Transportation and Urban Form

For countless millennia, walking was the primary form of travel for humans. It governed the size and shape of our cities from the founding of the very first city to as recently as the 19th century. Since then, transportation innovations have dramatically expanded our urban settlements and upended our patterns of development. Driverless cars will be no less impactful. This articles looks at the historical interplay of transportation and urban form through the lens of Peter Muller’s Transportation and Urban Form to see if we can draw lessons on how driverless cars will impact the shape and size of our cities moving forward.

From the beginning, cities have been compact, diverse agglomerations. A cities footprint was generally limited by the distance a person would walk in half an hour. They would spread out and up subject to this morphological limit. They were the centers of culture and economic activity. But cities in America were unique. At the time the nation was formed, they were still relatively new and they weren’t viewed as particularly desirable places to live. The Jeffersonian ideal of agrarian living was pervasive and cities were viewed as corrupt, filthy and a threat to democracy. Jefferson summed up his view – and the prevailing view – of cities as follows: “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.” And, unlike today, most people lived outside of cities and their environs. In 1790, the year of the first census, 95% of Americans lived outside of cities and farmers made up fully 90% of the labor force.

That began to change in the 19th century as the industrial revolution gained steam. Innovations in farming technology meant that fewer people were needed to produce more food, which left many farmers without employment. Further, new manufacturing technologies created job opportunities that hadn’t previously existed in and around cities. Both trends contributed to a mass migration from rural to urban America.

Unfortunately, cities were unable to keep pace with this new growth. They lacked adequate housing and sufficient infrastructure and, as a result, they were filthy and overcrowded. What’s more, cities began to expand beyond the natural limits that had governed their size for millennia. America’s persistent agrarian ideals coupled with horrible urban experiences created an overwhelming desire to escape. Demand for transportation innovations to alleviate the pressure mounted.

The first of these innovations was the horsecar. The technology didn’t offer significant benefits, but it began the inexorable outward expansion of cities. The horsecar era was followed electric streetcar, then the automobile and finally the freeway. Each of these technologies facilitated outward expansions of our cities and cities gave way to the modern metropolis.

Transportation Eras

Walking/Horsecar Era (1800-1890)

The walking/horsecar was distinguished by three demographic events that created unprecedented demands on cities in the United States. The first two events were tied to the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. The agricultural revolution dramatically improved the efficiency of agriculture and expanded agricultural production. It also meant that farming required less labor, leaving many farmers without a job. The Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, created immense demands for labor in and around cities. These two forces led to a massive and persistent migration from rural to urban America. This isn’t to say Americans had forsaken their agrarian ideals. They moved because they had to and they brought their views with them.

The third event was mass emigration from Europe to the Americas, one of the first significant signs of globalization. Basically, people were moving from countries like Ireland, Italy, Norway and Sweden, where employment opportunities were limited and standards of living were low, to places like America, where labor was scarce and standards of living were higher. Between 1850 and 1913, more than 40 million Europeans migrated to the New World and America absorbed nearly two-thirds of those immigrants. While some of the Europeans did move to rural America, the same dynamics that drew farmers to American cities, kept these new immigrants from leaving. To provide some perspective, the population of America was only 23 million when the 1850 census was recorded.

All of this migration created a crushing burden on cities, which were unable to keep up with housing and infrastructure and did not have technology to support their burgeoning populations. While American cities may not have fully warranted Jefferson’s urban criticisms when he leveled them, they certainly did now. Many lived in squalor. Housing was poorly constructed and overcrowded. Pollution was thick in the air and water. Streets were open sewers. Disease was rampant. And corruption was commonplace.

The chorus of voices calling for technology to release the pressure on cities began to grow. The need to walk for travel necessarily constrained a city’s limits, so cities began experimenting with new transportation technologies. Hence the horsecar was born, the precursor to the streetcar. They were small vehicles that could hold maybe a dozen people. They were drawn by horses along rails that could be easily installed in the streets. While the vehicles weren’t much faster than walking (5 mph), they did open up a band of development on the city’s edge as urban residents with means, desperate to escape overcrowded city centers, flocked to the first suburbs. This technology triggered, albeit slowly, the inexorable expansion of American cities.

The Electric Streetcar Era (1890-1920)

At the close of the 19th century, urban rural migration and European migration continued to suffocate cities and the horsecar had done little to alleviate that. Fortunately, crucial advancements in electrical technology paved the way for Frank Sprague’s electric motor, which was capable of propelling a streetcar. The first streetcar line was established in Richmond, VA in February of 1888. Desperate for meaningful transportation solutions, two-dozen other cities adopted the technology within a year. In less than a decade, the streetcar was the predominant form of inner city transit.

Most importantly, and most attractively to cities, the streetcar could travel relatively quickly. While the horsecare could only travel 5 miles-per-hour, the streetcar could travel up to 15 miles-per-hour. This tripling of speed brought a huge band of land around cities within traveling distance to urbanites. Cities now stretched out radially along new streetcar lines that extended miles beyond city centers.

Beyond the general stretching cities, the streetcar facilitated the stratification of American life in a way that the walking city never permitted. Neighborhoods along streetcar lines were finely defined by income and status. Suburban living became correlated with success and status.  Generally, neighborhood wealth increased with distance from the city. Within city centers, ethnically defined neighborhoods, many of which still exist today, began to form.

By the end of the streetcar era the American metropolis was born. It was at this point that many of the urban failures of the preceding decades were decidedly resolved. Public health improved dramatically. Mass affordable transit allowed cities to expand and more efficiently accommodate their swelling populations. The social and economic failures that bred corruption began to fade. Cities were by no means perfect but they were largely serving the needs of their residents.

Recreational Automobile Era (1920-1945)

Just as cities reached a golden age and the effectiveness and efficiency of transit peaked, the automobile entered the scene. Unlike the streetcar, automobiles did not burst onto the transportation scene. The technology was not driven by the desperation of the previous era. They were also expensive. So, for a period, they were luxuries for the rich.

Even if the car didn’t solve a basic urban problem, they nonetheless appealed uniquely and fundamentally to the American psyche. The automobile offered a long hoped for means of private transportation and created an almost complete freedom of travel. City failures lingered in America’s collective memory. The Jeffersonian ideal of agrarian living was far from dead. The car offered an ideal opportunity to escape to the countryside and still capitalize on the city’s economic opportunity. So when Henry Ford offered the automobile at a price the masses could afford, the tide in American transportation turned yet again.

Between 1909 and 1916, Henry Ford was able to slash the cost of buying a Model T by 70%, at which point car sales exploded. By 1916, there were over 2 million cars on the road. That number increased four-fold by 1920 and to a staggering 23 million by the end of the 1920’s. Soon, savvy developers were creating new housing opportunities in areas previously inaccessible by transit. For the first time, suburbs were growing faster than the central city. As with the previous eras, not only did the city expand, but densities in the central city and along transit corridors diminished.

Automobiles so fundamentally changes the fabric of our cities that less than a decade after the peak of mass transit the first signs of crisis in transit systems began to surface. Automobiles meant that people no longer needed to live along rail corridors and the density needed to support those corridors dissolved. Further, the developers that had been subsidizing transit to support their developments no longer felt the need to do so. Transit companies soon began to collapse as the economics of transit increasingly failed to support the mandates of their charters. Governments increasingly felt the need to subsidize and absorb these failing transit systems.

As wholeheartedly as America adopted the car, it is important to note that it was not only the car that facilitated rapid urban expansion during this period. As Muller notes, policies at every level of government supported the trend. These policies included financing for roads and highways, requirements that lending institutions finance residential construction, federally backed mortgages, low interest loans to the Federal Housing Administration and new zoning laws that mandated low density development.

