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The Birth of Mass Transit in NYC

Mass transit emerged in New York City in 1827 with the omnibus, a large stagecoach pulled by horses that could accommodate about a dozen riders at a time. While horse-drawn carriages had always existed in NYC, the omnibus was different because it ran along a designated route and was a more affordable option. “Omni” meant the bus carried everyone and anyone. The ride was cushioned with steel springs, but wheels were solid metal and wood. One could imagine the rough ride its passengers experienced and the amount of effort needed by the draft animals to pull the oversize coaches along NYC’s cobblestone, unfinished, and refuse-strewn streets. On November 14, 1832, the development of mass transit took a huge leap forward when the world’s first streetcar line starting running on the Bowery.

NYC Omnibus, undated.

The streetcar was similar to an omnibus but its steel wheels ran on steel tracks embedded in the road. Streetcars provided a much smoother and comfortable ride than an omnibus and the reduction in friction allowed the same amount of horsepower to pull much heavier loads at almost twice the speed. The original streetcar route of Bowery and Fourth Avenue between Prince and 14th Street was the direct forefather of today’s Metro-North Railway system, which now carries millions of passengers each year from Grand Central north not just to Harlem but the Bronx, Connecticut, Westchester, and Upstate New York. While the transition from one type of horse-drawn carriage to another might not seem like a huge deal, it fundamentally changed the way people were able to live and work. The increased efficiency from omnibus to streetcar resulted in a fare reduction and greater capacity, and many more New Yorkers were able to use this new mode of transportation.

This image from about 1830 shows omnibus traffic along Broadway in front of St. Pauls Chapel. Image via the Memorial History of the City of New York

Major advances took place from 1830-1940, including steam-powered trains, electric trolleys, the subway network, and automobiles, but it was the introductions of the omnibus and the streetcar just five years later that allowed many New Yorkers to commute to work.

Prior to 1820, NYC’s core of development was all downtown. The well-to-do merchant class, middle-class artisans, and working-class people all lived and worked in the same walkable communities. Farther afield Villages dotted Manhattan like Greenwich Village and Harlem, but people generally did not commute from those suburbs to downtown to work each day. Riding a horse from your home to your office just wasn’t something most people (except the very rich) could do.

This streetcar shown in 1897 on a ceremonial run was built between 1853 and 1862. This model had a design feature that let the carriage swivel on just one pin to reverse its direction.

But through the 1820s and 30s, the city experienced massive growth across many industries and the influx of hundreds of thousands (eventually millions) of European immigrants. In 1830 NYC had a little over 200,000 residents. By 1860, the population had more than quadrupled to over 800,000. While business, commerce, and retailing remained focused downtown, the middle and upper classes increasingly fled the central area to live in more suburban neighborhoods several miles north. With the advent of the streetcar, the middle classes of clerks and artisans were now able to commute from their healthier neighborhoods to the central business district. The working classes remained near the core and close to industrial workplaces such as docks and factories, since even the comparatively affordable streetcar fare was out of reach.

The horse-drawn streetcar was the standard mode of mass transit in New York City for over fifty years until steam (starting in 1883) and electric (1890) powered trolleys edged onto the scene, followed by the growth of the subway starting in 1903. The era of the horse-drawn streetcar ended on July 26, 1917 with the closure of the Bleecker Street line. By 1912, cars outnumbered horses in New York City, and trolleys met their demise at the hands of the automobile and Robert Moses several decades later.

Read more here about the beginning of the streetcar.

Streetcar on Bleecker Street and Broadway, 1917. Image via New York Transit Museum

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