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.

 
 
 
 

Which nations control the materials required for renewables? Meet the new energy superpowers

Solar and wind power facilities in Bitterfeld, Germany. Image: Getty.

Imagine a world where every country has not only complied with the Paris climate agreement but has moved away from fossil fuels entirely. How would such a change affect global politics?

The 20th century was dominated by coal, oil and natural gas, but a shift to zero-emission energy generation and transport means a new set of elements will become key. Solar energy, for instance, still primarily uses silicon technology, for which the major raw material is the rock quartzite. Lithium represents the key limiting resource for most batteries – while rare earth metals, in particular “lanthanides” such as neodymium, are required for the magnets in wind turbine generators. Copper is the conductor of choice for wind power, being used in the generator windings, power cables, transformers and inverters.

In considering this future it is necessary to understand who wins and loses by a switch from carbon to silicon, copper, lithium, and rare earth metals.

The countries which dominate the production of fossil fuels will mostly be familiar:

The list of countries that would become the new “renewables superpowers” contains some familiar names, but also a few wild cards. The largest reserves of quartzite (for silicon production) are found in China, the US, and Russia – but also Brazil and Norway. The US and China are also major sources of copper, although their reserves are decreasing, which has pushed Chile, Peru, Congo and Indonesia to the fore.

Chile also has, by far, the largest reserves of lithium, ahead of China, Argentina and Australia. Factoring in lower-grade “resources” – which can’t yet be extracted – bumps Bolivia and the US onto the list. Finally, rare earth resources are greatest in China, Russia, Brazil – and Vietnam.

Of all the fossil fuel producing countries, it is the US, China, Russia and Canada that could most easily transition to green energy resources. In fact it is ironic that the US, perhaps the country most politically resistant to change, might be the least affected as far as raw materials are concerned. But it is important to note that a completely new set of countries will also find their natural resources are in high demand.

An OPEC for renewables?

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is a group of 14 nations that together contain almost half the world’s oil production and most of its reserves. It is possible that a related group could be created for the major producers of renewable energy raw materials, shifting power away from the Middle East and towards central Africa and, especially, South America.

This is unlikely to happen peacefully. Control of oilfields was a driver behind many 20th-century conflicts and, going back further, European colonisation was driven by a desire for new sources of food, raw materials, minerals and – later – oil. The switch to renewable energy may cause something similar. As a new group of elements become valuable for turbines, solar panels or batteries, rich countries may ensure they have secure supplies through a new era of colonisation.

China has already started what may be termed “economic colonisation”, setting up major trade agreements to ensure raw material supply. In the past decade it has made a massive investment in African mining, while more recent agreements with countries such as Peru and Chile have spread Beijing’s economic influence in South America.

Or a new era of colonisation?

Given this background, two versions of the future can be envisaged. The first possibility is the evolution of a new OPEC-style organisation with the power to control vital resources including silicon, copper, lithium, and lanthanides. The second possibility involves 21st-century colonisation of developing countries, creating super-economies. In both futures there is the possibility that rival nations could cut off access to vital renewable energy resources, just as major oil and gas producers have done in the past.


On the positive side there is a significant difference between fossil fuels and the chemical elements needed for green energy. Oil and gas are consumable commodities. Once a natural gas power station is built, it must have a continuous supply of gas or it stops generating. Similarly, petrol-powered cars require a continued supply of crude oil to keep running.

In contrast, once a wind farm is built, electricity generation is only dependent on the wind (which won’t stop blowing any time soon) and there is no continuous need for neodymium for the magnets or copper for the generator windings. In other words solar, wind, and wave power require a one-off purchase in order to ensure long-term secure energy generation.

The shorter lifetime of cars and electronic devices means that there is an ongoing demand for lithium. Improved recycling processes would potentially overcome this continued need. Thus, once the infrastructure is in place access to coal, oil or gas can be denied, but you can’t shut off the sun or wind. It is on this basis that the US Department of Defense sees green energy as key to national security.

The ConversationA country that creates green energy infrastructure, before political and economic control shifts to a new group of “world powers”, will ensure it is less susceptible to future influence or to being held hostage by a lithium or copper giant. But late adopters will find their strategy comes at a high price. Finally, it will be important for countries with resources not to sell themselves cheaply to the first bidder in the hope of making quick money – because, as the major oil producers will find out over the next decades, nothing lasts forever.

Andrew Barron, Sêr Cymru Chair of Low Carbon Energy and Environment, Swansea University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.