- 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
In a crucial scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit , the murderous Judge Doom reveals a “plan of epic proportions” for transforming metropolitan Los Angeles. He boasts to private detective Eddie Valiant that his Cloverleaf Industries has bought the Red Car electric railway network so that he can dismantle it.
In a crucial scene from Who Framed Roger Rabbit , the murderous Judge Doom reveals a “plan of epic proportions” for transforming metropolitan Los Angeles. He boasts to private detective Eddie Valiant that his Cloverleaf Industries has bought the Red Car electric railway network so that he can dismantle it. In a movie that blends splendid illusion with shrewd social commentary (humans confine cartoon characters to a ghetto while exploiting them for amusement), this dialogue resonates with a familiar belief: A magnificent transportation system was destroyed in a carefully orchestrated plot mounted by powerful automotive interests.
The widely believed-in conspiracy that the movie’s story line is based on never happened. Yet the idea remains so compelling that efforts to expose it as a myth have gained little headway. What’s more, it has had significant consequences, helping animate an electric-railway renaissance across the country—and most vigorously in Los Angeles. In 1990 electric trains began running between Los Angeles and Long Beach, where the technology had vanished almost thirty years earlier. Today they connect with other cities where they’d been gone even longer, and they are ultimately slated to reach both the San Gabriel and the San Fernando Valleys, whence they disappeared close to a half-century ago.
Their supporters say that environmental concerns and plain common sense demand that any great metropolis must have such railways; critics contend that the projects have made scarcely a dent in L.A.’s increasingly dire transportation problem while consuming billions of taxpayer dollars. And, they add, such projects have been sold to the public by the manipulating of idealized images of the old Red Car system.
Idealized images of the past are always with us, of course. We know how often they influence choices in people’s personal lives; it’s far rarer that we are given an opportunity to see clearly how powerfully they can influence public policy and technological choices. As the historian of technology John Staudenmaier observes, “People plan and try to execute rational strategies for promoting or resisting a given technology, but those same people also respond to technology affectively, with awe or fear or anger or enthusiasm. We need to learn to understand our technological behavior as a constant blend of these very different modes of consciousness.”
Snell blamed a bus-and-car conspiracy, but transit managers had known electric railways were far too inflexible.
Technology does not march ahead led solely by reason and logic; it is created and changed by human choices that are hardly always rational. The new California rail lines are in part a tribute to the power of the remembrance of things past.
The inception of the old system is linked with Henry E. Huntington, whose name is locally ubiquitous: Huntington Park, Huntington Beach, Huntington Drive, the Huntington Library. Like his uncle Collis, Henry Huntington was involved with steam railroads, but his special interest lay in the electric railways, urban and interurban, that flowered at the turn of the century. After starting out in this business in San Francisco, he moved to Southern California, where opportunities seemed more expansive and labor less troublesome. There he financed and built an interurban network converging on the fast-growing city of Los Angeles. This was the Pacific Electric, the PE, dubbed the Red Car system to distinguish it from the yellow streetcars of the local transit system, the Los Angeles Railway.
Huntington envisioned speedy, frequent Red Car service as an inducement to sales of homesites in subdivisions he owned all over the region, a purpose the PE fulfilled for him in just a few years. In 1910 he sold out to the Southern Pacific Railroad, which made the PE a subsidiary. Its mileage peaked in 1926 at eleven hundred, and annual ridership likewise topped out in the mid-1920s at 110 million. Then patronage began to slip and the railway system to shrink, even as the population of the metropolitan region continued to grow at a phenomenal rate.
Although its Red Car ledger was most often in the red, the Southern Pacific profited from hauling freight on Pacific Electric tracks; its interest in the PE was, like Huntington’s, plainly economic. Of course it was: What drives technological activity is typically a rational matter of seeking optimal economics—though not always.
Red Car service dwindled away in the 1950s, and following two changes in ownership, the last remaining line, between Los Angeles and Long Beach, ceased operation in 1961. Two years later the end came for city streetcars. After wires came down and tracks were pulled up or buried in asphalt, it seemed that this historic transportation technology was gone forever, replaced by rubber tires on paved roadways.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.