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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

An Alternative Narrative to the Los Angeles Streetcar Myth 

The automobile’s domination of Los Angeles was not a triumph of the market, but an exercise in regulation and rent-seeking.

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Credit: American-Rails.com

First, let me say that there are almost as many narratives addressing why (and how) rail transit was originally erased in the Los Angeles area as there are cars stuck in rush hour. But the popular and rather expansive view that the demise of legacy rail transit in the L.A. area represents the triumph of consumer choice and shared public policy decisions warrants further examination and closer scrutiny. This view is based on broad generalizations and generally ignores the complicated power politics and egregious exclusion of key stakeholders that actually resulted in the temporary disappearance of rail transit. 

The real facts are just a bit more unfavorable. Many Angelenos, rather than freely choosing a totally autocentric environment, were denied a fair choice in the first place by a combination of blinkered politicians, the automobile lobby, developers, real estate interests, and probably, most importantly, continuing state/federal sponsorships of “free” highways.   

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A more detailed examination must follow an explanation of the differences between Los Angeles Railway (LARY) urban streetcars (Yellow cars) and the sprawling Pacific Electric (PE) interurban network (Red cars). These operations essentially served two markets and were owned and operated by different private companies. Conflating the two only serves to obscure how we managed to reach the same unfortunate endpoint: that is, the total death of the original rail transit systems in the Los Angeles area by the end of March 1963. 

Henry Huntington’s heirs sold Los Angeles Railway (LARY) in 1944 to the bus holding company, American City Lines, a wholly owned subsidiary of National City Lines (NCL). NCL was an entity formed and bankrolled by General Motors, and backed by Firestone Rubber, Standard Oil of California (later Chevron), along with other members of the automobile cadre to acquire street railway companies and convert them to all-bus operations equipped, naturally, with GM-built buses. General Motors and its tire and oil company partners were convicted in federal court in 1949 of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act to gain control of transit companies and requiring these companies to buy their products exclusively.  

While GM and its partners had ended their connection to NCL prior to the trial, officers of these companies were nevertheless fined nominal amounts. One source quoted the fines as reaching a total of $37,000 for the companies and executives involved—even at that time a paltry sum. In a likely reaction to this proceeding (but before the ruling was announced), NCL actually purchased 40 new PCC streetcars for Los Angeles Railway (now renamed Los Angeles Transit Lines) in 1948, an action that they only took with one other GM rail transit property (St. Louis). Once LARY was bought by NCL, the eventual conversion to GM buses was certain.  

The Pacific Electric Company (PE), an interurban passenger and freight railway and subsidiary of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, followed a different path to abandonment. PE was formed in 1911 when Henry E. Huntington sold his interests in various interurban lines to the Southern Pacific Company after having consolidated his holdings in eight electric railroads earlier in that year. In this ensuing reordering, Henry opted to retain the local rail lines (which became LARY).  

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PE’s passenger business was never a roaring success: carrying passengers wasn’t initially a priority, while fostering development and providing attendant access to myriad destinations in the L.A. basin was. It should be noted that PE’s rail passenger business only posted profits in 1923 and 1945 (most other years showing book losses reflecting the bonded debt burden imposed by the 1911 restructuring). Those were the peak years when PE carried over 275,000 daily revenue passengers. Nevertheless, PE formed a comprehensive web of services that effectively covered the area (and was the real precursor of sprawl, playing a very important part in shaping the initial spatial development of the greater Los Angeles area).  

PE also operated a very profitable freight service as vast as its passenger empire (much of which survives today, merged in 1965 into the parent Southern Pacific Railroad). The freight business was likely of greater importance to Southern Pacific than the passenger business. It should also be noted that PE had been pruning the passenger rail network since the mid ’20s and had subsequently developed a successful complementary bus network. In 1926, voters rejected a PE–authored plan which would have placed key PE rail routes on elevated structures in the immediate downtown area and would likely have ensured rail service for the foreseeable future. From that point, the shrinkage of the rail system was hastened in part by the California Division of Highways, which displayed an indiscriminate appetite for rail properties by continually gobbling up choice portions of PE’s formidable inventory of private rights of way for new or expanded highways through eminent domain. In many cases, they seized strategically placed PE rights of way around the region, totally without regard to the impact on PE passenger operations, the most blatant example being Aliso Street near Union Station (a partially completed freeway initially dumped thousands of cars onto Aliso Street for access to downtown L.A. before the street disappeared entirely to become a frontage road in subsequent highway construction). This effectively tied different operating PE divisions together, provided access trackage to a nearby storage facility and severely impacted day-to-day operations as it was eventually subsumed into the highway maw. 

