Public Transportation


For more than three centuries public transportation has helped both to shape and define the Greater Philadelphia region. Befitting one of the world’s largest cities, Philadelphia and its hinterland have been served by a bewildering array of transportation options, and these vehicles and routes have helped to define the extent of the region.

Public transportation – consisting of vehicles that operate on fixed routes used by the public – began in the region in 1688 with a ferry between Philadelphia and what is now Camden, New Jersey. This early line, though not a success, spawned additional ferry service and quickly established a Philadelphia hinterland in New Jersey. It was an early example of land outside Pennsylvania being tied economically and culturally to the city and established a precedent for southern New Jersey to develop in association with Philadelphia.

It would be more than one hundred years before local public transportation extended beyond ferries, but during the early nineteenth century an explosion of options developed as the city sought to expand both physically within the region and economically across the region and nation. In December 1831, Philadelphia ceased to be a walking city for those who could afford the fares of the new omnibus service in the city and its immediate suburbs in the county. The next year saw the introduction of commuter trains on the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Rail Road, which allowed the middle classes and above to separate home from work not just within the city but also in portions of Philadelphia County like East Falls, Germantown, and Chestnut Hill, and in neighboring Montgomery County.

Not long after Philadelphia’s political consolidation in 1854, the streetcar, a technological change in public transportation, became the vehicle that allowed the city’s grid to expand throughout the once rural county. On January 20, 1858, the first streetcars in the region began to be operated by the Frankford and Southwark Philadelphia City Passenger Railway Company. These horse-drawn streetcars quickly replaced omnibuses as the streetcars were larger, quicker, and more profitable. Soon the streetcars extended throughout the region to areas previously poorly served by public transportation. Coupled with an expansion in commuter rail service, Philadelphia could justly claim one of the finest transportation systems in country by the time of the nation’s Centennial Exhibition in 1876.

Network of Streetcars and Trains

print depicting Cooper's Ferry
Cooper’s Ferry helped to establish an early transportation link between Philadelphia, all of New Jersey, and New York. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

By the 1880s, middle-class Philadelphians had a more-than-adequate system of horse-drawn streetcars and steam-hauled commuter trains to serve their transportation needs in both the booming metropolis and its expanding hinterland in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The lines of privately-owned streetcar companies occupied every major (and many minor) streets in Center City and extended southward, westward, and northward from the original urban core along the Delaware River into the adjoining neighborhoods. In addition to these routes centered on the business district, a large number of local lines operated in the other densely populated portions of the city like West Philadelphia.

Commuter trains served not only the city but also the larger region. The 1870s and 1880s were a period of transition for the railroads; some lines had quite intensive service while others still had surprisingly few trains. Overall, however, the steam trains were not used by many middle-class Philadelphians for their daily commute in 1880 simply because all of the downtown termini were a long walk or  streetcar ride from the business district. By 1893, all three rail systems serving the city relocated their main facilities to Center City, and the daily commute by steam train became more viable for those who could afford the fares. The electric trolley, introduced in the mid-1890s after a brief and unsuccessful flirtation with cable cars, quickly became the typical mode of middle-class transport and eventually served as a symbol of the late-nineteenth century. In just five years, from 1892 to 1897, trolleys replaced all the horse-drawn streetcars and cable cars in the city.

In addition to a reasonably well-to-do ridership, all forms of public transportation in the region had comparatively low entry costs and only moderate regulation, and, through the 1860s, this meant that most providers were small, specialized organizations with just one or a few routes. Railroad and streetcar companies tended to go where their names claimed and not elsewhere. For example, a potential passenger knew the ultimate destination of a West Chester & Philadelphia train. Following the Civil War, however, a period of intense competition between long-distance railroads (such as Philadelphia’s Pennsylvania Railroad) brought about consolidation in the railway industry nationally in the 1870s and 1880s. Technological changes, such as cable cars and electric trolleys at approximately the same time, encouraged similar mergers in the streetcar industry. The result was a dramatic transformation from a competitive environment in the 1860s of many small companies to a monopoly streetcar company in the city, known by 1902 as the Philadelphia Rapid Transit (PRT), and only two railroad systems – the Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia & Reading. Combined, by 1900 these two companies provided virtually all passenger rail services for a region that stretched from the Jersey Shore to Harrisburg.

