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Return of the Get-Around

We Los Angeles downtowners are a special breed. To many, this part of town is a big city, some kind of mini-New York. But to us, it’s our little neighborhood. And we love it to the moon and back. We love it so much that back in 2012, we voted to bring back the streetcar to DTLA by an overwhelming margin—to the tune of 73%. Do you remember when we did that?

Modern LA Streetcar in Downtown Los AngelesThat… was awesome. We’ve shown the powers-that-be that we know what’s good for our ‘hood. And we want streetcar!The Los Angeles streetcar, which is in development as we speak, will connect many of downtown Los Angeles’ little pockets: South Park, the Financial District and Historic Core, Grand Park and the Civic Center, Fashion District, Convention Center and L.A. Live. That means that the new trolley is stopping right near at our front door on Figueroa Street (and convenience really makes me so happy these days). The trolley will run a four-mile route around downtown Los Angeles, with trains arriving every 7-10 minutes. Seriously, how easy is that? All the places you want to go, and none of the places you don’t.


bring back broadwayAnd beyond the streetcar, there are so many exciting things happening downtown right now that are transforming downtown Los Angeles to be more walkable, bikeable and just more do-able. Like the Metro Rail improvements, which will soon make it possible to ride the rails from downtown all the way to the sea this year. Plus, a little closer to home, there’s the Bringing Back Broadway initiative—introduced by Councilmember José Huizar, the same man behind the streetcar project—which will totally revitalize Broadway Boulevard, from First Street to Eleventh Avenue. They’re planning to widen sidewalks and cut back traffic lanes to make room for more pedestrians and slow down cars—so you’ll be able to wander and window shop to your heart’s (and wallet’s) content. At least for that one adorable block, people will walk in L.A., dammit.


Of course, we’ve been down this track before. They even made a movie about it. Remember Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Well, it not only introduced the world to miss Jessica Rabbit (who had more curves than Lombard Street in San Fran), it also told the story of cars and corruption. When Roger’s framed for a murder he didn’t commit, he and his private eye stumble upon a conspiracy to destroy the public transit system in fictional noir Hollywood. And at the end of the film, Judge Doom unveils his evil plot to destroy Toon Town—and buy up and dismantle all the trolleys—to pave the way for a new freeway system (PS: his company is Cloverleaf industries, so named for a popular freeway-ramp configuration). In the film, Toon Town is saved; it’s real-life Los Angeles that didn’t get its own Hollywood ending.

At least for that one block, people
will walk in L.A., dammit.

Image from Film Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Now, some say that Roger Rabbit perpetuated a myth about the trolley system’s demise. But I’m going to present the facts and let you guys decide. (You know, we’ll go a littleMaking a Murderer with this.) It all starts with railway and real estate moguls Moses Hazeltine Sherman and Henry E. Huntington, who would bring the electric-car system into existence. Nineteen-year-old Sherman went West in 1873, amassing a fortune in Arizona before landing in the LA promised land. By 1896, he and his brother-in-law, Eli P. Clark, owned the first electric-interurban railway, which ran between Pasadena and Los Angeles and featured green rail cars. (Colors are important, just FYI.) Their line was called the Pasadena & Los Angeles Railway (I’d love to know how many tedious meetings were held before that got approved).


Enter Henry E. Huntington, who’d been busy building his own railway since 1901. See, ol’ Henry had also been busy developing the suburbs—so his line was a way of importing buyers for his homes across the Los Angeles valley. When his developments grew, so did his need for access. So Sherman’s Pasadena & Los Angeles Railway was eventually bought up by Huntington’s Pacific Electric Railway (the Red Cars), which in turn was sold to Southern Pacific Railroad in 1910. The sale crowned it the world’s largest electric-transit system, serving a network of more than 50 Southern California communities in four counties.

Los Angeles Railway LogoBut Los Angeles Railway’s Yellow Cars—those Huntington kept for himself. The 1920s were more than Hollywood’s Golden Age: they were a golden age for the city’s growth, with more and more people flocking to the green, green grass of home way out in the burbs. And that meant cars. More than 160,000 of them in 1920, to be exact. By 1930, that number would swell to 800,000. (Also fascinating: In 1920 Los Angeles only had around 170 gas stations, but ten years later there were more than 1,500 thanks to all those oil fields right in our backyard.) And with all those cars clogging the roads, anyone tooling around on a trolley met with mega traffic snarls and hour-plus delays—all while riding the pine and enduring the “air conditioning system,” which consisted of cracking a window. Good times. And it only got worse when the two began to tango in the city’s many intersections, causing major damage (both property and personal) and waking the sleeping newspaper dragon, who promptly launched an anti-streetcar crusade.So now Los Angeles had an enema—the Red and Yellow streetcars. Buses rolled in as early as 1924 to challenge the streetcar, whose service had been cut back significantly after a drought-created power shortage. While Pacific Electric continued to woo trolley riders and increase speeds, behind the scenes they pulled more trolleys off the streets and started to build a proper subway. The Hollywood Subway and the Belmont Tunnel opened in 1925 and cost $5 million (which is roughly $68 million today). The route traversed just over a mile of downtown Los Angeles real estate, dipping underground at Crown and Bunker hills to shave 15 minutes off the previous commute. The subway originated at the Subway Terminal Building at 4th and Hill, and surfaced at Glendale and Beverly.In 1926, plans for more than 50 miles of elevated railway in Los Angeles were panned by the papers, who went out of their way to send reporters to Chicago and Boston to find critics of those elevated railways. By the time the Great Depression hit, more and more buses were introduced alongside electric cars.


