• Looking south on Spring Street from First Street, Los Angeles, 1900-1910 (Photo - digitallibrary.usc.edu).

      Looking south on Spring Street from First Street, Los Angeles, 1900-1910 (Photo – digitallibrary.usc.edu).

      The story is fairly well known: Los Angeles used to have one of the biggest public transportation systems in the world, with the Red and Yellow trolley cars delivering people from their “streetcar subdivision” homes to the city center and beyond.

      By Ethan Elkind

      But the automobile — and not an automaker conspiracy — proved more appealing to Angelenos than sitting on a crowded, tardy, and unreliable streetcar.  And thus the system fell into disrepair, disuse, and extinction.

      Los Angeles Pacific Electric Railways (Red Cars) map (Photo - sharemap.org).

      Los Angeles Pacific Electric Railways (Red Cars) map (Photo – sharemap.org).

      Curbed LA delves back into this history and helps dispel the myth that car companies undid the streetcars.  In the piece, reporter Elijah Chiland asked me if anything could have been done to avoid abandoning the trolley streetcars in favor of the short-lived functionality of the automobile:

      Elkind says the streetcar still could have been saved, but that ‘it would have taken some imagination and foresight on the part of the public to think, ‘what if we did subsidize this transit service? We might be able to address some of the problems that we have and make it a better service.’

      For whatever reason, that just didn’t happen. ‘The leadership wasn’t there and the foresight wasn’t there,’ he says.

      In the matter of the streetcar’s untimely demise, we Angelenos may have no one to blame but ourselves.

      Chiland asked a good question. Certainly many European cities decided not to ditch their streetcars during the post-war era, and they are now better off for it (although most American cities did abandon theirs, from Washington DC to the Bay Area).

      Short-lived ban on parking

      But during a brief moment in the history of the rise of the automobile, Downtown Los Angeles officials experimented with ditching the automobile during peak hours.  In the 1920s, they issued a short-lived ban on parking during certain daytime hours.  But the public (and downtown business leaders) rebelled, and the policy was scrapped.  During that time though when car parking was banned, streetcars evidently regained their prominence downtown and avoided the sometimes 60-minute delays caused by car traffic halting the trains, which had undermined rail service and contributed to its unpopularity.

      Demise and resurrection

      Junked streetcars (Photo - Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library).

      Junked streetcars (Photo – Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library).

      So local policies on critical automobile issues like parking, as well as support for auto-oriented infrastructure, ultimately sealed the streetcars fate.

      It’s too bad, because now Los Angeles is trying to rebuild much of that streetcar system at a huge cost, while also trying to retrofit existing car-oriented neighborhoods into more compact, walkable development. It’s hard to undo what’s already been done, but a growing population and demand for new housing presents the region with an opportunity to correct some of these past mistakes.

      Ethan Elkind directs the climate program at UC Berkeley Law, with a joint appointment at UCLA Law. His book “Railtown” was published by the University of California Press in 2014.

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      1. John Potter says:

        I have been fascinated by the story of the Los Angeles rapid transit system since I was a child. My parents grew up in Southern California and reminisced about the Red Cars. I grew up in Sierra Madre, and remembered the tracks still in the pavement in the early 50s. I have explored much of the right-of-way and read most of the books. I loved the conspiracy theory, when I first read it, but came to realize that life is not always that simple. The facts are that the street railways were on the streets, including level crossings, and the interference by automobile traffic made schedules impossible and slowed speeds down to impractical levels. At one point, P.E. did have a $50,000,000.00 plan to add overpasses and other modifications. In today’s money, that would about $1 billion. The company stopped making a profit after WWII ridership dropped. I would have loved it if Los Angeles still had the Red Cars, but the new light rail works pretty well. I live in New York now and surely notice that there are no more street railroad tracks in Manhattan or the Boroughs. Makes sense, now.

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