A combination of events in the 1890s began the shift from nineteenth-century public transportation, serving primarily the middle classes and above, to twentieth-century mass transportation aimed at moving as many people as possible. Some of the changes were largely technological: the development of subways and elevated railways and electric streetcars allowed for lower fares. Coupled with these technological changes often were political changes. New franchise agreements allowed for increased government regulation at a time when both politicians and civic boosters envisioned a New Philadelphia in which working-class Philadelphians could live at greater distances from their work. Other changes were economic with political ramifications. Although the organizers of the new monopoly traction company in Philadelphia became quite wealthy, service deteriorated and strikes increased, creating a political consensus that more government planning and regulation was needed in public transportation. The most important change, however, was that rising working-class wages, together with falling or static fares, allowed more people to ride the trolleys and subways more often for work, shopping, and pleasure.

Market Street Subway-Elevated

print depicting the Green Street depot
On November 24, 1832, the first steam-powered train to run in Philadelphia carried commuters from the central city to Germantown with a stop at the Green Street station. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Technological change continued in the early twentieth century. The Market Street Subway-Elevated opened between 1905 and 1908, offering the city its first rapid transit line which, when coupled with suburban trolleys, gave the region its first affordable high-speed system. Because of the financial weakness of the private company that instituted the line, the city took the lead in subway-elevated development over the next few decades, extending the original line to Frankford in 1922 and opening the Broad Street Subway in sections between 1928 and 1932. Although the trolleys and the subway-elevated caused the commuter railroads to lose some riders, the two major companies embarked on an electrification program of their own and between 1906 and 1933 modernized major portions of their commuter rail network.

Another late-nineteenth-century invention, the internal combustion engine, had the greatest effect on public transportation in the region in the twentieth century. By the 1910s, motorized buses began to operate on the streets of the Philadelphia area. The PRT and other transit companies on both sides of the Delaware River initially used buses to supplement trolley routes but by the 1920s, began use buses to replace streetcars. Buses offered transit companies two advantages. First was more operating flexibility, as a bus could detour around an obstacle that would delay a trolley. The other was lower capital costs as buses operated on public highways while trolleys needed privately maintained rails.

In addition to the buses operated by the established, regulated transit companies, a new form of public transportation came to the region: the jitney. Jitneys were unregulated buses operated by private individuals, usually in competition with existing transit companies. The jitneys usually charged lower fares but often only operated during peak hours and on peak routes when they could be assured of heavy ridership. Although jitneys could be found throughout the metropolis, they were extremely popular in New Jersey, perhaps because that state had a particularly good public highway system.

Despite the advent of the automobile, for the first third of the twentieth century most  residential development still followed the railroad and trolley lines. Even for the Philadelphians who could afford an automobile, the car remained more of a toy for weekend exploration than a family’s primary means of transport until midcentury.

Depression Hurts Public Transit

The Great Depression had many negative effects on the public transportation of the region. Both railroad systems cut back on their commuter services, and their lines in southern New Jersey to the shore – once fiercely competitive – were merged to create the Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines. Many small suburban trolley lines were abandoned, and other larger systems converted the electric streetcars to buses. In Philadelphia, the PRT declared bankruptcy and emerged in 1940 as the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC). The city’s ambitious rapid transit construction program slowed and then stopped.

Although public transportation ridership rose greatly during World War II, this increase was temporary. At the end of the war, automobile ownership increased and middle-class families left the older sections of the city for the car-friendly Great Northeast and suburbs. By the 1950s, the PTC was owned by National City Lines, a bus-friendly company that continued abandoning streetcar lines, and both the Pennsylvania and Reading railroads were cutting commuter service in response to growing losses.

In reaction to these declines in service, local and state governments became increasingly involved in public transportation starting in the late 1950s. In 1960, the City of Philadelphia began subsidizing service and purchasing equipment for use on commuter rail lines in the city to Chestnut Hill and Manayunk. The South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) began to coordinate and fund all public transportation in Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania suburbs in 1965. SEPTA bought new equipment and built the Center City Commuter Connection in 1984 to link the former Pennsylvania and Reading systems. Similar changes happened in New Jersey, where the state initially funded train and bus services and later took over their operation. Perhaps the region’s most significant change at this time was the construction of the Lindenwold High Speed Line in New Jersey by the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA). This line opened in 1969 and featured air-conditioned and computer-operated trains. More recently, New Jersey Transit opened the River Line between Trenton and Camden in 2004 and ridership has been well ahead of estimates.