It was also one of the concluding final straws that may have convinced PE’s owner, Southern Pacific, to finally exit the rail passenger business. This would align with the thinking of the new head of SP, Donald Russell, who assumed that position in 1950. He reportedly envisioned shrinking PE to a profitable core of freight only operations.  

In 1948, the likely final gasp to realistically push L.A. toward a more even-handed transportation future (with the remaining pieces of the PE passenger rail system serving as an essential component) was led by downtown L.A. interests, the Los Angeles Times, and some suburban developers principally in the San Fernando Valley. Their efforts met with stiff resistance from the L.A. Chamber of Commerce and the L.A. City Council, among others. The result was the narrow defeat of the initiative to advance an integrated rapid transit system in concert with the rapidly expanding freeway system.  

It is interesting to note that PE’s employee newsletter in 1949 devoted an entire issue to a message written by PE President, Oscar A. Smith, detailing a grand vision for preserving essential PE passenger rail operations and expanding bus coverage in the greater Los Angeles area. In a prescient assessment, Smith described the region-wide employment of critical rail components with reserved rights of way and new passenger equipment as a critical complement to the burgeoning freeway network. He envisioned the preservation of key elements of the sprawling PE passenger rail system as vital to realizing this dream, operated in the public realm with public money, not as a private entity.  Apparently, PE still believed that rail transit could be part of the region’s mobility plans. 

In fact, a short segment of PE’s route to the San Fernando Valley had been placed in the median of the Hollywood Freeway before World War II, an action viewed by many as a possible forerunner of future rapid transit plans. Alas, the PE line was abandoned in late 1952, in part forced by the extension of the Hollywood Freeway and associated highway improvements. PE’s acquiescence to the abandonment likely also indicated the influence of the new SP President, Donald Russell. By 1957, the California Division of Highways had finished converting the former PE right-of-way to additional highway lanes.  

Perhaps the defining moment for the development of Los Angeles had already occurred in 1926, when a referendum on a serious proposal to build a network of elevated railways in the immediate downtown area to alleviate congestion and improve transit was soundly defeated. Interestingly, the Los Angeles Times led the opposition to the proposal and published inflammatory articles and a decidedly racist cartoon to help carry the day.  

Many point to this defeat as the seminal beginning of the devolution of L.A. through expansion from the relatively immediate surrounding environs into a far-reaching low-density conglomeration. The L.A. population had swelled from 50,000 souls in 1890 to well over a million by the mid-1920s. The development accompanying this increase was intentionally pushed further and further toward the outer reaches of the L.A. metropolitan region, as the highway network expanded, gradually supplanting PE’s role in providing the necessary accessibility.       

While the long term trend toward ever-decreasing transit patronage certainly cannot be denied, the ultimate defining issue was that PE and L.A. Railway, both for-profit enterprises, had to compete with government-built highways. These, in many cases, converted crucial PE private rights of way to public roads, with rail services banished or forced to compete for road space with swarms of automobiles and trucks (and the attendant damaging effects on schedules and ridership).   

It was also no mystery that the California Division of Highways plans were part and parcel to the area’s powerful developers, who were intent on reshaping the area into a low-density haven. And it’s certainly no mystery why PE sold its remaining rail passenger business to Metropolitan Coach Lines (MCL), an entity formed by Jesse Haugh, a long-time associate of a National City Lines subsidiary, in 1953. PE’s parent, Southern Pacific, viewed the passenger rail business as simply no longer having any future in the L.A. region.  

In 1955, MCL, ever the GM handmaiden, finally received permission to abandon the former PE Glendale-Burbank rail line after continually petitioning governmental regulatory authorities for permission to do so. The Glendale-Burbank line, with its substantial private rights of way (and substantial ridership) and a one-mile subway(!) that provided traffic-free access into downtown Los Angeles, represented a vital link for thousands of commuters in the Glendale-Burbank area.

With the abandonment, thirty 15-year-old modern PCC passenger vehicles (pictured above) became redundant and were stored in the empty, damp subway, where they suffered severe deterioration while awaiting sale. The substantial outrage led by the Glendale City Council over this abandonment action was batted away by an unconcerned L.A. City Council, other suburban jurisdictions, and the California Division of Highways, all more interested in acquiring the line’s substantial private rights of way. It should also be noted that the Chairman of the L.A. Board of Public Utilities & Transportation resigned in protest over the L.A. City Council’s intervention overruling his Board and allowing the abandonment to proceed.  

