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Neighborhoods, Streets, and the Automobile

The Plan of Chicago was formulated and published at the dawn of the automobile age, just before a period of phenomenal growth in auto ownership and use. The largest surge in automobile ownership in the United States took place in the 1920s, the result both of post-World War prosperity and of the reduction in the price of autos brought by mass production. The effects of this revolution in transportation technology on urban geography were felt in a number of ways. Street improvement and widening campaigns such as those outlined by the Plan were enthusiastically received and executed by local governments and planning agencies struggling to accommodate the increased numbers and speed of vehicles. Motor buses began to replace street cars as the preferred mode of public transportation, and the residents of cities like Chicago were far less dependent on public transportation than they had been in the recent past.

Whereas streetcar lines encouraged commercial and residential growth paralleling the tracks, the spread of the automobile prompted growth in between and beyond commuter lines. Families were attracted to these new neighborhoods by the modest single-family detached homes built for them. In Chicago, “bungalow communities,” such as Beverly, represented a new lifestyle option for middle-class families who could now enjoy the benefits of suburban living while still residing within city limits. Retail activity also developed away from the urban center as shopping plazas tailored for automobiles lined neighborhood arterials. During the 1920s, retail activities in Chicago became increasingly decentralized as outlying neighborhoods, such as Uptown and Englewood, developed sizable commercial districts. Retailers were also attracted to the recently widened thoroughfares, such as Western Avenue, that provided to potential customers coming from longer distances.

Many cities expanded their physical boundaries and redefined their street layouts due to the motor vehicle’s new role in fostering metropolitan growth. For the most part, Chicago—that is, the city of Chicago--did not. Atlanta did not extend the downtown district’s strict grid system, but instead implemented a network of curvilinear streets that complemented the natural landscape, and was accessible by automobiles. In the case of Chicago, development on undeveloped land annexed to the city primarily in 1889, along the established grid layout.



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