Building Walkable Cities on the Legacy of Streetcars

The west may have been won on horseback, but our cities were grown on streetcar lines. While the streetcars have been gone for half a century, the benefits they brought to our neighborhoods continue to be seen. Today’s urban planners are building on the lessons learned from modes of transport that were built over a century ago.

Built before buses and cars came along to create the suburban growth model of the 1950s and 60s, streetcar lines drove growth. Each stop supported a block or two of businesses that served the residents and early commuters — small grocery stores, diners, banks and cleaners. Residential growth was similarly focused within walking distance of each line. In some cases, real estate developers were also streetcar operators; creating demand for their nascent subdivisions by bringing streetcar lines right to their doors. This pattern was common in cities throughout the US, including the western cities of Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the cable cars are functional remnants of the early streetcar systems.

While the early growth that the streetcars fostered may have been considered “sprawl” by the standards of the day, it was, by necessity, focused on many of the factors that we consider desirable in urban planning today. “Neighborhoods were highly walkable, with a reliance on transit for commuting, and most of the essential needs of the neighborhood right there within a streetcar stop or two. These are the same factors that drive our most desirable neighborhoods today.” says Kay Stallworthy, Vice President of Development.

Now, fifty years later, our cities have been irrevocably changed by car-driven growth, but the initial development patterns created by the streetcars remain. For an in-depth look at the lingering impacts of streetcar routes on Denver’s development, don’t miss Ryan Keeney’s mapping project showing both the routes over time, and how commercial development still follows those lines. In Los Angeles, data shows that residential density is higher near the streetcar lines of the distant past. 

The small, neighborhood-focused commercial centers that were created around streetcar stops have become some of our most compelling neighborhoods. In Denver, South Pearl Street was a major streetcar line, and today its tree-lined blocks are a magnet for festivals, farmers markets and local merchants, as well as serving as a corridor for University of Denver students on their bikes. In Los Angeles, the new Metro rail lines follow closely along the historic streetcar routes; this time bypassing the vehicular traffic that contributed to their demise, and reinvigorating commercial centers in now walkable neighborhoods. 

“Cars may have led to the 1960s version of the American Dream in the suburbs, but today, walkability is one of the top factors driving real estate values. Baby boomers and millennials alike that want to be close to the heart of our cities,” says Stallworthy. “This trend is driving not just residential development, but also the commercial businesses that want to be close to those neighborhoods.”