Why Study Transit History?

Public transportation is an integral part of the transportation network. Millions of people use public transit in the United States every day to get to work, school, daily appointments, entertainment, or to see family. In the early 20th century, thousands of miles of streetcar tracks lined cities and towns across United States. A vastly different realm of public transportation compared to today’s public transit networks. 

Take Rosslyn, the heavily urbanized city center of Arlington County, Virginia. Today, the downtown area is home to large corporate offices, restaurants, and lined with city streets connecting the downtown to Georgetown across the Potomac, and the US-29 and I-66 highways. The Rosslyn of one hundred years ago looked vastly different, with a streetcar terminal near the river’s edge, serving as the terminus for the Washington & Old Dominion railroad. Driving out of Rosslyn into Georgetown via the Francis Scott Key Bridge, it is hard to tell that at one point, there was a streetcar and railroad network operating through the city with the old streetcar terminal connecting the city to multiple railroads.  

“Rosslyn Terminal Station,” Built By the People Themselves. https://lindseybestebreurtje.org/arlingtonhistory/items/show/25

Understanding the Past 

How did the nation’s public transit systems evolve over time? What lessons can we learn from transit history and then apply in policy making to improve public transit? There is extensive research on transit history that helps answer these questions. The ongoing conversation about transit history helps to shape understanding about what transit is or what transit should be, which can guide policy towards the betterment of public transit. Three works provide in-depth explanations and analyses of transit history, each approaching it from a different angle. Together, these works provide a holistic view of transit history and the important lessons we can take from the transit past. 

Nicholas Bloom’s work “The Great American Transit Disaster” is a selection of case studies from across the country which look at the various elements that impacted public transit in those areas. Case studies include Baltimore, Detroit, and Atlanta, where Bloom discusses the larger issues like auto centric planning and white flight that were associated with the decline in public transit. Cases including San Francisco and Boston highlight some established practices that kept public transit alive and well. Although even places like San Francisco saw a decline in their vast streetcar networks. 


Jake Berman’s work “The Lost Subways of North America” is a cartographic guide which visualizes and discusses past extensive public transit networks of many North American cities. The book discusses what once was, what went wrong, and what could be done in terms of public transit network development.  

Philip Plotch’s work, “The Last Subway” is a deep dive into the life and history of the Second Ave Subway in New York City. The book goes through the efforts to complete the subway line over the past several decades, highlighting the challenges of kicking the project down the road, and the important contexts the Second Ave subway existed in along the way.  

Each of these works provides a window into transit history, and when read together, the reader gets a fully comprehensive review of transit history from different angles. Bloom’s work provides a comparative study of multiple cities’ transit history experiences, highlighting the national trends that impacted public transit. Berman’s work visualizes the public transit experience across time and space, providing an important image of what once was. Plotch’s work dives into one case study in transit history, highlighting the complexities of public transit projects in a city. Together, these works explain transit history at a macro, micro and visual level, leaving the reader with a sharper understanding of it.  

The Larger Context of Transit History 

The story of public transit is not just a story about streetcars, buses, and heavy rail transit. The conversation about transit history includes issues related to housing, economic, social, and racial policies that create and divide communities. The decline in public transit in the later 20th century exists within a larger context of change across the country. The rise of the automobile and construction of highways made driving an alternative to public transit. Soon, the trend shifted to driving as the primary mode of transportation and public transit as an alternative. The suburbs became the place to live, and cities built highways connecting the suburbs to the downtown offices where people worked. In many cities like St. Paul, Miami, and Nashville, the interstate, which was intended to improve connectivity, was built through traditionally Black neighborhoods, destroying communities and upending lives.  

Land use and urban renewal policies that favored large shopping malls with massive parking lots, were built around the car. The planning and transportation policies of the mid 20th century that favored the automobile also had its roots in systemic racism, with the destruction of Black neighborhoods for highways and zoning laws that prevented Black families from accessing neighborhoods. Public transit suffered. Rather than a form of transportation for all people and purposes, public transit networks of the 1970s were designed as transportation for commuting in and out of the city.  

Progress Made, Progress Still to Come 

The environment that public transit exists in has systemic issues that have led to its decline. But in recent years, there has been improvement. While the public transit system of today is not the same vast network of streetcars from before, the system of today is one of multi modal public transit options. Light rail, bus rapid transit (BRT), micro mobility options, paratransit, and on-demand transit are parts of the public transit systems across the country. Increased federal funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) of 2021 added tens of billions of dollars for public transit. Transit advocacy is rising, with thousands of people and groups calling for public transit expansion and improvements for all people. The focus on equitable transit-oriented development is a critical step in providing transit and transit-accessible services for more people.  

Progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go. Cities across the country are coming to terms with the policies of 30 years ago that need revisiting. Cities like Minneapolis and Richmond are eliminating parking minimums, aimed at reducing car dependence in urban areas, potentially making space for more pedestrian and transit-friendly spaces. Smaller cities that are now expanding, are seeing investments in public transit. Huntsville, Alabama received a federal grant to plan a new BRT line for the city. As policy makers, planners, and transportation professionals think about public transit, taking lessons from the past is important to ensure that they do not make the same mistakes. Decades of auto centric planning and systemic racism in policy making create a complex world to navigate. Cities will need to be aggressive in supporting public transit improvements hindered by past policies.  

Answering the Big Question  

The Rosslyn Terminal for the Washington & Old Dominion railroad is gone. The tracks connecting Rosslyn to the regional network have been taken out, and the bridges dismantled. It is a part of the past, and the public transit network has evolved over time into its current state.  

So why should we study transit history? The world moves on and is seemingly unaffected by past transit networks. But the history of public transit is not just about the stations and tracks, but the people who used it and the larger context that transit existed in. The history of public transit is a window into the larger history of the country. A history of created and divided communities. Public transit is a viable and important form of transportation, and there is a growing sense of its importance and support of public transit projects. The history of public transit can provide us with applicable best practices and avoidable mistakes as we shape a more reliable and equitable public transit system of tomorrow.  

To hear more about lessons from transit history, check out Eno’s recent webinar, “Navigating the Past: Lessons from America’s Transit History,” where Nicholas Bloom, Jake Berman, and Philip Plotch share and discuss insights on transit history.  

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