by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Among the topics I raised with the Homestead’s Non-Fiction Book Club members last Friday when they discussed Robert Fogelson’s Fragmented Metropolis, his study of Los Angeles from 1850 to 1930, was the challenge local government faced trying to keep infrastructure on pace with rapid transformations in such areas as transportation.
For example, we talked about the prevalence of streetcar systems, which began with the horse-drawn Spring and Sixth Street Railway (of which F.P.F. Temple was its first treasurer) in the 1870s and moved to cable and then electric railways. By 1910, greater Los Angeles had the nation’s largest interurban rapid transit systems in the nation in terms of track mileage—most of this under the control of Henry E. Huntington’s enterprises, which coalesced into the Pacific Electric Railway.
Within a decade, though, the dominance of electric streetcars was ending, thanks to the meteoric rise of the automobile, which the region’s residents embraced with special enthusiasm. As the 1920s progressed, it was clear that the car was the preferred method for increasing numbers of locals, who prized the autonomy, prestige, fun and other attributes of auto ownership and use to the detriment of the streetcar.
In later years, critics of the automobile and tire industries claimed a conspiracy by them to gut the rapid transit system and, while it is undoubtedly the case that these industries did all they could to lure consumers to buy their products, it was the decision of the broader public to drive cars rather than take public transit that turned the transportation tide. In fact, it was the onset of the Great Depression followed by the rationing of the World War II years that kept rapid transit in Los Angeles viable for as long as it existed.
Given this, it is interesting to peruse the article “Traffic Survey in Los Angeles” from the trade publication Electric Railway Journal in its 3 November 1923 issue. The piece reported that the survey was conducted by Joe Ong of Ohio on behalf of the Los Angeles Railway Company, the Pacific Electric subsidiary which operated lines within the city limits of the metropolis.
Ong began by noting the obvious correlation between a fast-growing population and the frenzied activity in the city’s central business district and downtown area. Moreover, a chart tracking data from 1907 showed another obvious conclusion: automobiles were rapidly eclipsing the use of streetcars, with a major upsurge in the few years prior to the article’s publication.
Streetcar use dropped between 1913 and 1917 and, while there was a modest rise in passenger usage after then, with the peak being the World War I year of October 1917 to October 1918. Ong also stated another self-evident fact in that “there is no magic that will relieve traffic congestion” and that the question was “a matter largely beyond the control of the street railways.”
What was clear, the article continued, was that “any solution of the traffic congestion problem will unquestionably curtail the liberty of some individuals,” because drivers and the businesses who serviced them “have effectively vlocked sincere efforts to relieve the traffic congestion by non-parking regulations.” Ong noted that the question of how large a vehicle was or how long it remained operating or parked was not important, but that time was long past. In fact, the Homestead has a map in its collection, issued by the Automobile Club of Southern California, that was specifically for the “congested areas” of Los Angeles.
He went on, “there are so many automobiles and trucks in the central business area that parking space along the curb for any significant number of them is absolutely out of the question.” An ordinance against double parking had to come into being fairly recently, an example of how government struggled to keep up with the many issues raised by the rapid ascent of automobile use.
Another problem pointed out by Ong was that “Los Angeles has relatively a small percentage of street area in the congested business seciton, perhaps a smaller percentage than any other city.” While there were discussions about widening streets, which would cost untold millions, it was adovated that “the least expensive method of widening the streets for the movement of traffic is to eliminate parking.”
Businesses interests, it was stated, were opposed to banning street parking under the assumption it would keep patrons away. The Broadway Merchants’ Association led a “violent opposition” to a 1920 ordinance prohibiting street parking and, after just a few weeks, a repeal took place. What was not produced, however, was positive proof that the ordinance had an inordinate effect on patronage of businesses.
Ong continued that “the great mass of the traveling public, being unorganized, is never proportionately represented in hearings and investigations of the traffic problem,” while the concerns of the Los Angeles Railway were dismissed as self-interested, even though they represented, he wrote, the same interests as the public.
Simply put, the article went, “the street car is the unit best adapted to handle mass transportation, and mass transportation is the problem in the congested areas.” As an illustration, a survey at Broadway and Seventh, one of the busiest intersections in Los Angeles, observed 191 streetcars and 668 automobiles, but the former contained 14,325 passengers and the latter just 1,169.
