Top LA Legends #1: The Auto Industry Killed Los Angeles’ Streetcars

Los Angeles once had one of the world’s top public transportation systems, in the form of streetcars. The Red Cars ran everywhere in the city, between neighborhoods and suburbs, from Venice to the San Gabriel Valley. At its peak, the Pacific Electric Railway was huge: 1,150 miles of track covering four counties and 900 cars. Yet, by 1961, the last Red Car had been retired. How could this system have been decimated so quickly – and is it just a coincidence that it happened at the same time as the rise of the automobile?

The myth is that the automobile industry, led by GM, destroyed the Los Angeles streetcar system. This myth, in its current form, has been in circulation since 1974. Most of you will recognize it from the “cartoon Chinatown”, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). In the movie, the antagonist, Judge Doom, reveals his plot to buy the Red Cars and scrap them, in order to force people to drive on the freeways and patronize freeway-side businesses. The myth surfaced again in 1996, when a documentary was released called Taken For A Ride. This film chronicled the takeover of rail systems in America cities by a company funded by General Motors, Standard Oil and Firestone Tires, called National City Lines. But the myth started over thirty years ago, when a government attorney named Bradford Snell testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that General Motors had conspired to buy and dismantle streetcar systems throughout the United States.

Unfortunately, all the pieces in this myth (and Snell’s case) don’t quite fit together. While I would dearly love to believe that the automobile industry did buy up & dismantle public transportation in Los Angeles (as well as the rest of America), there’s a few important facts that make this only legend, not truth. Warning: the entry debunking this myth is REALLY LONG because there’s a lot involved in the shift from streetcars to freeways.

What makes this a myth (among other factors) is that National City Lines, the GM-backed company that supposedly bought & dismantled the Red Cars, never owned the Pacific Electric Railway lines that stretched along the extended traffic routes the freeways cover now. National City Lines did take control of some public transportation in Los Angeles, but only the geographically smaller Yellow Line that connected central L.A. communities. And while there was a conspiracy charge related to that takeover, it wasn’t for eliminating public transportation. Rather, it was because National City Lines replaced the Yellow Cars with buses…GM buses. That was the conspiracy. Add into that Southern California’s love affair with the car, and a massive lack of public support due to a few key figures in L.A., and this myth fails to hold up.

This doesn’t mean the automobile industry is blameless in the decline of the streetcars and public transportation in Los Angeles. But they never bought the Red Cars like Cloverleaf Industries does in Roger Rabbit. In fact, the Pacific Electric Railway routes were always vulnerable, as the streetcars were never designed to be a long-term solution for Los Angeles. The Red Line didn’t have the same support in Los Angeles that streetcars did in other cities where the systems have survived. The networks of rail lines were built out by real estate investors – Moses Sherman and Henry Huntington – who used the streetcars to increase the value of real estate, creating neighborhoods instead of servicing existing ones. From The Red Cars Of Los Angeles:

    Starting in 1894 Moses Sherman and Eli Clark began acquiring the various cities’ horse-car and cablecar systems, eventually forming the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway… by 1896 tracks ran from Los Angeles through what would one day be Beverly Hills, Hollywood to Santa Monica…In 1898, financial difficulties forced Sherman and Clark to give up control of their company. A group of investors, including Collis Huntington, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, and his nephew Henry Huntington took over control of the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway. Henry Huntington, seeing an opportunity to move in on the still small public transportation market in southern California, began buying land in growing areas not yet reached by existing public transportation. In 1901 he established the Pacific Electric Railway to handle these holdings.

In short, the Red Line streetcar system that reached so far was only built to make accessible parcels of cheap land acquired by Huntington. From the Wikipedia entry on the Pacific Electric Railway:

    Huntington’s involvement with urban rail was intimately tied to his real estate development operations. In the pre-automobile era, electric interurban rail was the only way to connect outlying suburban and exurban parcels to central cities, and residential development of these was so lucrative that Huntington and Southern Pacific could use the Red Car as a loss leader.

