The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world


Voted out of town on a rail: LA's bad planning, of, by and for the people

In this two-part series, Drew Reed explores how Angelenos have voted seemingly against the principles of sustainable planning, resulting in the inequality and sprawl it is now famously trying to undo. Today: how a poorly maintained rail system drove voters into the hands of the automobile.

Drew Reed

Cities: Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana

Topics: Roads and traffic, Transport, City politics, Participatory governance

When rail and road clash in LA, no-one comes out the better for it. A Pacific Electric "red car" is knocked off its rails as it crashes into a truck in July 1927. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives
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It’s often said that Los Angeles has always been the ultimate suburban city, and the ultimate car city as well. In reality, only the former is completely true. Ever since its foundation, the vast majority of LA’s housing has been suburban. But for a large part of its history, the city was home to a widely used urban train system that was the largest in the world.

It was the arrival of the transcontinental railroads in the 1880s that changed Los Angeles from an irrelevant gangster cowtown into a nationally recognised city, albeit a city whose primary activity was building new real estate; the city was relentlessly marketed as a retirement destination for rural Midwestern homesteaders, resulting in huge population booms in the 1880s continuing intermittently into the early 20th century. But for land to be useful as real estate, it had to be linked via a transportation network. As a result, enterprises emerged which jointly controlled real estate ventures and urban railway construction, normally running their train lines at a loss to prop up land sales, the real cash cow of their operation.

The first electric streetcars began rolling through town in 1887. Originally controlled by six companies, these companies began to merge and consolidate their power. In 1901, local aristocrat Henry Huntington formed the Pacific Electric, which ten years later would take over all commuter rail service with its interurban “red cars”, leaving local streetcar service to the separately controlled “yellow cars”. By this time, the tremendous growth of the private urban railways had already built a system with over 1,000 miles of track. The Los Angeles of that time was as suburban as it is today, proving that with a large enough system, even a city that today is seen as the car capital of the world can potentially support a comprehensive rail network.

However, even in streetcar-era Los Angeles, the private auto was beginning to win over new fans. New residential developments such as those by Henry Gaylord Wilshire west of downtown prioritised the private car over the red car, and in the 1920s LA’s car ownership rate far surpassed that of the eastern cities. Part of this was because of novelty, as well as the fact that the dry open spaces of the region made for suitable driving routes even before the implementation of paved roads. But part of the car boom came from a backlash against Pacific Electric, which neglected streetcar maintenance and refused to build infrastructure improvements for its trains running through downtown streets unless forced by the government, creating bottlenecks due to shared traffic between trains and cars. Citizens began to think of Pacific Electric as a greedy, self-serving monopoly, another arm of the infamous “octopus” of the Southern Pacific Railroad. Cars, on the other hand, represented freedom.

As detailed in a 1984 article by Martin Wachs, the 1920s were a time of crisis for transit planners. To fight back against choked traffic, two rival plans were created for the city. One was a regional highway plan that would create new “parkways” and overpasses at busy intersections, setting the emphasis of future development on the car. The other would involve upgrading key stretches of current rail lines to elevated rail or subway. The auto plan gained widespread approval, influencing the development of LA’s first freeway from downtown to Pasadena and creating several proto-interstate highway improvements. The rail plan, while not voted for directly, was crippled by a vote for a new Union Station that also included a provision limiting elevated rail construction.

In 1948, voters had one more chance to save the rail system. In the 20 years that had passed, the Pacific Electric languished. While still boasting considerable ridership, it was under fire from city officials, the Los Angeles Times, and citizens who protested the poorly maintained “rat coaches” still in service. More importantly, the critical funding received by rail companies from their real estate concessions was drying up due to the depletion of open land, and in addition, city regulations required them to pay for the maintenance of all streets they used, even the parts used exclusively by cars. This put them in financial jeopardy, with the only hope for long-term survival being an increased stake in operations by the city government.

Meanwhile, car-centric plans continued to march forward. Nationwide, planners were clamouring for new systems of fully grade-separated citywide highways. Lacking nothing in hyperbole, they called these systems “magic motorways”. Locally, planning experts such as Catherine Bauer were calling for new de-densified cities based on the car as the primary mode of transportation.

To maintain the city’s rail system, a plan was conceived that would create a network of light rail lines; as a sign of the times, this network was connected with highways. But the plan was voted down, and the stage was set for the death of the red car. The infamous “GM streetcar conspiracy”, in which car, oil, and tire companies bought out trains in LA and other US cities with the goal of killing them and replacing them with bus systems, helped to speed this process (later, conspirators in this plan were found guilty and fined $1). But its demise in the face of a hostile public and massive federal auto spending was inevitable. The last Pacific Electric train made its final voyage across town on 9 April 1961.

At the time, the removal of the red car was seen as inconsequential, or even as progress. Reyner Banham’s 1971 classic Los Angeles: the architecture of four ecologies dismisses the idea of reestablishing the city’s train network and describes the time Angelenos spend commuting in their cars as the happiest moment of their day. As late as the 1990s, populist cynics like Mike Davis, along with others like Norman Klein and Edward Soja, found the closure of the train system to be irrelevant, instead opting to weep over union busting and abandoned steel plants. Davis, in the 2006 edition of City of Quartz, blasts new train construction as a waste of government subsidies, favouring ostensibly proletarian buses.

The degradation and removal of the urban train mass transit network in Los Angeles was also crucial in setting off a long drawn-out chain reaction seen later in Chavez Ravine, homeowner feuding, and ultimately LA’s historic low point in the early 1990s. This is because eliminating well used public transit, along with the rejection of other public space improvements such as Frederic Law Olmsted’s comprehensive park plan in the 1930s, negated citizens’ concern for the wellbeing of other residents of the city, narrowing their world view to a radius of a couple of blocks around their homes. If LA is often seen as a patchwork quilt of “88 cities in search of a center”, that quilt was nonetheless held together by the thread of an imperfect, privately owned, yet functional transit system. Voters, without realising it, destroyed this system and created a new one in which future generations of voters would be propelled by their urban environment to fight to the teeth for superficial reforms such as the Valley boundary redrawing, while ignoring reforms that really matter. This is the real tragedy of Los Angeles.

Silver lining in the smog

Democracy has a special relationship with cities. As opposed to national-level structures which only show their effects in far removed policies like subsidy structures and wars, voters in a municipal election get something they can reach out and touch: a park, a school, a freeway. As we have seen, Los Angeles used this power to build a city of isolation, a city of indifference. A citizenry, convinced that bad plans were actually good, misappropriated the moral force of democracy to create a vicious cycle in which these characteristics expanded exponentially.

But the upside to local democracy is that the enduring legacy of changes to the urban structure can occasionally help voters to learn from the mistakes of previous generations. In Los Angeles, the post-riots catharsis combined with rising gas prices led to a shift in people’s outlook on the city. Slowly but surely, the value of public space and public transportation began to be recognised. Park programmes were implemented and CicLAvia, a successful copy of the “Ciclovia” bicycle-based street closure event, said to be feasible only in cities like San Francisco and New York, drew 100,000 participants on its first day. In 2008, nearly 70% of voters approved a tax increase to overhaul the regional transportation system, vastly expanding the city’s fledgling new rail network that had been started a decade earlier.

While these improvements on their own won’t be enough to stem the tide of wrong-headed politics backed by wealthy homeowner blocs, they are an encouraging sign that Los Angeles for once is acting in favour of the interests of the public, and is little by little working to protect those fabled “rights to the city”. And for this native Angeleno, it’s encouraging to know that my fellow city dwellers finally got something right. 


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