The automobile’s domination of Los Angeles was not a triumph of the market, but an exercise in regulation and rent-seeking. The post An Alternative Narrative to the Los Angeles Streetcar Myth  appeared first on The American Conservative.

Let me first say that there is almost as much debate about why (and how?) rail transit was initially eliminated in the Los Angeles region as there are cars stuck during rush hour. The popular, but rather expansive, view that the loss of legacy rail transit is due to consumer choice and public policy decisions deserves further scrutiny. This view is based upon broad generalizations that ignore the complex power politics and the exclusion of key stakeholder groups who actually led to the temporary disappearance rail transit.

The truth is a little less favorable. The combination of blinded politicians, the auto lobby, developers, real-estate interests, and, probably most importantly, continued state/federal sponsorship of “free highways” denied many Angelenos the right to make a choice.


The differences between the Los Angeles Railway (LARY), urban streetcars, (Yellow cars), and the Pacific Electric (PE), interurban network (Red cars) must be explained in greater detail. The operations served two distinct markets, and were operated and owned by separate private companies. By combining the two, we can only obscure the fact that the original rail transit system in Los Angeles was completely destroyed by the end March 1963.

Henry Huntington’s heirs transferred Los Angeles Railway (LARY), a wholly-owned subsidiary of National City Lines in 1944. NCL was a company formed by General Motors and backed up by Firestone Rubber and Standard Oil of California, (later Chevron), as well as other members of automobile cadre, to acquire street rail companies and convert them into all-bus operations, equipped with GM-built busses. General Motors, along with its tire and oil companies partners, were found guilty in federal court of violating Sherman Antitrust Act in 1949 in order to gain control over transit companies. These companies had to purchase their products exclusively.

GM and its partners ended their relationship with NCL before the trial. However, officers from these companies received nominal fines. According to one source, the fines for all companies and executives were $37,000. This was a small amount at the time. NCL purchased 40 PCC streetcars in 1948 for Los Angeles Railway, now Los Angeles Transit Lines. This was a reaction to the proceeding but before the decision was announced. They had only done this with one other GM rail property (St. Louis). NCL’s purchase of LARY in 1948 was a sure sign that the conversion to GM busses would happen.

The Pacific Electric Company, an interurban passenger-and freight-railway and subsidiary of Southern Pacific Railroad Company took a different route to abandonment. PE was founded in 1911, when Henry E. Huntington sold to the Southern Pacific Company his interest in several interurban lines after consolidating his holdings of eight electric railways earlier that year. Henry chose to keep the local rail lines, which became LARY.


PE’s passenger business never achieved great success. Carrying passengers was not a priority at first, but fostering development was. Note that PE’s rail passengers business was only profitable in 1923, 1945 and most other years (book losses were recorded due to the debt burden of the 1911 restructuring). PE’s peak years were when it carried over 275,000 revenue passengers daily. PE was a comprehensive network of services covering the entire area. It also played a major role in the early spatial development of Los Angeles.

PE operated a freight service that was as profitable as its passenger empire. (Much of this still exists today; it was merged into Southern Pacific Railroad in 1965). Southern Pacific’s freight business was probably more important than its passenger business. PE has been pruning its passenger rail network ever since the mid-’20s, and has developed a complementary bus system that is very successful. Voters rejected a PE plan in 1926 that would have elevated key PE rail lines near downtown and ensured rail service into the future. The California Division of Highways, who had a voracious appetite for rail property, began to systematically take over large portions of PE’s private rights of ways for new or expanded roads through the eminent-domain. They seized strategic PE rights of ways around the region without any regard for the impact on PE passenger operation. The most blatant case was Aliso Street, near Union Station, where a partially finished freeway dumped thousands cars onto Aliso Street to access downtown L.A., before the street was completely removed to become a highway frontage road. It effectively linked up different PE divisions, provided access to a nearby facility and had a severe impact on day-today operations when it was subsumed by the highway maw.

This may also have been the final straw that convinced Southern Pacific, PE’s owner to exit the passenger rail business. Donald Russell, the new SP head, assumed this position in 1950. He was said to have envisioned PE being reduced to just a core of profitable freight operations.

