History of MCTS

Mass transit in Milwaukee has come a long way over the past 160 years. What started as two-man horse carriages has grown into a fleet of 370 clean diesel buses providing tens of millions of rides a year.

The method of transportation has gone through numerous stages of development, but what never changed was the ability to provide safe and efficient transportation to the community.

To learn more about Milwaukee's transit history check out the information below. 

View our 150th anniversary booklet

The Early Years

It all began with the construction of a street railway system in Milwaukee in 1858. In the following year, the Common Council granted the city’s first horse drawn street railroad franchise to the River & Lake Shore City Railway Company. A single track was constructed on N. Water Street from Erie Street to E. Juneau Avenue.On May 30, 1860, a proud city of 45,000 cheered as the first streetcar was pulled over a dirt road by four sturdy horses. It symbolized a remarkable step forward for the city. Fare was 5 cents and the operator received 15 cents per hour.

Thirty years later, on April 3, 1890, the mass transit system in Milwaukee was revolutionized when the first electric car operated on Wells Street. It was not until January 29, 1896, that The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company (TMER&L) was founded. Synonymous with the “Golden Age” of the electric street railway, the company was created primarily as a transportation company, but it also handled electrical utilities.

In 1938, after nearly 45 years, the company split to form the Wisconsin Electric Power Company (The Electric Company) and The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Transport Company (The Transport Company). The later was a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Wisconsin Electric Power Company.

Progress and Innovation

Many changes occurred in the first half of the 20th century, including the introduction of the one-man streetcars in 1921 and, on April 17, 1920, the debut of the first gasoline motor bus on W. Mitchell Street. Trackless trolleys (rubber-Dred electric buses) were substituted for streetcars beginning in 1936 when the North Avenue line was converted to trackless trolley operation. But it wasn’t until 1949 that the last two-man streetcar was retired. Finally, in 1950 the first diesel buses were put in to operation.

In December 1952, the complete separation of the transit operation from the electric utility was accomplished when it was sold to a private company, Milwaukee & Suburban Transport Corporation. Under the new ownership, the conversion of the streetcar lines to bus lines was rapidly completed. On March 2, 1958, the last streetcar crossed the Wells Street viaduct and on June 20, 1965, the company converted the two remaining trackless trolley routes to diesel bus routes.

In March 1964, shortly after completion of the first freeway link to the suburbs, a new rapid transit bus service called the Freeway Flyer was instituted. The Freeway Flyer proved to be an instant success running between Mayfair Shopping Center in Wauwatosa and Downtown Milwaukee. The Freeway Flyer proved it could attract automobile drivers back to buses. Its popularity grew and today there are numerous Freeway Flyer routes in operation.

Under County Ownership

For the first 115 years of the transit system in the Milwaukee area, the system was self-sustaining and ran only on the fares collected from riders. In fact, Milwaukee was one of the last cities in the country to have a privately owned, profit- making transit company. But on July 1, 1975, Milwaukee County acquired ownership of the transit system in order to sustain its existence. It contracted Milwaukee Transport Services, Inc. (MTS) to handle the newly named Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS) bus operation.

Milwaukee County invested in the transit system and led them through significant ridership growth during the 1980s and early 1990s. New services were added such as the Metrolink express service in 1992. Those traveling to special events in the summer, such as Summerfest and the Wisconsin State Fair, relied heavily on the easy-to-use express service. There was even a short time where “trolleys” returned in the early 2000s. Ten Chance Coach Trolley replica buses connected visitors and residents to work, shopping and entertainment venues in Downtown Milwaukee.

 Today, the transit system is operated out of four locations. The system’s administration and fleet maintenance operations were previously located at Cold Spring Shops on Highland Boulevard which in the early 1900s was the site of many innovations including streetcar construction, building of bus bodies and the invention of the transit windshield wiper. But the administration and fleet maintenance operations moved to the present facilities on North 17th Street in October 1985. Every day, operators pull buses out of two stations: Fond du Lac and Kinnickinnic. Each facility also houses a garage to fuel, clean and provide day-to-day maintenance to ensure vehicles run properly. A third station and garage, Fiebrantz, closed in 2018. 

Customer Service & Recognition

 In the 1990s, innovations provided major changes in the way people paid their fares. MCTS focused on programs to increase ridership and revenue for the company such as the Commuter Value Program and U-PASS. The Commuter Value Program was initiated so that employers could offer an employee benefit of reduced transportation costs. To assist the university population, the popular U-PASS program was introduced. The U-PASS program offers unlimited MCTS rides to tens of thousands of students at five universes or colleges including Milwaukee Area Technical College, Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. 

In 1987 and again in 1999, MCTS received the highest honor by being selected as the best transit system in the country when the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) presented the Outstanding Achievement Award to MCTS. The company was chosen based on operations effectiveness and efficiency, innovation, customer service, ridership and overall administration. Throughout the years, MCTS has won dozens of other national awards in recognition of excellence and innovation in specific areas ranging from purchasing to advertising and marketing. In 2019, APTA honored MCTS with its Innovation Award for our ‘MCTS Excellence’ program, a video series that uses bus surveillance footage to tell a unique story highlighting an employee’s act of kindness, compassion or heroism. Also, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation audits consistently find MCTS to be efficient and effective when compared to peer systems. 

The Future

MCTS is entering the next phase of its history in an exciting position. With an electronic smart card fare payment, top-rated smartphone app and GPS-based bus tracking system, MCTS is making riding easier and more convenient than ever before. 

MCTS is also working to implement new ways of providing service, from a regional nine-mile East-West Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line to the first full system review in nearly 40 years – the MCTS NEXT project -- we're working to ensure riders can continue to connect with all the places they are going.