Streetcars: The original culprits behind urban sprawl?

Canadian Light Rail Vehicle 4000, class leader of Toronto's current streetcar fleet, is seen northbound at Queens Quay and Spadina Avenue circa 2001. Toronto's streetcar system may have survived into the 21st Century, but its impact on the city's development -- and traffic congestion -- still provokes heated debate.

Were streetcars the original culprits behind urban sprawl ? 

Now there you have a question guaranteed to provoke heated debate, especially among knee-jerk reactionaries. And so it proved with a fascinating recent post on a Toronto-area blog.

Writing on blogTO.com, Agatha Barc innocently opened Pandora’s Box with her Sept. 5 post, “Nostalgia Tripping: Toronto’s streetcar suburbs.” The premise was simple enough: “Whether the growth in the formerly suburban districts had anything to do with the fact streetcar routes operated along their major roads.”

Can streetcars be held culpable for sprawl? My answer is a qualified “yes.” 

In the contemporary lexicon, sprawl is typically used as a pejorative term for what opponents see as unplanned, uncontrolled and unsustainable urban growth. It is characterized by comparatively low density land uses that are more amenable to (and molded by) private transportation (that is, automobiles) than public transportation and pedestrians.  Think single-family homes surrounded by sizeable parcels of land. Think low-rise commercial development — shopping centers and office parks — surrounded by acres of parking lots. Think multi-lane roads and highways beside which sidewalks, bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly design are an afterthought where such facilities exist at all.

The antithesis is what proponents call “smart growth,” and of course it’s everything sprawl isn’t: Dense, pedestrian- and transit-friendly and — ideally — planned, sustainable growth. It’s green, both literally and figuratively, though great swathes of manicured and watered private lawns are usually replaced by modest private green space complemented by strategically placed public parks.

The truth is that the two visions are not mutually exclusive. Unlike some of the visceral (but nonetheless thought-provoking) comments which followed her post,  Barc acknowledges competing views on the historical impact of streetcars, including the theory that trams share some responsibility for urban sprawl at a certain period in our history. To wit: “Others, like Lawrence Solomon, the author of Toronto Sprawls: A History, see these streetcar-centred communities as the first step in the spread of uncontrollable suburban expansion.”

The initial sheet from a pair of 1936 posters graphically illustrating the outward growth of London from 1800 to that date. This Hans Schleger work for London Transport depicts the dramatic growth wrought largely by the coming of the steam age.

I’ve not read Solomon’s book, but if Barc’s characterization is accurate, I certainly agree with his view. Successive developments in land transportation over the past two centuries have all played a role in fostering the outward growth of cities. This is indisputably true of rail transportation, and even much of the pre-automotive growth engendered by trains and streetcars in all their forms could arguably be called sprawl in the context of its time.  

Before mechanical transportation, cities were naturally much smaller than they are today. As a practical matter, those urban dwellers who had to leave the home to work (and lacked access to horses or horse-drawn transportation) would have to live within what they considered reasonable walking distance of the workplace.

Steam railroads made some urban growth possible, but outside of cities that were already large enough to have commuting-distance suburbs (think London and New York) steam’s impact on neighborhood, street-level growth in the 19th century was not nearly as pronounced as that generated by streetcars. (Of course more than a few cities experimented with steam-hauled streetcars, but for all the obvious reasons of danger and practicality the mode never became widespread. So here we’re really talking about horses and electricity.)

We find clear evidence of urban footprints — especially in North America — growing to correspond with the outer limits of animal traction once horse-drawn streetcars were widely introduced in the mid- to late-19th Century. As the service became available, naturally many townsfolk wanted to live a comfortable distance away from the dirt, noise and commotion of the original central cities. They picked up in favor of neighborhoods which were still urban, bur often greener and cleaner (by Victorian standards anyway) and with more elbow room. Even at this early stage, it was not uncommon for the new lines to stretch out into less dense neighborhoods in anticipation of future growth.

Indeed, the horsecar company which set up shop in my oft-cited hometown in the 1860s (though a short-lived line actually ran for a few years in the 1830s) was known as the Rochester City and Brighton Railroad. The corporate limits have since been pushed considerably beyond where they were in 1863, and what was then the “suburban” end of the line is now solidly within the city limits. Toronto opened Canada’s first horsecar line in 1861; again, areas that were suburban at that time were densely urbanized by the time the vastly expanded system was electrified three decades later. In many places, then, what we might call the first streetcar suburbs may well be 150 years old or more.

The impact of electric streetcars would be even more pronounced, as they were faster and could carry more people farther more cheaply. The new electric trolley companies often operated hand-in-hand with speculative land development, with new lines being built to the urban fringe into territory where streets, sidewalks and utilities cut neat paths through flat, graded lots well before houses and shops rose around them. This growth may have been planned to the extent that it more-or-less followed the transit lines, but it wasn’t necessarily neat in the way modern advocates envision.  Los Angeles, for example, arguably began its infamous sprawl in trolley days. Philadelphia, which has maintained streetcar service continuously since 1858, also can trace some of its own suburban sprawl to the dense network of city and suburban lines which blanketed the region.

Perspective, naturally, is everything. The early horsecar suburbs (1860-1890) are in many cases barely distinguishable in today’s inner cities, having been long since absorbed; likewise the early electric streetcar suburbs (1890-1910). Even the later streetcar suburbs (1910-1925) more closely resemble the dense vision of modern urbanists than the unmitigated postwar development now labeled sprawl.

But sprawl they were, and once laid down the evolutionary path was clear. Horsecars brought comparatively cheap mobility to urban masses and growth followed their lines as far as a horse could practically trot. Electric streetcars were exponentially faster, cleaner and fares were often cheaper than in horsecar days and cities grew accordingly. Unlike today, however, it’s not uncommon to find that the line between and city and suburb was more pronounced in those days, and the area immediately beyond the end of the trolley lines might still look considerably more countrified in many small- to medium-sized cities.  

"Clearly a danger to motorists..."

Alas, the trolleys paved the way for their successors, literally and figuratively. Not only did streetcar companies often get saddled with the cost of maintaining the street between and beside their tracks as a condition of their franchises, they helped push those streets ever outward. Once Henry Ford and Co. could offer a means of private transportation that was fast, reliable and cheap, urban dwellers who had already developed a taste for decentralized development carried the process to its logical conclusion. Door-to-door transportation meant they now could live ever farther from downtown without having to consider whether they were within easy walking distance of a trolley line. Ultimately our downtowns were no longer the center of the universe as shops, businesses and infrastructure followed.

Some will argue the type and quality of growth engendered by streetcars was superior (read: more green, more walkable, more sustainable) to the increasingly less dense, auto-centric variety that has sapped the vitality of inner cities in the postwar era. Others will argue that our cities reflect choices which landowners in a free market society are entitled to make about how and where they live and work — choices over which, they say, governments should have minimal influence.  The argument, in many respects, strikes at the heart of what Americans call the “Culture Wars,” and which are reflected in varying degrees throughout the capitalist world. 

Whatever role their modern successors will play in our communities, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the streetcars our ancestors knew helped contribute to what we now call urban sprawl.

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One Response to Streetcars: The original culprits behind urban sprawl?

  1. Andrew Jeanes says:

    This is well-written. I still maintain (as I said in my BlogTO comment) that it was macadamized roads that enabled the first baby steps of sprawl, though I admit this was mostly limited to residential development for those wealthy enough to maintain their own horse-drawn carriages.

    One other point about streetcar suburbs: they usually included commercial main streets with plenty of pedestrian activity. The same can’t be said of post-WW II automobile-centric suburban development.

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