From the “walking cities” of 1815 to the sprawling cities of today

In recently teaching about the development of the American suburbs, I was reminded of the description of “walking cities” in 1815 provided by historian Kenneth Jackson makes in Crabgrass Frontier:

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on

The first important characteristic of the walking city was congestion. When Queen Victoria was born in 1819, London had about 800,000 residents and was the largest city on earth. Yet an individual could easily walk the three miles from Paddington, Kensington, Hammersmith, and Fulham, then on the very edges of the city, to the center in only two hours. In Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow, the area of new building was not even two miles from city hall. (14)

While the focus here is on congestion, the time it takes to walk through such density in a major city is notable: in a few hours, one could traverse a significant portion of the city.

Introduce technology with more speed – trains, streetcars, cars, etc. – and cities could expand in space. People could live further from work (the proximity of home to work for many is a feature of the 1815 city that Jackson also notes). The city could go on for miles. The suburbs could extend even further. But, the ability to see a significant portion of the city in a single walk became much harder.

The return of electric streetcars to American cities

USA Today reports that electric streetcars may be on the comeback in American cities. Because of a successful line introduced in Portland in the early 2000s, other cities, such as Dallas, Cincinnati, and Charlotte, are looking to build new streetcar lines with the help of federal dollars.

The irony of these new streetcar lines is that many American cities had effective electric streetcar systems in the past. The article provides a little of the history:

Horse-drawn streetcars appeared on urban streets in the early 1800s and were replaced by electric versions in the 1880s and 1890s, says Jerry Kelly of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. In the 1930s, when the Great Depression put many people out of work, ridership fell. After a brief revival during World War II, affordable automobiles and cheap gas prompted many cities to pave over streetcar tracks, he says.

According to Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontier, the streetcars declined rapidly for several reasons:

1. The rise of the automobile, particularly in the 1920s. Millions of Americans bought cars.

2. Many streetcar lines were locked into cheap fares. Because many of the lines had been granted government licenses to operate, the fares were locked in for long periods. By the 1920s, many lines could only charge five cent fares when the costs of operating had risen. This led to less profit for the streetcar operators.

3. Public opposition to public subsidies for electric streetcar lines. While roads were viewed as a public good and deserving of government money, electric streetcars were viewed as private enterprises.

4. General Motors bought up a number of bankrupt or near bankrupt lines in the 1930s-1940s and replaced the streetcars with buses. While some see this as a conspiracy against mass transit, Jackson suggests streetcar lines were already in serious trouble and GM hastened their demise.

Overall, Jackson suggests the declining ridership plus the low fares and lack of government money meant that streetcar lines could not keep up: less riders meant less profit which meant fewer modernization efforts which lowered ridership further and so on.