After further abandonments, MCL finally sold the remaining PE rail operation (Los Angeles to Long Beach and the aforementioned Watts local) but not the rights of way (still owned by PE), to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority (LAMTA) in 1957. The former PE Watts Local, providing access to downtown L.A. from the south, was discontinued in 1959 by LAMTA (and its discontinuance was cited by the McCone Commission as one of the underlying causes of the Watts Riots of 1965). 

After the demise of the Watts line, which had a direct route into downtown L.A., former patrons of color were faced with multiple bus route transfers that often tripled the previous rail journey in both time and length to reach areas of employment. LAMTA, after half-hearted attempts to retain and revitalize these assets, terminated the last PE operation in 1961. Ostensibly, this came after PE, as owner of the tracks, refused to extend the lease under which LAMTA operated the service.  

The LARY streetcar’s journey to oblivion in L.A. would require another article to detail the impediments erected by an autocentric establishment to force this mode from the urban fabric. Suffice it say that LAMTA also acquired Los Angeles Transit Lines (LATL), the successor to LARY, from MCL in 1957 and junked the five remaining lines of the streetcar system in March 1963, even though ridership had stabilized and one route (P Line) serving a large minority population, was reputed to carry over 40,000 weekday patrons. LAMTA’s April 1963 monthly newsletter, touting the abandonment, quoted the top LAMTA official as saying:

Over the past 15 years the cost of maintaining and operating these two classes of equipment (streetcars and trolley coaches) has risen entirely out of proportion to the service they render. The crowded cities of today make this equipment inefficient and more costly than our riders can afford.

With that kind of limited, self-serving leadership from top management, it is no surprise that municipalizing the streetcar system didn’t save it.  The main users were no longer influential middle-class riders but increasingly those pesky captive low income riders whose livelihoods and basic mobility depended on vital quality transit. Since they had little influence, and the LAMTA’s Board (composed of members with no transit ties or experience) was more concerned with expenses and meeting bond payments for the debt incurred in acquiring the passenger assets from MCL, the streetcars were discontinued and the fleet dispersed across the world. The most modern LAMTA streetcars, forty of which had been acquired new in 1948, were given new life in Cairo, Egypt, and Chile. NCL had previously shipped a large number of older L.A. streetcars to Seoul, South Korea. 

These are some of the more intimate details that throw light on the death throes of the legacy interurban and urban rail systems in the Los Angeles area. Certainly, the highway vision came to clearly dominate public policy, not only in L.A. but across the nation. It was perhaps not so much as an approving expression by a monolithic public supposedly eager for sprawl or blissfully unconcerned with the unfolding auto dominance, but largely imposed by powerful auto and real estate interests, coopting private and public leadership for a narrow vision touted by the automobile lobby. 

This coterie’s enthusiasm for the automobile was equaled only by its opposition to any challenge to what amounted to the total domination by the automobile. In their view, there was a market for public transportation, but public and private power centers subscribed to the vision that public transportation could and would be reduced to cater (such as it was) to the captive rider, the poor, the disadvantaged, and the young, while everyone else would easily be accommodated by the automobile and its supposed unlimited mobility. There was little money in this vision for public transit.  

The automobile lobby was quite skilled in coopting and convincing both the private and public sector of their primary vision, that the wave of the future would roll on rubber tires. Yet the L.A.–Long Beach rail connection was restored in 1990 and the rail system (both heavy and light rail lines) is inexorably spreading throughout the Los Angeles area, an explicit recognition that true mobility is gained through a more even-handed mixture of different modes.

That’s not the whole story, of course. Transit fares were long regulated (and kept artificially low) and thus played a key role in preventing rail operators in the L.A. area from amassing the resources to consistently modernize and enhance the attractiveness of their operations. The increasing costs of franchising operating rights imposed by localities also represented another drain on revenues.  

Franchising also became the source of hostility and uncertainty for rail operators. Moreover, PE and LARY could not anticipate the demoralizing effects of inflation on the bottom line brought on by World War I, which left an indelible mark. While the comfort, convenience, and privacy of the automobile is absolutely true, left unacknowledged in many quarters was the middle-class journey from public transit to a car-dominated environment. Left behind were those souls who sorely needed but lacked a mantle of affordable transportation alternatives to also reach jobs, shopping, and entertainment. They were, unfortunately, some say deliberately, failed by the establishment of that time. 

It is also a historical fact that private interests built both the vast PE interurban empire and the extensive urban Los Angeles street railway system, and that government (both local and state) continually harassed their operations with various measures, most previously discussed. Some were overt, such as suppressing or limiting critically needed fare increases over the years. 

