A Brief History of the Growth of Suburbs

The history of urban transportation is first a story of the evolution of technology, from walking, to riding animals, to riding in groups on vehicles pulled by animals, and eventually to cable cars, larger-capacity steam-powered trains, electric trains, and motor buses powered by internal-combustion engines. It is a story of gradually increasing speed, vehicle capacity, and range of travel that has shaped cities and structured the lives of those who live in them.

Cities and means of travel grew together, with the shape and extent of cities determined largely by the available transport technology. Urban transportation services defined the geographic area in which people functioned, limiting how far one could travel to work, acquire food, exchange services, and visit friends. When walking or riding a horse was the primary mode of urban travel, cities were necessarily small. When larger animal-drawn vehicles became common, cities grew in size. In the late 1800s it was not uncommon for the land developer and the transit operator to be one and the same, using a street railway system to promote the sale of new housing and attracting the residents of that housing with the railway.

In the US Levittowns were the beginnings of suburban growth. After World War II with the sudden increase of men coming home after the war started a serious housing shortage. The GI bill of 1944 provided money to educate and build houses for the returning soldiers. A man named William Levitt bought thousands of acres of land outside of cities like New York and Philadelphia Levitt then proceeded to plan out the construction of towns full of prefabricated houses.

One of the first Levittown communities was started in Hempstead Town, Long Island, New York, and was developed between 1946 and 1951 by the firm of Levitt and Sons, Inc. It was an early example of a completely preplanned and mass-produced housing complex. Containing thousands of low-cost homes with accompanying shopping centers, playgrounds, swimming pools, community halls, and schools, its name became a national symbol for suburbia during the post-World War II building boom.

As automobiles became more widespread, there was political and economic pressure to expand the road network. In 1958 the Interstate Highway Act connected all the major cities in the US with highways. A demand for housing, particularly single-family homes, was met in the United States with government loans and other incentives to expand housing in suburban areas. Life in the suburbs became feasible with the automobile, which provided mobility everywhere, anytime. Thus, after World War II, at least in the United States, the automobile, the auto industry, the urban road network, and the suburbs grew together. The result was a dispersed urban geography, often called sprawl, which characterized not only the suburbs of large cities but also whole cities that experienced the bulk of their growth after the automobile became popular, they include Phoenix, Arizona; Los Angeles, California; Dallas, Texas; and Orlando, Florida. This is a geography in which travel is less focused on nodes and corridors (denser, centrally located city and suburban downtowns). It is a dispersed market that is difficult to serve economically with mass transportation.

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introduction | history | timeline | impact on commerce | negative impacts | suburbia | automobile simulation | suburbs simulation