Streetcars, Light Rail, and Subways

Streetcars and Light Rail

The first electric streetcars, replacing horse-drawn cars on rails, came along in the 1880s. By the early years of the 20th century almost all American cities had electric streetcar systems. The streetcars were smaller and lighter than intercity trains, and they often ran on tracks right down the street instead of on a separate right-of-way.

As more Americans bought cars and the streets got more congested, streetcars got slower and much less popular.  By the middle of the 20th century, most cities had torn out the tracks and replaced the streetcars with buses.

A few streetcar lines lasted into the '50s and '60s. Minneapolis and Cleveland closed their last lines in 1954, New York City and Detroit in 1956, Kansas City in 1957, Chicago and Milwaukee in 1958, Baltimore in 1963, and St. Louis in 1966.

The only cities that kept any streetcars running through the '60s and '70s were San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

Then, in the 1980s, streetcars (now usually known as light rail) began a big comeback in the U.S., often with their own rights-of-way.

Early systems were in San Diego (1981), Baltimore (1983), Buffalo (1985), Portland, Oregon (1986), Sacramento and Pittsburgh (both 1987), and San Jose (1988).

More light-rail systems opened in the '90s, including Los Angeles (1990), St. Louis (1993), Denver (1994), Dallas and Cleveland (both 1996), and Salt Lake City (1999).

Later systems included those in Jersey City (2000),  Seattle and Tacoma (both 2003), Houston and Minneapolis (both 2004), Newark (2006), Charlotte (2007), Phoenix (2008), Tucson (2014), Atlanta (2014), Cincinnati (2016), and Detroit (2017).


Several American cities have subway systems – underground railroads through the central city – that date back more than 100 years.

Boston built the first subway in the U.S. in 1897. New York City, with by far the most extensive subway system, opened its first line in 1904. Philadelphia opened in 1907, and Chicago opened its subway in 1943.

The modern era of subway construction began in 1971 with the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). BART has subways in downtown San Francisco and Oakland, with aboveground rapid-transit tracks going to other nearby cities.

Subways were also built in Washington, D. C. (1976), Atlanta (1979), Baltimore (1983), and Los Angeles (1993). Miami opened a rapid-transit line in 1984 that runs aboveground only.