Suburban rail: An idea whose time has come … again? Act 2

In the final paragraph in “Suburban rail: An idea whose time has come … again? Act 1,” I urged: “So …, is it high time to return to the suburbia-served-rail-public-transit model?” Well, today’s discussion is an attempt to answer that very question, plus I provide somewhat of an historical tour of the streetcar suburb.

Is history repeating itself?

Rail to suburbia as of late has been playing out in regions all across America. Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Sacramento Regional Transit, and a host of others provide suburban services. Still, others like Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s “SMART” service will be coming online in the very near future. Compared to transportation development or progress as a whole, regarding rails-to-the-suburbs efforts it has been a slow train. Despite this, the interest – and investment – has nevertheless been there and is continuing to build.

So, what explains the renewed interest and where is this renewed interest exactly?

To answer this question where better to turn than the source: RAIL magazine’s 31st Edition – Fall 2012.

In “Now Trending: Streetcars,” RAIL Editor-In-Chief Scott Bogren wrote: “Among the many trends revealed by the 2010 U.S. Census, none will likely have a more significant impact on the development of passenger rail in the nation – and more specifically, streetcar operations – than the fact that for the first time in our history, four out of five Americans reside in an urban area. This 80 percent figure fully doubles the same statistic in 1910, when 40 percent of Americans lived in urban areas. Perhaps more importantly, the growth of urban America in the past decade was 12 percent, outpacing overall population growth in the same period, which stood at 9 percent.”

Building on this (pun intended) train of thought, a growing population means the 80 percent city share will grow in size as will the 20 percent that resides outside urbia – namely those who call rural America home. And what this means is that as the populace of urban America expands in number, so too will the numbers of rural Americans, but the growth of the latter will not be as pronounced as that of the former. From this, it is not too difficult to understand the relationship of one sector relative to the other. So, the obvious next question is: How will one affect or relate to the other and in what way or ways has mobility been influenced by the changes going on?

In speaking to this, Bogren asserted: “A variety of new studies are now pointing to the fact that younger Americans are moving to cities in ever larger numbers – and these urban residents are eschewing cars as their only means of transportation.” To me, this implies that logged automobile mileage is in decline which can only mean that the pace of logged mileage among other modes is picking up and included in that “other modes” category is, of course, passenger rail.

Santa Fe Southern Rwy. passenger train, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Santa Fe Southern Rwy. passenger train, Santa Fe, New Mexico

By no means does discussion end there. Besides the fact streetcar systems typically prompt livable, walkable and transit-centered development that tends to bring living spaces and workplaces closer together – in some situations these are one and the same – and growing in popularity among people from many walks of life, but also according to Bogren, these same streetcar systems are increasingly playing a more key role with respect to the broader transportation network and, as the RAIL Editor-In-Chief put it, “to enhance city-wide connectivity.”1

And that connectivity runs the gamut from cars, buses, vans and shuttles to trains, trains and more trains; be they surface, above-surface or below-surface based.

That we humans travel to venues we need and/or want to go to, when traveling by train, limiting that type of travel to inside urbia (i.e., intracity rail travel) or outside suburbia (i.e., intercity rail travel) applications only, in essence reduces the opportunity or the number of options available to satisfactorily and efficiently and effectively meet the mobility needs of a mobile population and one seemingly increasingly on the go.

Historical streetcar suburb tour

So, three questions:

  1. What are streetcar suburbs?
  2. What was the impetus behind the creation of streetcar suburbs?
  3. Why did the streetcar suburb concept fall out of favor and when did this begin to happen?

The answers to these far and away provide the most basic of descriptions.

Historically, streetcar suburbs were outlying communities, suburban-based in nature and were connected to inner-core neighborhoods via the streetcar line that tied the two together, particularly during the concept’s heyday.

“Streetcar suburbs were neighborhoods built along established streetcar routes,” Mark Hurley, Trustee/Corporate Secretary of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum relates. “Developers used this concept to lure people to move out of the city into the suburbs, but right along the car lines for convenient transportation as many folks still relied on taking the streetcar for transportation.” Hurley cited as a relevant example the community of Rodgers Forge to Baltimore’s north (located outside city limits). The Rodgers Forge Community, Hurley says, was established or created on this premise.

NewOrleansHUDRedStreetcarRiverfrontCanal[1]As to why the streetcar suburb concept fell into disfavor, subsequent to the Second World War, suburban community development located farther and farther away from urban centers began to appear in greater and greater numbers, such communities themselves off the beaten street railway paths, so to speak. Hurley notes, “People also wanted to purchase automobiles for more ‘personal’ transportation, rather than relying on public transportation.”

So, is it high time to return to the suburbia-served-rail-public-transit model? Based on what was presented above, it would be a Yes! most definitely!

With that, “Suburban rail: An idea whose time has come … again? Act 3” has anything and everything to do with the view ahead.


  1. Scott Bogren, “From the Editor-In-Chief – Now Trending: Streetcars,” RAIL, 31st Edition – Fall 2012, p. 1.

– Alan Kandel