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

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:

    https://youtu.be/aiLGui8fxiw

  • 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.

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