Urban transport in North America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries took on a variety of forms, often depending on the geography of each particular city. As a whole, the continent saw a massive evolution of transportation during this time period. According to Borchert’s idea of “Transportation Epochs,” the continent moved through 3 different phases throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, each defined by its primary mode of transportation.
The beginning of the nineteenth century corresponds with the first of Borchert’s epochs, the Horse & Wagon Epoch (1790-1830). In this period, all major cities in North America, like New York, Philadelphia, Savannah, and Buffalo, were located on bodies of water, whether it be the Atlantic Ocean or rivers (or both). For the most part, there was little trade between cities as overland trade was very difficult; long distance road construction required technology that was not yet available. Some trade occurred over sea between cities, but international trade dominated. The construction of the Erie Canal allowed trade to expand into the interior of the continent and the Great Lakes.
The following epoch was the Regional Railroad Epoch (1830-1870). The introduction of the railroad to the North American continent allowed cities to spring up in places previously unsustainable. The first railroad in the United States, the Mohawk & Hudson Railroad, took passengers and cargo between Albany and Schenectady, New York. Short railroads such as the Mohawk and Hudson were prevalent in this period. Many of them were constructed, but nearly all remained completely separate and even used different gauges. These railroads usually centered on existing cities (on bodies of water) and vastly expanded urban hinterlands. The newly enlarged hinterlands now would have access to overwater trade. Cities began to spring up in the interior of the country, far from bodies of water, like Atlanta and Birmingham. Cities on the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio Rivers became power players in this epoch.
The final epoch during these centuries was the National Railroad Epoch (1870-1920). Finally, disjointed regional railroads slowly became connected into a national rail network. Unfortunately, this caused the stagnation of river cities at the expense of massive rail hubs. Now that the whole country was connected by rail, rivers became much less important for transportation. This epoch saw the explosion of cities on the West Coast, as one no longer had to go the long way around Tierra del Fuego. This also meant that cheap European labor could now replace cheap Asian labor.
As we can see by traveling through Borchert’s Transportation Epochs, industrialization changed how people moved throughout the North American continent. Individual cities and their modes of transportation were also greatly affected by industrialization. Cities became much larger physically; walking across the city often became an unworkable proposition. Additionally, those who could afford it moved outside of the city in the very first stages of suburbanization, although they usually continued to work in the central business district. Thus, cities needed new ways to move their people around. The pictures this week show many of these new methods of ‘intraurban’ transport. The first shows a funicular, which allows people and goods to move up and down a steep hill easily. In cities surrounded by hills, the middle class frequently would move up the hills away from the city to escape the city itself. Thus, a funicular would be very useful. In flat cities with sufficient space available, like Los Angeles and New Orleans, streetcars became the best choice. However, many cities did not have the room for streetcars and had to utilize other modes of transport. Cities essentially had two options: go over or under the ground. New York and Boston went with subway systems, while Chicago chose the above street level L train. Each city went with the method that worked best with its geography and population. However, after World War II, the American public became enamored with the car, and urban transportation changed forever.