A great deal of (negative) attention has been devoted to the segregation of land uses in newly developed suburban areas in recent decades. The critique is that the development of exclusively residential neighborhoods and the segregation of commercial activities reduces opportunities for walking, requiring increased automobile use. This is sometimes portrayed as a recent phenomenon, bought on by the widespread use of the automobile.
Some perspective is in order, however. Land use segregation is hardly a product of the latter part of the 20th century. The original cause was not the use of the automobile (though transportation was critical). Rather, the initial separation of land uses in American cities dates to the 19th century.
The pre-industrial walking city at the start of the 19th century had very limited separation of different land uses. Given that interaction was limited by reasonable walking distance, different activities just could not be located that far apart.
As the industrial city emerged in the 19th centure, this changed as enterprises sought to capture the advantages of economies of scale and was made possible by improvements in transportation within the city. First the omnibus, then the horsecar, and then electric streetcars and mass transit increased the distances people could travel to work and shop. Factories increased in size and formed increasingly large industrial areas. Larger enterprises required management by concentrations of office workers. The department store emerged to provide a previously unseen variety of goods to shoppers from throughout the urban area. The offices, department stores, and related retail formed the new central business districts, another area of largely segregated land uses.
Of course not all types of establishments saw these increases in scale in the 19th century. For grocery stores, the changes came later. But this was the start of increasing sizes of enterprises, made possible by improvements in transportation, forming areas of segregated land use.
The automobile may be blamed for the evolution of big-box retailers, but the effect of improvements to intraurban transportation on retailing began much earlier. This can be seen clearly with the development of the department store in the latter part of the nineteenth century.
In the walking city of the early nineteenth century, most urban residents could only move around on foot. This necessarily limited the distances they could travel and the amounts of goods they could carry. Stores tended to be small and rather limited.
Transportation improvements–horsecars, cable cars, electric streetcars, and more–dramatically increased mobility in urban areas. Cities greatly expanded as residents took advantage of the greater ease of travel. Going to the developing central business districts several miles away became feasible.
A larger number of potential customers could travel to a store located in the downtown area, creating a greater market. This allowed the emergence of the modern department store carrying a far larger range of goods with greater selections. More volume provided greater economies of scale to the store in the sale of its merchandise. But these were also economies of scale from the perspective of their customers, who benefited from the convenience, wider selection, and lower prices.
Coming to shop at the department stores via public transportation did have one limitation, however. Customers purchasing large numbers of items or very large items could find it difficult or impossible to carry their purchases back home with them. The stores recognized this problem and offered delivery of merchandise purchased in the various departments of the store.
This evolution depended solely on the transportation improvements made in the late nineteenth century. It had nothing to do with the automobile. Indeed, at least some department stores continued to assume that significant numbers of their customers would come to their downtown stores using public transportation at least into the 1950s. When growing up and shopping at the large downtown department stores in Milwaukee during that decade, the stores were continuing to offer their delivery services. Of course now, the assumption more often is that customers will be arriving by automobile and can take all but the largest items home themselves.