Hubs and Spokes

photograph showing construction of the Market Frankford Elevated Subway
This photograph from 1916 shows construction of the Market Frankford Elevated Subway on 189 Front Street in Philadelphia.  (Library Company of Philadelphia)

By the first decades of the twenty-first century, public transportation in the Greater Philadelphia region centered on a few hubs (Trenton and Camden in New Jersey; Wilmington in Delaware; Chester, Norristown and Upper Darby in Pennsylvania; and Center City for the region) with spokes extending throughout the city, suburbs, exurban towns, and countryside. Along these spokes rows of working- and middle-class homes attested to public transportation’s role in shaping the region, and retail and commercial districts remained around lesser transit hubs like Frankford and Upper Darby. Because of its extensive public transportation system, Philadelphia had a lower than average car ownership rate for an American city. “Reverse commuting,” boarding a train or bus in the city to a job in the suburbs, also became increasingly common and new transportation hubs, like Plymouth Meeting and King of Prussia, continued to develop.

Public transportation faces a wide range of challenges from uncertain funding to the need to serve jobs in the suburbs with new hubs and routes. The four major public transportation providers in the region — SEPTA, DRPA, New Jersey Transit and DART First State—will have to adapt to these changes as the region’s transportation needs continue to evolve, as did their predecessors for more than three hundred years.

John Hepp is associate professor of history and co-chair of the Division of Global History and Languages at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, and he teaches American urban and cultural history with an emphasis on the period 1800 to 1940. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2013, Rutgers University.


Cooper's Ferry

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

The first public transportation in the region was a ferry from Philadelphia to what is now Camden in 1688. This early line, though not a success, spawned additional ferry service and quickly established an early Philadelphia hinterland in New Jersey. This 1875 print purports to show Cooper's Ferry in the late-eighteenth century. Cooper's Ferry also helped to establish an early transportation link between Philadelphia, all of New Jersey, and New York.

Railroad Suburbs

Library Company of Philadelphia

This image from 1832 shows a steam engine pulling railroad cars that resemble horse-drawn buggies at the Philadelphia Germantown & Norristown depot at Ninth and Green Streets. Starting in the eighteenth century, wealthy Philadelphians moved to the small borough of Germantown and built grand country estates to escape the crowded city. This influx of wealthy residents to the outskirts of town necessitated a reliable, efficient means of travel to and from the city. As a result, in the early 1830s a group of Germantown entrepreneurs set out to create the Philadelphia, Germantown, and Norristown Rail Road. The first trains arrived in Germantown in 1832, and the community soon developed into the first railroad suburb of Philadelphia, and one of the first in the nation.

Green Street Depot

Library Company of Philadelphia

The year 1832 saw the introduction of commuter trains on the Philadelphia, Germantown & Norristown Rail Road, which allowed the middle classes and above to separate home from work not just within the city but also portions of Philadelphia County such as East Falls, Germantown, and Chestnut Hill and neighboring Montgomery County. Increased commuter trains over the next few decades helped to enable the political consolidation of the city and county in 1854 because most of the population centers were linked reliably with the originalurban core. This early-twentieth-century print by Frank H. Taylor depicts the Green Street depot of the line in 1876 and shows a steam engine to the left of the station.

Horse-Drawn Streetcar

Library Company of Philadelphia

The horse-drawn streetcar, introduced in 1858, moved along a set of tracks, which improved upon the early omnibus by providing a smoother ride with faster travel speeds for the customers, regardless of the conditions of the road. Faster travel meant that middle-class workers could move into new residential areas, such as to the north of Center City or to West Philadelphia (east of Fortieth Street). Streetcar fares were lower than the omnibus, but still too expensive for members of the working-classes to use on daily basis. Horse-drawn streetcars operated in Philadelphia until around 1897, when electric trolley cars became a more reliable and less expensive alternative. The streetcar shown here at Sixth and Jackson Street in 1894 demonstrates how streetcars typically operated with two horses, a driver, and a conductor.

Waiting for the Train, 1892

Detroit Publishing Co.,Library of Congress

Commuters at Jenkintown in suburban Montgomery County along the Reading railroad await the train arriving in the distance. The final decades of the nineteenth century were the halcyon days of commuter rail service in the region with a large variety of lines linking the city to its hinterland. In addition to the lines focused on Center City and Camden, during this period there were smaller commuter nodes in North and Northeast Philadelphia.

