by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The onset of rapid transit in Los Angeles began in modest fashion with the opening in 1874 of the horse-drawn streetcar line of the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, the president of which was Robert M. Widney and whose treasurer was F.P.F. Temple. From these humble beginnings, mass transit moved rapidly to cable and then electric systems of larger scope and greater scale while greater Los Angeles expanded significantly, especially after the famed Boom of the 1880s late in that decade.
By the turn of the 20th century, the Los Angeles Railway dominated streetcar transportation in the Angel City and it was acquired by the Southern Pacific railroad through the agency of one of its leading figures, Henry E. Huntington, nephew of one the “Big Four” which started the SP, Collis P. Huntington. When the latter died in 1900, a takeover of the SP followed and Henry was cut loose, though allowed to take the Los Angeles Railway with him as he exited.
Moving to Los Angeles, Huntington wasted no time in building up the nation’s largest interurban rapid transit system in terms of track mileage in what, by 1911, was recast as the Pacific Electric Railway system. Within the city limits of Los Angeles, however, the LARY continued to operate its trains, with the PERY running its elsewhere in the region.
Both, however, increasingly felt the fast-growing competition of the automobile as cars became more affordable through the first three decades of the century. Autos, especially in car-crazy and car-centric greater Los Angeles, represented freedom, choice, control and fun, and streetcar systems like the LARY tried valiantly to stave off the inevitable by promoting rapid transit through such avenues as Azuride, the pocket newsletter that was styled as “Thoughts by the Trolley Philosopher.”
Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is the 15 November 1928 edition of the twice-monthly publication and it is a mixture of promotional material, safety items, bits of humor and a reference to the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. On the promotional side, there is a quote from a statement from the Civic Club of Chicago and its report on transportation needs in the Windy City concerning fares and service. Specifically, that association offered that “if service comes first then, by implication, fares are secondary,” with the point being that, while the affordability of fares was important to riders, they “are willing to pay for the kind of service they want.” In any case, “service and fares should both conform to common sense” and the final word was for travelers to have “the ability to travel from one point to another with safety, comfort and speed.”
In its “Stops Add to Running Time” article, the newsletter’s editor or writer stated that a friend said that he lived in the outskirts of the city near a car line but had to walk a couple of blocks to a stop and wondered why a stop couldn’t be added so that the walk would be one block. To this, the writer responded “we showed him several other requests of like nature and got our our maps and our pencil and paper and figured it out that if we acceded to requests” like the one made, the time for getting to his destination would rise from just under a half-hour to 45 minutes. Naturally, adding other stops to placate like requests would lead to a situation in which “the result would be a slowing up of service all over the city.”
It was added that the LARY had the goal “to get people to and from the congested area in as quick time as safe operation and the present conditions of traffic will allow.” Stops and starts, of course, impeded time to get to destinations, “so our good friend is convinced that the inconvenience of walking one or two blocks is as nothing in comparison with the inconvenience suffered by himself and his fellow passengers in a delay in getting to and from town.”
As for that increasingly problematic competition from autos, there were several pieces in the publication addressing this, with one, a reprint from something called the O.E.R. Bulletin noting, strangely, that “if there were a restaurant problem, no one would dream of solving it by each man erecting his own eating pagoda [!] uptown.” The aim was to suggest that “those who look to a way out of transportation difficulties in each man having his own car are engaged in a task of as great futility.” It was argued that all cities needed “common carriers” and the street car was the best means for this and those who availed themselves of mass transit “are doing the most effective work towards relieving congestion.”
Another reprint, this time from Judge, a long-running popular magazine from the early 1880s to the late 1940s, similarly sought to convince people that streetcars were better for commuters than cars. In this case, people would be less angry because of not having to search for parking spots downtown; not worrying about car payments; not worried about maintenance and those troubling noises when things went wrong; and others. Perhaps an attempt at humor was the statement that “I never worry myself sick to the verge of nervous prostration about the danger of my wife driving my car.” The only logical conclusion one could make, given these conditions, was to patronize street cars.
A tidbit elsewhere observed that New York City’s planned major addition to its subway system was to involve nearly sixty miles of lines and to cost $700 million (one online inflation calculator shows this would be nearly $11 billion) when the anticipated completion date of 1930 was reached. The first line, a private one followed soon by a second, in that city opened a quarter century earlier, in fall 1904, and the 1925 plan for three new city-owned lines was not realized until 1932, with more expansion completed the following year and at the end of the decade. In 1940, the two private lines sold to the city, which has exclusively operated all subways in the Bug Apple since.
When it came to Los Angeles and other cities, a short article called “Service En Masse” claimed, people commuted to and from work, shopped, patronized theatres, and so on “en masse” and “street cars move people en masse” being “preeminently vehicles of mass transportation.” Given this, “without street cars, a city could not be.” Related to this was a paraphrase of statements made by the public safety director of Duluth, Minnesota who opined that all large American cities would have to ban parking in business districts within 20 years. What, however, was already happening in places like Los Angeles was that, while street parking was, indeed, prohibited, the building of parking lots and garages grew dramatically.
For those who drove, however, Azuride asked “Are Your Headlights Right?” noting that a California safety conference launched a “Headlight Campaign” to limit injury and death due to the fact that, as the motor vehicle department stated, “glaring headlights are one of the greatest menaces of the road.” Glare led to disaster and death, whereas reducing the first led to “greater driving light” and safety. Readers who had autos, then, were encouraged to check headlights on their cars and to adjust, if needed—something modern drivers do not have to do.
As for the humor, one joke was that “crossing a street is often like crossing a ‘t'” in that “you must make a dash for it.” Another involved two boys wanting to cross a busy Wilshire Boulevard with one saying “come on, let’s go across” and the other answering “no, let’s wait for an empty space to come along.” A little kind of nursery rhyme read:
Where is your auto so fine?
It got a slam
In a traffic jam,
And now it’s street cars for mine.
Finally, there was a mock obituary for a manic motorist named Mack:
At sixty miles
He tried to pass
This is the grave
Of Mack de Witt,
His lights were out
But he was lit.
As earnest as the LARY and its parent company the PERY were about trying to hold market share as the automobile continued to ascend rapidly in popularity in Los Angeles and elsewhere, the challenged were formidable. What prolonged the life of streetcars was the onset of the Great Depression, when many people could not afford to buy or maintain their cars and were forced to turn to mass transit, including buses, and then the World War II years, when rationing of rubber, gasoline and other materials for war needs limited driving.
With the postwar boom and the restrictions of the prior periods largely removed, however, the meteoric rise of automobile ownership and use, along with the move of people from downtown to outlying areas, sounded the death knell for the streetcar system. The last cars ran their course in the early 1960s, seemingly for good. Yet, within a couple of decades there were calls for the return of mass transit on existing railroad lines and new subways and above-ground routes, both for suburban commuting and for those moving back into downtown. How mass transit will evolve in the future will certainly be interesting to see.