventually replaced by electric streetcars. San Francisco still operates a small cable car system, both because of the tourist appeal of this system and because of its ability to operate on steep grades.
A rapid revolution in urban public transportation occurred following the completion in 1888 of the first electrified portion of a horse-drawn streetcar line in Richmond, Virginia. Because of its speed and versatility, the electric streetcar became popular throughout the country, providing basic transportation in many U.S. cities. Subways also proved to be a popular solution to rapid transit. The first electric subway began service in London in 1890. Boston, Massachusetts, became the first U.S. city to open an electric subway in 1897. New York City broke ground for its system in 1900, and the first subway line there opened in 1904.
The interurban electric railway connected nearby cities, and it served as an efficient means of transportation for several decades before the automobile became popular. Interurbans traveled on an extensive network of tracks, which were longer than streetcar routes but shorter than the routes between cities of locomotive-powered trains. The interurban routes often ran from city centers into the countryside or to other cities, at speeds of up to 100 km/h (60 mph). The interurban industry went into decline in the 1920s because of competition from automobiles and intercity buses.
When the private automobile became available in the 1910s and 1920s, many streetcar and interurban railway companies went bankrupt. The automobile provided a degree of flexibility that was not possible with public transportation. Following a peak in 1923, streetcars began to decline. In the 1930s the Electric Railway President's Conference Committee (PCC) made an effort to revitalize street railway systems by developing the modern PCC car to replace the older and varied streetcars then in use. The PCC car encouraged public rail use, but most cities were already switching to gasoline- and diesel-powered buses, because buses allowed flexibility in route selection and freedom from overhead wires. In 1937 Paris became the first major city to stop using streetcars. The last U.S. streetcar was delivered to San Francisco in 1952. A handful of cities still operate streetcars, including San Francisco; Boston; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; and Toronto, Ontario.
Between the end of World War II and the early 1960s, little innovation occurred in public transportation systems in the United States. The continuing decline of ridership, especially in smaller cities, extended a trend that began after World War I and continued after World War II. Beginning in the mid-1970s, however, massive infusions of public funds were used to expand service, and this effort reversed the trend of declining ridership. The gasoline shortages in the 1970s also contributed to increased ridership. Since 1984, public transportation ridership has shown little or no growth. Jobs and people have been moving to places where public transportation is unavailable or inconvenient. Nevertheless, a few cities have shown continued interest in investing in public transportation, especially in light-rail transit.