Message - Retrogressive Streetcar Suburbs

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Posted by  Paul Malo on January 09, 2002 at 08:05:25:

In Reply to:  Re: 'science' posted by Amanda on January 09, 2002 at 02:05:12:

I remember as a youngster the last trolleys operating in our city. Electric mass transit provided efficient, non-poluting movement of people. The system was even "inter-urban," as they called it, allowing users to travel to other communities of the region and to rural recreation facilities. Ideal? Why was it abandoned?

The streetcars largely served people who could not afford to maintain their own horse and carriage in a barn, providing feed throughout the year. Vast tracts of "streetcar suburbs" were built here, and in many American cities, over the opening of the twentieth century. There were no barns behind houses, or even room for driveways to the rear, because houses were built on small lots in order to allow as many residents as possible to be withing walking distance of the trolly line. This is the "old" New Urbanism. The houses all had front porches, in fact.

Now these huges tracts of houses are largely vacant, with many gaping holes where buildings have been demolished, and most of the remaining buildings have been converted to poorly maintained multi-family rental use. The buildings themselves are generally far superior in size and quality of construction that what is available at far greater cost in newer suburbs. What happened?

Mobility. When Henry Ford provided the option of an affordable automobile, people did not have to house a horse in a barn to be mobile. They bought a Model T and moved out to a house with a driveway and garage. They moved to houses on larger lots, where windows did not look ten feet into the windows of neighbors, and where there was more space for children to play, for gardens, and where (very critically) schools were new and genrally better, while taxes were lower. But above all, the automobile gave them freedom of movement, far beyond what even the elaborate network of electric trolley lines provided.

Yes, all sorts of statistics can be present to document the high cost of "urban sprawl." But will the statistics change individual preference of life style? Will people voluntarily go back to the streetcar suburbs?

If New Urbanism purports to have it both ways, retaining the mobility of the private automobile, while attaining the density of the streetcar suburb, what will it have accomplished, except to compress the modern suburb? This may combined the worst of both models.

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