I was shocked to find out that this wasn't always the case. Seventy years ago, Los Angeles boasted the best public transportation system in the world. Electric trolley cars crisscrossed the entire county, connecting people to their schools, jobs, and choices of entertainment, for only a nickel a ride.
Sounds like a dream come true to this city girl. So what happened to it?
Believe it or not, "for the first half of this century, smooth, clean, and comfortable streetcars ruled America's Cities." In Los Angeles, these streetcars or "trolleys" were run by The Pacific Electric Company and called "Red Cars." This fast and cheap mode of transportation traveled the streets of L.A. on tracks or overhead wires, which provided their electricty. Since they were not fueled by gasoline, they did not emit the pollution that our cars and buses do today. The world-famous Red Cars were quiet and easy to take from one destination to another, and cheap enough to be available for anyone to use.
Doom: ...I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off. Off and on. All day, all night. Soon where Toontown once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly-prepared food, tire salons, automobile dealerships, and wonderful, wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it'll be beautiful.
Valiant: Come on. Nobody's gonna drive theis lousy freeway when they can take the Red Car for a nickel.
Doom: Oh, they'll drive. They'll have to. You see, I bought the Red Car so I could dismantle it.
Were the actions of National City Lines actually a conspiracy? While some people do, there are plenty of people who think not. To me, it seems to be a question of "which came first...?" The bus manufacturers would like us to believe that the trolley system was quickly falling out of the public favor since World War I. They say that the trolleys were getting to be too expensive to maintain, and that people were choosing to drive their cars instead of riding the public systems. And bus historians tell us that buses were a better way to travel, because they didn't require any tracks or electric wires; they could drive anywhere there was a road. These historians argue that they took a struggling trolley system that was falling into disuse and replaced it with a more economical bus system and freeway system.
On the other hand, author Mark Hertzgaard argues that "while its trolley and rail lines were being shut, a replacement network of so-called freeways-highways that were anything but free to the unwitting citizens whose taxes paid for them-was being built [in LA]." He believes that "as mass transit options narrowed, Los Angeles residents turned increasingly to private automobiles." A poster at the Los Angeles' transportation hub Union Station offered a similar historical viewpoint, describing how after the first freeways were built, the "Red Car service … declined and eventually was eliminated in favor of the private car and buses."
Pollution and congestion from automobiles and buses are huge problems. Hertzgaard states that "the automobile may well be the ultimate symbol of the modern environmental crisis." Car factories and car use earn a full 1/3 of the blame for Global Warming, and account for a large fraction of local air pollution. They contaminate our water and soil, and destroy natural resources as "countless miles of streets, parking lots, and highways" are paved. It would be ideal if our major cities would create user-friendly, cheap, speedy and environmentally friendly ways for large amounts of people to travel. But public transportation systems have huge obstacles to face. There are laws in 44 of our 50 states that require that all state and local revenues from gasoline taxes go only to highway construction. That's right! If you want to build a highway, the money comes from existing tax laws. But if you want to build a rail system, you have to ask the voters to agree to new taxes (an uphill battle). In Austin, Texas a light rail plan was proposed, but the voting public defeated it by a slim margin. Apparently, the majority didn't want to pay for an efficient, eco-friendly public transit system. After all, they can always drive.
So what can be done in cities that are already addicted to car travel?Here are some suggestions:
At some point, if we keep abusing our privilege of owning cars, something is going to give. Our population is continuing to grow, and so will our population of cars. We can either choose to curb our car use now (no pun intended) and ease our negative impact on the environment, or we can continue to use our cars to the extreme, regardless of what condition we leave our planet in for our kids and our kids' kids. The last thing they need is to spend hours of their lives coughing and wheezing in L.A.'s ever-thicker brown smog.
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Stephen - "You are now entering the Mall of America: Consumerism is good. Consumerism is good. Consumerism is good."