Reading Terminal, 1893

Library of Congress

Reading Terminal opened in 1893 and represented the Reading’s desire to challenge its larger cross-town rival, the Pennsylvania Railroad. The headhouse was designed by architect Francis H. Kimball (known for early skyscrapers in Manhattan and his use of terra-cotta) and the train shed by Wilson Brothers & Company. It was one of the new termini located in Center City that encouraged commuter rail ridership.

Market Street Subway-Elevated

Library Company of Philadelphia

The Market Street Subway-Elevated opened between 1905 and 1908 and offered the city its first rapid transit line and, when coupled with suburban trolleys, created an affordable high-speed system. Over the next few decades, the city extended the original line to Frankford in 1922 and opened the Broad Street Subway in sections between 1928 and 1932. This photograph from 1916 shows construction of the Market Frankford Elevated Subway on 189 Front Street in Philadelphia.

Subway Station Entrance - West Olney Avenue

One of the benefits of adding a mass transit system within the city of Philadelphia was the lower cost of transportation for the public and the ease of which to access the system. The subway entrance photographed in 1936 is located at the corner of West Olney Avenue and North Broad Street, over six miles away from Philadelphia's City Hall. By utilizing this subway station, a person was only twenty minutes away from accessing the center of Philadelphia. This ease of travel and the lower cost of everyday travel provided more incentive for people to move out to the suburbs and away from the center city district. Subways also provided additional incentive for people to travel to larger department stores in Philadelphia. Smaller businesses, like the Franklin's Shoe Repair and the drug store in this photograph, situated themselves by subway entrances because of the volume of people that traveled the subway every day.

PATCO High Speedline - City Hall Station

Photograph for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia by Kristen M. Rigaut

The Port Authority Transit Corporation (PATCO) condensed two underutilized lines, the Locust Street Line in Philadelphia and the Camden Line in New Jersey, together and began operation in 1969 after an extension to the Camden Line to Lindenwold was completed. PATCO brought new technological innovations, like air-conditioned and computer-operated train cars, to the Philadelphia subway system for the first time. The PATCO train seen in this picture runs from 16th and Locust streets in Philadelphia, crosses the Delaware River on the Ben Franklin Bridge, goes under Camden, and ends in Lindenwold, New Jersey.

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Time Periods



Related Reading

Bezilla, Michael. Electric Traction on the Pennsylvania Railroad, 1895-1968. University Park: Pennsylvania State University, 1981.

Burgess, George H., and Miles C. Kennedy. Centennial History of the Pennsylvania Railroad Company, 1846-1946. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Railroad, 1949.

Cheape, Charles W. Moving the Masses: Urban Public Transit in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, 1880-1912. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.

Contosta, David R. Suburb in the City: Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, 1850-1990. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992.

Cox, Harold E.  Surface Cars of Philadelphia, 1911-1965. Privately published, 1965.

_____. Philadelphia Car Routes: Horse, Cable, Electric. Privately published, 1982.

Cudahy, Brian J. Cash, Tokens, and Transfers: A History of Urban Mass Transit in North America. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990.

Grow, Lawrence. On the 8:02: An Informal History of Commuting by Rail in America. New York: Main Street Press, 1979.

Hepp, IV, John H. The Middle-Class City: Transforming Space and Time in Philadelphia, 1876-1926. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Kramer, Frederick A.  Pennsylvania-Reading Seashore Lines: An Illustrated History of South Jersey’s Jointly-Owned Railroad. Ambler, Pennsylvania: Crusader Press, 1980.

Messer, David W. Triumph II: Philadelphia to Harrisburg, 1828-1998. Baltimore: Barnard, Roberts and Co., 1999.

_____. Triumph III: Philadelphia Terminal, 1838-2000. Baltimore: Barnard, Roberts and Co., 2000.

_____, and Charles S. Roberts. Triumph V: Philadelphia to New York, 1830-2002. Baltimore: Barnard, Roberts and Co., 2002.

Speirs, Frederick W. “The Street Railway System of Philadelphia, Its History and Present Condition,” Johns Hopkins University Studies in Historical and Political Science, Fifteenth Series. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1897.

Related Collections

Related Places

Sixty-Ninth Street Transportation Center (Media and Sharon Hill Lines), Sixty-Ninth and Market Streets, Philadelphia.

Market East Station and Reading Terminal Train Shed (Pennsylvania Convention Center), Eleventh and Market Streets, Philadelphia.

Norristown Transportation Center, 93 Schuylkill Avenue and DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pa.

The River Line, Camden to Trenton, N.J.


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