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Definition: rapid transit from Dictionary of Energy

Transportation. 1. a system of urban public transportation using an electrically powered railway running along a separated right-of-way, which may be either below ground, elevated, or at grade. 2. a term for public transportation systems in general.

Summary Article: Rapid Transit
from Encyclopedia of American Urban History

Rapid transit conveyances run on fixed routes, with regular stops, on frequent schedules, with set fares, and with separate rights-of-way. Subways and elevated railways are the leading rapid transit modes.

The Need for Rapid Transit

Rapid transit is relatively new. Before 1863, no city anywhere in the world had rapid transit, and most people got around urban areas on foot or via omnibuses or horse railways. Omnibuses and horse railways, introduced in 1826 and 1832, respectively, constituted the earliest forms of mass transit, but they were not rapid transit modes. Despite operating on established routes and having regular schedules and set fares, omnibuses and horsecars lacked the independent rights-of-way that distinguish rapid transit.

Omnibuses and horsecars both consisted of wooden boxes on wheels that were drawn by animals. But while the omnibus ran directly on rough city pavements, horsecars rolled along iron rails that reduced friction to a minimum. Reaching speeds of 8 miles per hour, a third faster than omnibuses, horse railways became the first mode to demonstrate mass transit's greatest impact on urban America: the transformation of urban spatial structure. While the omnibus moved too slowly to alter urban forms, the faster horse railway enabled residents to live farther from their jobs without having to spend more time traveling. Horsecars promoted the growth of a suburban residential ring 3 or 4 miles from the city center.

By the 1850s, horse railways had surpassed the omnibus in total ridership and became the primary form of mass transit in the United States. Most major U.S. cities had numerous horse railway and omnibus lines. The early American transit industry consisted of small, financially unstable companies that were confined to particular cities, where they served several routes, competed with one another, and operated under the terms of franchises issued by local governments.

Horse railways and omnibuses were widely condemned for worsening street congestion and for moving slowly in traffic. By mid-century, businessmen and inventors had begun to look for a mechanical system that could replace horse railways as a source of surface transportation, a search that culminated in 1888 with the introduction of the first commercially successful electric railway, in Richmond, Virginia. Another solution to transportation problems was rapid transit. By using separate rights-of-way, either above the surface (as with elevated railways) or else wholly or partially below grade (as with subways), rapid transit conveyances could avoid traffic congestion and attain much higher speeds.

Elevated Railways and Subways: To World War I

The first rapid transit networks built in the United States were elevated railways rather than subways. Because they were cheaper to construct than subways, elevated trains, or “els,” did not require government support and could be produced within laissez-faire dictates. The world's first elevated railway opened in New York City on July 3, 1868, on Greenwich Street in lower Manhattan. By 1880, New York City had an extensive elevated system, with three lines that ran the length of Manhattan and a fourth that extended to Central Park. By providing access to areas that had previously been beyond commuting distance, elevateds stimulated development in northern Manhattan. Although the els initially employed steam propulsion, they began to convert to electricity in 1901, following the invention three years earlier of a multiple-unit control system that allowed trains to be operated as integrated systems. The two other major American cities with large elevated systems were Brooklyn (1885) and Chicago (1892). Relatively short elevated railways were built in Kansas City, Missouri (1886), and Sioux City, Iowa (1891).

The advent of rapid transit prompted the restructuring of transit management. As capital and operating costs mounted and as profits multiplied, the small, independent businesses that had characterized the era of the omnibus and horse railway were replaced by huge corporations that dominated a city's transit system. By 1880, the Manhattan Elevated Railway monopolized elevated service in New York City, while by 1896 the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company controlled most of the elevated and surface lines in Brooklyn. A similar process of corporate consolidation transformed the entire transit industry following the electrification of the street railways during the 1890s. Traction trusts became infamous for providing poor service and for corrupting municipal governments. The career of Charles Tyson Yerkes, operator of Chicago's railways, inspired Theodore Dreiser's scathing portrait of robber baron Frank A. Cowperwood in the trilogy The Financier (1912), The Titan (1914), and The Stoic (1947).

Subways were a European, not an American, innovation. The first subway in the world was London's Metropolitan Railway, a steam-powered line that was introduced in 1863. The world's first electrically propelled subway, the City and South London, entered service in the British capital in 1890. Budapest and Glasgow both unveiled subways in 1896. Paris followed in 1900 and Berlin in 1902.

The first subway in North America opened in Boston on September 1, 1897. Intended to relieve traffic congestion in the central business district, it consisted of a tunnel running below Washington and Tremont Streets that gave trolleys underground access to downtown and permitted the removal of streetcar tracks from the streets. Despite its short, 1.8-mile length, the subway was so costly ($4.2 million) that it prompted a change in U.S. mass transit financing. Earlier urban railways had been privately financed and owned, but subways were so much more expensive to build per track mile than elevated or surface railways that a combination of public and private investment was required. A public agency, the Boston Transit Commission, financed and built the subway, while a private corporation, the West End Railway Company, leased and operated it. The system has greatly expanded over the years, and now encompasses five light rail and three heavy rail lines in a 65-mile-long system that is operated by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

New York City's first subway was the product of elite merchants who wanted to develop northern Manhattan and the Bronx in order to broaden the tax base and pay for public works that would enhance the city's commercial prospects. As in Boston, a public agency, the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners, financed and built the subway, while a private company, the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), operated it. Opened in 1904, the IRT ran from lower Manhattan to the Bronx, spurring residential construction in northern Manhattan and the western Bronx. A second subway project, authorized in 1913 and known as the dual contract system, called for new lines to be built by the IRT and by a second company, the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, later renamed the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT). The dual system was designed by progressive reformers who had supplanted the mercantile elite as subway planners. An ambitious experiment in social planning intended to disperse poor immigrants from Manhattan's slums to the periphery, the dual system extended beyond the built-up territory, stimulating the development of outlying sections of the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn that became working-class neighborhoods. Following the completion of the dual system in the 1920s, New York's subway became the world's longest and most heavily patronized. A third subway network, the Independent Subway System (IND), opened between 1932 and 1940. Unlike the IRT and BMT, the IND was publicly owned and operated. It was designed to compete with the two private companies and induce more favorable terms of contract from them. The smallest of the three systems, the IND was primarily confined to built-up areas and resulted in little urban development.

