The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

In Praise of "Streetcar Suburbs"

View from Downtown Oak Park, IL, one of my favorite streetcar suburbs.  The CTA’s Green Line L is visible in the center of the picture.  Source:

If there is a single American development pattern or style that I love most, it is the streetcar suburb.  Bringing more of this pattern back to our cities would be a great thing.

Let me address one misnomer at the outset.  This development pattern is called streetcar suburb, but it’s not always suburban in the way we understand post-World War II suburbia.  In fact, it’s largely only suburban (as in independent municipality outside of a central city) in some East Coast and Midwest cities.  There, places like Somerville, MA outside Boston, and Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs, as well as Shaker Heights, OH outside of Cleveland and Oak Park, IL outside of Chicago (seen above)  are streetcar suburbs in the purest sense.  They did indeed develop as suburban areas outside of cities yet connected to them via streetcar networks.  In other areas of the country, however, streetcar suburb development became the de facto urban development pattern of some cities, and they are firmly within the boundaries of central cities in other parts of the Midwest and more often in the South and West.

So what are streetcar suburbs?  They are the predominant development type within American cities from about 1890-1930.  It was the most widespread development type prior to the Supreme Court’s upholding of Euclidean zoning (Euclid v. Amber Realty) in 1926, which allowed municipalities to pursue greater separation of land uses as one of its powers.  

The website Living Places documents well the rise and expansion of the streetcar suburb:

“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.[1]

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.”

Living Places elaborates on the development type, describing its characteristics:

“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.”

Personally I love streetcar suburbs because they often have a mixed use character that places built after them lack.  There’s also often a community or neighborhood connectivity within them that I find appealing; many streetcar suburb communities are full of proud, organized and vocal residents who advocate strongly on behalf of their community’s values.   But I find three reasons that highlight why the streetcar suburb was — and is — a superior development type, and why it will make a comeback as American suburbs mature.
They are adaptable.  Streetcar suburbs were often built along grid networks, but not exclusively so; variations in block sizes and topographical adjustments can create differences in them.  Streetcar suburbs were built and designed with streetcar systems in mind, but they generally have been able to succeed far longer than the streetcars themselves.
They are efficient.  Streetcar suburbs can accommodate a broad range of residential types and sizes, from large-lot single-family homes to midrise and high-rise multifamily developments.  This is largely due to the kind of street networks given to them by the initial streetcars that created them.  Another key efficiency: streetcar suburbs are well-suited to the “missing middle” of multifamily residential development, the townhouses, duplexes and small (2-12 units) multifamily buildings that create housing diversity and improve housing affordability.
They are inherently multi-modal.  As perhaps the original transit oriented development type, they are quite able to accommodate public transit; it’s in their DNA.  However, even if streetcar networks never come back, they usually have transit supportive densities that make other modes, like buses or bikes, quite useful.  

As today’s suburbs are confronting ways to retrofit their development in the face of a changing economy and shifts in societal preferences, streetcar suburbs might offer some insight on how more recently built suburbs can make changes while maintaining their traditional appeal.  My guess is that newer suburbs will look to implement many of the principles that girded the streetcar suburb.  
The adaptability and efficiency of streetcar suburbs is evident when illustrated.  In a followup post to this, I’ll illustrate some low-density, medium-density and high-density examples of streetcar suburb designs, followed by land use data that explains the variety of residential uses that can co-exist in the streetcar suburb.  

11 Responses to “In Praise of "Streetcar Suburbs"”

  1. simval84

    Streetcar suburbs are indeed an interesting model, however, its applicability to modern times is doubtful. One thing that is important to point out is that at the time streetcar suburbs were built, streetcars were the fastest mode of transport accessible to the general public. This meant that streetcar suburbs extended into undeveloped areas, the streetcars themselves were often built by developers who wanted to create value for their property outside the city.Nowadays, cars are by far the fastest mode of transport and policies have made them cheap to use. As a result, just like commercial uses used to flock to streetcar lines, commercial uses nowadays flock to highway interchanges. A new streetcar suburb built today could not extend into undeveloped areas, all the areas that could accommodate streetcar suburbs due to proximity to downtown would already be developed in favor of cars.Another issue is that surface transit has become much slower. In the heyday of the streetcar, streetcars were almost the only vehicle on the road, traffic lights and stop signs were extremely rare. So without car congestion to deal with, nor constant traffic signals, the average speed of the streetcar was a decent 9-10 mph. Unfortunately, cars came around and slowed down streetcars tremendously, today, the buses that run on old streetcar alignments frequently go at 6 mph only, barely faster than a brisk walk. A transit line like that is never going to be a major draw.As a result, a streetcar suburb would require a BRT or LRT line on its reserved ROW to be viable.One last thing: though a streetcar suburb is very transit-friendly, thus allowing people to opt out of having and using cars, which permits higher densities of construction, something strikes me as wrong when you claim that they can accommodate a broad range of residential types, as if it were unique to them. Residential types are not restricted by neighborhood type, except for high densities. \”Missing middle\” housing can certainly be built in car-oriented suburbs, we have plenty of examples of that in Québec, even in recent developments, and many garden apartments are built in Texas and Arizona sprawl. The thing that prevents mid-density housing from being built is mainly regulation.


