San Diego's horse-drawn streetcar service started in 1886. The electric streetcar was not far behind, but San Diego's early streetcar systems were plagued with problems. Lines opened and folded, suffering from technical problems, multiple owners, fraud, and even suicide. John Spreckels, the San Francisco sugar magnate, invested in the San Diego Streetcar Co. His plan was to buy up every available rail franchise and create a uniform all-electric public transit system. In 1891, he formed the San Diego Electric Railway and introduced the city's first double-decker electric streetcar in 1892. By 1896, the innovative and determined John Spreckels had converted all of the cars to electricity.
In 1914, various jitney-buses and other vehicles started trawling streetcar stops to poach passengers by offering a faster ride at the same price. This practice actually had a substantial negative impact on the streetcar revenues. In any case, buses started replacing the streetcars in the 1920s and people started driving their own cars too. Then, John Speckels died in 1926, making the survival of streetcars even more tenuous.
In an effort to revive streetcar service, new cars with automobile-style controls, the ability to accelerate and decelerate quickly, and quiet rubber wheels were introduced in the 1930s. World War II and gas rationing brought about a temporary increase in streetcar ridership, but as soon as the war was over the decline continued. When Western Transit company bought San Diego Electric railway in the 1948, one of the first things they did was to file an application with the Public Utilities Commission to end streetcar service. The last streetcar ran in 1949. The San Diego Historical Society has lots of information and photos of streetcars, as does the San Diego Electric Railway Association.
Plans for a new trolley system in San Diego were already being discussed in 1966, but nothing much happened until the late 1970s. The new San Diego Trolley started service in 1981 with 13.5 miles of track. Since then, incremental expansions have created a system with 134 vehicles, 53.5 miles of track, and over 35 million riders per year!