- 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
Of course that’s not the way it turned out in real life. The last of the Red Cars ended up in heaps at a Terminal Island scrapyard. Bradford Snell explained the reason: a conspiracy that “reshaped American ground transportation to serve corporate wants instead of social needs.” Newspapers warmed to the idea, and nominally critical scholars lent it added credence. It played wonderfully to the ears of people who thought dark thoughts about General Motors or about motorcars in general, or about Los Angeles, a city described in Harper’s as “a frightening mutation of human life produced by the automotive gene.”
By 1988 the Red Car that provided Roger Rabbit’s theme was a mere prop; the real article had been gone for a quarter-century. Yet an image of that real article had a firm hold on popular sensibilities, an image that was warm, gracious, and overwhelmingly positive. As a consequence, people believed that the conspiracy had destroyed not just a streetcar system but a fundamental commitment to the public welfare.
“The best public transportation system in the world,” in Eddie Valiant’s words, had been replaced with . . . nothing, or nothing of any serious merit anyway. Motorbuses—even though they plied the same routes trolleys had, along with dozens more that had never had rails, even though they had far greater flexibility and economy than the Red Cars, and even though they generally measured up to the PE’s motto better than trolleys did—were depicted as a contemptible hoax.
Such perceptions gained credence from historians who equated the dismantling of electric railways with what they saw as the breakdown of Los Angeles’s transit industry, but more immediately they gained from the fans, whose influence stretched far beyond what their numbers might imply. Whenever a reporter wanted a pithy quote for a nostalgia story, there always seemed to be some fans near-by old enough to have known the Red Cars firsthand. Mere words, they would usually indicate, could not begin to do them justice. But most of these fans had not used public transit as a matter of mundane necessity, and what they remembered was often at odds with the recollections of people who had ridden the trolleys for want of any alternative. Regular riders tended to see the buses—relatively quiet, softer-seated, sometimes air-conditioned, and, most important, new—not as a step backward but as progress.
Nonetheless, nostalgic publications flooded forth, and popular magazines ran features with mawkish titles like “Good Night, Sweet Streetcar.” Year in, year out, one could count on rounds of journalistic sentimentality. Most enthusiasts were resigned to having seen the last of electric railways in Los Angeles, but not all: The aim of the Electric Railway Association of Southern California was “to further knowledge and interest in the electric railways of the past, present, and future.”
Future? Almost never, after Snell’s testimony was publicized, would you encounter an enthusiast who did not believe that the Red Cars had been driven to an undeserved ruin. After a while it was not just the enthusiasts. A growing contingent of ordinary citizens shared that belief. Try introducing the subject at a social gathering; if people are familiar with it at all, they are likely to cite last year’s PBS documentary Taken for a Ride , which propounds the conspiracy theory at its purest and which reputable scholars have called “skillfully crafted” and “solidly documented.” The will to believe in conspiratorial forces can be overwhelming, especially when you have an attractive villain like GM.
In the 1970s, with concern about energy and the environment growing, rail transit started becoming politically attractive again. Federal funds became available for buying new cars in the few cities where street railways had survived: Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco. Then, within a few years, and with gas-station lines as a backdrop, light-rail lines started appearing in towns where trolleys had long been absent, notably in San Diego.
“I can’t understand, on any rational basis at least, this fascination with light rail,” said the Harvard economist John Kain at a Southern California conference in the early 1980s, just when electric railway enthusiasts were celebrating the funding bonanza promised by a local half-cent tax on retail sales.
Today Kain’s attitude is widely shared among transportation economists. But there were those who waved a red flag years ago, notably George Hilton, who chaired President Johnson’s Task Force on Transportation Policy in the mid-1960s. Hilton was coauthor of the definitive history of interurban electric railways in America. That may sound ironic, but Hilton’s historical passion just did not translate into an imperative to re-create the past at public expense. Hilton regarded the demise of the Red Cars as simply the result of a shift in public preference, a shift that had never shown any indication of reversing. The PE’s management had let its equipment depreciate fully, its outdated relics symbolizing an obsolete technology passing naturally into Valhalla.