- 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
Perhaps Snell confused the PE with the Los Angeles Railway. But another error is harder to explain. Nationwide, the reach of the alleged conspirators extended to only about sixty of approximately six hundred transit systems, mostly in smaller cities, yet by the 1960s nearly every system everywhere, large and small, had converted entirely to buses. By the time the last Red Car lines were motorized—by a public agency—there was a virtual consensus among transit managers that electric railwavs were too inflexible and far too costly to maintain. Too costly, that is, without mass infusions of public funding, which simply couldn’t be had at the time.
And what of Snell’s notion that buses are vastly inferior? That came from a legion of enthusiasts who were truly in love with trolleys—and especially with the Red Cars of the PE. In his 1991 MIT doctoral dissertation, Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles , Jonathan Richmond, now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, examines the origins of the revival of electric railways. He looks at how journalists and historians often gravitate toward darker explanations for technological change and considers the collective psyche of the trolley enthusiasts, who are known as juicefans (“juice” for electric current). But he leaves the wellsprings of their emotions slightly abstract. I can amplify, because I am a card-carrying member of this contingent—card-carrying, if ambivalent, as I’ll explain later.
Although fans already existed before the Great Depression, it was not until big-city street railways and particularly interurbans like the PE faced extinction that they began to join in common cause. The Electric Railroaders’ Association was founded in New York in the mid-1930s; a counterpart in Southern California appeared in the forties along with an enterprise called Interurbans Press that would ultimately publish dozens upon dozens of illustrated monographs about the equipment and operations of the PE, publications that more than anything else worked to nurture a sense of tragic loss. (Monographs have now been supplanted by videos.)
The Red Car system was still largely intact at midcentury, but for juicefans the next decade was devastating. Line after line was abandoned. The last trolleys ran from Los Angeles to Venice and Santa Monica in 1950, to Pasadena, Arcadia, and Glendora in ’51, to Van Nuys in ’52, to Hollywood and Beverly Hills in ’54, to Glendale and Burbank in ’55, to Wilmington and San Pedro and Bellflower in ’58.
People believed that the conspiracy had destroyed not just a streetcar system but a commitment to the public welfare.
Or, rather, the lines remained in service, but management switched the mode from steel wheel on steel rail to rubber tire on public roadway. Yet the word abandonment was central to the imagery of every enthusiast, for rubber on roadway was simply not an acceptable alternative to a lost paradise; some people believed that bus substitution (which they called “bustitution”) could never be defensible. The electric railway, as they saw it, was a technology that could not be improved on under any circumstances.
Apprehensions of conspiratorial forces preceded Snell’s Senate appearance in 1974, but his seemingly authoritative testimony has echoed throughout the media to this day. The tale of conspiracy has been recounted time and again—in Harper’s (whose 1981 story bore the title “The Great Transportation Conspiracy”), on “60 Minutes,” and then in 1988, when it was dramatized during that confrontation in Roger Rabbit when Judge Doom reveals to Eddie Valiant the scheme for transforming metropolitan Los Angeles.
“They’re calling it a freeway,” says Doom.
“Freeway? What the hell’s a freeway?” asks Valiant.
Doom’s voice rises. “Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena. Smooth. Safe. Fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past.”
When Eddie protests that “nobody’s going to drive this lousy freeway when they can take the Red Car for a nickel,” Doom assures him, “Oh, they’ll drive. They’ll have to. You see, I bought the Red Car so I could dismantle it.”
Unimaginable! The streetcar that provides the movie’s leitmotif—the type that actually plied Hollywood Boulevard in 1947, when the movie was set—could never deserve such a fate. Always pristine, seldom noisy, never crowded, it epitomizes all that the Pacific Electric emblem promised: SPEED—COMFORT—SAFETY . In the end Judge Doom meets a suitable demise, his conspiracy thwarted.