  2. Jed

    I think the idea would be to retrofit inner city suburbs with streetcar lines and change density controls. However those suburbs tend to have the worse NIMBYs, which makes it difficult.Speed is an issue, however hopefully the idea would be to designate street space to street cars. The obvious thing would be to dedicate an outer lane (most likely from on street parking) to the street cars with a road in between.Then finally non-arterial streets can dead-ended, with automatic barriers for streetcars to pass through.Ideally, with modern traction we could achieve 30km/h+ average speeds, which would be awesome.


  3. simval84

    The kind of line you're talking about cannot ever achieve 30 km/h on average. It's not a technological limitation, on transit lines, acceleration and deceleration are capped for the passengers' sake. Braking or accelerating too fast would cause passengers discomfort and maybe even injury as standing passengers may be thrown to the ground.Surface transit lines on urban streets just cannot achieve the speed you refer to, the maximum speed is too low, the stops are too closely spaced and you will have intersections where they may face delays in addition to the delays caused by stops.For example, supposing a LRT line with perfect ROW protection and traffic light priority, stops every 500 meters (versus 150-200 m for the traditional streetcars) and a 15-second average dwell time at stops, the average speed would only be 27 km/h. In practice, even trams in Europe running in protected medians and with traffic light prioritization travel on average at 20 km/h or even less. That is the upper limit of urban street-running transit. Yes, buses sometimes go faster on suburban boulevards, but that is a result of higher maximum speeds and their lack of riders that results in buses stopping only once every 1-2 kilometer. If their use increased, their speed would quickly decrease.The only way to achieve 30+ km/h on transit in urban areas is to have a legit rail right-of-way alignment, with no intersection, only level crossings like you would see on any heavy rail line, and widely spaced stops. But these widely spaced stops aren't conducive to the streetcar suburb design of old, as these areas were largely linear in shape due to the proximity of transit stops. Such a transit line is more conducive to the \”meatball on skewers\” approach which has circular commercial and high-density residential nodes around stations, as can be seen in Tokyo or old commuter train suburbs, rather than linear commercial avenues as in traditional streetcar suburbs.


  4. Kvine

    I think this post is flawed in that it does not recognize that the transportation mode must be relevant in order to be an active catalyst for development. That was true for the streetcar when the streetcar suburbs were developed. The transportation mode generated the development pattern. Nowadays streetcars are used more as novelties. As pointed out by previous post, they are slow, they compete with cars for lane width, and they don't move large numbers of people. There are other forces as well that diminish the relevance of this development type – Walmart, for one.


  5. Eric Douglas

    Development has always and will always gravitate to intersections, whether there is transit there or not. You're overemphasizing streetcars. And as the author stated, many streetcar suburbs are successful still today without rail transit.


  6. Eric Douglas

    I live in the streetcar suburb (neighborhood) of Clifton Gaslight, Cincinnati. I was previously a rural, farming community that grew quickly with the addition first of a cable car and then electric streetcar through the intersection of Clifton Ave and Ludlow Ave. Today, Ludlow Ave is heavily traveled bus thoroughfare, though it's only two lanes of travel with onstreet parking, and I've thought often how it'd be foolish to have a streetcar today right downt the middle of the road since there's much more traffic and since buses seem to be efficient.


