In 1920, 90% of all trips in the United States were made by rail; the nation had 1,200 electric streetcar and interurban railways with 44,000 miles of track and 15 billion annual passengers. Los Angeles had built the world's largest trolley system by the 1920s, but by 1963 streetcar service in the LA region came to a crashing halt due to several factors, including what many believe to be a conspiracy by General Motors to kill the streetcar. The death of streetcars changed how cities were built, led personal vehicles to dominate the streets, and set us on the path towards climate catastrophe driven by automotive emissions. Read on for a closer look at what happened to Los Angeles' streetcars.
The streetcar system in Los Angeles was made up of two major carriers – the Los Angeles Railway and the Pacific Electric Railway. The Los Angeles Railway trains, also known as Yellow Cars, operated in central Los Angeles and the immediate surrounding neighborhoods between 1901 and 1963. At its peak, the Yellow Car system ran over 20 streetcar lines with 1,250 trolleys, mostly running through the core of LA and nearby neighborhoods such as Echo Park, Westlake and Lincoln Heights.
The Pacific Electric Railway, or the Red Cars, operated from 1901 to 1961. The system lasted for over fifty years, and at its peak traversed over 1,100 miles of track with 900 electric trolley cars. For years, the streetcar system was considered to be a “vital cog in LA’s transportation system,” according to author Steven Ealson.
So what caused the downfall of Los Angeles’ streetcar system? Some believe that General Motors launched a targeted program to take streetcars off the roads. In 1936, GM, along with investors Firestone Tire and Standard Oil of California, established several front companies for the express purpose of purchasing and dismantling America’s streetcar systems. National City Lines, a bus operation founded in 1920, was reorganized into a holding company. In 1938, GM formed Pacific City Lines to purchase streetcar systems in the western US. In 1945, National City Lines acquired the Yellow Cars system and converted many of its lines into bus routes.
GM, Firestone and Standard Oil were later convicted of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to local transit companies controlled by National City Lines and other companies. In 1963, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority took over what was left of the Yellow Cars and the Red Cars and removed the remaining streetcar and trolley lines, replacing them with diesel buses on March 31, 1963. This ended nearly 90 years of streetcar service in the LA region.
A number of other forces also drove the nail into the coffin of the streetcar era. Changes in regulations and funding, increased suburbanization, and congestion from personal vehicles caused the streetcar system to slowly unravel, and buses began to take over more and more routes. Difficult labor relations and the tight regulation of fares, routes and schedules kept the streetcar system stuck in a bygone era. By World War I, road improvements were more heavily funded than electric lines and tracks, which paved the way for buses to take over. As personal car ownership skyrocketed, an increase in traffic congestion hurt the streetcar by reducing service speeds, increasing operation costs and making the service less attractive to the people who still used it. And the trend towards suburbanization created low-density land use patterns that were centered around the automobile and made no sense for streetcars.
As these forces took shape streetcar ridership in the country started to decline in 1920, and by 1930 20% of cities were relying exclusively on bus transit. In LA, the Pacific Electric rail line was buying buses to replace some of its streetcar routes as early as 1923. By 1930, LA’s big bus conglomerate carried 29 million riders a year.
Fast forward three decades – rising fuel costs, heavy congestion on roads and freeways and significant greenhouse gas emissions have diminished LA’s love affair with the automobile, allowing the streetcar system to rise from the ashes. In the early years of LA’s streetcar resurgence the system focused on historic venues and was viewed mainly as a tourist attraction (similar to the Market Street Railway in San Francisco). But eventually the scope of the streetcar project was broadened to promote urban revitalization, reactivate historic venues, boost tourism, and boost economic development by creating employment, new housing types, and new entertainment districts.
Today Los Angeles’ modern streetcar system includes the Metro Blue Line (opened in 1990), the Metro Red Line (1993), the Metro Green Line (1995), the resurrection of the Pacific Electric Red Car Trolley at the Port of Los Angeles (2003), the Metro Gold Line (2004) and the Gold Line Extension (2009), and the anticipated opening of the Expo Line to West LA and the Westside Subway Extension.