Streetcar Suburbs, 1888 to 1928 [†]
The introduction of the first electric-powered streetcar system in Richmond, Virginia, in 1887 by Frank J. Sprague ushered in a new period of suburbanization. The electric streetcar, or trolley, allowed people to travel in 10 minutes as far they could walk in 30 minutes. It was quickly adopted in cities from Boston to Los Angeles. By 1902, 22,000 miles of streetcar tracks served American cities; from 1890 to 1907, this distance increased from 5,783 to 34,404 miles.
By 1890, streetcar lines began to foster a tremendous expansion of suburban growth in cities of all sizes. In older cities, electric streetcars quickly replaced horse-drawn cars, making it possible to extend transportation lines outward and greatly expanding the availability of land for residential development. Growth occurred first in outlying rural villages that were now interconnected by streetcar lines, and, second, along the new residential corridors created along the streetcar routes.
In cities of the Midwest and West, such as Indianapolis and Des Moines, streetcar lines formed the skeleton of the emerging metropolis and influenced the initial pattern of suburban development. Socio-economically, streetcar suburbs attracted a wide range of people from the working to upper-middle class, with the great majority being middle class. By keeping fares low in cost and offering a flat fare with free transfers, streetcar operators encouraged households to move to the suburban periphery, where the cost of land and a new home was cheaper. In many places, especially the Midwest and West, the streetcar became the primary means of transportation for all income groups.
As streetcar systems evolved, cross-town lines made it possible to travel from one suburban center to another, and interurban lines connected outlying towns to the central city and to each other. Between the late 1880s and World War I, a number of industrial suburbs appeared outside major cities, including Gary, Indiana, outside Chicago, and Homestead and Vandergrift, both outside Pittsburgh.
Concentrated along radial streetcar lines, streetcar suburbs extended outward from the city, sometimes giving the growing metropolitan area a star shape. Unlike railroad suburbs which grew in nodes around rail stations, streetcar suburbs formed continuous corridors. Because the streetcar made numerous stops spaced at short intervals, developers platted rectilinear subdivisions where homes, generally on small lots, were built within a five- or 10-minute walk of the streetcar line. Often the streets were extensions of the gridiron that characterized the plan of the older city.
Neighborhood oriented commercial facilities, such as grocery stores, bakeries, and drugstores, clustered at the intersections of streetcar lines or along the more heavily traveled routes. Multiple story apartment houses also appeared at these locations, designed either to front directly on the street or to form a u-shaped enclosure around a recessed entrance court and garden.
In many places the development of real estate closely followed the introduction of streetcar lines, sometimes being financed by a single operator or developer. East of Cleveland, Ohio, the community of Shaker Village took form after 1904 when O. P. and M. J. van Sweringen set out to create a residential community for middle- and upper-income families. To ensure the fastest and most direct service for home owners they eventually purchased a right-of-way and installed a high-speed electric streetcar to downtown Cleveland. By 1911, the community of Shaker Village was incorporated, establishing a system of local government that would ensure the community's development as a residential suburb for decades to come.
Streetcar use continued to increase until 1923 when patronage reached 15.7 billion and thereafter slowly declined. There was no distinct break between streetcar and automobile use from 1910 to 1930. As cities continued to grow and the demand for transportation increased, the automobile was adopted by increasing numbers of upper-middle to upper-income households, while streetcars continued to serve the middle and working class population. Streetcar companies, however, in the 1920s remained confident about their industry's future. By the 1930s, many became mass transit companies, adding buses and trackless trolleys to their fleets to make their routes more flexible. In a few cities — Boston, Chicago, New York, and Detroit — mass transit included elevated trains and subways.
By the 1940s, streetcar ridership had dropped precipitously. The vast increase in automobile ownership and decentralization of industry to locations outside the central city after World War II brought an end to the role of the streetcar as a determinant of American urban form.
†National Register of Historic Places, Historic Residential Suburbs in the United States 1830-1960, National Park Service, Washington D.C., 2002
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