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Taken for a Ride

The Third Rail Online: ‘U.S. vs. National City Lines’ Recalled



Choosing Congestion: The Destruction of L.A.'s Trolley System

San Diego's popular trolley
"It's bumper to bumper on the 405 again," the radio announcer chirps happily inside her comfortable office at the local radio station. I sigh and look at the clock. An hour more before I'll get to my meeting, as I sit packed in between six lanes of idling cars. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. The hot air is thick with smog from the car exhausts mingling together. Looking at the eerie brown soup that hangs motionless over the city makes me cringe, and I'm thankful that I only commute once a month to this meeting in L.A. My fellow drivers look as disgusted as I am with this miserable waste of time. Propping their heads in their left hands, elbows resting on the doors, they inch along the freeway.

Ugh. I never owned a car before I moved to California (nor wanted to), but after arriving in Long Beach, it seemed unavoidable. Everything was so spread out in Los Angeles County. Without an efficient public transportation system, getting to work, to the store, or just around town seemed next to impossible.

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?

Sitting in L.A.'s traffic can be a nightmare
In Los Angeles and as many as 80 other US cities in the 1930's, there was one powerful monopoly whose questionable business practices, many people believe, led to the frustration and pollution we face in today's traffic. That company was a conglomerate called National City Lines (NCL). Many people think that NCL helped to create the chaos drivers deal with and the pollution we drive through every day, in and around some of the country's most populated cities.

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.

One of LA's old Red Cars has been converted into a local restaurant
Then in 1936, General Motors joined forces with Firestone Tire and Rubber, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum and Mack Truck to form a corporation called National City Lines. The purpose of NCL was to use its immense pool of wealth to buy up trolley tracks and systems in cities across the US, dismantle them, and replace them with diesel bus lines. The American Heritage "History of Railroads in America" notes that at this point in history "Los Angeles' quiet, pollution-free, electric train system was totally destroyed." These General Motors buses were conveniently fueled by Standard Oil and driven on Firestone Tires. Since it is illegal in America to monopolize a market, National City Lines was brought to court in 1949. They were found guilty of criminally conspiring to control the market sales of buses and related products to local transportation companies throughout the country. The Government fined them a mere $5000 for their trust violation, and broke the company apart.

L.A.'s Union Station was once the hub for the best public transit in the world!
The PBS documentary "Taken for a Ride" documents this history and argues that the destruction of our efficient trolley systems never had to happen. They assert that NCL demolished a perfectly good system for their own monetary benefit. The movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" set in 1940's Hollywood, gives a fictional spin to the same idea. In it, a powerful judge named Doom murders a studio mogul in order to take over Toontown. He plots to destroy Toontown and build a freeway through it. He maniacally describes his dream to a Detective Valiant in the final scene:

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.


Well, the results are in...

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."

Los Angeles is trying to create a subway system.  Why do you think it's not effective?
For whatever reason, today in LA getting from Point A to Point B is much more difficult than in many other cities of comparable size. New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago (to name only a few) have managed to offer efficient and economical public transit. Is there any wonder why Los Angeles and Houston are the two cities competing yearly for the title of our nation's most polluted city?

Subways are on one way to reduce pollution and traffic congestion

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.

More efficient, cleaner burning buses with light-changing sensors may be a good transit option

So what can be done in cities that are already addicted to car travel?

Here are some suggestions:
  • We are the most car-dependent culture on the planet. Divorce your car, and walk or bike instead.
  • Live close to where you work. Car pool.
  • Buy used cars, not new. If you must buy a new car, invest in a hybrid that runs on both gasoline and electricty.
  • Write to your Congressmen and explain why you think environmentally friendly public transportation should be a higher priority.
  • Take and support public transportation whenever you can!

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.


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - "You are now entering the Mall of America: Consumerism is good. Consumerism is good. Consumerism is good."
Making A Difference - Does your community need a facelift?
Neda - How many licks does it take to sell you a lollypop?
Stephen - "Beans. I want more beans! And gimme some cars, too."