Suburban Streetcar Desire

While researching the the streetcar's current popularity, the term "streetcar suburb" didn't mean much to this editor until he realized he lived in one.
by | May 25, 2010

I live in a streetcar suburb in Massachusetts. The term meant little to me until I started researching my July Urban Notebook column on the return of streetcars to urban areas. The homes in my neighborhood were built over a century ago on small lots, just inside the town line, which is adjacent to what was then a thriving manufacturing city in New England. According to the local historical society, my streetcar suburban neighborhood extends no more than three blocks on both sides of our main street, making it an easy walk to the streetcar line that existed from 1898 until World War II.

Streetcar suburbs took off in the 1890s. Streetcar systems were affordable to ride and relatively reliable (like the system in Del Ray, Virginia, as shown in the WETA Neighborhoods video clip below), practically guaranteed their popularity among the growing American middle class. Josef W. Konvitz's "Patterns in the Development of Urban Infrastructure" in American Urbanism cites that in 1890, there was 5,783 miles of streetcar track in America. By 1907, more than 34,000 miles served American cities and suburbs.

The explosion in streetcar lines in America is best illustrated by novelist E.L. Doctorow, who captured their popularity in Ragtime, his famous novel of historical fiction set at the turn of the twentieth century. In the book, one of his characters travels from New York City to Boston, simply by riding the length of each streetcar line, from town to town, all the way up the northeast coast.

Nor were streetcar lines confined to cities and their adjacent suburbs. I found lines that served towns and even villages, far from any metropolitan area. This insatiable demand for trolley transit peaked in 1923, when more than 15 billion streetcar rides were recorded. But by the Roaring Twenties, America's love affair with the automobile was in full bloom and the age of streetcars began its slow but steady decline.

Cost pressures forced the privately-owned streetcar lines to consolidate and eventually most were taken over by municipalities. But even with public sector support, streetcar use continued to drop as buses and cars replaced what many believed at the time to be an outmoded form of transit.

By 1960, almost all streetcar lines had been replaced by bus lines or had disappeared altogether. Only in the larger cities -- Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, New Orleans -- did remnants of streetcar service remain.

Today, streetcars are being rediscovered and exist in a variety of formats, from serious modes of transit to tourist attractions (I have three streetcar museums within easy driving distance of my home). And should you happen to live in a house that was built prior to 1920, chances are you too live in a streetcar suburb.

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