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The five eras of transportation in Northeast Ohio

The design of a particular place — from the look and feel of the streets to the spatial geography of communities — is shaped by the types of transportation modes (such as boats, trains, cars, and planes) available at different times in history.

In Northeast Ohio, for instance, it’s easy to see how the landscape and regional development patterns were shaped over time by the dominant modes of transportation.

Tanker ship unloads iron ore along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland

There have been five main eras:

Early water transportation

In 1796, Moses Cleaveland and his band of surveyors for the Connecticut Land Company arrived at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River by boat. The early settlement huddled along the harbor waterfront and was accessed by sailing schooners, brigs, and barks. On land, people got around by foot or on horseback.

Canal era

In 1832, the Ohio & Erie Canal was completed with its northern terminus in Cleveland, causing the little town to grow rapidly as a commercial center. The canal was a single, linear corridor of water, and development hugged the banks. Other towns developed inland along the corridor, usually around the canal locks where boats had to slow down and where the elevation change provided water power for mills (Peninsula, Akron, Canal-Fulton, etc.).

Railroad and streetcar city

Railroads came to the Cleveland area starting in 1849. Like the canal, rail provided access along fixed corridors, only there could be more of them radiating out from the center city. High-density development followed the corridors. Industrial corridors developed along freight rail lines. Commercial districts and high-density housing developed along the streetcar lines. Indeed, real estate development typically happened in synch with the development of streetcar lines; sometimes the same developer built both, so there was planned synergy between land uses and the streetcar line to service the development (a notable example being Shaker Heights). The streetcar lines extended out through the Cleveland neighborhoods to what are now the inner-ring suburbs (see map). These communities generally conformed to the geometry of the streetcar, with compact, mixed-use, walkable environments that gave people easy access to the streetcars and other needs. This era declined rapidly after World War II (in part because of a deliberate strategy by auto, tire, and oil companies to replace streetcars with rubber-tired buses) and ended in 1954 when the last streetcar ran in Cleveland.

Automobile metropolis

Starting in the 1920s and accelerating after World War II, the automobile became the dominant mode of personal transportation. There were many reasons for this (such as the undeniable freedom a car provided to go more places and the public subsidies for roads and oil that reduced the price of driving), but the important impact was to transform spatial relationships between land development and transportation. With a car, you didn’t have to live near a streetcar line. Roads could go virtually anywhere, so development could happen everywhere—and it did. The city spread out into a metropolitan area of many cities and suburbs. People began to live mobile lives that were fundamentally different from the walking-close-to-home lives that human beings had always lived. The landscape changed from a low-speed walking environment to one that was experienced through the window of a high-speed automobile, changing everything from the width of streets to the design of drive-thru buildings and garish roadside signs.

Highway region

Several short segments of highways were built in Greater Cleveland as public works projects during the Depression. But the real highway era didn’t begin until after the federal Interstate Highway Act was passed in 1956. This brought about the biggest mobilization of resources in the history of the world for highway construction. As the new highways—I-71, I-77, I-90, I-480, I-271—gradually covered Northeast Ohio with high-speed access, the developed land area of the region ballooned outward.

The map above (courtesy of NOACA) illustrates this land-use impact of highways. They show where people can live in the metro area and still have convenient access to major employment centers. The first map shows the 30-minute commuting distance to downtown Cleveland (the CBD, or central business district) using regular streets (inner, light shading) and using freeways (outer, dark shading). The inner shading roughly corresponds to Cleveland and the older suburbs. The outer shading extends out beyond the edges of Cuyahoga County, with two longer prongs to the south following I-71 and I-77. Thus, with the speed of freeways, you can live way out in Medina County now and (admittedly, on a really good day) commute downtown in 30 minutes.

The second map shows a powerful secondary impact of freeways—the development of “edge cities.” These are new agglomerations of work places and commercial development that have sprung up along the outerbelt highways around American cities. The map shows three of them in Greater Cleveland: the North Olmsted/Airport area along I-480, the Independence/Rockside area at the crossroads of I-77 and I-480, and the Beachwood/Chagrin area along I-271. Not only are these edge cities sprawl development themselves, but they enable people to live even farther out in former rural areas because now commuting can be to the edge city instead of to the historic employment centers in the central city. Thus, the map shows greatly expanded “commute-sheds” to these edge cities. If you added the commute-sheds to the other cities and towns in Northeast Ohio, the map of accessible land would balloon out to cover a quarter of the state.

Key point: Automobiles and highways have exploded our regional landscape in a relatively short time. The change is dramatic and unprecedented. Instead of building transportation that was tightly integrated with places, we built highways to move people rapidly between places. Development can happen anywhere.

Now that we are at the end of major highway construction in Northeast Ohio, perhaps we can start thinking about what the next era of transportation might be like. Although it’s hard to imagine that anything will ever supplant the car as our dominant mode of transportation, there’s no reason to assume that the highway era will be the final pattern. It’s possible that could have a very different future.

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