Commuters Conspiricy

Did auto, oil conspiracy put the brakes on trolleys?

RedCarLosAngeles1936

Ever wonder what happened to the public transit system in California that included this Red Car in Los Angeles in 1936

It has been a long time since the last clang-clang-clang of a trolley in Los Angeles. The Yellow Car — the city’s local electric-car line — made its final run in 1963.

Two years earlier, the interurban Red Cars that once ran from Redlands to Santa Monica for a penny a mile had made their last runs. Once both were gone, so was the golden age of mass transit in Los Angeles.

In the decades since, residents have repeatedly asked the question: Who was responsible for dismantling the electric trolley cars?

The automobile became Angelenos’ preferred mode of transportation so quickly and completely that, for decades, conspiracy theorists have believed that the auto, oil and tire companies secretly did in the smokeless trolleys to promote the need for — and sales of — their products. The theory was part of a 1988 big-screen comedy about an animated actor named Roger who is charged with a murder he didn’t commit. As he and a detective work to clear his name, they uncover a conspiracy to wreck Southern California’s public transit system.

“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” became to traffic planning what “Chinatown” was to Los Angeles water politics — but with more laughs.

The giant corporations with a stake in cars and buses were prosecuted half a century ago by the federal government for conspiring to deep-six the region’s streetcars. The consortium of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire & Rubber, Phillips Petroleum and Mack Truck Manufacturing Co., in turn, blamed the Red and Yellow cars’ demise on Angelenos’ love of their automobiles, arguing that residents had grown increasingly irate over the streetcars’ overcrowding, high fares, aging equipment, accidents and inadequate routes into the new suburban reaches of Los Angeles.

Although it’s tempting to believe that evil forces must have been to blame, most historians agree that GM and the other mega-companies only helped to speed the end of the railway, which already was deep into red ink. There were mixed court verdicts, with fines levied that were considered a drop in the bucket.

Nowadays, in the age of choked freeways, the nostalgic mystique of the old Red and Yellow trolleys remains and the old myths die hard, if at all.

It’s hard to believe in car-mad Southern California, but even before the beginning of the last century, and for a half-century thereafter, the streetcar was important.

In the 1920s, as Los Angeles grew and residents and businesses began moving to the suburbs, people began to rely more and more on the automobile for transportation rather than the aging trolley system.

With 160,000 cars cramming onto Los Angeles streets in the 1920s, mass transit riders complained of massive traffic jams and hourlong delays. The hard wooden seats and the open-window “air-conditioning system” in the summers were no picnic either.

The conflict between the trolley and the automobile was often played out at intersections, where they collided repeatedly, resulting in many injuries and deaths. Newspaper editorials raised the alarm about the accidents and crusaded against the streetcars.

The Red and Yellow cars became transit villains. Buses began competing with them as early as 1924, when a serious drought caused a power shortage, forcing cutbacks in trolley service for several years.

Pacific Electric tried to win back riders and increase trolley speeds, at the same time retiring more and more electric cars from city streets and beginning work on a subway.

In 1925, a $5-million underground route of slightly more than a mile opened to riders. It was called the Hollywood Subway and the Belmont Tunnel. When the trolleys rolled into town, they would dip underground at Crown and Bunker hills, saving 15 minutes over their formerly circuitous path through downtown. The subway began at the Subway Terminal Building at 4th and Hill streets before surfacing at Glendale and Beverly boulevards.

During the Depression, the electric cars were augmented with more bus service. Then World War II’s shortages of gasoline and rubber crippled bus service. By the end of the war, the trolley lines were decrepit, obsolete and deep in the red.

Here is where the conspiracy theorists have a point.

National City Lines soon controlled 46 transit networks in the Midwest and West, including Los Angeles. The company began scrapping these electric systems and replacing them with diesel buses that — surprise — used fuel and rubber.

By 1946, the Justice Department had caught on. It filed an antitrust suit against National City Lines for conspiracy to monopolize the transit industry. But before the suit came to trial in Chicago, the consortium of big companies bailed out, selling their holdings in National City Lines. That essentially left it as an empty corporation.

In 1949, the case finally came to trial. The verdict was mixed, with acquittals and convictions. Although they no longer owned National City Lines, the companies in the consortium were fined wrist-slapping amounts of $5,000 each, while individual company officials were fined $1 each, for a total of $37,007. By then, the far-flung suburbs were crisscrossed by cars, highways and a few freeways, and the so-called conspiracy plot simply applied the coup de grace to a dying system.

Elsewhere in California: In Oakland, CA, there was an electric rail system which was bought by National City Lines, and all trains were gone after April 20. 1958. Decline in ridership had been going on for decades before that.

The Key System was efficient, in that it ran right into the neighborhoods. Our current rail transit, BART, only runs in specific corridors, and people have to drive or take buses to get to it. It’s questionable whether people would accept more localized rail now–the ROW went right through back yards on very upscale streets.

Additional Reading on this subject:

Take a look at Did auto, oil conspiracy put the brakes on trolleys? 2011 Update

and The Great American Streetcar Myth