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The Fascinating Rise, Fall and Rebirth of Streetcar Suburbs

From 1890-1930, they exploded across the American landscape, offering people the chance to own a home just outside the city. Lack of government support curtailed their growth, but these historic neighborhoods serve as models for efficient urban planning.

Streetcar lines began to stretch out from the booming manufacturing city of Springfield, Ma., reaching once rural areas and turning them into suburbs, such as Longmeadow, where a line was built in 1908. (Longmeadow Historical Society)
The history of the post-World War II American suburb is inextricably linked to the history of the automobile. These residential neighborhoods, far removed from busy city centers, flourished only because people had cars to commute into work.

But suburbs were not always so closely tied to the automobile. In fact, from about 1890-1930, they were shaped by a completely different form of transportation: the streetcar. The rise and fall of the streetcar suburb is a story of how government dollars (or a lack thereof) can drastically shape urban planning and housing development.

The Origins of the Streetcar Suburb

First developed in Richmond, Va., in 1887, the electric streetcar quickly became a popular form of public transportation throughout American cities, replacing the earlier horse-drawn trolleys (or horsecars). By 1907, there were over 34,000 miles of electric streetcar track throughout the United States.

While streetcars allowed people to travel easily within a city, they also ushered in a wave of housing development outside of urban centers. This occurred for two primary reasons. First, most streetcar companies charged a flat fee for riders, regardless of transfers. Local governments awarded streetcar companies monopolies in exchange for holding fares at a steady price (usually five cents). This gave people the opportunity to afford to live further outside of the city and commute in for work.

Second, land outside of cities was relatively affordable at the time, allowing developers to purchase swaths of undeveloped property on which to build homes. Sometimes streetcar operators (known as “traction magnates”) would also serve as housing developers, increasing use of their streetcars through the creation of residential neighborhoods.

Streetcar suburbs began to appear in cities across the United States, including Denver, Des Moines, Los Angeles, and Boston. The streetcar lines ran radially outside of cities, and the suburbs formed in rings around urban centers. Some existed within city limits, while others became their own municipalities.
LA streetcar map.jpg
Los Angeles established its first electric streetcars in 1877. This 1906 map shows the city’s complex rail transit network, including its multitude of streetcars. This image reveals how streetcar lines started in urban centers and radiated out into surrounding neighborhoods, paving the way for streetcar suburbs. (Library of Congress)

Life in a Streetcar Suburb

Streetcar suburbs were not dominated by the single-family home, as many American suburbs are today. Instead, these neighborhoods typically had a mixed-use layout, incorporating a combination of commercial properties, multifamily buildings and single-family houses.

Developers placed commercial properties at streetcar intersections. Residents could easily run errands at their local grocery stores, banks, cleaners and drugstores on their way to or from the city.

Most homes were only a five to 10-minute walk from one of these streetcar intersections. Developers typically built a combination of multi-unit and single-family homes, making the streetcar suburb accessible to families with a variety of incomes.

Streetcar suburbs like Somerville, outside of Boston, Ma., became well known for their “triple-decker” homes. The façade of a triple-decker (or three-decker) looked similar to a single-family home, but each building had three family units within. These structures allowed lower middle-class families to more easily purchase a slice of suburbia.
Many people saw suburbs as an affordable housing option. Lower middle-class families could purchase a unit in a multi-family home. In New England, triple decker buildings like the ones featured here maintained the appearance of a single-family home while in fact housing three families. (Kayla Skillin/Dorchester Historical Society)

The End of an Era

Some have argued that the era of streetcars and streetcar suburbs faded with the invention of the Ford Model T and the popularity of the automobile. But the true story is more complicated.

The exclusive monopolies governments granted streetcar companies ultimately limited streetcar companies’ opportunities for growth. Because streetcar companies agreed to hold fares to five cents, they began to suffer as inflation rose. At the same time, labor unions fought to increase wages, which car operators struggled to afford. Some local governments also required streetcar companies to help pave the roads they ran on, adding to their maintenance costs.

With locked-in low fares, increasing wages and little to no government support, many streetcar companies struggled to stay afloat. To survive, some companies decided to expand their transit offerings, adding buses, trackless trolleys and subways.

While government had little involvement in supporting streetcar companies, they played a large role in stimulating the automobile industry. After World War I, federal, state, and local governments funded the development and maintenance of roads for vehicles. These roads, coupled with the affordability of cars, allowed people to move even further outside of cities than streetcar suburbs.

The federal government also helped develop and popularize a new kind of suburb, one that relied on the automobile. After WWII, the government hired developers to build mass-produced residential communities far outside of urban centers. The G.I. Bill and other federal efforts encouraged veterans to purchase these homes upon returning from war.

Changes in zoning laws also allowed these residential suburbs to flourish. In 1926, the Supreme Court upheld a ruling to allow municipalities greater separation of land uses. Developers could now create housing developments that were strictly zoned for residential purposes. New suburbs could be built just for residences, rather than the mixed-use layout of streetcar suburbs.

Streetcars did not completely disappear, but they faced growing challenges. The expansion of the automobile led to congested city streets that hindered streetcars and led to service delays. At the same time, companies like National City Lines (a company linked to General Motors, Firestone Tire and Standard Oil) began purchasing and tearing up streetcar lines to replace them with buses and expand automobile routes.

Without government subsidies, streetcar companies did not stand much of a chance in the way of automobile growth and suburban development. Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, homebuyers increasingly turned to the residential, automobile-dependent suburbs instead of the once-popular streetcar suburbs.

A Model for the Future?

Despite the demise of the streetcar and the expansion of car-oriented residential suburbs, streetcar suburbs did not completely disappear. These neighborhoods still exist, serving as mixed-use communities located closely outside of numerous cities. Many of these – ranging from Inman Park in Atlanta to Somerville in Boston – continue to be densely populated neighborhoods today.

One study argues that the reason for the continued popularity of these areas is their clustering of both businesses and residences. Zoning regulations in these neighborhoods allow for dense development of both residential and nonresidential properties. This kind of zoning can encourage businesses to build near other successful businesses, which in turn attracts new homebuyers.

These mixed-use neighborhoods, with their close access to cities and lively commercial centers (many of which are now located along local bus, light rail or subway routes) are attractive to many people looking to live close to an urban area. The diversity of housing in these areas – the combination of multi-unit and single-family homes – provide opportunities for people across the socioeconomic spectrum to afford a space to call their own, while enjoying the amenities of both the city and a small neighborhood.

While streetcars themselves might not make an active comeback in the near future, streetcar suburbs might be the ideal model for flexible, efficient urban development.

Emma Newcombe has a Ph.D. in American and New England Studies from Boston University.
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