Home   Archive

Suburbs, yesterday and tomorrow
Jack Balshaw 8/21/01

Suburban development isn't the auto's fault. The auto has just become the preferred means of travel.

A documentary about immigration included the statement that it was the trolley car lines that allowed the cities to expand into the countryside. Before that, most workers lived within walking distance of their jobs. After the trolley became available, workers could live further from the city and still get to work in a reasonable time.

Just a weird thought. Can you imagine commute congestion with everyone riding a horse? Would there be problems finding a "parking" spot and what about natural pollution from the horses "exhaust"?

But, back to the development of the first suburbs. The trolley, by allowing longer distance "commutes" provided the means for people to move out of the crowded and often unsanitary cities into the more desirable nearby countryside. This accounts for the old eastern cities often having a wheel and spoke configuration of major arterials. The spokes were the original main roads and trolley lines.

Over time the thin strip of development along the trolley line became thicker and thicker until almost solid development filled in the spaces between the spokes. In this manner, the central city gradually filled in.

When even a trolley ride to town, with all the intermediate stops, became a lengthy trip, something else had to become more desirable. By this time trains had become a major factor in moving people and goods. Small cities began to develop along the rail lines. From these cities people were able to commute further to the central city. (Recall all the small but prestigious bedroom communities in Connecticut that are referred to in old movies about New York and the scenes of the advertising executive being picked up at the railroad station.) It was the trains that created the value that allowed these suburban cities to develop.

Between the trolley and the train, the suburbs came into existence. And with the suburbs, the American standard of a single family home on its own lot became the desirable goal for family living.

We now hear the auto being demonized because it created the suburbs. This may be true around newer cities that developed after the auto replaced the train as the preferred method of travel, but only after the trolley and the train established the desirability of living outside of the central city. The trolleys and trains were the original cause of suburbanization. The auto simply replaced the train just as the train replaced the trolley as the vehicle of choice for getting to work in a central city from more desirable places to live.

But now the issue has come full circle. The environmental solution for the traffic congestion experienced around major cities is to get everyone back on the trains or trolleys (light rail). Light rail, the original cause of the problem, has now become the solution for some.

But let's look at this from a different perspective. The "problem" for most people is simply the traffic congestion. The traffic congestion isn't any more that too many people are coming FROM the suburbs as it is that too many people are GOING to the central city. It isn't that the suburbs have too many residents as much as it is that the central cities hold on to too many jobs. Distribute those jobs to the suburbs and there would be no congestion.

But, how could this be done? It might be as simple as just waiting. Do you believe that in the ten years or so it will take to widen the freeways or build rail systems that as many people will be traveling to the central city to sit in front of a computer? No! They'll be working at satellite offices right in the suburb where they live.

Suburbs won't be suburbs any longer, they'll simply be where we live and work. They'll be self supporting, self contained cities.



Home   Archive