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Guest Post: Love for Our Imperfect Streetcar City

This is another Guest Post by Kent Lundberg and originally appeared on the Isthmus Group blog. It is reproduced here with Kent’s permission.

Patrick Condon’s new book Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities has extended discussion of “streetcar cities” and their efficient form. Built between 1880 and 1945 the streetcar cities all over North America and Australia became a significant mechanism for urban living and owning one’s own home. The streetcar increased the distance people could travel in 20 minutes from 1.5 km to 6km, thereby opening up significant area of the city for lower density living with convenient access to the city centre. Since the streetcar suburb functions on a combination of walking and relatively slow transport, the design is inherently efficient and affordable. The irony of the story is that while transportation technology has greatly improved since the 1900s, it has not necessarily improved our trips around town:

“Despite great changes in transportation technology between 1800 and 2000, it appears American always spent about 20 minutes on average getting to work- whether by foot, on streetcar, or in modern automobiles.”

Understanding streetcar cities is crucial to understanding the city’s DNA Condon argues.

“[The streetcar] pattern still constitutes the very bones of our cities—even now, when most of the streetcars are gone. To ignore the fundamental architecture when retrofitting our urban regions will fail. It is like expecting pigs to fly or bad soil to grow rich crops.”

Taking a look at Auckland it is intriguing to compare the fundamental metrics associated with streetcar cities and how they compare to other streetcar cities. Here is a screenshot of the historic tramlines in Auckland. For reference the Dominion Road line is about 5 kms long. Assuming a modest transport speed of 15 km per hour, the longest CBD commute would be about 20 minutes- comparable or perhaps quicker than today’s trip by car.
The pedestrian nature of the streetcar city is also revealed in examining the distances required to reach the tramline. The accepted standard of 400m for people’s willingness to walk to transit, is the typical yardstick of streetcar subdivisions. This can be seen across newer western cities from Vancouver and Seattle to Brisbane and Melbourne. Once you consider this pattern suddenly central Auckland starts making sense.

Why are some roads north to south, while others run east to west? Why do some blocks seem too long in one direction? Much of this can be explained by the streetcar genesis of the suburbs.

Beyond the neigbourhood level, let’s take a look at the 400m catchment city-wide. Here is an image that shows a 400m distance from former tram lines. The metric works almost perfectly with few holes and even less overlap (redundancy).

Understanding our streetcar city is critical to informing our land use and transportation decisions.

9 comments to Guest Post: Love for Our Imperfect Streetcar City

  • Christopher T

    Pedant’s corner: great post and spot on analysis but the last map fails to take into account the Victoria Ave, Remuera, tram which, oddly enough, spurred the development of what is now one of Auckland’s richer streets. Even fifty years ago it was quite normal for Auckland’s managerial and professional classes, like many of their counterparts in Europe even today, to commute into the CBD using – gasp – public transport.

  • There are also a couple of little bits missing, such as the branches to Ellerslie Racecourse and Eden Park. Those could come in a lot of use today.

    A key point to make too is that back in the tram era Auckland’s wasn’t nearly as big as it is today, and that those line went right to the edge of the developed area. This is most obvious on the southern fringe where both the city and the tram lines stopped at Mt Albert Rd, which was at the time a sort of western ring route highway around the edge of the city. Another interesting phenomena is that the first round of motorways stopped right where the tram network and city began, i.e. at Pt Chevalier and the Harp of Erin. If only we’d stayed with that concept of interurban motorways and urban public transport, rather than dreaming the motorways could achieve both tasks at the same time.

    The 400m/quarter mile yardstick is a handy rule of thumb, but probably undercooks the deal a little. If you expand the buffer to about 550m you get a bit of overlap but near total coverage of the central-western ithsmus.

    But what is the best thing about Auckland’s ‘streetcar city’ heritage? Well it means that quality bus services will work supremely well. The network topography, street size and orientation, the walkability of streets and compact nature of those early suburbs still exists. They are still designed specifically to have every house, shop, office or workplace within a short walk of a direct legible public transport route.

    We need only replicate the above map with frequent dependable bus services (and supplement them with a few crosstown linkages) to get an excellent public transport network on the isthmus.

  • George D

    A great post. It shows what’s possible with only a few lines.

    As noted above, people were much bigger walkers in the early 20th C, so 400m undersells things considerably. Of course, as a rule of thumb for 2010s NZ, it works fine.

    • Even for NZ today 400m is pretty short. 400m only gets you as far as Vulcan lane from Britomart, for example. Recent research suggests people will happily walk over a km to get from their home to a reliable frequent transit service (but curiously not quite as far at the non-home end). I recently calculated my own quick stroll from home to the bus stop and was surprised to find out it comes to 750m, almost double the convention.

  • Peter H

    A good reference for walking distance is to look at Medieval towns which normally extended no more than half a mile (800m) for the centre, giving a walking time to church, Town square, central market or town hall of 20 minutes

  • It’s not just Auckland either. Below is a link to a really good book [with a terribly cheesey cover] about how the cable cars and trams drove the spread of Wellington from its Victorian core. The authors both worked at the city archive and it has fantastic illustrations; photographs, maps, charts, plans and other documents. A really good piece of research and also a cracking read.

    Transport technologies and the decisions about which ones to invest in always define urban form; here is yet another clear lesson in that. Even geography comes second. Highly Recommended.

    http://steeleroberts.co.nz/books/isbn/978-1-877448-67-6

  • stingray

    This reminds me of “Marchetti’s Constant”, from his research paper “Anthropological Varients in Travel Behaviour, 1994″, referred to by Peter Newman in the past.
    Marchetti posits that although forms of urban planning and transport may change, and although some live in villages and others in cities, people gradually adjust their lives to their conditions (including location of their homes relative to their workplace) such that the average travel time stays approximately constant. Even since Neolithic times, people have kept the time at which they travel per day the same, even though the distance may increase.

    His study shows how cities have grown in size with each major transport mode discovery – horse trams, electric trams, suburban rail systems, the car – but each time, the city limits itself to a size roughly equating to “1 hour travel time” from the outskirts to the centre. The mode of tranport determines how large geographically this is.

    In a follow up piece of work, David Metz in “The Limits to Travel” suggests that Marchetti’s work casts doubt on the contention that investment in infrastructure saves travel time. Instead it appears from Metz’s figures that people invest travel time saved in travelling a longer distance.

    This suggests that the size of a city will ultimately be determined by its major mode of transport and the capacity of that mode. As motorways were built, cities grew, but then ultimately as motorways (particulary as they converged downtown) clogged up, the distance you could get within 1 hour shrunk, and people complained about this having made housing decisions based on this.

    What does this mean for the future shape and size of our city?

  • Torbaite

    I find this old network of streetcars very interesting. Prior to reading this about 2 or 3 months ago on this blog I thought they were in Queen Street and maybe very central Auckland only. Maybe MOTAT needs to have more promoting this was what it was like in h suburbs and not just a special thing for Queen Street. It shows how the 150 million PT trips per year were possible.

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