In Praise of Streetcar Suburbs, Defined and Illustrated


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 RichmondVirginia, 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.

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.

But first, let me clarify a couple of things.  My preference for the streetcar suburb is rooted in its land use design, and should not be taken as a public transit call to arms.  I like public transit, make frequent use of public transit, and believe public transit should play a big role in the development of metropolitan areas.  But some comments I've received thus far assume that I'm advocating for bringing back the streetcar as well as the land use design, and that's not necessarily the case.  In fact, what I like about the design is that it is still fully functional long after the streetcar line tracks have been pulled up.  Places like Birmingham, MI, outside of Detroit, do well despite losing the streetcar long ago.  Some may argue that economics has more to do with that than land use design, but I maintain design is a significant factor.

Read the rest of this piece at Corner Side Yard Blog.

Pete Saunders is a writer and researcher whose work focuses on urbanism and public policy. Pete has been the editor/publisher of the Corner Side Yard, an urbanist blog, since 2012. Pete is also an urban affairs contributor to Forbes Magazine’s online platform. Pete’s writings have been published widely in traditional and internet media outlets, including the feature article in the December 2018 issue of Planning Magazine. Pete has more than twenty years’ experience in planning, economic development, and community development, with stops in the public, private and non-profit sectors. He lives in Chicago.

Lead photo: 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: