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.
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.