At one time, Los Angeles had the backbone of a great transit system. Today, it does not! Why not?
From 1902 to 1945, Los Angeles had a 900-car transit system that served the region and downtown, covering 1,100 miles. (Today, the New York Subway covers 842 miles.) People lived and worked along these routes. During the 1940s about a million people lived within about a half mile of the bus and streetcar lines of LARY/LATL and only 30 percent drove automobiles.
Today, the Metro Rail transit system consists of 276 cars and 88 miles of track. The Metro Rail system is based upon the on existing right-of-way that was purchased from the Southern Pacific Railroad, at a cost $345 million, rather than where people work and live.
The current system has been extremely costly to the taxpayers and is economically infeasible by any standard. To date, $12 billion or $1,000 for every resident in Los Angeles County has been spent on the construction of the fixed rail system.
The Red Car and Yellow Car system carried 109 million passengers, annually. Today, annual transit ridership is 120 million passengers, which means that every passenger costs $100,000. Including bus ridership, the total ridership of the entire systems is equal to what it was in 1985. Does it sound like transit planners are spending an enormous amount of money just to tread water?
In the beginning, Los Angeles was essentially served by two transit systems. Real estate tycoon, Henry Huntington, established the Pacific Electric Car in 1901. The primary purpose of his system was to transport people to his residential land development properties and sell them homes. ”From the Mountains to the Sea” or “From the City to the Orange Groves” posters used to read… indeed you could take public rail service from any of the beach cities, to downtown, Hollywood, the top of Mt. Lowe or all the way out to Riverside, San Bernardino and more (See the map of the Pacific Electric routes). At its peak, Huntington was selling 500 acres per year in the areas south and east of Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles Railway (LARY — pronounced “Larry”) was the streetcar system around which central L.A. was developed. LARY used a yellow paint scheme — hence LARY was known as the “Yellow Car” system. Huntington gained control of LARY in 1898. The streetcar system grew rapidly through the first decade of the 20th century, when the population of Los Angeles more than tripled. (See the attached map for the layout of the LARY system.)
After Huntington’s death in 1927, both of the streetcar systems were operated and owned by the Huntington Estate. The Huntington estate sold the systems to National City Lines in 1944 for $500,000. If the County and City of Los Angeles had purchased the Huntington system, how might have the Southern California region been served by transit and developed from a land use standpoint?
Unfortunately, between 1936 and 1950, National City Lines and Pacific City Lines—with investment from GM, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Trucks, and the Federal Engineering Corporation—bought over 100 electric surface-traction systems in 45 cities including Baltimore, Newark, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland and San Diego and converted them into bus operation. Several of the companies involved were convicted in 1949 of conspiracy to monopolize interstate commerce but were acquitted of conspiring to monopolize the ownership of these companies. For this conspiracy, each of the companies was fined $5,000.
What Went Wrong?
There were a number of factors that doomed the transit system that served Los Angeles in the early years.
1.One of the problems the Red Cars faced is that Huntington never built them to be a comprehensive transit system. It was only meant to be a means of transit to the hundred of subdivisions Huntington built on the periphery of LA — one of the reasons LA is so spread out today. As a result, it became easier to get around by driving.
2.As with any system, there was the need to make large capital investments to maintain and improve the system.
3.Railway had a poor reputation among ordinary Angelenos. For one thing, there was overcrowding. (The public sector could have added more cars to meet the peak hour demand by riders.)
4.Buses became an economical alternative and railway to bus conversions began in 1925.
5.There were no public subsidies for capital and operating costs. Perhaps the final straw was when Californians rejected a tax in 1926 that would have repaired the Red Cars, which had become dilapidated and mocked as a “slum on wheels.”
6.The Public Utilities Commission held back fare increases.
8.Culturally, automobile reliability, flexibility and status began to take hold in society.
9.When first opened, freeways were not crowded.
10.Transit service operators believed the freeway system would accommodate high-speed transit buses, thereby increasing their attractiveness to passengers.
11.GM perfected and marketed a 45-seat transit bus, with air conditioning and air suspension.
12.Compounding these problems, the state and local governments were not seeing the opportunity and getting ahead of the potential problems the automobile would create. While the New York City Transit Authority acquired two private subway lines in 1940 and the Chicago Transit Authority bought the existing private Chicago system in 1947 for $12 million, Los Angeles County and the City did not step up to purchase the transit system from the Huntington estate.
13.It was not until 1952 that Arie J. Haagen-Smit, a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, identified that diesel and auto exhaust was acted on by sunlight, which created ozone and in turn created a new phenomenon called “smog.”
14. In 1961, the Red Cars were soon replaced with bus routes and freeways, with the last Red Car running in 1961.
What if the state and Los Angeles politicians had had the vision of the leaders in New York and Chicago and purchased the Red and Yellow Car system?
Certainly, it can be argued that a balanced transit, bus and auto transportation system would have reduced traffic congestion, atmospheric pollution and the public would have controlled extensive private right-of-ways, with an enormous number of grade crossings. It would have been cheaper to upgrade such a system into a rapid transit network with high-level platforms and grade separated right of ways than to build a totally new system as Los Angeles has done.
What If a Transit Vision Had Been Implemented?
1.The city of LA would have purchased the system in 1945 like the cities of Chicago and New York and created a combined bus and transit system.
2.Like Chicago, New York and San Francisco, Los Angeles would have created zoning that would have allowed higher density within one half mile of transit stations.
3.The transit system would have tied public facilities like Dodger Stadium, the Coliseum, universities and hospitals etc. to transit lines.
4.The state would have provided the responsibility, authority and power of eminent domain to a Los Angeles County transit agency, which would have allowed for an orderly development of a transit system and land use.
What Would the Results of This Vision Been?
1.Los Angeles would be the most livable city in the world.
2.Los Angeles would have a balanced transit (now only 5% of commuters use transit), freeway, grand boulevard and protected residential street system in the world.
3.Los Angeles would have been able to implement the Olmstead Open Space and Park Plan.
4.Where there was development, LA would be denser. Currently, NYC has 25,000 people per square mile, Chicago 15,000 and Los Angeles 8,250.
5.Commercial and industrial areas would be more clustered around transit and bus routes.
6.Residential neighborhoods would be more protected from automobile intrusion.
7.In our earthquake fault zone area, we would not need as much above grade, unsightly, parking structures.
8.The overall quality of life would be much better.
9.Air pollution from motor vehicles, which account for 80% of the smog in the southern California region, would be much reduced.
10.By living closer together and interacting on a daily basis, Los Angeles would have become a more livable and healthier city, with the possibility of much friendlier people.
Unfortunately, once again, the leaders did not possess the vision, decisive decision-making and sense of urgency observed by other major cities. If the leaders of Los Angeles had acted in 1945, they could have purchased the Huntington transit system and created a cost effective/balanced transportation system that would have had as a cornerstone a rail transit system.