In 1948, downtown L.A., the Los Angeles Times and suburban developers, primarily in the San Fernando Valley, led the final push to move L.A. towards a more equitable transportation future. The L.A. Chamber of Commerce, the L.A. City Council and others resisted their efforts. The initiative to develop an integrated rapid transit system that would work in conjunction with the rapidly expanding highway system was narrowly defeated.

In 1949, the employee newsletter of PE devoted a whole issue to an article written by PE President Oscar A. Smith. The message outlined a grand vision to preserve essential PE passenger rail operations while expanding bus coverage throughout greater Los Angeles. Smith’s prescient assessment described the region-wide use of rail components with reserved right of way and new equipment as an essential complement to the growing freeway network. In order to realize this dream, he believed that the preservation of important elements of the vast PE passenger rail network, which is operated by the public with public funds, was essential. PE apparently still believed rail transit could be a part of the region’s mobility plans.

Before World War II, a small segment of PE’s route from Los Angeles to San Fernando Valley was placed in the median lanes of the Hollywood Freeway. This action was viewed as a possible precursor of future rapid transit schemes. Unfortunately, the PE Line was abandoned by late 1952 due to the expansion of the Hollywood Freeway, and the associated highway improvements. PE’s willingness to abandon the line was likely influenced by Donald Russell, the new SP president. California Division of Highways completed the conversion of the former PE right of way to highway lanes by 1957.

In 1926, a referendum was held on a proposal to build elevated railways to relieve congestion in downtown Los Angeles and improve public transit. The referendum was overwhelmingly defeated. Los Angeles Times was the main opponent of the proposal, publishing inflammatory articles as well as a racist cartoon.

This defeat is often cited as the beginning of L.A.’s devolution through its expansion beyond the immediate surroundings into a low-density conglomerate. By the mid-1920s, L.A.’s population had grown from 50,000 people in 1890 to over one million. As the highway system expanded, the development that accompanied this growth was deliberately pushed to the outermost reaches of L.A.’s metropolitan area. PE gradually lost its role as a means of providing accessibility.

The long-term trend of decreasing transit patronage is undeniable, but the ultimate issue was the fact that PE and L.A. Railways, both for-profit companies, were forced to compete with highways built by the government. In many cases, these converted important PE private rights-of-way to public roads. Rail services were either banished or forced into competition for road space with swarms automobiles and trucks.

The California Division of Highways’ plans were also not a secret to the powerful developers who wanted to reshape the area into a low density haven. It’s also no secret why PE sold the remaining rail passenger business in 1953 to Metropolitan Coach Lines, an entity founded by Jesse Haugh – a longtime associate of National City Lines. PE’s parent company, Southern Pacific, believed that the passenger rail business in Los Angeles had no future.

After repeatedly petitioning governmental regulatory agencies for permission, MCL finally received permission in 1955 to abandon the former PE Glendale – Burbank rail line. The Glendale-Burbank rail line had a substantial private right of way, a substantial number of riders and an one-mile underground. The Glendale-Burbank line, with its substantial private rights of way (and substantial ridership) and a one-mile subway(!

The abandonment of the subway caused thirty modern PCC passenger cars (pictured above) to become redundant. They were then stored in an empty, damp space, where they deteriorated rapidly while waiting for sale. Glendale City Council’s outrage over the abandonment was brushed aside by a L.A. City Council that wasn’t concerned, as well as other suburban jurisdictions and the California Division of Highways. They were all more interested in the substantial private rights of ways of the line. The Chairman of the L.A. Board of Public Utilities & Transportation resigned over the L.A. City Council overruling the Board’s decision and allowing abandonment to go forward.

MCL sold the remaining PE rail operations (Los Angeles-Long Beach and the Watts Local) to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1957, but did not sell the rights of ways (which were still owned by PE). LAMTA discontinued the former PE Watts Local in 1959, which provided access to downtown L.A. by way of the south. The McCone Commission cited this discontinuance as one of many reasons for the Watts Riots.

