Brief History of New York City Transportation

New York City is a glorious, sprawling metropolis, and it blazed new trails in city planning and mass transit. Inventive solutions allowed NYC to grow and thrive, creating a flow of traffic that pumped through the city like lifeblood. Today, the old bones and paths of early omnibuses, trolleys, and trains still mark the streets and skies of the five boroughs. They have a long and storied history as essential elements in one of the greatest cities on Earth.

1827: The first form of public transportation in New York City was the horse-drawn omnibus. This elongated vehicle worked a bit like a stagecoach and held around a dozen people at a time. Riders paid when they boarded, and when they wanted to get off, they yanked on a leather strap. Unlike today's bell-pulls or buttons, this strap didn't switch on a light or make a noise to get the driver's attention. Instead, it literally yanked on the driver's foot. Since the driver didn't have to keep his foot on the gas, this posed less of a safety risk than it would today.

1832: Horse-drawn streetcars emerged as the next phase in NYC's public transport evolution. Like with the omnibuses, horses provided four-legged motors for the vehicles, but unlike their free-wheeled predecessors, the streetcars followed tracks. The first tracks debuted in Brooklyn, offering a greater number of passengers a smoother ride.

1867: The elevated rapid service steam trains (also called els) appeared, connecting various parts of the sprawling city. Although they were not at street level, these trains became essential mass transit vehicles, ferrying workers and families around the expanding city with greater ease and speed than the horse-drawn vehicles on the ground. The New York elevated railroad carried 14,000,000 passengers in 1878, and it nearly doubled that tally in less than a year.

1883: Steam-powered cable cars eventually replaced the horse-drawn streetcars after concerns about health and sanitation were raised. They ran along the same tracks and followed the same routes, but they were much faster than horses. Although elevated trains had been around for a few decades by this point, this marked an important shift toward new technology and suburban development. It also kept the streets much cleaner, which was important since New York was growing and moving faster. Things moved so much faster, in fact, that Brooklyn's trolleys became notoriously dangerous for pedestrians. The local baseball team changed their name in 1895 to the Brooklyn Trolley Dodgers, which they eventually shortened to just the Dodgers.

1900: The els gained access to the Brooklyn Bridge, linking Fulton Street to Park Row in Manhattan.

1903: The 9th Ave. line of the elevated rapid service became the first to run on electric rather than steam power. It set the trend, and the changeover from steam happened rapidly. Although the elevated lines always ran on tracks above the streets, these electrified cars are the ones New York City became most familiar with. Old, wooden cars went to museums, replaced with safer, sturdier carriages.

1904: Interborough Rapid Transit appeared as the city's first subway.

1905: Gas-powered buses began shuttling passengers through the city streets in direct competition with the trolley systems. They appeared on 5th Ave. first but soon spread to the rest of the city.

1909: Electric trolleys replaced the steam-powered cable cars in all five boroughs, giving NYC transportation a sudden boost in speed and efficiency.

1957: The last streetcars disappeared, fully replaced by the city's bus system. The trolley system's tracks remain in place today in many locations. Built to last, they offer practical nostalgia that many politicians and city planners have tried to revive over the years. Although streetcars will likely never recover their former level of popularity, a few isolated lines have made a comeback as tourist attractions if not mass transit routes.

1973: Elevated rapid service trains met their end. The last active track, the Bronx section of the 3rd Ave. line, closed. Although some of the bridges and tracks remain in place, NYC's subway has replaced these high-flying trains once and for all. Subways became the city's only mass transit train system. Today, the city is working to reclaim and reuse these spaces. The system's memory is preserved in the High Line, an innovative green space that repurposes 1.45 miles of old track as a beautiful, linear park. The park opened in 2009 and is already a popular tourist attraction and the local favorite. It is a testament to New York City's power to evolve and renew old spaces without losing touch with its roots, even if those roots are above street level.