But by 1911, Huntington had developed most of the land he had bought, and sold the Red Cars to Pacific Electric in what would be known as the “Great Merger”. The majority of the track went to P.E., with the exception of the Los Angeles Railway, or LARy. These were the Yellow Cars, which he eventually sold to the Southern Pacific Railroad. The Yellow Cars ran through the core of Los Angeles and served such nearby neighborhoods as Echo Park, Westlake, Hancock Park, Exposition Park, West Adams, the Crenshaw district, Vernon, Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights. They were renamed the “Los Angeles Transit Lines” when the LARy began to replace the streetcars with buses. And this was the line that GM bought – NOT the Pacific Electric Red Cars. From “The Great GM Conspiracy Legend” by Stan Schwartz:

    National City Lines, a subsidiary of General Motors, did buy the Los Angeles Railway [LARY] in 1944. They did replace some streetcar lines with buses, but the introduction of buses in the LARY had begun in 1930…General Motors was convicted on the second count: “to monopolize the sale of supplies used by the local transportation companies controlled by the City Lines defendants.” Which is to say, they were convicted of conspiring to have the GM-owned transit companies only buy GM buses.”

Schwartz continues to outline the fate of the Red Line. “…the Pacific Electric (Red Cars) was never owned by National City Lines. It was owned by the Southern Pacific Railroad until 1953, when it was sold to Metropolitan Coach Lines. In 1957, it was sold to the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, which presided over the final dismantling of the line in 1961.”

So how are all these auto industry corporations responsible for the decline of the Red Cars? Well, the Red Cars were eventually terminated because service deteriorated to unacceptable levels. The Red Car travel speed, as well as the declining quality of the vehicles themselves, were due to two major factors:

a) the streetcar speed was reduced where car traffic and crossings were present. Some tracks were even paved over with asphalt to accomodate automobiles

b) the cars were replaced with buses that could be integrated into the flow of automobile traffic. However, the buses were inferior in quality to the streetcars when it came to the comfort and experience of the rider.

Bradford Snell, the lawyer who took GM to court in 1974, wrote in his 1995 article, The StreetCar Conspiracy: How General Motors Deliberately Destroyed Public Transit that GM, in 1922, came up with a plan to eliminate public transportation in America. They bought streetcar lines where possible, and then pressured the lines they didn’t own into replacing the streetcars with those evil buses:

    In each case, by threatening to divert lucrative automobile freight to rival carriers, they persuaded the railroad (according to GM’s own files) to convert its electric street cars to motor buses — slow, cramped, foul-smelling vehicles whose inferior performance invariable led riders to purchase automobiles.

Snell’s early work in the 1970s may have influenced testimony and opinion voiced in the 1973 Senate hearings regarding the Industrial Reorganization Act (a response to the oil crisis of the 70s). In these hearings, Senator Edward Kennedy questioned San Francisco mayor Joseph Alito on his opinion on the lack of electric public transportation in America’s cities:

    Senator Roman L. Hruska: Was it General Motors and its bus building
    capacity that really wrecked the streetcar system in America?

    Alioto: I think, Senator, that the answer has got to be yes. The answer has got to
    be yes because General Motors actually formed the company together
    with the oil companies and the tire companies to go in and buy out those
    streetcar systems, to then dismantle them, and to substitute buses for

However, while Snell’s arguments, and the Senate hearings, are the source of the myth that pressure from GM caused the decline of the Red Line, Snell does not mention several other valid factors in the streetcars’ demise. In his book, “Popular Culture In the Age Of White Flight”, Eric Avila cites these additional factors, which are unrelated to the automobile industry’s influence, and therefore disprove the myth. As early as 1915 – seven years before GM’s plan of 1922 – L.A. County had 55,217 cars for 750,000 citizens – the highest car-to-person ration in America at that time. “Clearly,” writes Avila, “the automobile allowed greater numbers of people to settle beyond the immediate proximity of the streetcar lines, enabling even broader access to suburban living than the streetcars afforded.”