  7. Elaine Clegg

    The importance of streetcar suburbs as a model is the pattern of development; compact, connected, destinations and transit access within safe walk and bike range. The ones that exist still work great today, there is no reason we can't build new ones regardless of the current transportation mode preference. continuing our current pattern will provide few opportunities for transportation options which leaves our cities more vulnerable to all sorts of disruptions. Some of the concerns voiced seem to be around the way that streetcars are currently used in the US. I see no reason we can't move toward a more European tram model where they move more slowly in mixed traffic in centers and move more quickly in dedicated right-of-way or lanes between centers. The vehicles are not much different than light rail vehicles – just not in trains – in fact Salt Lake City is using a light rail vehicle on their street car line. They should compete with BRT for sub-regional corridor service, though they may still have a higher up front cost it appears that life-cycle costs would probably favor the steel wheeled vehicle.


  8. Anonymous

    Here, here! I like the post…and I love reading the critical comments that focus on the inefficiency of the streetcar itself. What a red herring! A revival of streetcar suburbs does not need to be serviced by ACTUAL streetcars. Instead, it would be far more efficient (and fast, and cheap) to use subways/trains. Tokyo is a huge metropolitan area that, in many places, has characteristics of streetcar suburbs, thought the trains are much faster than streetcars.True, much of Tokyo is far denser than an American would enjoy, but some of the more upscale neighborhoods are leafy, have decent sized houses, and are within easy reach of downtown by train. Specifically, Denenchofu (Den-en-chōfu 田園調布) and Seijo (Seijō 成城) are wonderful templates to draw from. Denenchofu means \”garden suburb of Chōfu\” and was built circa 1920 specifically as a streetcar suburb. Today it continues to be one of the most prestigious and pleasant parts of the city.


  9. simval84

    A few weeks late, but I feel I must respond to my criticism about streetcars.Too many people look at cities from a purely design perspective. They like the streetcar suburb design aesthetically or like the lifestyle so they want them to be built. I can sympathize with that feeling too. However, it is crucial to understand that a city is first and foremost an economic entity. Cities exist and thrive because bringing together different economic activities in close proximity reduces transport costs and makes it easier to adjust to an evolving economic situation. Individually, it means that people choose to live in cities in order to access services (public and private) and opportunities (schools, jobs) that are greater in quantity and quality.When I said that streetcar suburbs as built in the early 20th century could hardly be built today, I meant that because of car domination, highway construction and population concentration in massive metropolitan regions, cities' services and jobs have often migrated much farther than they were in the days of the early 20th century. So, right now, a streetcar suburb relying on street-running transit like the old streetcars would be effectively cut off from much of a metropolitan area's jobs and services, making it much less economically viable than it was in the early 1900s, when essentially all a city's services and jobs were a short trolley ride away.Streetcar suburbs are still viable for mid-sized cities (500 000 people or less in the entire metro area) because everyone can live in a relatively compact area that street-running transit can possibly service adequately. See Winnipeg for instance, but even there, they built highways and it has emptied neighborhoods of stores in favor of commercial centers near highway interchanges.Proper rapid transit can help solve that issue, with speed 3 to 4 times higher than surface-running transit, it opens up transit access a lot. However, it is often expensive to build, and the effect of rapid transit can be a bit similar to highways, depriving neighborhood arterials of commercial vitality by drawing stores and offices at stations.


  10. simval84

    Eric Douglas, that's not what I was saying at all. I am very much in favor of all of these, but the context has changed, and the solution that worked in the early 1900s may not work today considering that metropolitan areas are much bigger than they were back then and street-running transit isn't as fast as it once was. So you can seek inspiration from streetcar suburbs, but you need to adapt them to the modern world.The reason why metropolitan area population matters is that the larger a population, the more space it will tend to occupy. So the higher the population, the faster transport needs to be to maintain the connection between the different parts of the metro area. In 1920, a metro area with 2 million people would have been the 4th biggest metro area. Today, the 20th largest metro area is St. Louis at 2,2 million people. I would estimate that street-running transit can connect a metro area where population is concentrated inside an area of about 50 square miles (supposing 10-mph average speed and assuming people want to live within 30-minutes of downtown, so 5 miles of distance), including parks, industrial zones, etc… For a 2-million people metro, that would mean a population density of 40 000 people per square mile. In comparison, New York City has an average population density of 27 000 people per square mile and traditional low-rise streetcar suburbs have a population density around 15 000 to 20 000 people per square mile.So street-running transit is not sufficient to connect most modern metropolitan areas. You need rapid transit to do that, but rapid transit is a bit like highways in that it draws development around stations, not in linear manner like old streetcars, the design is different.



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