Other less visible instruments employed by the state and city authorities were just as effective. The California Division of Highways owned and managed key roads in Los Angeles which allowed CDH to exercise its considerable power to force streetcars off selected roads. It should also be noted that both PE and LARY were assessed costs for maintaining a substantial portion of roadways they shared in the L.A. area, another example of forcibly subsidizing their competition. I would also point out (again) that government entities (state and increasingly federal) built the sprawling system of highways in the L.A. area at government expense that directly competed with private enterprise. And those were the days long before transit was subsidized.  

Of course, the effects of the Depression also left a debilitating and long-lasting mark on both PE and LARY operations. As has been noted, PE annual passenger volumes peaked in 1923, and again during wartime in 1945. As they slowly recovered from the economic deprivations of the depression, World War II became the new reality and with it the imposition of rationing for oil and rubber products. This consequently drove thousands of customers to the rails, dramatically straining existing services and accelerating the deterioration of already aging equipment.  

The nation’s emergence from the war found both PE and LARY (now LATL) faced with almost completely exhausted equipment and a deteriorating infrastructure, desperately in need of modernization. While public expenditures for highways began to explode, no public dollars were made available to assist transit in the post-war transition. As public transit was largely in the hands of the private sector, there was a long standing (and crippling) bias against subsidizing transit operations.   No such qualms existed for highways or roads. 

In a monograph previously published by NewUrbs in 2021, Kurt Hofer, in explaining the demise of the streetcar, stated that “urban planning and democracy…are often incompatible.” He claimed in his paper that democracy mostly dismantled the wide-ranging rail transit systems in the L.A. area.  

Since the dismantling was accomplished by largely unelected power-wielders and facilitated by their key elected supporters in government, this might be overstatement at its finest. The voting public never got that chance to say yea or nay to the steady elimination of rail public transit in L.A.  

The future for megacities like Los Angeles is not an assuredly prosperous one. The pandemic has left an altered landscape that may or may not feature activities that ruled in the recent past. It may be littered with the detritus of the dominating autocentric urban environment in forms we can only imagine. It is becoming more apparent that future commuting patterns will not likely resemble pre-Covid flows as working from home radically rearranges commuter flows.  

This is already casting a pall over transit, threatening financial ruin and great uncertainty for the future. While L.A. may be avoiding the worst effects of the post-Covid era (the latest figures have L.A. transit ridership returning to 91% of pre-pandemic levels), other cities in California, mainly San Francisco, are reeling from increasingly dire conditions (not all pandemic-related). 

Meanwhile, California and Los Angeles are faced with a number of immediate consequences from climate change. Cataclysmic storms, worsening water shortages, increasing wildfire threats, and a plethora of pollution issues loom in the now and in the short- and long-term future. And contrary to the naive belief that green measures will appreciably ameliorate these threats in the near or medium term, there are really no easy solutions to all those climate change chickens coming home to roost. Wishful thinking only goes so far. I note, for example, that the State of California is seeking the continued operation of the State’s remaining nuclear plant at Diablo Canyon until 2030, abandoning a previous effort to close the facility by 2025, this in light of escalating power shortages. I might add that the federal government is seeking a more realistic twenty-year extension (an environmental group has just sued to force the closure of Diablo Canyon when its federal license expires in 2025. Never mind the enormous impact on California’s electric grid which would lose the plant’s output estimated at providing 9% of the state’s electricity and 17% of carbon-free output).

The Los Angeles establishment that embarked on this journey is now a fading memory, but Angelenos have been left to deal with the reality of the overwhelming automobile legacy and the built environment radiating from that era. This underlines the urgent need for fully implementing policies that are not autocentric. These include increasing development densities at and around transit stations, eliminating parking minimums, creating more walkable environments, meshing land use policies with long term transportation goals, tackling the affordable housing crisis, and the like.  

The narrative that trumpets the triumph of consumer choice in the Land of Plenty clashes with a more nuanced, albeit more realistic mosaic. An authentic narrative must acknowledge facts that are not so pleasant to accept. Ignoring the anti-transit machinations perpetrated at the local, state, and federal levels and the restrictions placed on certain groups regarding access to housing, mobility options, and employment opportunities, especially affecting those occupying the lower economic spectrum, indeed distorts the historical narrative. This distortion serves no one, least of all those who bore, and are still bearing the brunt of these autocentric policies.  

While honestly coming to terms with the past is never an easy task, the resulting insights can provide us with the tools necessary to confront the past, negotiate the present and face the future with bold, innovative, and collaborative plans. As Daniel Burnham, the famous American architect and city planner, is reputed to have stated way back in 1910, “Make no small plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Make big plans, aim high in hope and work.” We’ll need them to successfully negotiate the post-pandemic future.

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