A chart of note showing peaks of use of streetcars showed, not surprisingly, enormous use between about 6-9 a.m. and 4-7 p.m., with the morning peak of 7:45 having about 800 cars in service and the evening peak of 5:30 having 100 more than that. Saturday mornings actually had about 725 cars in the same 7:45 morning peak, while the 5:30 one included some 575 cars in operation. Sundays were far quieter and more steady throughout the day with fewer than 350 cars running during the busiest times.
The piece did examine other solutions beyond the elimination of street parking, noting that “during the war a great deal of prominence was given to the operation of staggered hours for opening and closing of stores, offices and factories for the purpose of spreading out the rush-hour travel peak.”
It was stated, though, that these peaks were “fairly well spread.” For any real benefit, workers would have to see their business days stretched out to starting at 9 a.m. and ending after 6 p.m., which was not practical. The best application was for “large industrial concerns employing thousands at concentrated points and served by a limited number of street car lines.” But, “too much should not be expected of it in other circumstances.”
There was some success with trying double or triple berthing of street cars at congested intersections—it should be added, as was raised at the book club discussion, that cars stopped in the middle of streets and passengers had a safety risk in making their way to the sidewalks. Another possible remedy was to keep vehicles “off the street car track zone except at street intersections.”
Then, there was the question of large-scale public events held in downtown and the article noted “relief should be sought through the creation of public sentiment by education and publicity demanding municipal regulation of parades” so that such events were held on less-traveled thoroughfares. Additionally, utilities could help by limiting the “unnecessary” opening of manholes and conduits.
As for the Los Angeles Railway, the article noted that “the only commodity . . . [it] has to sell is service.” Consequently, there needed to be enough cars operated frequently and regularly and with sufficient speed to attract and keep ridership. Notably, the goal was not to provide a seat for every passenger, it being observed that “standing by preference is still a real factor on the California type car” which had open ends, the front of which, incidentaly, permitted smoking. Rather, aisle width, seat arrangement, location of entrances and exits and unobstructed floor space were also crucial components.
Frequent operation was dependent on a number of factors, so that waste in off-hours due to light usage should be considered along with distances of lines from the city to suburban areas, the existence of other lines and population density. Regularity did not mean intervals of cars, but, rather, “that cars should be on time at the intervals prescribed in the schedules,” neither late or early. It was noted “even a minute makes a difference,” though “it seems particularly hard to convince old motormen of the disastrous effects on the service of running a minute or two ahead of time.”
As for speed of travel, it was observed that “it cannot be said that accidents increase with speed; speed is not the controlling element in accidents.” The ideaa was to reduce slack time in the running cars, because “people living in an automobile age demand speedy transportation.”
Schedules were clearly crucial, as they “can show profitable operation on a given fare and satisfy the traveling public with adequate service.” If these were not correct, they “might show too much service and too little return” or too much for too little. It was also pointed out that “on a flat-fare and a universal transfer basis some lines will never show a profit.”
Trying to cut service on lines that lacked patronage to reduce the cost per passenger could yield a situation in which an overcrow The article stated that “such a situation prevails on several line in Los Angeles, notably those which have a high percentage of transfers. The good lines that show a profit musthelp carry the poor lines that show a loss.”
Another suggestion for the railway company was to have “a permanent traffic checking staff” so that “service may be adjusted to the traffic demands.” Surveys should be conducted at least monthly and some lines more often and including weekends. Interestingly, it was recommended that “traffic checking is not to be looke dupon as a place to use disabled or convalescent trafficmen.”
This article is a fascinating, if sometimes overly technical or statistic-heavy, look at the problems facing streetcar lines as automobile ownership and usage in car-centric greater Los Angeles skyrocketed. One response to congestion and parking problems was the introduction of parking garages, both as part of new building construction or structures specifically built for that purpose.
As much as the Los Angeles Railway tried to adjust its schedules, number of cars, times of operation, fares and other elements, it could not make headway against the onrush of private transportation. Again, the Great Depression and World War II kept the system more viable longer than would have been the case otherwise. It was nearly four decades after the article’s publication that the last streetcar ran its route.
It is also interesting to read this article and consider the issues relating to recent efforts to reintroduce rapid transit systems, create more space for the safety of bicycle users and pedestrians, and other aspects, including streetcars, especially as downtown has dramatically increased its residential population.