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Debunking the Los Angeles Streetcar Myth

The wide-ranging transit system was built mostly by market forces, and dismantled mostly by democracy.
Downtown Los Angeles

In 2003 a long defunct rail line was rebuilt, connecting Pasadena, California, to Downtown Los Angeles. Like many Angelenos, I traveled on it a few times and patted myself on the back for relieving freeway congestion while not, in any meaningful way, integrating public transit into my day-to-day life. If you live in a Los Angeles suburb and take the light rail every once in a while—to go to a restaurant, or a Lakers game, for instance—you almost view it as a benevolent act of public service. You briefly imagine yourself sitting in solidarity with brash New Yorkers jostling to get to work or, better yet, you envision LA’s own paradise lost: the Edenic days of the streetcar. If only the streetcars hadn’t been torn up, you tell yourself, this could have been your way of life, just like the more refined urbanites back East.

To look at old maps of the Los Angeles streetcar system is to marvel at what was and to pine for what could have been. The streetcars serviced not just the immediate vicinity of Los Angeles’s original downtown, but also the beaches of Santa Monica and Orange County, the farms of the Inland empire (Riverside, San Bernardino) and the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach. You could even take the rail system all the way to a tavern and hotel atop the San Gabriel Mountains via the historic Mount Lowe Railway. The unique features of Southern California’s geography and climate, from temperate beaches to orange groves and snow-capped mountains, were all within a day’s reach via the Pacific Electric red cars.

What started in 1873 as a horse-drawn omnibus on rails was electrified in the 1880s. PE’s total miles of track peaked in the 1920s, spanning as far north as San Fernando (the “valley” as we’ll call it) and as far south as Newport Beach. Then, in 1945, National City Lines, a busing company owned by GM and oil and gas conglomerates, bought the PE lines. 1963 marked the year the last red car was mercilessly dismantled. The shelf life, then, of streetcars in Los Angeles was around 90 years. (In a note of tragicomedic irony, many of LA’s freeways run the exact same paths that the streetcars once did.)

Even if they don’t buy into the Roger Rabbit myth, most Angelenos sense that something sinister was in the offing. How could such an impressive interurban transit system have been voluntarily dismantled by the will of the people? Nobody in their right mind would ever do such a thing. Greed and corporate malfeasance must have been the cause of the streetcar’s demise, and now we are all made to pay the price, wallowing in traffic and self-pity.

When I began teaching a Los Angeles geography class I was crestfallen when I learned that this was not the case—that democracy, with all its attendant imperfections, and not corrupt private interests, had killed the streetcar. Robert Folgeson among others points out that the streetcar system was never part of a brilliant masterplan to create a more navigable city. On the contrary, rail tycoons like Henry Huntington used stakes in the industry to subsidize tracks which would service and thus enhance the value of real estate holdings. Far from an early 20th century version of smart growth avant la lettre, the streetcar system was often, if not exclusively, a moneymaker for wealthy Angelnos who had the foresight and good fortune to buy low and sell high. (The story is similar to that of the LA Aqueduct of 1913, which was both an engineering marvel and a vehicle of massive profit for real estate speculators who bought up the parched land of the San Fernando Valley before the water arrived.)

While it is true that automobiles ultimately killed the streetcars, the story is much more nuanced than one would know at first glance. In 1902 a regulatory agency was created and vested with the power to approve or veto any increase in fares. But even though the streetcars were subject to public regulation, they remained privately owned. Pacific Electric advisers were not initially concerned by the regulatory board or the advent of automobiles. They predicted that operational costs would remain flat, without foreseeing the inflationary effects of World War I; and they predicted that private cars would create a negative feedback loop. As congestion grew, people would return to the streetcars. In addition to refusing to allow PE to raise its fares, the Los Angeles utilities board had the gall to charge PE to pave the streets alongside its track. The streetcars quite literally subsidized their own competition when “jitneys”—primitive buses—poached customers waiting in between scheduled runs of the streetcar. What is more, even as the streetcars remained jam packed during rush hour, automobiles siphoned away passengers during off-peak hours and on weekends. A lifestyle preference was beginning to emerge that nobody could have possibly foreseen: public streetcars were the mode of transit of choice for the daily grind, but the car was the preferred method of transportation for leisure activities. The comfort, convenience, and privacy of the car would eventually, through a combination of consumer choice and public policy, obviate the need for streetcars altogether.

The public policy side of the debate is less well known. Henry Huntington died in 1927 while negotiations to municipalize his streetcar system were in the works. A steady decline in ridership throughout the 1930s was only temporarily offset by a reverse trend during WWII-imposed gas rationing. By then the streetcars had been bleeding money and passengers to the point that lines were cut and services reduced, further disincentivizing rail travel. Even before World War II the streetcar system, particularly in downtown Los Angeles, was bogged down alongside cars in surface street traffic. In many cases the journey out of downtown was beginning to take longer than the duration of the rail commute thereafter. Consulting firm Kelker De Leuw and Co issued a proposal for a subway line in downtown to relieve congestion, while others advocated for elevated tracks similar to those of Chicago. The latter, according to the LA Times, would be nothing but an eyesore the likes of which people had fled from the east specifically to avoid.

Suburbanites, when faced with the prospect of an increase in taxes to dig subway tunnels or elevate tracks, argued that they shouldn’t have to subsidize the business interests of a downtown many had taken to avoiding because of congestion. By the time all the horse trading was over with, LA’s Union Station, a compromise transit hub, wasn’t built until 1939. At this point the streetcars still weren’t publicly owned, the issue of surface traffic for the streetcars still hadn’t been resolved, and downtown Los Angeles continued to lose residents and economic activity to the centripetal forces of urban sprawl. Any public will to save the streetcars—if it had been there in the first place—was already lost. And all this was happening before the great explosion of postwar suburbs such as Levittown in Long Island, or the infamous phenomenon of white flight. By 1963, the 90-year streetcar experiment was over.

As Angelenos pour more of our tax dollars into recreating our own paradise lost and the green lobby continues to advocate for high-density housing alongside mass transit—so-called “smart growth”—it’s worth remembering a few lessons from the halcyon days. This is especially the case given that the above policies are likely to be incentivized at the federal level in the name of curbing CO2 emissions. Firstly, by repeatedly rejecting measures to municipalize the streetcar system, LA County residents showed that they measure their “best interest” in terms of the present, not the intermediate to long term. This is an ominous portent for government-sponsored attempts to encourage people to choose high-density housing and the abandonment of personal vehicles. Angelenos chose space, sprawl, and cars in the 20th century; they were not duped into doing so by the auto and oil industries. Sometimes, when given the option between the “right” choice and the choice they like, voters will choose the latter, consequences be damned.

What will greens in government and the regulatory states do if the presentism of the people dictates a preference for their environmental equivalent of the SS–suburbs and SUVs? Will they respect the will of the people or rule by regulatory fiat in the name of a better future? If the old streetcar maps and their demise tell us anything, it’s that urban planning and democracy—particularly the direct democracy so championed by the left—are often incompatible. People, like facts, are stubborn things. Secondly, the reality that LA’s streetcar system was built mostly by market forces, not government foresight, should humble the managerial elites who believe they can will urban planning wisdom into being with the stroke of a pen.

We very well may end up with a post-suburban future of high-rise living and mass transit in Los Angeles, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that’s something Angelenos would have chosen if only they’d known. They did know, and they chose against it. In an era of ever-larger government and ever-larger regulatory power in lieu of legislation, we might not be fortunate enough this time around to make our own mistakes as a free people. When push comes to shove, our green future might be enacted more with the stick than the carrot. 

Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a Ph.D. in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles-area independent school. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.