Before long, non-residential uses followed the population to the outer reaches of the metro. As houses spun further and further out, so did retail and then manufacturing and finally services.

Freeway Era (1945-Present)

It would take one more innovation to create the vast metropolitan regions we see today. It was the freeway: a land-hungry, limited-access corridor that would launch development ever further from city centers.

As World War II came to a close, the car had become firmly embedded in American culture. Cars were becoming a basic necessity to access work, recreation and retail. Feeding this trend was a massive road building effort that was being prosecuted across the country. This effort culminated in the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. These massive highways radiated from and surrounded cities and they virtually eliminated the value of central location in development decisions. Whole metropolitan regions were brought within easy driving distance and metropolitan regions continued their outward march until as recently as the Great Recession. Though farming had long ceased to be a dominant force in the labor market, the agrarian ideal was amply evident in the American metropolis.

America vs. Europe

Notably, the American experience was not mirrored in Europe during each of these transportation eras. As European cities grew, downtowns and central cities maintained their relative importance. Transportation innovations did allow European cities to grow outward, but they didn’t do so as dramatically and that growth didn’t occur at the expense of the center city, as was the case in America.

The reason for this distinction can be attributed to several factors. First, the long-standing aversion to cities was not shared by our European counterparts. Land was (and still is) scarce and fragmented from centuries of hereditary ownership that split property among sons. Europeans eschewed policies that would have supported homeownership and sprawl. Instead they continued to heavily invest in transit infrastructure.


The European experience provides valuable perspective for our experience here the United States. Clearly, it was not the transportation innovations alone that shaped our urban form since the same transportation innovations correlated with different results in Europe. A transportation innovation does not guarantee a certain land use outcome. An ever larger and more dispersed metropolis is not the forgone conclusion of a faster and more efficient transportation innovation. It depends upon our cultural and political response to the technology which is tied to the historical and geographical context at the time the technology becomes available.

Cities have suffered a public relations problem in the United States for centuries. They conflicted with the ethos that so many wholeheartedly adopted when our country was in its infancy. Perhaps if our cities had had more time to mature (they were incredibly young compared to their European counterparts) or had enjoyed a more healthy rate of growth, the general aversion to cities would have faded. But that didn’t happen. Instead, rural America, for whom cities were anathema, was forced into cities while droves of Europeans were immigrating, all at a time when American cities were ill-equipped to handle it. Distaste for cities congealed in the general psyche and it was passed on from generation to generation despite dramatic improvements in the urban condition.

Thus, every new innovation that offered the chance to escape the city was adopted with zeal. Every level of government established sweeping policies and programs that facilitated and accelerated the trend. Even central cities unwittingly hastened their own demise. America was also blessed by an abundance of consolidated land where Europe was not. So the American city was hollowed out and the American metropolis expanded further and further with every transportation era.

But, but, but….

America’s cultural attitude may finally be shifting. The American Dream of a house with a two car garage and a white picket fence no longer holds its universally exalted status. And cities are enjoying a renaissance across the country.  Not only that, governments (some more than others) have begun reversing policies that supported the unfettered car culture in America. The metropolis appears to be responding as well. Exurban growth has stalled, whereas development in central cities are enjoying a renaissance.

The Driverless Car

So, with the driverless car on the horizon, what does this mean for our urban form. In the long-term, driverless cars will dramatically improve the functionality of our road infrastructure. The commuter will be freed to recreate or work as they please, and they will be able to move farther and faster than ever before. If the lure of agrarian living persists in a large portion of our urban population and there are no countervailing forces to resist it, our metropolis may once again expand as dramatically as it did with the car and the freeway.

What we do know is that greater sprawl is not a foregone conclusion. Actions by governments will profoundly affect the impact driverless cars will have on our urban environment. They can reinforce sprawl, as American cities did over the past eight decades, or resist it as European cities did. Doing nothing will perpetuate many of the sprawl enabling policies still in force. If history provides any guidance, only proactive policies to the contrary will produce a different outcome.