Further influencing the public and city policy, then-L.A. Times publisher Harry Chandler was very pro-automobile. Chandler had heavy investments in Goodyear and Union Oil, among other freeway-construction related corporations, but not in GM or other car companies. “The Times sought to generate public support for the automobile as the primary mode of transportation in Southern California…While touting the importance of the automobile to Southern California’s future, the Times also campaigned against the streetcar.” And this contributed to public opinion that the streetcars should yield to automobile traffic:

    “In 1920, for example, as the automobile competed with the streetcar for space on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, city officials attempted to control congestion by enforcing a parking ban on weekdays. The Times vigorously denounced the ordinance, insisting that the rights of motorists take precedence over the streetcar’s right of way…While the Times advocated municipal support for the construction of roads and highways in Los Angeles, it denounced proposals for subsidizing streetcar maintenance.” (Avila, pp. 192-193)

By the 1940s, “[o]ne public official implicated the streetcars’ in the slum tradition…calling the [Pacific Electric Red Cars] ‘wheeled slums’.” Avila doesn’t specify whether this was related to the ethnic makeup of the Red Car ridership, but does describe the rise of popularity of the streetcars among immigrants to Los Angeles who could not afford a car – mostly Mexican immigrants. By contrast, many white, American migrants to the Los Angeles area came in cars, and settled in areas that antedated streetcar expansion (like the Inland Empire). Carey McWilliams says in “Southern California: An Island On The Land” that in “1923 and 1924 a one way stream of automobiles could be seen moving westward…They camped on the outskirts of town, and their camps became new suburbs.” Yet another factor, not explored, is whether or not the streetcars would have met their demise, had not the neighborhoods they serviced and the riders who depended on them, transitioned from working class Caucasian to black/Mexican over the course of a few decades, as white flight accelerated in Los Angeles.

So there it is – the reasons for the decline of the Los Angeles streetcar system. The automobile industry is only responsible for a small part of it. Bigger factors were at work. Los Angeles had a love of cars that pre-dated GM’s evil plots, a pro-automobile city newspaper editor, and a state government that was very conducive to freeways in the first half of the 20th century. Funding for many of the first freeways came from the federal government (the Arroyo Seco freeway was a WPA project) or the state government (which first instituted gasoline taxes to pay for freeways in 1947). Freeways were equated with progress (which is why there is an Autopia at Tomorrowland), and Los Angeles was determined to be the most progressive city in America. But getting into the rise of the freeway system is something for a whole other set of blog post series. I don’t think that even General Motors could have orchestrated that. Maybe next time debunks myths, I can write about how freeways were used to eliminate and pave over undesirable neighborhoods. THAT part of the “cartoon Chinatown”, about the freeway plan to pave over Toontown, is actually pretty accurate.

Read the rest of Los Angeles’ top 25 myths!

7 thoughts on “Top LA Legends #1: The Auto Industry Killed Los Angeles’ Streetcars”

  1. What about the 10? I heard that it used to be a light rail and then was torn up to create a highway.

  2. I was really hoping you all would going to debunk the Munchkin land theory that a a bunch of short statured people aka midgets were living in their own sort of village in Downey.

    The stories about that are legend but you never really get clarification on it.

  3. Sara, I did a post on the Munchkinland legend. I didn’t see any mention of Downey in my research. If you have some info, please pass it along! I could certainly do a follow-up.

  4. Good article.

    National City Lines were not the puppetmasters behind the disappearence of streetcars, but neither were they totally blameless in the destruction of streetcar systems in many cities. They played their part.

    As you rightly noted, there were many factors leading to the demise of streetcars over 3-4 decades.

    I will point out though that three cities where streetcars were never completely removed in North America (San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Toronto), were ones where the municipal governments took over from private companies relatively early (the city of Pittsburgh took over the streetcar system as early as 1920).

    In Los Angeles, after a certain point, the government and the establishment just saw the streetcars as old-fashioned and would not support their survival. They saw freeways as the only solution for L.A. We all know how that turned out.

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