Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

What Happened To Los Angeles Streetcars?

Los Angeles streetcar
A Pacific Electric streetcar crosses a Los Angeles street, c1945

Did Los Angeles have streetcars guests often ask us on tours, whenever the subject comes up. Many visitors, and even a few Angelenos, don’t even know that we have a Metro rail system, they assume that “everyone drives in LA”. So it comes as a shock to them to learn that in the 1920’s we had the most extensive electric train network of any city in the world (yep – the world). That had a huge impact on how the city developed into what it is today, because originally Los Angeles was designed around the streetcar – meaning trams, not motor cars. What makes the streetcar network a hugely relevant part of our history is that many studies have shown that it continues to influence development in the city to this day.

This last point is particularly important because whenever there’s a proposal to create an express lane for buses, or add a bicycle lane to a street, many of the objectors will proclaim that, somehow, Los Angeles is intrinsically, genetically if you like, a city based around the car. To these naysayers any attempt to reverse engineer LA with buses and trains is doomed to failure, that it can’t be done. Los Angeles is too spread out, too low density, Angelenos like driving their cars too much and they’ll never leave them to use the kind of mass transit systems that exost in many other cities. “I like my car (even when it’s stuck in horrendous traffic) and anyway it’s better than sitting on a crowded bus or train with the great unwashed”, they say (apparently they think that many of their neighbors have poor personal hygiene). Even more ignorantly I’ve heard it said that “only poor people use buses”. Well, these NIMBY’s are wrong.

DTLA Subway Terminal Building
The Subway Terminal Building, terminus for the Hollywood line in DTLA

The city’s first electric tram line opened in 1887, which was quite early in LA’s development. The population was approaching fifty thousand after just over a decade’s worth of explosive development, subsequent to the Transcontinental railroad reaching here in 1876. From there the network rapidly developed, eventually encompassing two major companies: Pacific Electric (the red cars) and the Los Angeles Railway (known as LARy, which operated yellow cars).

By the 1920’s Pacific Electric was one of the largest urban rail operators in the world, with nearly 1,500 miles of track and over 2,500 daily services. Red Car lines radiated out from downtown to the far reaches of the San Fernando Valley, Ontario, Orange County and the beach cities. LARy’s operations were centered on the suburbs immediately surrounding downtown, but it carried nearly twice as many passengers as the red cars.

This was hugely important to LA’s development. Why? Because the streetcar lines were private companies, not publicly owned utilities like today. They were owned by rich businessmen, like Henry Huntington and Isaias Hellman, who had bought huge tracts of land all around Los Angeles. They then proceeded to run trolley lines from downtown to their recently purchased farmland – on which they were then able to build housing. The railroad companies were often loss-making enterprises, but they unlocked huge amounts of money from the land that these rich men were able to develop in this way. 

old Los Angeles streetcar right of way
Old Los Angeles streetcar right of way in Alhambra today

What that meant is that Los Angeles didn’t develop like most cities, spreading out from a downtown, with new development mostly taking place in suburbs that had already been built up. It’s one of the main reasons that LA doesn’t have a high density center and population is spread out fairly evenly across the city. This was also by design, as the city plan called for lower density development and single family homes in order to create a suburban lifestyle that was markedly different to the East Coast.

What happened to the incredible Los Angeles streetcars network? First of all, in the 1920’s, car ownership sky-rocketed, especially in Southern California, which proved to be fertile ground for automobile manufacturers. Secondly, the owners of the streetcar companies didn’t make vital investments, since they were never really interested in being in the transport business in the first place, so the network became more and more run-down and unreliable. Then, in the 1950’s, LA began construction of its freeways (often taking the routes from the tram lines), making streetcar operations even more difficult, since they had to share the streets with all the cars that Angelenos were now driving. 

By the mid 1950’s instead of taking forty-five minutes to get from Long Beach to downtown it was taking an hour and a half. One by one the city’s tram lines were closed and converted to run buses. This was partly because the rail operators had been bought by a corporation that was in turn owned by several huge automobile manufacturers and oil companies (which formed the plot for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). The last streetcar line closed on April 9, 1961, sixty-one years ago this month.

What does that have to do with the LA of 2022? Well studies have shown that even now the highest density areas in the city are those adjacent to where the tram lines used to run and that in fact as the city continues to develop it still builds more housing in those areas. So, if there is a mode of transportation in Los Angeles’ DNA it’s the streetcar!

LA Pacific Electric Network
Pacific Electric Network, 1930’s

Now streetcars are making a comeback in LA. There’s a plan to run them through downtown again and the old right’s-of-way have been brought out of retirement for use by the city’s burgeoning light-rail network. The E-Line and the L-Line both use extensive stretches of the old streetcar network. Los Angeles has the most ambitious program of rail development and construction of any major city in North America.

As for the other assumptions behind the “LA is a car city” cry, I like to mention to those who make that argument that actually Los Angeles is the highest density major city in the U.S. (I know you thought it was New York, but that’s because you’re thinking of Manhattan, which is extremely dense, whereas the suburbs are much less so). If New York can have a decent metro system why shouldn’t we? Then, I like to point out to them that they should stop complaining about traffic when they themselves are traffic in fact. Los Angeles isn’t a car city – it’s a traffic city! Finally I tell them that far from public transport being something only used by poor people with suspect personal hygiene, it can be a place where romance blossoms (it has for me in the past!) – and even rich and famous people use it.

The K-Line is a new light rail line, due to open in 2022

We take the metro on our LA in a Day tour. The E-Line, which we use to get from downtown to Santa Monica, takes an old red car right-of-way through the Westside to the sea.

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– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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