Saturday, May 30

The Quad: How this car-obsessed city has its routes in public transit

(Jessica Lam/Daily Bruin)

We rightfully want to learn from history’s mistakes, but navigating the uglier results of history can often be both difficult and muddled. However, interaction with history doesn’t have to be stagnant: in Hidden Histories, Daily Bruin staffer Alexandra Ferguson will reflect on various aspects of Los Angeles’ history.

Los Angeles is a city famous for not just its freeways or traffic, but for people so willing to participate in the culture of the driving. Why communing in the culture of a city where “nobody walks” is so alluring has its roots not in the concrete of streets or freeways, but in the steel and iron of public transit.

Americans have often deemed Los Angeles as both a paradise and alternative to the urban density and squalor of metropolises like New York almost since its incorporation into the U.S. in 1847.

Los Angeles’ originally small population was dispersed over expansive land – in contrast to larger cities, where there could often be 16 people to an apartment. The density of cities on the east coast left people wanting for a city that could give them space, and railroad advertisements for Los Angeles of the 1800s promised just that. Nestled between snow-capped mountains and beautiful oceans, transcontinental railroad connections began Los Angeles’ rapid population growth.

Because of this promise of space, along with early political debates about height restrictions on buildings, the city was built in a sprawling manner, so people couldn’t rely on walking to get around as they could in dense cities where work was near the home. The sprawl of growing Los Angeles made railcars a necessary feature of the city.

As early as 1860, streetcars, originally pulled by horses along iron rails, connected the city. These railways allowed people to live further away from city centers, and led to idealization of suburban life. Advertisements for homes in the suburbs appeared in newspapers, boasting the benefits of family life and spacious single-family houses instead of apartments.

Streetcar lines helped to build the city outward; railways were even being built to places where there was nothing developed yet.

These early rail lines were not part of any mass public transit system though; they were privately owned. Henry Huntington, a railroad executive with a background in developing electric trolleys in San Francisco, built Southern Pacific Railroad lines connecting the core of Los Angeles to both the coast and valley.

Building these lines was expensive, but for companies it was an investment. Before, trolley and rail lines were built from point A to point B: between two points of development. With Huntington and Pacific Electric, rails were built from point A in the city to point C where there was nothing yet developed. Huntington’s established wealth allowed him to purchase large areas of undeveloped land and subsequently develop entire neighborhoods.

By building these lines to nowhere, Huntington tied the development of rail lines to development of the city, community and early sprawl. A good example of community being built around a rail line is Huntington Beach, named after Huntington himself.

The initial success of the streetcars brought people to expect even more from this early form of public transit. Though the trolley system was efficient, inexpensive and worked for decades, it often needed maintenance. Because the rail wasn’t a public system, owners and investors saw little worth in upkeep of the rail.

Pacific Electric was a money making enterprise built by private investment, so once the land and lines were developed, there was not much benefit for private investors to maintain the railway. Though the trolleys weren’t losing money, the cheap price to ride hurt the system in the long run.

The disconnect between the rail’s inexpensive cost to ride and the lack of either private or government subsidies led to problems in the rail system only being exacerbated by the growing trend of the automobile. Increasing automobile ownership brought heavier traffic which also interfered with movement of the rail. Problems of delays, cleanliness and convenience only further pushed people out of the rails and into automobiles.

Since Los Angeles, partly due to the rails, developed horizontally, it was just easier to use cars to get around. With ever-increasing vehicle ownership, people were further able to settle in areas they couldn’t previously get to easily with rails.

Where trolleys take riders along a set route, the appeal of the automobile came largely from being able to take yourself wherever you want to go. The streetcar led itself to its own death by helping Los Angeles to develop horizontally, which in turn only led to rapid adoption of the car and ever increasing auto-dependency.

This auto-dependency only naturally led to the search for a more efficient way to drive. One of the most recognizable aspects of LA is its freeways. The plan to introduce freeways was created in the ’30s, and construction began soon after. Designed to cater to Los Angeles’ low density and sprawling form, freeway design became a new kind of “science” that had to take into account both empirical engineering and data from communities.

Between 1933 and 1935, a four-mile stretch of the first freeway connected downtown Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley. It was hailed as an engineering dream come true.

Soon, the two-mile Cahuenga pass freeway replaced a thin and winding road through the Santa Monica mountains. This freeway had eight lanes, and, somewhat ironically, two Pacific Electric rail lines running down its center divider.

Freeways began to grow very quickly, arriving at the 527 miles of freeway we have today. However, the ease of the freeway came at a huge cost. The decision of where to put freeways relied on data that came from redlining reports that designated which neighborhoods were “safe” or “high risk” for bank investments. Ethnically homogeneous and majority white neighborhoods received higher scores than more diverse ones; neighborhoods with majority minority populations were often assigned “red” scores. Building freeways required space, and so thousands of people had to be evicted and displaced.

Neighborhoods adjacent to freeways, forced to bear the brunt of harmful pollution, are overwhelmingly non-white, and rarely high income.

Boyle Heights, for example, has six freeways running through it, whereas Beverly Hills was originally set to have just one. Residents in both areas protested against the development, but while the wealthy and predominantly white residents of Beverly Hills were successful in keeping the freeway out, the largely Latino community of Boyle Heights was not. This is a trend seen throughout Los Angeles.

Freeways may have become the transportation norm for the city that fell in love with the automobile, but meanwhile more sustainable forms of public transit were developing. In 1958, remnants of Pacific Electric were consolidated into the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. Growing traffic concerns, even with freeways, garnered public support for a comprehensive public bus and metro service. Soon, in the 1970s rising gas prices and environmental movements led to the creation of today’s Metro.

Though public transportation in Los Angeles gets a lot of flack, it is important to remember that the metro and bus systems we have are already fairly extensive, and only improving. Even in 2014, a study showed LA Metro to be the nation’s third most comprehensive transit system. With the extension of the Purple Line set to open in 2023, UCLA and Westwood will have even greater access to other parts of Los Angeles than now.

While it’s great that the purple line extension is happening, improving upon already substantial accessibility doesn’t make up for negative attitudes around public transit and Los Angeles’ auto-centric history. With ridership dropping 15 percent over the past 5 years and continuing to decline, Angelenos are forgetting their public transit options.

Though public transit didn’t disappear with the invention of the car or freeway, Los Angeles prefers to keep buying cars; from 2000 to 2015 alone, the city of Los Angeles added 2.1 million vehicles. Decline in ridership may also be due to ever increasing popularity of services like Uber and Lyft, which remain unprofitable even in their success, much like early private forms of transportation.

Even though the ever-growing rate of drivers – coupled with the falling rate of ridership on busses and trains – leaves Los Angeles with a somewhat bleak outlook for both transportation and traffic in a city famous for its gridlock, it is important to remember that the many of our freeways follow early trolley routes, reminding Angelenos that the very structure of our transit has routes in public infrastructure.

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.