Thursday, March 12, 2009

Richmond's population and streetcars

I have a theory that good transit systems encourage dense population growth, and without a good transit system, dense populations cannot be sustained. We're in a particularly good position to examine this theory here in Richmond. Our city gave birth to electric streetcar transit in 1888. That in itself is an amazing fact, the first city IN THE WORLD to operate electric streetcars, an invention of Frank J. Sprague (not a native son, but neither am I.) More on this to come later.

Here is a brief time line of streetcars and population in Richmond:

1888 Streetcars begin operation, Richmond population is about 81,000
1900 pop. 85,050
1910 Richmond's "streetcar suburbs" growing- pop. 127,628
1920 pop. 171,667 34.5% growth in a decade
1940 pop. 193,042
1949 streetcar operation in Richmond ends, tracks are paved over
1950 pop. 230,310
1960 pop. 219,958, -4.5% growth in the first decade of "white flight"
1970 south Richmond annexed from Chesterfield Co. population jumps to 249,621
1980 pop. 219,214, -12.2% growth
1990 pop. 203,056, -7.4% growth
2000 pop. 197,790
2007 estimated pop. 200,123 +1.2%

We can see that installation of the electric streetcar occurred just prior to a six decade sustained growth in city population. Its removal in 1950 coincided with a peak in population at 230,00. From here we see a constant decline in city population until the end of the 20th century, excepting for annexation in 1970 which added 47,000 residents. Even after annexation we see a precipitous drop in population as the streetcar suburbs in Manchester and along Hull Street were depopulated.

Examining the reasons for losing 20% of our population is beyond the scope of this blog, but I believe a contributing factor was the loss of rail transit. Moving forward, it seems the population decline leveled off at the start of the 21st century and is even projected to make modest gains. What we should consider is, if residents are prepared to re-occupy the city can Richmond grow back to mid-century population density without rail transit? How can a city of greater than 200,000 residents function and grow without an efficient means of moving people from place to place quickly, and in the age of climate change, cleanly?

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