The history of streetcars in Indianapolis, IN

A historical photo of a streetcar on Washington St. downtown.
This streetcar route is similar to the proposed Blue Line. | Photo via @WilliamHazen7

Once, it was one of the largest systems in the USeven the world.

What was Indy’s streetcar system like in its prime and why did it disappear? Today, we’re tracking the ups and downs of Indy’s forgotten transit system.

The history

Starting in 1890, Indianapolis began using streetcars as its main mode of public transportation. They usually seated around 40 passengers + at their height, they transported 126 million passengers per year by 1920 from Broad Ripple to Irvington to West Indy to downtown

After World War I, America’s love for the automobile began to override the use of street cars — plunging ridership to 52.9 million in 1933. Popularity went back up after an investment in new streetcars, trackless trolleys, traffic congestion + rationing of gas after World War II, but ultimately, the rise of gasoline-powered buses + personal cars led to the streetcar’s ultimate decline in the 1950s.

The last surviving Indy streetcar we know of is now owned by Hoosier Heartland Trolley Co. — a nonprofit with the mission of preserving and recreating Indiana’s electric railways heritage. Indianapolis Railways streetcar No. 153 was in operation for nearly 20 years and is considered to be one of the best designs ever produced.

Screenshot of maps drawn by Reddit user of streetcar routes
Maps of what the routes might have looked like way back when. | Screenshot via u/fiftythreestudio

The future

Though lawmakers placed a state ban on using local revenue to fund a light rail system in Indianapolis in 2014, the city is speeding ahead with bus rapid transit (BRT).

This type of public transportation is similar to light rail + street cars — providing a fast and cost-effective transit option and running on dedicated lanes. Unlike regular bus services, it avoids being stuck in traffic and long lines to pay fare. 

The first of Indy’s BRT systems, the Red Line extends 13 miles, from UIndy to Broad Ripple. And like we mentioned in a previous newsletter, the Purple Line broke ground in February + will connect Lawrence to downtown. Plans for the Blue Line have been proposed as well, which would connect Cumberland and the airport along Washington Street.

Your input

When we asked our Twitter followers if they thought we should bring back streetcars, Michael W. responded, “Absolutely!” and said his ideal first route would be the proposed Blue Line along Washington Street. Let us know what your streetcar desires are below.