- 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
Not that our priorities are completely awry or that light-rail transit is always a bad idea. But it is a better idea in some places than in others. The San Diego system, for example, was a bargain, whereas the Los Angeles-Long Beach line cost $877 million and the cost of the second L.A. line soared close to a billion dollars. The money spent on them could have financed vast improvements to a now-antiquated and overcrowded bus system that still carries more than 90 percent of transit riders but has gotten short shrift.
For a great many people, the true reason for the destruction of the L.A. region’s original system of electric railways still matches the scenario of Cloverleaf Industries. Myth has usurped reality, because it embraces something technically engaging that is also freighted with emotion. Myth has tangibly led to a rail renaissance that includes a full-blown subway (which actually has red cars) that has cost an astronomical sum, several hundred million dollars per mile. It all adds up to, in the words of one Los Angeles critic, “misplaced technological lust.”
One function of the myth has been to sustain a dream until its fulfillment became politically feasible. So far, though, its fulfillment has been only piecemeal, and so it may remain. The chief of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority was recently forced to put nearly all construction on hold amidst charges that officials had “squandered a fortune.” But whatever the outcome, it will have come about because of the immense power of the past, even of a past misremembered. In the popular mind the Red Cars became a technology worth bringing back at almost any cost.