The demise of Watts Line, which provided a direct route to downtown L.A. for former customers of color, meant that they had to transfer multiple times between bus routes, often doubling the time and distance of their previous rail journey. After a few half-hearted attempts at revitalizing and retaining these assets, LAMTA terminated the last PE service in 1961. This was allegedly because PE, the owner of the tracks and the LAMTA service, refused to renew the lease.

It would take another article to describe the obstacles erected by a car-centric establishment in order to eliminate the LARY streetcar from the urban fabric. It is enough to say that LAMTA acquired Los Angeles Transit Lines, the successor to LARY from MCL in 1956 and discarded the remaining five lines of the streetcar network in March 1963. This was done despite the fact that ridership had stabilised and the P Line, which served a large minority population, carried over 40,000 patrons on weekdays. LAMTA’s monthly newsletter for April 1963, which praised the abandonment of the streetcar system, quoted the top LAMTA officials as saying:

In the last 15 years, the costs of maintaining and running these two types of equipment (streetcars & trolley coaches) have risen out of all proportion to the services they provide. In today’s crowded cities, this equipment is inefficient and expensive.

It is not surprising that the municipalization of the streetcar system failed to save it, with such a limited and self-serving management. It was no longer the influential middle class riders who were driving the system, but rather those low-income riders who depended on quality transit for their basic mobility and livelihoods. The LAMTA Board, which was composed of members without transit experience or ties, were more concerned about expenses and bond payments to pay for debts incurred by acquiring passenger assets from MCL. As a result, the LAMTA discontinued the streetcars and dispersed the fleet around the world. In Cairo, Egypt and Chile, the most modern LAMTA Streetcars were given a new lease of life. Forty streetcars had been purchased new in 1948. NCL had shipped many older L.A. Streetcars to Seoul in South Korea.

Here are some more intimate details about the demise of the interurban and urban railway systems that were once prevalent in Los Angeles. The highway vision became the dominant public policy not just in Los Angeles but throughout the country. The highway vision was not a result of a monolithic, uncritical public, who were supposedly in favor of sprawl, or blissfully unaware of the auto dominance. Instead, it was imposed by powerful real estate and auto interests. They manipulated public and private leadership to support a narrow, auto-centric vision.

The coterie was equally enthusiastic about the automobile, but opposed any attempt to challenge what they considered to be the complete dominance of the automobile. According to their vision, public transportation was needed, but the public and private power centres believed that it could be reduced in scope to serve the captive rider and those who were poor, disadvantaged and young. The automobile, with its alleged unlimited mobility, would accommodate everyone else. This vision of public transportation was not based on money.

The auto lobby was very successful in convincing the public and private sector that rubber tires would be the wave of tomorrow. The L.A. – Long Beach rail link was restored in 1990, and the rail system is spreading inexorably throughout Los Angeles. This is an explicit recognition of the fact that true mobility can only be achieved by a mixture of modes.

Of course, that’s not all there is to it. Transit fares had been artificially kept low and regulated for a long time. This prevented rail operators from accumulating the resources necessary to modernize their operations and make them more attractive. Another drain on revenue was the increasing cost of operating rights franchised by localities.

The franchising of rail companies also caused hostility and uncertainty. PE and LARY also did not foresee the devastating effects that inflation had on the bottom line, a result of World War I. This left a permanent mark. The comfort, convenience and privacy that the automobile offers is true. However, the journey of middle class people from public transportation to a car-dominated world was not acknowledged by many. The souls left behind, who desperately needed affordable transportation options to reach work, shopping and entertainment, but did not have them. Sadly, many say that the establishment at the time deliberately failed them.

Private interests were also responsible for the massive PE interurban empire as well as the extensive Los Angeles urban street railway system. The government (local and state) harassed these operations through various methods, some of which have been discussed previously. Some of these measures were overt such as suppressing fare increases or limiting them over time.

