What is a Streetcar Suburb?

Streetcars were instrumental in the early development of urban areas.
Streetcars were instrumental in the early development of urban areas.

A streetcar suburb is an urban residential settlement which was developed along the tracks of the electric streetcar and was extremely popular in North American cities in the late 19th century. While other forms of transports such as horse cars and cable cars had brought with them suburbs, they were not as efficiently planned as the streetcar suburbs. The rise of the automobile in the 20th century saw the decline of streetcar suburbs.

Historical Background

The history of the Streetcar Suburb is intertwined with the history of the electric streetcar or the electric street railways. Russian Fyodor Pirotsky invented the first electric streetcar in 1880 which operated in a small Russian town known as Sestroretsk. The World Cotton Centennial Fair of 1884 held in New Orleans had electric trams exhibited. Frank J. Sprague from Richmond, Virginia established the first commercial electric tram in the United States in 1888. The adoption of this new mode of transport was embraced by city authorities and by the turn of the 20th century, the United States had over 20,000 miles of streetcar tracks. The low fares from the streetcars combined with the affordable cost of land located away from the city made people move away from the city and developing settlements which came to be known as streetcar suburbs. These suburbs also attracted business persons who opened up grocery stores, shops, and drug stores along the tracks, usually on the intersections of streetcar tracks.

Advantages Of The Streetcar Suburbs

The streetcar suburbs attracted considerable interest particularly from the middle-class workers due to many reasons. These suburbs were properly planned with emphasis placed on of future expansion, and this was a breath of fresh air as almost all cities of the time had little if any future-based plans. The streetcar suburbs also had an appeal due to the easy, cheap, and efficient mode of transport provided by the electric streetcars making it possible and affordable for people to live further away from the busy city-center. The suburbs were also relatively smaller in size compared to other existing neighborhoods which led to the residents to have proper social interaction. The streetcar suburbs were also pedestrian friendly as the tracks (which were notorious bicycles traps) did not encourage cycling.

Examples Of Streetcar Suburbs

Most major cities in North America were home to many of these streetcar suburbs. Richmond, Virginia was the city with the first electric streetcar in the United States and had some of the oldest suburbs in the country which included Westover Hills, Highland Park, Ginter Park, Highlands Springs, Barton Heights, and Woodland Heights. In Atlanta, the first suburb to be established along the streetcar tracks was Adair Park which was created in the 1890s and was inhabited purely by a white-only community. Other suburbs in Atlanta include Kirkwood, Virginia Highland, and Inman Park. In Austin, the first streetcar suburb to be established in the city was Hyde Park whose origin goes back to 1891. In American capital, Washington DC, the streetcar tracks spurred the growth of suburbs which included Uniontown, LeDroit Park, Brookland, and Brightwood. In Canada, the streetcar suburbs were established in Toronto and Ottawa. Suburbs in Ottawa included the Glebe while Toronto suburbs included West Hill, North Toronto, Riverdale, and Cliffside.

Decline Of Streetcar Suburbs

The use of streetcars reached its peak in 1923 when the number of commuters around the world reached 15.7 billion. After 1923, the world saw the rise of the automobile with manufacturers such as Henry Ford focusing on mass production of affordable units. The decline of the streetcar signaled the decline of the growth of streetcar suburbs.


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