This is Part 2 in a series expanding on the City Transit project, looking at the different modes of public transportation of the U.S. & Canada in more depth and detail.
I have a soft spot for trolleybuses. I find them charming, in an odd kind of way. Sitting somewhere between a bus and streetcar, trolleybuses fill a role in the spectrum of transit options that isn’t utilized very often in North America. Of the 300+ trolleybus systems around the world, there are only 6 remaining in the U.S. and Canada--five of which were represented in City Transit.
I often wonder why there aren’t more than that. As streetcars become more desirable, a trolleybus line could be a more affordable option that offers a lot of the same benefits.
Compared to a streetcar, there isn’t as high of an initial construction cost of developing stations, rails, and signals. Yet, a trolleybus line maintains a portion of that sense of permanence that a streetcar line has, in the form of overhead wires. Trolleybuses are more nimble, able to change lanes if there is a traffic obstruction, and these days are equipped with batteries so that they can go off-wire for small detours.
Trolleybuses are also quieter and more environmentally friendly than a normal bus, and are particularly useful in cities with steep hills, combining the high torque of an electric motor with the grip of rubber tires.
There are downsides, of course—overhead wires are controversial, they’re a bit more difficult to maintain than a normal bus, and don’t offer the capacity and that je ne sais quoi appeal of streetcars—but I believe they should be considered more often.
Here is a look at the 6 North American cities that still have trolleybus lines and why - including one very curious outlier.
There are four trolleybus lines in Boston, three of which originate from the Harvard Square station. These lines survived in part because the underground tunnel at that station limits the number of diesel buses running through it. These buses also feature a passenger door on the diver’s side, as the loading platform there is on the left.
In addition to these routes, the Silver line system utilizes articulated trolley buses on a portion of its route through the Waterfront Tunnel, which prohibits diesel emissions. These buses are dual mode, as there are other sections of the route in which overhead wires are not permitted.
Dayton is the smallest city in America with trolleybus lines, a fact that has been true since 1970. The system has risked closure several times over the years, but has survived as retaining the services was determined to be the most cost-effective option. The remaining seven routes have been operating since 1988.
Opened in 1923, Philadelphia’s trolleybus system is the second-oldest of the surviving systems worldwide (after Shanghai). There are just three remaining “trackless trolley” lines serving North and Northeast Philadelphia, all of which were former streetcar lines. There were several other isolated clusters of trolleybus lines that closed as recently as 2003.
San Francisco’s Muni operates the second largest trolleybus system in the Western Hemisphere (after Mexico City). The network of 15 lines is particularly useful in this hilly city, which features several of the world’s steepest bus routes, including the steepest known grade at 22.8%. The system is operated with hydroelectric power, making it a particularly green source of transportation.
Seattle’s trolleybus system, the second largest in the U.S. after San Francisco, carries nearly 1/5th of King County Metro’s bus ridership. The system survived a number of cuts in the 1960s, with public support and the gas crisis of the 1970s spurring a later expansion and modernization of the system. Today, there are 15 routes over 68 miles of wires, and there are plans for further expansion.
Vancouver operates 13 routes, the only remaining in Canada after Edmonton ended their service in 2009. The system never seemed to face notable risk of closure, having experienced several expansions over the years, particularly with the opening of the SkyTrain system in the late 1980s. The system draws from hydroelectric power supplied from the Columbia River and other Pacific river systems.