- Historic Sites
The Myth Behind The Streetcar Revival
Light rail was an attractive, economical, and environmentally sound technology— until the auto companies crushed it. That, at any rate, is what a lot of people believe, and now the nation is spending billions to re-create an imaginary past.
May/June 1998 | Volume 49, Issue 3
For those charged with running mass transit systems in the face of declining patronage and escalating costs, the comparative economics of buses were obvious. Besides their advantages to management, buses also appealed to customers. In the words of one official, here was a vehicle “that did not require track, poles, or wires and could get around obstructions and over to the curb where the people were.” In 1940 there were twenty-seven thousand trolley cars in the United States; by 1970 there were only thirteen hundred, and the number was still shrinking.
But sheer enthusiasm has driven many technologies: mechanical clocks in the fourteenth century, manufacturing with interchangeable parts in the nineteenth, Blue Riband ocean liners for half of the twentieth. When such enthusiasm enlists political favor, you have a powerful force, and in recent years almost nothing illustrates this so well as the resurgence of electric railways, not only in Los Angeles but nationwide. A type of technology to which most Americans had bidden good-bye at least a generation earlier suddenly flowered anew. Now there are lines in cities from coast to coast, from Baltimore and Buffalo to Portland and Vancouver, and lines in no fewer than five California cities, including Los Angeles.
The conveyances connecting with the Long Beach harbor front, those running between Redondo Beach and Norwalk—those on all such lines—are now called “light-rail vehicles” rather than trolleys, and they incorporate new departures in design such as articulated car bodies and European-style pantographs, but these design distinctions are unimportant. Against all expectations thirty-five years ago, trolley cars are back. Moreover, these lines, L.A. officials have been heard to promise, are but a preview of a network that by 2020 should look very much like the Pacific Electric.
Against all expectations? Not long after the last of the old Red Cars had gone to scrap, I wrote a thesis on the history of mass transit in Los Angeles and wound up by stating confidently—regretfully, but confidently—that electric railways would never return. I was echoing a broad consensus and overlooking how much harder it is to predict the future than to reconstruct the past. What made them come back? The question cannot be addressed without some attention to what made them go away in the first place. But there people strongly disagree, and it turns out that the past is not so simple to reconstruct either.
During the 1920s, when trolley ridership in Los Angeles was at its peak, there was chronic dissatisfaction with overcrowding and delay on the lines—railborne vehicles are nothing if not inflexible—and by the end of the decade a substantial majority of commuters were traveling downtown in private autos. The newspapers were full of assertions that trolleys were hopelessly out-of-date. One paper even pushed the idea of having city buses force them out of business.
Ultimately, buses did supersede electrie railways, but as the earlier technology receded into the past and became not a fact of everyday life but a subject of remembrance, perceptions changed. More and more, trolleys were regarded not as conveyances that had become outmoded and uneconomic—and had died a natural death—but as the opposite. People came to see them as altogether superior to what had displaced them.
This imagery, entwined as it was with the universal emotional baggage of nostalgia for lost youth, began coloring political ideology. A turning point occurred in 1974, when a U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly heard testimony from a young lawyer named Bradford Snell, who had apparently investigated the demise of electric railways with great thoroughness. According to Snell, their fate nationwide—and specifically in the case of the PE—was not caused by economic pressures, or by obsolescence, or by shifting public preferences. It was the result of a plain conspiracy. The principals were Firestone Tire Sc Rubber, Standard Oil of California, and General Motors, and their scheme was to gain control of companies like the PE, junk their railway systems, and substitute motorbuses. But there was more. What the conspirators foresaw eventually happening was this: As riders discovered buses to be vastly inferior to the trolleys they had replaced, they would turn away from public transit altogether and buy automobiles, more and more and more of them.
There was a grain of truth in Snell’s scenario. The alleged conspirators had indeed bought up several dozen transit systems in California and elsewhere, and they had replaced trolleys with buses, but they never controlled the Red Cars of the Pacific Electric, which were lines between cities. After taking over the local Los Angeles Railway, they substituted buses on some lines but they also carried out a program to equip other lines with brand-new trolleys.