New Video and Map Reveal L.A. Streetcar Transit History

1926 L.A. Pacific Electric streetcar map by Jake Berman
1926 L.A. Pacific Electric streetcar map by Jake Berman
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There are some interesting recent pieces that tell some things about L.A.’s transit history, and how it shaped the city Angelenos move through today.

For your Friday enjoyment, watch City Beautiful’s new YouTube video on the history of L.A.’s once-extensive streetcar systems. Streetsblog USA makes a nice cameo!

Readers may have spotted this at RedditL.A. Taco, and Curbed, but you read it here fourth! Check out Jake Berman’s sleek new map (at top of post) of L.A.’s streetcar lines at their peak. Purchase your own prints via Berman’s Etsy page.

  • The map is lovely but the video mixes up the seperate Los Angeles Railway (Yellow Car) and Pacific Electric (Red Car) systems.

    The LARy. Was narrow-gauge and operated within the confines of the City of Los Angeles. Visitors to the Eco-Village can see the remnants of a turning track at the adjacent lot on the corner of Bimini and West 1st.

    The Pacific Electric was a standard-gauge Interurban system that ran to other cities and counties in Southern California. It was a subsidary of the Southern Pacific Railroad which has since merged into the Union Pacific. Much of its rail network is still in place, but has thankfully been purchased by what is now Metro and the other transportation authorities in the SCAG area. The Expo Line and the Blue Line and the Orange Line were built partially on these tracks, while Metrolink runs trains from Los Angeles to North Pomona via El Monte on the former PE ROW.

    A better researched video for the history of what happened is entitled “This was the Pacific Electric” and is narrated by Stephanie Edwards:

  • LazyReader

    GM did not kill the streetcar industry, not in a conspiracy laden effort anyway. They just offered a better technology. The first buses in the 1910’s and 1920’s were rather clunky, so operating streetcars cost less than early buses. However, while these new buses cost more to operate; they cost far less to expand their services out to neighboring areas because they required no track to be built. The buses could ride on any highway, street or avenue as any car could. The number of miles of street car lines peaked in 1919, while streetcar ridership peaked in 1920 and declined through most of the 1920s, a decline that was entirely made up for by increased bus ridership. Except for a new streetcar line in Miami and subway lines in New York, almost all new transit service in the 1920s used buses, not rail transit. After the 1920’s engine improvements started to emerge. Engines got smaller and more powerful, thus more economical to operate. Fitting the smaller engine over the rear axle instead of under a hood also increased the capacity of a bus by over 25%. This made buses less expensive to operate, and far less expensive to maintain, than rail transit. As a result, cities all over the country started replacing their streetcars with buses by the 1930’s. Between 1920 and 1973 streetcars systems nationwide were scrapped in over a thousand American cities. Buses could be replaced faster once reaching the end of their service life.

    Failures of government were the real culprit; the Conspiracy leapt into the public consciousness in 1988 with both a 60 Minutes piece and a fictionalized account in the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. By the time the automobile hit the scene, the streetcar had been
    around for nearly a century. First powered
    by horses in the 1830s, steam-powered cable systems, and
    finally by electricity, But
    while the streetcar gained in popularity, the industry also attracted a
    cruft of regulation and corruption that dogged it till its dying day.
    Bribery was endemic in the awarding of service franchises, and their
    exclusive monopolies (often granted by the government) didn’t do much to
    endear them to the public, either. Ironically, though, it was these
    exclusive contracts that eventually brought streetcars down. streetcar operators agreed to contract provisions that held fares constant at five cents, while that made sense in the 19th century, post World War I inflation decimated the nickel’s value. The five cent fare was as much a vote for me ploy as “Abortion on demand and welfare” is today. Local governments would not free up the obligations to charge riders more regardless of distance which exacerbated urban sprawl, because a nickel buys you five miles or 50 miles. By the mid 1930’s all the roads built by Roosevelts Works Progress Administration and other New Deal plans gave newly emerging and growing auto drivers a cheap platform to launch, so to speak.

  • avoiceforsanity

    While some of this post is a useful corrective to the “Roger Rabbit” overblown conspiracy theory, it’s also a digest of right-wing talking points that betray a heavy ideological bias.
    Streetcar franchisees, above all Huntington, but all over the U.S., deliberately subsidized low fares from Day One: far too low for proper maintenance and capital reinvestment of systems like the Pacific Electric, long before regulations freezing fares. Out of pure capitalist motivation.
    The early entrepreneurs did this because the investor/owners built out the lines to connect to towns and undeveloped land that they planned to develop — and did so, at great immediate profit. Whether openly or by subterfuge (using front companies and “straw man” purchasers), the streetcar magnates bought up the land that would quickly be developed for housing (and other uses) before they laid out the rights of way. Then they reaped the rewards of the otherwise “external” benefits of the transit.
    This meant that the revenue needed to maintain and modernize the networks dwindled and even ran out over the decades, and especially dried up in recessions (much less an event like the Great Depression). Buses had some technological advantages over the street railways, yes, but you are omitting their significantly higher costs of maintenance and labor. Buses wear out and become prone to break down faster than the trains; and the Depression-era cost advantage of buses also had to do with cheap abundant labor that stopped being so cheap after World War II. Buses became much, much more expensive to run by the 1950s — well before gasoline got pricey.
    The narrowly short-term thinking you are promoting here (if new tech X is cheaper to run than existing system Y mile for mile **right now**, let’s junk Y for X — writing off the large sunk capital costs of system Y AND the great long-term value of its exclusive rights of way; and assuming the future holds no surprises in cost of energy, labor, etc.) helps explain why most voters and local politicians refused New Deal money to municipalize, rebuild and expand great transit systems like the Pacific Electric. These privately-owned systems were just run into the ground, till they all but disintegrated, during the Depression and World War II (during which the system was a huge boon to the war effort and was massively utliized, but even so track was ripped up and sold for scrap! With zero effort to undo decades of neglect).
    And GM and other manufacturers did indeed bribe local pols to switch over to buses, just as the Insulls and Huntingtons used bent methods 30 and 40 years before.
    There never was much prospect that a system of such vast extent as Huntington’s Pacific Electric could be entirely sustained with public money after automobile ownership became common and the real estate profits that subsidized operations were used up. No doubt about that.
    But a goodly chunk of the system could have been integrated into the region for express commuter traffic, lined up along the new freeways (as in Chicago); and that early investment would have paid off later, especially now, for the whole region many times over.
    Unfortunately, not enough people could be convinced that putting all eggs in the internal combustion-powered basket was a bad idea in the long term, and in most of the U.S. the earlier systems were junked wholesale for scrap rather than conserving the key routes with good traffic and good, fast rights-of-way. Political bias played a big role in the refusal to use government power to
    reconfigure parts of these bankrupt transit lines as spines of a system that integrated rail and buses in a rational regional system (whether publicly- privately- or mixed ownership prevailed). In much of the country (the Northeast and Chicago excepted).


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