LA's streetcars: still shaping the city’s development 50 years after closing

The P Line trolley crosses Alameda Street in Little Tokyo, c1918. Image courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library & Archive.

When people think of Los Angeles, one image that might come to mind is, appropriately enough, from LA Story. The movie begins as Steve Martin proudly announces he’s off to visit a friend. He hops into his car and drives off to his friend’s house – two houses down from his own.

This stereotype of car-centric Los Angeles, irritating though it may be for some natives like myself, has plenty of truth to it. But according to a new study, another kind of car is still having a big effect on Los Angeles today: the streetcar.

When the city first began to develop in the 1880s, streetcars were by far the best way to get around (their biggest competition at the time was from horses and, surprisingly, bicycles). The network grew quickly, built in most cases by real estate developers looking to increase the value of their land for resale.

The various competing lines were bought in 1901 by Henry Huntington, creating a single system. The Pacific Electric network would become the longest in the world, and make Huntington a local kingpin. To this day there are still avenues, museums, even beaches that bear his name.

But since the company’s main income was generated from selling real estate and not train fares, it had no way to support itself once all its lands were sold. In addition, cars became cheaper and more common; they also seemed more modern than the trams, which evoked both poor service and private greed. To make matters worse, since the trams shared road space with cars, the rise of the automobile made them move much slower.

Pacific Electric began closing lines one by one during the 40s and 50s. Eventually, the company was purchased by General Motors, whose goal was to speed up the closure of the lines in order to sell more motor vechiles; the last streetcar in Los Angeles rumbled to a halt in April 1961.  Many called this a conspiracy, and a federal judge agreed, fining GM and other companies involved all of one dollar.

Even without the conspiracy, though, it’s pretty clear that Pacific Electric would have folded. By that time, the city was investing heavily in roads with massive support from the federal government, while the streetcar system was left to rot. The general public was too busy driving around on the new freeways to notice.

The conventional wisdom became that streetcars were an important part of LA’s history but had no place in its future. This view was perhaps best summed up by British architect Reyner Banham in his classic 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, a pro-car anthem which glorified the new freeways as “works of art” and took a few pot shots at urbanist Jane Jacobs for good measure (Banham also made a documentary about LA with the BBC which makes many of the same arguments). In the book, Banham recognised the role streetcars had played in the city’s development. But he opined snarkily that to assign them any importance during his time would be “to ignore observable facts”.

But a recent report at Zocalo Public Square, by Leah Brooks and Byron Lutz, suggests that the influence of the streetcar network is alive and well, even 50 years after it was closed down. The researchers compared the density of census blocks with their proximity to former streetcar stop locations. It found that, in areas within 1km of former stops, there is a dramatic uptick in density.

The study also has two other interesting findings. First, this increased density comes despite lower per-unit occupancy rates closer to former streetcar stops.

Second, and more importantly, the growth in density near streetcar stops has continued long after the streetcars shut down. For areas within 300m of former stops, density has increased from 4,000 people per km2 in 1960 to nearly 6,000 people per km2 in 2010. Brooks and Lutz attribute this to two factors: density friendly zoning codes near former stops, and “the self-reinforcing economic benefits of density”, known as agglomeration.

The influence of the streetcar can be seen not only in sophisticated data analyses but by looking at the city itself. Density and jobs in greater LA are centred around former tram stops: the longer distance “red cars”, but especially the “yellow car” streetcars which served the core of what is now central Los Angeles.

According to another recent study from the University of Minnesota, reported at CityLab, Los Angeles ranks third in the US in terms of jobs accessible by walking and transit. Their map of Los Angeles shows an uncanny resemblance to the former yellow car system.

And yet, Los Angeles is widely recognised as the car capital of the world. Even though these studies indicate that Los Angeles is dense enough so that many people could get to work by transit, most still choose not to. And the reason they choose not to could be because so many important cultural figures, from academics like Reyner Banham to movie stars like Steve Martin, convince them not to.

This map also highlights an uncomfortable truth about LA. The city does in fact have dense neighbourhoods – but unlike in US cities such as New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, wealthier residents associate nearly all of these neighbourhoods with poverty and crime. The tastemakers in academia and in Hollywood (the industry, not the neighbourhood – big difference) tend not to visit areas like Westlake, Koreatown, or Boyle Heights. These areas have thus become seen as a no man’s land for anyone laying claim to respectability.

This is slowly beginning to change. Trains are running once again in Los Angeles, and the new system is doing surprisingly well. A 2013 report from the Los Angeles Times found that residents near the newly opened Expo Line, which runs along a former red car route, tripled their transit use once the line opened. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that the city’s unrecognised density played a factor.

In terms of transit’s cultural stigma, LA is still fighting an uphill battle. Most people have a hard time seeing the city as anything other than a sprawling, car choked wasteland.

But that too is showing signs of turning around as celebrities in “the industry”, long ambivalent toward their own city, start to recognise LA’s more dense urban side. TV host Jimmy Kimmel turned heads by taking public transit to this year’s Emmys. And a recent groundbreaking ceremony for a new train line in Downtown LA was opened by George Takei, who couldn’t help but make a few references to his time as a crew member on the USS Enterprise.

Public transit still has a long way to go in LA, and city authorities aren’t always receptive to non-car transportation options. But these new studies show that the streetcar friendly structure LA inherited from its early days is still in place. There’s hope for those who wish to see the City of Angels break its addiction to the car after all.

 
 
 
 

Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?

Latitude

You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.

 

Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?

Wikipedia

 

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.

McDonald’s

I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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