- 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
But for anyone whose attachment to the Red Cars was essentially romantic, even its faults were really virtues. When one fan noted that they “were noisy and uncomfortable—they jolted and rocked. The seats had hard, straight backs and the only air conditioning was an open window [and] often, in the wintertime, the only warmth was from too many bodies,” he was applauding.
Wistfulness alone might not have turned public opinion in favor of a rail renaissance. But to the power of nostalgia was eventually added a new ingredient, a progressivist view of railborne transit as a positive social force. There developed a synergism among fans, environmentalists, and true believers in various sorts of social engineering. As the economist Alan Altshuler put it, people liked the idea of railborne transit “whether one’s concern was the economic vitality of cities, protecting the environment, stopping highways, energy conservation, assisting the elderly and handicapped and poor, or simply getting other people off the road so as to be able to drive faster.” He added, “This is not to say that transit was an effective way of serving all these objectives, simply that it was widely believed to be so.”
This was largely because the happy imagery rail supporters had been so successful in broadcasting had, as Jonathan Richmond writes, “developed a series of assodations of growth and renewal.” What is remarkable is the extent to which those fans influenced public officials.
Sometimes those officials were already enthusiasts themselves. Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenny Hahn proclaimed that the PE had provided “the best rail transportation in America, and the fastest.” It had done neither, but that scarcely mattered when, in 1981, he announced plans for a comprehensive light-rail system, against the backdrop of an antique Red Car restored to perfection. “I rode ’em,” he declared proudly. Hahn was a juicefan and a public official directly responsible for reviving electric railways in Los Angeles.
I mentioned being a fan myself, but ambivalent. I’m ambivalent because on the one hand, I fully appreciate the powerful emotions associated with trolleys. Growing up in Pasadena in the forties, I was fascinated by the big Red Cars that plied the city streets. Trolley excursions to the seashore are among my most stirring early memories, and it seems to me that on those days the sky was bluer, the air cleaner, the palm trees lush, the orange groves fragrant, the sunlight golden. I elected to write my first postgraduate research paper on the abandonment of the PE’s rail passenger service, and I can still recount the exact routes of the last lines as well as the places where track remained visible even long after. Like many others who remember them, I’m prone to think of the rise and demise of the Red Cars in terms of “glory” and “tragedy.”
Myth has usurped reality because it embraces something technically engaging and freighted with emotional baggage.
Yet I also understand the argument that railborne transit serves parochial interests. As the political scientist Sy Adler points out, political conflicts in urban transportation mainly involve not “modes of transport—highway versus rail”—but rather something else altogether, “competition . . . within metropolitan areas to attract and retain capital investment.” I recognize that the money expended on railborne transit could often be spent far more equitably; I see what Hilton meant when he wrote in the 1960s that it amounted to “a subsidy to high-income groups” and why David Brodsly—the author of a book titled L.A. Freeway , who also is a confessed rail enthusiast—calls light rail “a regressive burden on those who are dependent on public transportation” and terms its political partisans “modern Marie Antoinettes who, upon learning that their constituents cannot buy gas to run their cars, suggest that they ride transit.”
I understand Richmond when he contrasts the perceptions of people who ride transit by necessity with those of dilettantes: “The ‘love affair’ misleads because it assumes that people choose transportation for the joys of the relationship, rather than because they want to travel somewhere.”
We’re always hearing about America’s love affair with the auto; in fact, people love all sorts of technologies, not least railways, and those who love railways often speak in the most hateful terms of motor vehicles. Yet no city, least of all Los Angeles, has been able to stifle the energy—indeed, the outright passion—with which its citizens have embraced the automobile. As Brodsly puts it, “It required no conspiracy to destroy the electric railways; it would, however, have required a conspiracy to save them.” And to bring them back after they were long gone? What did that require? Strong emotions and a sense of conspiracy.