Streetcar Suburbs and Trolleytrack Towns
Once upon a time, in a land not too far from here, the automobile was a decadent luxury item owned by a few, and most people rode streetcars. The streetcar was a piece of iconic Americana, inspiring, among other things, pop-culture references galore – from the hard-boiled gumshoe cadging a free ride on the back of a passing car, to A Streetcar Named Desire, to the Toonerville Trolley. Streetcar-centred life changed the way Americans acted, thought, and spoke. The streetcar even changed the urban American landscape.
People born in the latter half of the 20th Century, after the decline and fall of the streetcar, may have the idea that suburban development happened primarily because of the automobile. While what we stereotypically think of as "suburbia," that sprawling vista of single-family houses on neatly-manicured lots -- and other tropes from 1950s sitcoms -- did, in fact, originate with car culture, the first genuine suburbs were built because of, and adjunct to, streetcars. In fact, the modern shape of certain cities (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore and Chicago among them), are largely due to streetcars. (See a map of the LA Pacific Electric “Red Car” lines here, for example.)
A "streetcar suburb" was a planned community built around a streetcar line or a set of streetcar lines. They were often built by a single developer, and have some distinctive architectural and landscaping features that are still visible today in neighbourhoods where the original development is preserved. A streetcar suburb usually has small lots, a conspicuous absence of individual driveways (as in my neighbourhood, some houses may have no driveways at all, or may have "mutual drives" shared between two houses) with any garages present as outbuildings behind the houses. Front porches, as with most houses built between 1850 and 1920, were a prominent feature of the homes in streetcar suburbs, and were used in some areas for the dual purpose of providing outdoor social space and climate control for the house. (In my neighbourhood, one can find California-style bungalows built between 1900 and 1920, as well as typical Victorian, Queen Anne, and Regency houses of the period. Almost all of them have deep front porches to provide a windbreak and insulation in winter, and shade and cooling in summer -– very important in the extreme Southwestern Ontario climate, which features hot summers and cold winters. See www.ontarioarchitecture.com for more details and a field guide to local building styles.)
Streetcar suburbs were built with sidewalks, on a scale that was also convenient for pedestrians and cyclists. The neighbourhoods themselves feature good soil and large trees, planted to create an attractive environment for residents and passers-by. Unlike modern "transit villages," which seem to be the reincarnation of the streetcar suburb idea, streetcar suburbs were primarily residential areas, with limited integrated commercial space. The idea was less to put commercial and residential spaces into one neighbourhood (as in modern transit villages), than to separate the busy commercial district from the quieter bedroom community while still keeping shopping and amenities an easy distance (by streetcar, bicycle, or even foot) away.
It’s also important to understand that many people’s lives meshed with the streetcar lines, in terms of their patterns and rhythms of living, and also that communities’ physical geographies reflected the streetcar (and other transit) lines. (Some of these systems had different names to differentiate them –- streetcars, light rail, and so on. For example, in Southwestern Ontario, an interurban streetcar system with dedicated trackage, similar to the Pacific Electric suburban lines, was called a "radial railway," and an intraurban streetcar system that ran on rails embedded in the road was called a "street railway." For the purposes of brevity, I’m going to use "streetcar" as the generic term, and "light rail" only where contextual specificity is important.)
Our current culture privileges cars over transit, and transit over cycling and walking, but this wasn't always so. Many of the urban development and lifestyle paradigms we take for granted didn't exist in the first half of the 20th Century. That sounds self-evident, but it isn’t, exactly.
For example, one area where the automobile has encouraged a significant and dramatic lifestyle change between the early years of the 20th Century and the mid-1950s is the way people buy food and other supplies. The change was undoubtedly helped along by other advances in technology, such as expanding refrigerators and chest freezers, but the switch from transit as a primary means of travel to the automobile provided the catalyst. In a transit-based lifestyle you are more likely to want to make more frequent trips, buying smaller amounts each time, to someplace that is convenient (ie. nearby someplace else you have to go), than to make one trip especially for the purpose, where you buy large amounts of supplies and bring them home and store them. We have an entire industry of "family packs," "club packs," Price Clubs, Costcos, and Sam's Clubs catering to this outgrowth of car culture. On the other hand, living a transit-centred lifestyle in a transit-centred environment (such as in early 20th Century US cities), encourages buying smaller quantities more frequently, at local shops, most probably near either one’s home or one’s workplace. This lifestyle is still evident today in Europe and Japan, both places where urban developments are generally amenable to pedestrian, transit, or bicycle travel.
Of course, you already know all about American streetcar culture. If you’re at all literate in 20th Century American popular culture, the iconography and landscape, the patterns of living in Streetcar America are already there, imprinted in your mind by everything from Sam Spade movies to Nick at Nite; novels, radio shows, and every other creative and popular artistic endeavour of the early 20th Century. A search of Project Gutenberg lists about 12 100 entries containing the terms "streetcar" or "trolley," which is impressive, considering that the first modern streetcar systems in the US appeared around 1850, and most of Project Gutenberg’s library predates the current copyright penumbra, which begins in 1911. Those myriad cultural references grew organically out of Americans’ experience with streetcars, and streetcar-centred urban spaces. In fact, although it seems counterintuitive, the relative unimportance of the streetcar in popular literature speaks volumes about its centrality to the American experience of the time.* The streetcar was a background fixture, something that everyone just expected to be there. The streetcar was also an integral part of the great American technological experiment. It even held a certain pride-of-place in the American self-image, as a crucial real-world demonstration of Americans’ underlying beliefs in American technological know-how, craftsmanship, and expertise, and their belief that, in America, Things Just Work.
The question is not whether the system that created this lifestyle worked; it did. The question is why it worked, especially why it worked as long and as successfully as it did.
Tune in next time for a look at one of those reasons.
* Similarly, there is a story of why there is no surviving medieval recipe for bread –- the knowledge was ubiquitous, bread recipes were learnt young and passed from parent to child (most likely mother to daughter), that nobody felt the need to commit them to print.