Los Angeles used to have a public transit system that covered about 25 percent more track mileage than New York City’s current subway system.
- In its eco-heyday in 1945, LA had more than 900 hydro-electric Pacific Electric “Red Cars” that covered more than 1,100 miles, from Pasadena to downtown LA, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Balboa, and Santa Ana. It connected LA, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties. In comparison, New York City’s subway today covers 842 miles.
In the 1950s you could travel from downtown Los Angeles to Beverly Hills via Hollywood and West Hollywood. Let’s take a trip on the Beverly Hills car.
THE SUBWAY TERMINAL
We begin our tour by walking through the entryway to the Subway Terminal at 417 South Hill Street.
The Subway Terminal lobby…
Car ready to board for Beverly Hills.
Interior of a Big Red Car…
Heading from the terminal into the subway…
Trains coming out of the subway at Glendale Blvd and Beverly Blvd.
Hollywood and Beverly Hill trains head down Hollywood Blvd.
Big Red Car passing the Pantages Theatre.
Big Red Car on Hollywood Blvd at Christmas.
So how did the City of Angels end up with the most pitiful transit system of any major U.S. city?
- You may have heard a story about General Motors buying the Red Cars and dismantling them in order to force dependency on freeways. But that’s just a myth propagated in the 1988 film “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
- The Red Car system was the brainchild of Henry Huntington, a real estate mogul who is also the namesake and creator behind So Cal’s Huntington Beach, Huntington Park, and the Huntington Library.
- Huntington built up the Pacific Electric railroad system as a way of transporting potential residents to and from his own real estate developments.
- To power all those Red Cars, he went into the Sierras and build an unprecedented hydro-electric power operation.
Big Red Car passes the Chinese Theatre.
One of the problems the Red Cars faced is that Huntington never built them to be a comprehensive transit system. It was only meant to be a means of transit to the hundreds of subdivisions he built on the periphery of LA — one of the reasons LA is so spread out today.
Map of right-of-way between Hollywood Blvd & La Brea and Santa Monica Blvd & Fairfax. Many of the areas used for streetcar tracks can still be seen.
At La Brea (and Hollywood Blvd) the tracks curve diagonally to the left onto the private right of way, paralleling an alley called Marshfield Way. As a result, it became easier to get around by driving.
At Poinsettia Place the private right of way curves into Hawthorn Avenue and the trains run in Hawthorn Avenue for two short blocks to Martel Avenue. In the shot below we see an eastbound train about to turn off Hawthorn Avenue into the private right of way.
Hawthorn Avenue is a narrow street. In the shot above a westbound streetcar is about to turn off Hawthorn Ave onto the private right of way at Martel Ave.
At Martel and Hawthorn, the tracks diverge in a southwest-ward direction, entering a private right of way that runs diagonally to the street grid to Santa Monica Boulevard and Fairfax Ave. In the above photo (by Ray Ballash) … an inbound car has just crossed Vista St. (with Hawthorn Avenue in the distance) on the private right of way.
An inbound train is approaching the grade crossing at Sunset Boulevard and Gardner Street. Even today the PE right of way is quite visible at this intersection. About half the Hollywood Boulevard streetcar service turned back using the crossover in the foreground.
An outbound car, about to cross DeLongpre Dr., has just departed Gardner Street in the photo below (by Donald Duke).
Taken in the early ’50s, the outbound Hollywood Boulevard car has reached Fairfax Avenue (corner Fairfax and Santa Monica Blvd.). This shot looks northeast. At this point the Hollywood Boulevard line curves into Santa Monica Boulevard, joining the tracks of the Santa Monica Boulevard streetcar line, which come in from the right in this photo.
At Palm Avenue and Santa Monica Blvd, the train reaches the West Hollywood stop.
From Doheny Dr. to the Beverly Hills civic center the right of way is between Big and Little Santa Monica Boulevards — an attractive right of way lined with eucalyptus trees.
After passing the shelter at Beverly Boulevard, where there are various freight spurs for the Beverly Hills industrial park, the line continued another half mile to Canon Drive, the location of the Beverly Hills station.
Other factors that doomed the Red Cars, according to LA Metro:
• Same basic business issues both pre and post WWII – huge capital costs to replace aging power substations, catenary wire and rail cars, buses become the economical alternative, rail-to-bus conversions begin in 1925.
• No public subsidies for capital or operating costs available from local, state or federal governments.?• Cultural changes – automobile reliability improves, status symbol marketing and women & minorities enter the industrial workforce.
• Modal improvements – brand new un-crowded highways and freeways.?• Transit service operators believed that the freeway system would accommodate and speed transit buses as a high-speed backbone, thereby increasing their attractiveness to passengers.
• GM perfects and markets the 45 seat transit bus; air conditioning and air suspension become options.?• Diesel is not yet considered to be a component of a new phenomenon called “smog.”
Perhaps the final straw was when Californians rejected a tax in 1926 that would have repaired the Red Cars, which had become dilapidated and mocked as a “slum on wheels.” The Red Cars were soon replaced with bus routes and freeways, with the last Red Car running in 1961.
- As LA desperately tries to build up its subway system today, remaining Red Car tracks can still be spotted across the city, especially around Santa Monica. Ironically, just as they did in 1926,
- Angelenos failed to pass a half-cent transportation sales tax last year that would have expedited the city’s proposed subway extension.
- Even though 64.72 percent of Angelenos voted for the measure, California law requires a supermajority vote of 66.66% for any tax increase.