Although most closely associated with the electric streetcar, the term can be used for any suburb originally built with streetcar-based transit in mind, thus some streetcar suburbs date from the early 19th century. As such, the term is general and one development called a streetcar suburb may vary greatly from others. However, some concepts are generally present in streetcar suburbs, such as straight (often gridiron) street plans and relatively narrow lots.
By 1830, many New York City area commuters were going to work in Manhattan from what are now the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, which were not part of New York City at that time. They commuted by ferries. In 1852, architect Alexander Jackson Davis designed Llewellyn Park in New Jersey, a planned suburb served by both ferry and steam railroad. In the 1840s and 1850s, new railroad lines fostered the development of such New York City suburbs as Yonkers, White Plains, and New Rochelle. The steam locomotive in the mid 19th century provided the wealthy with the means to live in bucolic surroundings, to socialize in country clubs and still commute to work downtown. These suburbs were what historian Kenneth T. Jackson called the "railroad suburbs" and historian Robert Fishman called a "bourgeois utopia".
Outside of Philadelphia, suburbs like Radnor, Bryn Mawr, and Villanova developed along the Pennsylvania Main Line. As early as 1850, 83 commuter stations had been built within a 15-mile radius of Boston. Chicago saw huge developments, with 11 separate lines serving over 100 communities by 1873. A famous community served was Riverside, Illinois, arguably one of the first planned communities in the United States, designed in 1869 by Frederick Law Olmsted.
However, the suburbs closest to the city were based on horsecars and eventually cable cars. First introduced to America around 1830, the horse-drawn omnibus was revolutionary because it was the first mass transit system, offering regularly scheduled stops along a fixed route, allowing passengers to travel three miles sitting down in the time it would take them to walk two miles. Later more efficient horse-drawn streetcars allowed cities to expand to areas even more distant. By 1860, they operated in most major American and Canadian cities, including New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cincinnati, Saint Louis, Montreal, and Boston.
Horsecar suburbs emanated from the city center towards the more distant railroad suburbs. For the first time, transportation began to separate social and economic classes in cities, as the working and middle class continued to live in areas closer to the city center, while the rich could afford to live further out.