Source: adapted from Muller, P.O. (1995) “Transportation and Urban Form: Stages in the Spatial Evolution of the American Metropolis”, in S. Hanson (ed.) The Geography of Urban Transportation, 2nd Edition, New York: Guilford, p. 29.
North American and European cities have been impacted by similar technological changes introduced since the industrial revolution. However, a different evolution of urban form took place, especially in the second half of the 20th century. While European cities leaned on public transit, North American cities relied more on the automobile. The outcome was a divergence in their respective urban forms. This evolution had a direct impact on the urban form, with four important periods:
- I. Walking-horsecar era (1800-1890). This era was characterized by the absence of urban mass transportation, with people having access to locations that could be reached (walked) in less than 45 minutes (4 to 6 km). Urban densities were very high as the available space was strongly constrained by accessibility. All economic activities were concentrated in a central node along with residential areas. Reduced mobility accounted for this imposed concentration. The horsecar made its debut, which allowed the development of the first urban transit corridors. From the 1850s, railways enabled radial development adjacent to railway stations, especially in Europe and in older American cities (e.g. New York, Boston).
- II. Streetcar era (1890-1920). The development of the first forms of urban mass transportation improved accessibility and enabled cities to expand along the main tramway (streetcar) lines, creating full-fledged transit corridors. In tripling the speed of urban transport, electric streetcars proportionally expanded the spatial structure of cities. This permitted the emergence of a specialized downtown area with commercial and service activities. In Europe, tramway lines tended to expand towards long-established adjacent towns, which were integrated into the expanding city. This allowed the development of urban activities beyond city limits. The emergence of commercial centers along transit corridors became apparent because a growing share of the population having access to trolleys, decided to relocate outside the city limits. This reinforced social stratification and favored the emergence of neighborhoods differentiated by socioeconomic status. Less fortunate people, limited in their mobility, tended to remain in central areas while the wealthier class relocated in the early suburbs. The first suburban railroads entered into service, and specialized industrial districts started to take shape.
- III. Automobile era (1920-1945). Motorized transportation, mainly buses, and cars, radially expanded cities, further improving accessibility. This technical innovation had a substantial impact on spatial organization. Initially, only the wealthy classes could afford their own automobiles, which were used mainly for recreational purposes. The private car was linked with the emergence of the first low-density suburbs with increased ethnic and economic segregation. This went on par with the decentralization of commercial and industrial activities. It is during this phase that European and North American urban development started to diverge. In order to facilitate the diffusion of the road as a mode of urban transportation in the United States, some oil and car companies bought and dismantled tramway systems. For instance, in 1938 General Motors and Standard Oil bought the Pacific Electric Railway of Los Angeles, dismantled it, and replaced tramways with buses. Consequently, the influence of streetcars in urban development in North America was removed, while it endured in many European cities. This was a contributing factor in the divergence of the spatial structure.
- IV. The highway era (1945-). The post-World War Two era saw the large diffusion of the automobile with the growth of individual mobility. Highways favored the extension of full-fledged suburbs, especially in North America. This process also took place in Europe, but to a lower extent and involved higher densities along existing transit corridors. No significant new urban transit technologies emerged during this era, but improvements in transport infrastructures significantly increased accessibility. Residential and employment decentralization was thus accentuated. Also, several sub-centers emerged to serve suburbs, a process favored by the construction of ring roads around metropolitan areas. The development of new highways which circled urban perimeters promoted the agglomeration of commercial, distribution, and manufacturing activities around high accessibility clusters in suburban areas.
In the 21st century, several issues about the future relationships between transportation and the urban form are being brought forward. In the era of information technologies changes in individual mobility and a concentration of activities along transport corridors and nodes can be expected. Future urban forms are thus likely to be of higher densities with a concentration around clusters. Yet the impacts of information technologies on urban mobility and urban form remain to be assessed and can lead to contradictions.