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.

 
 
 
 

Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free, alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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