1929 wasn’t exactly a great year for air travel, either. That’s the year the Graf Zeppelin flew in from Tokyo, right over downtown, to refuel in Los Angeles after a 79-hour journey on its historic Round-the-World flight sponsored by William Randolph Hearst—
and was nearly done in by our lovely smog.

Their ship was trapped just like smog: buoyant in the cold air on the ground but lacking enough lift to climb past the warmer layer above.

They escaped destruction with drastic lightening measures and safely left Mines Field (the pre-cursor to LAX) behind—or did they? In its slow-moving wake the people of Los Angeles erected the Zep Diner in tribute to the great, nearly “late” dirigible.

Now it’s a Mickey D’s parking lot, because it wouldn’t be poetry if it weren’t.

Stacks of Dead Downtown LA RailcarsBack on the ground, the public transit situation didn’t get any better. Just a few years after 1929, the gas and rubber shortages during World War II majorly maimed bus service. In fact, the trolley lines were so much in trouble that people actually bought them from scrap dealers to live in them (mostly in vacant lots) during the housing shortage. During this time, the automobile got a reputation as a progressive solution to the problem at the hand.

With the writing on the rail, Huntington’s estate sold the Yellow Cars to American City Lines in 1945—which was a subsidiary of National City Lines, a Chicago outfit whose investors happened to include General Motors and other big oil and rubber interests. This is where it gets rather Rabbit-y. National City Lines would soon control 46 transit networks in the Midwest and West, including Los Angeles. Instead of maintaining the electric cars, they’d nix them and stick a diesel bus in their place (ones that used fuel and rubber, because of course they did).Now it’s 1946, and the Justice Department catches on, filing an antitrust suit against National City Lines for conspiracy to monopolize the transit industry—including the consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire & Rubber, Philips Petroleum and Mack Truck Manufacturing Co. Alright, time for some comeuppance! Which ended up being more like come-go-ins, because all the big companies bailed out before anything came to trial, selling all their holdings and leaving the Justice Department to prosecute an empty corporation. Still, the case did go to trail in 1949, delivering a mixed verdict. Even though they no longer owned National City Lines, the companies in the consortium were fined a paltry $5,000 apiece—and individual officials were fined $1 each—for a grand total of $37,007. And because the LA landscape was already looking like a game of Chutes and Ladders, with highways and byways crisscrossing the “72 suburbs in search of a city” as my hero Dorothy Parker is said to have put it, the court’s conviction just helped pinpoint the electric car’s time of death.


Ray Bradbury's Downtown Los Angeles MonorailNonetheless, it still took a few years to pull the plug. But in 1953, Pacific Electric sold the last of its Red Cars to a private bus line—which, in turn, was bought out five years later by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority for $33.3 million. That’s three zeros more than the antitrust fine, if you’re keeping track. At one time, the MTA proposed a monorail (monorail! monorail!) that would connect the San Fernando Valley and downtown Los Angeles, but it never gained any steam—despite the very vocal support of car-less local Ray Bradbury. The last Red Car was scrapped in 1961, followed by the Yellow Car on March 31, 1963. (You can still visit them, though, at the annual Rail Fest at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in the town of Perris.)

At their peak in 1945, more than 900 hydro-electric Red Cars had a ridership of 109 million on more than 1,150 miles of track in five counties. For the low-low price of a nickel, dime or two bits, riders could go from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Balboa and Santa Ana. Not even New York City’s subway can compete with those numbers—as it only covers 842 miles.


The electric cars were sorely missed for decades in Los Angeles. So much so, that on August 13, 2000, a mysterious series of eight “Coming Soon” signs announced the second coming of the subway: the Aqua Line. This mythical line would connect the Westside to downtown and the rest of the Los Angeles metro system. The art installation was meant to spark conversation about how much better transportation was needed. Even though the Aqua Line wasn’t real, it was designed like it was—building in bus connections, usage demand, existing right-of-ways, points of interest and historic rail lines, including the old Red Car tracks.


Ray Bradbury campaigned for the monorail his whole life, arguing that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for transportation in their city (going so far as to evangelize a 1960’s proposal for a free monorail for all of Los Angeles from the Alweg Monorail company, Simpsons-style). But sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do—and that’s what we did when we said we want streetcar! Unfortunately, Bradbury died mere months before voters finally achieved the two-thirds margin they needed to lay down some new track. But hey, maybe the Los Angeles of tomorrow will have that monorail after all. And that’d just be so Bradbury of us, wouldn’t it?


In the meantime, we’ll settle for four miles of awesome—coming soon to the best neighborhood on the planet.

‘Til next time,