Philadelphia: 1955 Marmon-Herrington trolleybus loading at Frankford station in July 1978. (Wikipedia Commons/Steve Morgan)

What is the most distinctly Philadelphia way to travel around our city? Is it perhaps the trackless trolley?

You may know it by another name: the trolley bus. They’re essentially buses that connect to wires above the street, drawing on electricity for power.

A Philly manufacturer began road-testing this technology back in 1921, sparking the Evening Public Ledger headline:

“Trackless Trolley Has Secret Debut in Philadelphia.”

1921 Evening Public Ledger article on the trackless trolley’s “secret debut.”

For decades, J.G. Brill Company operated a massive trolley factory in Southwest Philly. At one point, it was among the nation’s largest producers of trolley cars. The trolley bus was part of its repertoire.

In 1923, two years after the so-called secret tests, the trolley bus made its official debut on city streets.

The first route ran along Oregon Avenue in South Philadelphia, and curious Philadelphians clamored to take a “joy ride,” as described The Inquirer at the time.

There wasn’t even an actual transit schedule that first day. Officials just ran cars so that people could experience the thrill.

One of Philadelphia’s first trackless trolleys, in service in 1923. (

Philly was an early adopter of the trackless trolley. And it had its advantages. The vehicles are quieter and greener than other buses.

But trackless trolleys generally lost the race against their diesel-powered brethren.

Only a small handful of American cities still run them.

And one of those cities is…Philadelphia.

A trackless trolley, aka trolley bus, on Frankford Avenue in 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

If you don’t venture to North or Northeast Philly you might not be aware that SEPTA still has a few circulating.

That means Philadelphia has been in the trolley bus game for a century.

In fact, Philly has the longest-running trolley bus service in the entire hemisphere. Only Shanghai, China, has been doing it longer.

Originally tweeted by Avi Wolfman-Arent (@Avi_WA) on July 27, 2023.

Avi Wolfman-Arent is co-host of Studio 2 and a broadcast anchor on 90.9 FM. He was previously an education reporter with WHYY, where he's worked since 2014. Prior to that he covered nonprofits for the...