Other, less visible tools used by state and local authorities were equally effective. California Division of Highways, which owned and operated key streets in Los Angeles, was able to use its considerable powers to remove streetcars from certain roads. Both PE and LARY had to pay for a large portion of the roadways that they shared in Los Angeles, which is another example of subsidizing their competitors. It is also important to note (again), that the government (state, and increasingly federal) constructed the sprawling highway system in the L.A. region at the expense of the government. This was done directly against private enterprise. The days before transit subsidies were long gone.

The effects of the Great Depression were also felt by both PE and LARY. PE’s annual passenger numbers peaked in 1923 and then again in 1945 during the war. World War II, and the rationing of oil and rubber products that came with it, became the new reality as they slowly recovered from economic hardships of the Depression. The rationing of oil and rubber products forced thousands of people to use the railways. This put a strain on the existing service, and also accelerated the degradation of the equipment.

Upon the nation’s emergence after World War II, both PE and LATL (now LATL), faced a deteriorating and almost entirely exhausted infrastructure and equipment. Both were in desperate need of modernization. Despite the massive increase in highway spending, there were no funds available for transit during the post-war period. Since public transit was in the private sector’s hands, there was an old (and crippling bias) against subsidizing transit operations. There were no such concerns for roads or highways.

Kurt Hofer stated in a 2021 monograph that “urban planning…is often incompatible” with democracy. He also claimed that the extensive rail transit system in Los Angeles was largely destroyed by democracy.

This might be an overstatement, since the dismantling of public transit was done by unelected individuals and their elected supporters. The public voting never had the chance to vote ‘yes’ or -no’ to the elimination of rail public transport in Los Angeles.

Megacities such as Los Angeles will not have a prosperous future. The pandemic may have altered the landscape, which may or may no longer feature the activities that were dominant in recent years. The landscape may be littered by the remnants of an autocentric city in shapes we cannot imagine. As commuters shift to working from home, it is more evident that future commuting will be different.

Transit is now in a gloomy state, with financial ruin and uncertainty looming. L.A. is avoiding some of the worst effects from the post-Covid period (the latest statistics show that L.A. transit ridership has returned to 91% pre-pandemic), but other cities, especially San Francisco, are experiencing increasingly dire conditions.

California and Los Angeles, however, are facing a number immediate climate change consequences. In the near and distant future, we will see more and more pollution, wildfires, water shortages and catastrophic storms. Contrary to the naive notion that green measures would appreciably alleviate these threats within the next few years, there really are no easy solutions for all the climate change chickens to come home to roost. Wishful thinking can only go so far. In light of the escalating energy shortages, I notice, for instance, that California wants to continue operating its remaining nuclear facility at Diablo Canyon through 2030. This is a departure from a previous attempt to close the facility in 2025. The federal government wants a realistic 20-year extension. (An environmental group just filed a lawsuit to force Diablo Canyon’s closure when its federal licence expires in 2020. The impact of losing the plant’s output on California’s electrical grid (which is estimated to provide 9% of California’s electricity, and 17% carbon-free output) would be enormous.

Los Angeles’s establishment, which began this journey, is now a distant memory. Angelenos are left with the burden of dealing with the legacy of automobiles and the built environment that emanates from that time. It is therefore imperative to implement policies that do not focus on the automobile. This includes increasing the density of development at transit stations and around them, eliminating minimum parking requirements, creating more pedestrian-friendly environments, integrating land use policies and long term transportation goals and tackling the affordability housing crisis.

A narrative that boasts of the consumer’s freedom of choice in the Land of Plenty is at odds with a mosaic of nuanced but realistic information. A true narrative has to acknowledge the unpleasant facts. The historical narrative is distorted if we ignore the anti-transit policies implemented at local, state and federal levels, as well as the restrictions imposed on certain groups in terms of housing, mobility and employment, especially those who are from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. This distortion is harmful to no one.

It is not easy to come to terms with your past. However, the insights that you gain can help us to face our past, navigate the present, and plan for the future. Daniel Burnham, a famous American architect, city planner and urbanist, is said to have said in 1910: “Make no small plans. They have no magic that stirs men’s hearts.” Aim high with hope and hard work, make big plans. We will need them for a successful post-pandemic world.

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