Map of the Day: Historic Streetcar Grid vs. Current Density

This isn’t a chart, but it’s a great map that the folks over at MN2020 put together, juxtaposing the historic streetcar grid against current densities.


(It’s worth remembering that historic 1950 densities in Minneapolis and Saint Paul were far higher than is reflected here. Much of the dense housing was bulldozed, and current household sizes have been shrinking for years.)

Here’s what Eliot Altbaum, the research intern who put the map together, had to say about the result:

As Minneapolis grew, it built an extensive streetcar system to efficiently move people in and out of downtown and between the neighborhoods. Each of these transportation methods leaves a mark on our towns and cities. […] Sixty years after the end of the streetcar network, the housing development that mirrors that network makes clear the connection between transportation and housing development.

To my mind, Eliot is onto something compelling. You cannot separate transportation from land use. You cannot pull apart roads or rail from the kind of buildings we inhabit and the patterns of everyday life that form around them.



14 thoughts on “Map of the Day: Historic Streetcar Grid vs. Current Density

  1. Elliot AltbaumElliot Altbaum

    Bill raises a great point about the historic population density. As household sizes have decreased and housing stock has remained as dense or less than that of the 1950’s, population density has decreased. The K-mart and Lake St. area being a great example. This history suggests that Minneapolis can support more density and maintain a high quality of life for its citizens.

  2. Eric SaathoffEric S

    It’s interesting to see the lack of color on the west and east 7th street sections where St. Paul hopes to put in the first streetcar line.

  3. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    I wonder how many of these tracks are still under the asphalt and what condition they’re in. Imagine having a few midnight track clearing parties.

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        LIkely not. But we won’t know until we remove the asphalt 🙂

        Some time ago there was an interesting story in Brooklyn where some workers were removing loose asphalt before a street was repaved. After a while they’d noticed that about half the old cobbles were exposed and were in quite good condition. Some neighbors noticed it as well and pushed to have the old asphalt all removed. It’s a low traffic enough street that it worked.

        1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

          Working with Minneapolis last year we ran into several during repaving and rebuilding roads… and no, they cannot be used. Partly just because they didn’t have good rail maintenance machines then like we do now, so they were entirely flat on top, maybe by design then, but now that would do damage to modern streetcars. Also, steel doesn’t bind to asphalt, so there are cracks in the pavement over the tracks, letting in water with no easy escape. The ones we removed at Bryant and 46th were so rusted they looked like they were frozen mid-boil.

    1. Tyrone Slothrop

      Probably very few. One of the reasons the crooks took over TCRT was to sell the rails for scrap.

  4. Richard Bergsrud

    I would have thought that the map matches density and growth because the streetcars themselves were the main agents of urban growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
    Many streetcar companies had close ties to real estate and land development companies. Land is essentially useless for development unless people can get to it, and go to work, shop, etc. Streetcar lines allowed real estate to development. Thomas Lowry, who can be considered the principal founder of the first horsecar lines, as well as the electrified TCRT, had extensive dealings in land and finances.

    A few key quotes from Russell Olson’s “The Electric Railways of Minnesota”.

    “He (Thomas Lowry) believed in constructing in advance of the population and waiting for traffic to slowly follow.”

    “The extent of urban development was limited almost entirely by the operating radius of the street railway. The electric railway, relatively inexpensive to construct and operate, and faster than either the horsecar or cable car, changed the character of the city. Streetcar lines established the pattern for growth within the city.”

    In short, I guess I’m not exactly sure why this is considered surprising. Take a look at a TCRT map from the 1950’s, then look at a modern Metro Transit system map. They are remarkably similar, particularly Minneapolis and St. Paul proper. The buses do the same routes that the streetcars did, because that is where the population patterns still are. And the population patterns stayed there because the bus lines perpetuated the legacy of the streetcars.

    As far as density, streetcar lines tended to foster a low to medium density growth. Think of South Minneapolis, that kind of density. Because the streetcars were cheap, and land was cheap, residences did not have to be packed in as dense as you would see in older time periods or in the urban core. Just like freeways and cars easily extended the commuter distance up to 50 miles from an urban center, streetcar lines did the same thing, only to a lesser scale. The land development companies wanted to sell land and homes, so they would do everything they could to discourage density. This lack of density in many areas later came back to hurt the streetcar lines, because there were not enough riders to justify the high fixed operating costs.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      It’s not surprising to me, but the American narrative often suggests that our built environment (in this case, our homes) transparently reflect our individual tastes. I.e., that we live at certain densities because we prefer them.

      On the other hand, once you start saying that densities and architecture are a consequence of our transportation system, the illusion of preference and choice starts to seem more complicated.

      Anyway, that’s why it’s “surprising.”

  5. Pingback: In the Twin Cities, Population Still Clustered Where the Streetcar Went |

  6. Joe Sislow

    I’ve been tinkering around with the exact same idea with Chicago data. Most of the bungalow areas or “streetcar suburbs” have evolved into neighborhoods in the city. But since 1950, many of the west and south side have been hammered with the removal of the street cars and the highways cutting them off from the rest of the city.

    If the previous land values and usages can be shown, I believe a compelling argument can be made to show which areas are ripe for transit increase, and they will then show the most bang for the buck.

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