Sun 10 Apr 2011
Houston has made connection to the outside world for business purposes a major priority in its history. In the railroad boom of the mid-1800s Houston boosters raced to make the city a railroad hub, opening it up to new markets for its agricultural goods. Houston also accomplished the feat of gaining access to sea trade on Gulf of Mexico with the dredging of the Houston Ship Channel in 1908, giving it the enormous economic advantage of a sheltered inland port. Houston became even more internationally connected in recent decades by its two airports, William P. Hobby and George Bush Intercontinental.
All of these landmark transportation decisions in Houston’s history were made with the single-minded goal of economic growth. While they did help Houston to prosper financially, they make it clear that transportation has mostly been viewed as a tool for moving goods around. Human mobility within the city has not been an object of thoughtful consideration and planning, but rather something that was merely used as a tool to facilitate city growth.
Seemingly unlimited political will to privilege highway funding above other modes of transit in conjunction with real estate developers’ and banks’ interest in furthering suburban development has facilitated Houston’s boundless outward sprawl. The result is that Houstonians have no other choice than to depend on private transportation. Even if a Houstonian would prefer not to drive a car, the dearth of infrastructure for alternative transit options means that there is no way to express that preference.
In light of its car-dependence today, most Houstonians would be surprised to discover that Houston was originally built up around a passenger streetcar system, made up of over 100 miles of railways. While cars serve to explain Houston’s outward growth post WWII, the city’s original ascendency from a muddy commercial center in the mid 1800s to a city of skyscrapers by the 1920s was facilitated not by the automobile, but by the electric streetcar. In his 1997 book, Houston Electric: The Street Railways of Houston, Texas, Steven M. Baron writes,
“”For half a century, life in Houston was unimaginable without streetcars. Merchants, clerks and factory workers went to work on them. Shoppers boarded them with the day’s purchases or the groceries. Young people rode them to school and on dates. Accounts of life in Houston during the decades surrounding the turn of the century are full of references to streetcar travel, for it was the dominant mode of transportation for all but the richest citizens… even after the automobile began replacing the horse, most Houstonians still relied on public transit for everyday commuting. Only in the 1920s did this pattern begin to change significantly…”
The Beginning of Transportation in Houston
“Until the 1920s virtually every significant land development was located on or near an existing or proposed streetcar line.” (Baron)
In 1868 Houston had reached a population of 10,000 people, all living and working within one square mile of land. The city was a bustling commercial center, a major exporter of cotton, pine lumber, and petroleum, made possible by all the railroads that passed through it. That year marked the first appearance of public transportation in Houston, a mule-drawn passenger streetcar that initially operated on abandoned freight railways. With advancing technology, the mule-drawn streetcar eventually gave way to the electric streetcar and an expanding network of railways.
There was always a close relationship between the streetcars and property development. The coming of the streetcar ushered the city into its first period of significant suburban development. Real estate developers, who saw opportunity for profit in Houston’s outlying land made many maneuvers to extend streetcar service to their new suburban communities, or in some cases tried to establish their own streetcar company. Houston Heights, Montrose, Magnolia Park, Houston Harbor, and Woodland Heights all originated as streetcar suburbs.
Perhaps as evidence of the long-standing anti-urban sentiment in the United States (Judd & Swanstrom) people took this first opportunity to relocate outside of the dirty, bustling central city. Dense residential areas grew up alongside the streetcar rails, creating Houston’s first instance of relatively distinct land uses, as people relied on the central city to conduct their business activity and errands but opted to live on the outskirts. However, unlike the sprawling land-use patterns of today, streetcar suburbs were necessarily concentrated around the railways, making for dense residential areas where property values were directly proportional to proximity to the trolley lines. The streetcar suburbs were not self-sufficient. They depended on the central city for their existence.
What happened to Houston’s streetcar system?
Houston’s streetcar system disappeared before WWII, and for sixty four years of its history the city had no internal passenger railways. From 1990 until 2004 (when MetroRAIL was built), Houston was the largest city in the nation without a rail system.
In the next post I will explore the factors that led to the streetcar’s demise. This story is a strong demonstration of Houston’s distinctive character, illuminating the particular interests and cultural values that have been favored by the city’s politics throughout its history.
Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/43630527@N05/4054179893/
Houston Electric: The Street Railways of Houston, Texas, Steven M. Baron