Commuting Before Cars

Saturday, July 10th, 2010

Until fairly recently, everyone commuted by foot, and real estate in the center of the city was quite desirable. Early commuting technologies didn’t quite change that:

In the 1830s the large cities — New York, Boston, and Philadelphia — saw the introduction of omnibuses which were usually drawn by two horses and carried twelve to fifteen passenger at a fixed far over a fixed route. Because of high fares and low speeds commuting for more than ten miles from the city center was out of the question.

In the early 1850s a horsecar on rails appeared in New York. It cost less to operate and made more frequent stops. Until the end of the Civil War most of the larger cities had single routes which, if they ran more than a half mile beyond the built-up area, reached real estate developments owned by the transportation company.

The more propserous member of the middle class now tended to live in town houses arranged in rows: the terraced brownstone rows of the large eastern cities date from this period.

After the Civil War horsecar routes were extended somewhat, and during the 1870s and 18880s, when deflation reduced costs, manyof the lines were built out to about four miles from the city center — a journey of half to three-quarters of an hour.

According to David Ward (whose account has been paraphrsed in most of the foregoing), many of the extensions were initially designed to serve outlying hospitals, cemetaries, and parks. The Weekedn and holiday use of these lines sustained them until adjacent residential developments supported commuter services.
The first elevated steam railroads were built in New York in the 1870s, and twenty years later every sizable city had an electric trolley system.

From Edward Banfield’s The Unheavenly City Revisited (1974).


  1. Buckethead says:

    I remember reading somewhere that the average commute to work has remained constant for basically ever — whether the serf going to his fields, or 19th-century industrial workers or now. The only thing that’s changed is the speed of commuting, which allows greater distance.

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