From Freiburg to Salt Lake City: the suburbs building trams to empty fields

The Salt Lake City skyline in 2002. Image: Getty.

In the United States we haven't been able to talk a lot about transit creating new neighbourhoods whole cloth since the early 20th century. Recently, though, places like Portland have been able to take abandoned rail yards and turn them into new neighbourhoods with a walkable street grid and amenities.

In Europe now, it's being taken even further. Eco-suburbs in places like Freiburg are popping up, and development is happening as tram lines are planned. The map below, from a paper written by Berkeley student Andrea Broaddus, shows the expansion of the network.

Image: Andrea Broaddus.

As an interesting side note, Broaddus' study noted that two eco-suburbs were the same except for parking provisions:

Travel behaviour data showed that residents of Rieselfeld had higher rates of transit use in an otherwise typical modal split, while Vauban’s residents had extremely low car share and high bicycle share. These differences were attributed in part to more Vauban’s more restrictive parking policies.

But back to the Reiselfeld. Of interest here is how the development was conceived. The tramway was built before the development and historical Google Earth images show this development happening. Here’s Reiselfeld in 2000:

Image: Google Earth.

Here’s a similar image from a different angle:

Image: The Modern Tram in Europe.

And a more recent image from 2006:

Image: Google Earth.

To me this is awesome. This is true transit-oriented development, and development-oriented transit.

Could we ever do something similar here in the United States? It's already happening – though perhaps not as eco-friendly or dense as would be most sustainable.

Image: Calthorpe Associates.

Salt Lake City is building the Mid Jordan Trax line into the Daybreak Neighborhood drawn up by Calthorpe. While all the houses are planned to be a five minute walk from local shopping and destinations, there are still a lot of single family homes. Additionally, there is a freeway that is being constructed up the left edge of the valley that will just make Utah's air pollution and inversion days – those when it’s colder in the valleys than the mountains – that much worse in the future.

Image: Calthorpe Associates.

Salt Lake City Suffers from Wicked Inversion Days:

Image: Flickr/UTA/creative commons.

Here's a map of the route:

Here’s Daybreak under construction:

Image: Flickr/Jason S/creative commons.

And here it is completed.

Image: Flickr/Brett Neilson/creative commons.

All the negatives aside, I think it’s an interesting experiment and one worth watching. And watch from the air we will:

2003. Image: Google Earth.

2005. Image: Google Earth.

2006. Image: Google Earth.

2009. Image: Google Earth.

Image: Flickr/UTA/creative commons.

Image: Flickr/UTA/creative commons.

Jeff Wood is principal at the San Francisco transport consultancy The Overhead Wire, and edits The Direct Transfer.

This article first appeared on his blog in 2011.



CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

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The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

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As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.