Who Killed the Red Car?
Los Angeles and public transit have always had a very rocky relationship. I think about it every time I’m in a city where the transit system actually works well. Early one morning, I found myself in a car with a friend of mine as we whizzed all around Friday morning traffic. Tunes pumping out of the stereo, heads bobbing, ready to take on a new day. There were errands to run, but with the right people, these kinds of things are an adventure. We were maniacs with sunglasses on, laughing while the good people of the city went on with their work day, suckers.
Bob Hoskins had died a day or two prior and the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? came up in conversation. It gets hard to mention that movie in L.A. without someone bringing up how it’s about the dismantling of the Red Car. That’s what a lot of us say. “Oh, Roger Rabbit, that’s about the dismantling of the Red Car by the bus companies!” It’s nice to find deeper meaning in things like that. You can feel like you’ve been subliminally educated in some way from a young age and it makes us feel a little smart, like we were in on something the whole time. It feels nice to be able to justify your nostalgic love for a movie like that with a little bit of politics, some anti-corporate shit. Hell, I hate corporations too, but this isn’t the truth. When someone tells you the big motor companies bought the Red Car and dismantled it for their own evil corporate gain, they aren’t telling you the truth. It’s a kind of half-truth. Almost a lie.
Los Angeles’ terrible public transportation has been the bane of many an Angeleno’s existence. For a city its size, it is unacceptable to have this gremlin on its neck. Many of us sigh hard when we hear stories about how it wasn’t always this way. It hurts to hear that some time long, long ago there was a big transit system that got people where they needed to be without the need for a car. It hurts to think of that when you’re in heavy traffic, the kind that cripples your will to live. You may have heard the story; Los Angeles once had the Red Car, a big elaborate system of streetcars that ran everywhere, all over the city. It went out in the San Gabriel Valley, out in the San Fernando Valley and all the way out to Venice. It went in the urban areas and in the sticks. We’re talking 1,150 miles of track and 900 cars. By the time 1961 rolled in, the last streetcar was retired. It’s a sad story, a story called A Streetcar Named Retired. I’m terrible, I can’t help myself.
The myth about GM destroying the streetcars dates back to 1974 when a government attorney named Bradford Snell testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that GM was in on a nasty tasty little plot to dismantle the streetcars in order to build more buses and freeways. There is truth to that, but it isn’t what you think it is. There was a company called National City Lines that bought and dismantled the Red Cars. They were in fact backed by GM. But keep in mind they did this well after the decay had happened. They did this well after the Red Car had become pretty much useless. They never owned or used the Red Car, but National City Lines did take control of some public transit in LA. It took the Yellow Line, a small operation that connected some of the outskirts to the city, but nothing along the lines of what we’re talking about here with the Red Car. There was a conspiracy charge related to that for National City Lines replacing the Yellow Cars with GM buses. So, okay, that’s it. That’s the conspiracy. The rest of the story is a bit more complex. I’m going to break it down here.
Here’s a photo of a bus brochure that dates back some time to the mid to late 1940s, when the change was coming.
Here’s the wicked thing about public transit in Los Angeles – it was always a facade. It was always some ploy, a gimmick. The rails and streetcars that clanked all around were put there by real estate investors, guys like Moses Sherman and Henry Huntington. These guys put these things out there to increase the value of their neighborhoods, but not to really be of service to them. Most cities had built rail in order to make the city churn, but Los Angeles left it up to the real estate developers and what we got was Pacific Electric Railway.
Way back in 1894 a couple of investors called Moses Sherman and Eli Clark acquired a few horse car and cable car systems in the L.A. area and formed the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway with tracks running through Beverly Hills, Hollywood and Santa Monica. By 1898, Sherman and Clark were broke and had to sell the thing off. A couple of investors, Collis Huntington and his nephew Henry took control of the thing. Henry Huntington started buying land out in the sticks, hoping to start throwing down some rail. The whole thing was going to lose money from the start. Huntington knew this, but he went ahead with it because he knew it was a smart idea. He needed to get people out to the land he was selling.
In 1911, Huntington sold the Red Cars to Pacific Electric. He had developed the land and didn’t need the Red Car anymore. This is what they call the “Great Merger”. Pacific Electric wound up taking most of the track. Though they didn’t get all of it, there was The Los Angeles Railway, aka the Yellow Cars, which were sold to the Southern Pacific Railroad. They were later renamed the Los Angeles Transit Lines, way later, when they began to replace the rail with buses.
The standards fell bad, to unacceptable levels. This is the primary reason for the Red Car’s demise. When car traffic and crossings were present, which was pretty much everywhere in the city, the streetcar speed was greatly reduced. Some tracks were paved over with asphalt for automobiles. Inevitably the buses started coming in after all of this. The Red Car system had always been a clunker. Even back in 1915, L.A. County had 55,217 cars for 750,000 citizens. The highest car to person ratio in the country at the time. The thing about all these people with cars was that it was making them able to settle way farther out in the sticks, places where there was just no hope of rail coming out to, and so the real sprawl began. Things were never okay with the public transit of Los Angeles. There was always something. How could there not be? This is the Wild West. This is where the wheeling and dealing went down (you’re welcome for the pun). Of course some opportunist is going to cut out a rough and inefficient transit system in order to serve their own selfish needs and then throw it away when it isn’t needed, why wouldn’t they?
It was a mess, here’s a picture.
You also have to remember that on top of all of this, The L.A. Times was a really, really pro-automoblie newspaper. The notorious Harry Chandler, the publisher at the time, was a very pro-auto guy. This son of a bitch had his hands in everything; freeway construction companies, Union Oil, Goodyear, etc. It’s no wonder the streetcars were given a bad rep in the newspaper, being dubbed shit like “wheeled slums” and actively rooted for their demise, decrying any public subsides going to them.
As we started to progress into the century, freeways were being built on a massive scale. Freeways were seen as progress, the future and Los Angeles wanted to be at the head of that. The WPA and state government funded the first freeways, gasoline tax funding came a little later, post 1947. Though this shows you where everyone’s priorities were. Streetcars were clunky, old, slummy and in the way. Everyone was ready to move forward, to make the leap into the future. After all, L.A. has had a long history of not wanting to hold onto or know its history. There’s nothing wrong with moving forward, but there are a lot of lessons gone unlearned if you don’t take a look back every once in a while. What kind of town builds an inefficient public transit system, dismantles it and then puts in a new inefficient public transit system? This one does.
The Red Car was a flawed concept from the start. A big, rickety monstrosity built for the purpose of land development that fell into decay when it was no longer serving its original purpose. Subsidies grew out of public favor, a big reason being the fact that the L.A. Times was so pro-automobile, add on top of that an ever-growing sprawl and its decline and fall was inevitable.
I tried in a half-ass way to explain this all to my friend as we were cruising through morning traffic, buzzing through tunnels on the Arroyo Seco Parkway, their outer exteriors flashing in front of me in all their rotting art deco grandeur. The parkway itself being built in the early 30s and funded by the WPA. I didn’t want to talk about it anymore. The day was young and it was a sad story. But the music was good and as we came out of the tunnel and thrust into the wild wacky ether, like in the movie Roger Rabbit, I thought to myself how much Toon Town still lives on in this place. This rickety, silly cartoon of a city.