The IND was the last major phase of subway construction to be finished in New York. By the 1930s, metropolitan New York had become committed to the automobile, and virtually all new transportation improvements consisted of vehicular highways. A shift in the source of transportation funding from the municipal government to the federal government in the 1930s and 1940s confirmed this preference for highways.

New York's subway system began to experience financial difficulties in the 1920s. Rising costs following World War I created an emergency because the IRT and BMT were prohibited by contract from raising the nickel fare, while their demands for a fare hike met resistance from a public embittered by past transit monopolies and poor service. This crisis led to disinvestment in the subways through the deferral of maintenance and the curtailment of new rolling stock purchases. After the Great Depression threatened to destroy the subways, the city of New York unified the three systems—the IRT, BMT, and IND—into a single, municipally run network in 1940. Direct municipal operation ended in 1953, when the New York City Transit Authority took over the subways. In 1968, the Transit Authority became part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates all of the region's transportation lines.

Several decades of political opposition to government subsidies, coupled with growing competition from the automobile, led to the subways' collapse in the 1970s, as the system became physically dilapidated and mechanically unreliable. Since 1982, however, the MTA has rehabilitated the subways by rebuilding every mile of track, refurbishing dozens of stations, and acquiring hundreds of new cars. It is now weighing the construction of the first new subway lines in decades.

Philadelphia completed a subway in 1907. Philadelphia's first subway, the Market Street line, was the last rapid transit route to be privately financed in the United States. Its second route, the Broad Street subway, which opened in 1928 after lengthy construction delays, used the Boston formula of public-private partnership. The current 25-mile-long system is managed by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

In 1908, the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad Company introduced a regional subway that went from lower Manhattan to the three northern New Jersey cities of Hoboken, Jersey City, and Newark. Its two tubes now operate as the Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) system of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Subways: Since World War I

The era of subway construction that had begun in the 1890s ended around World War I. The private transit industry collapsed in the 1920s and 1930s, a casualty of postwar inflation, managerial incompetence, and public policies that favored the automobile over railways. Only three U.S. cities added new subways between the 1920s and 1940s: Rochester, New York (in 1927), Newark, New Jersey (1935), and Chicago (1943). Maintenance problems, deteriorating passenger service, and severe ridership declines plagued existing subways. By the 1950s, these financial pressures had brought an end to private ownership of rapid transit and made public ownership and operation almost universal. Most rapid transit systems are now controlled by government corporations, such as the Chicago Transit Authority (established in 1945 to acquire Chicago's bankrupt surface and rapid transit lines) and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (successor to the Massachusetts Transportation Authority, created in 1947 to take over Boston's privately owned transit system).

Public ownership was initially intended to prevent local transit systems from disintegrating rather than to invest in new routes or new technologies. Among the modest improvements made in the 1950s and 1960s was the completion of a new rapid transit line in Cleveland, in 1955. In 1968, Cleveland became the first U.S. city with a rapid transit link to its airport. Chicago pioneered joint rapid transit-expressway development in 1958, with the opening of a rail line that used the median of the Congress (now Eisenhower) Expressway for its right-of-way.

In 1964, the federal government finally recognized that mass transit could no longer be dealt with locally. Responding to a new belief that urban planning should occur in a regional context unrestricted by municipal boundaries and to a concern that metropolitan areas had become overly dependent on automobiles, the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 defined mass transit as a national priority for the first time and initiated federal funding of rail construction. The availability of federal funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Urban Mass Transportation Administration sparked a transit renaissance. In 1972, the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) started operating a highly automated regional subway that became known for its advanced technology. The 104-mile-long BART system now has five routes and serves four counties in the San Francisco Bay Area. New subways also opened in Washington, D.C. (1976), Atlanta (1979), Baltimore (1983), Buffalo (1985), Pittsburgh (1987), and Los Angeles (1993). Washington's 103-mile-long Metro, with five routes that provide service to the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland, is now the country's fourth largest rapid transit system and perhaps its best designed.

The long-established distinction between rapid transit and mass transit has blurred recently. Among the light rail systems that have been completed since 1964 are several—for instance, St. Louis's MetroLink (1993)—that run largely or wholly on the surface and yet that have rights-of-way that are almost entirely separate and that equal or exceed the speeds of some subways.

See also

Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) Train, Railroad Stations, Railroad Suburbs, Railroads, Tunnels

Further Readings and References
  • Barrett, P. (1983). The automobile and urban transit: The formation of public policy in Chicago, 1900-1930. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Foster, M. S. (1981). From streetcar to superhighway: American city planning and urban transportation, 1900-1940. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  • Hood, C. (2001). 722 miles: The building of the subways and how they transformed New York. New York: Simon & Schuster.
  • Middleton, W. D. (2003). Metropolitan railways: Rapid transit in America. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.
  • Hood, Clifton
    Copyright © 2007 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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