When LA was stripped of its beloved streetcar in the 1960s, the city was quickly thrust into a traffic-clogged world of private cars and diesel buses. But with the involvement of automobile and oil companies, was this the work of a conspiracy?
The last train on the last line of greater Los Angeles Pacific Electric streetcar network made its last run on 9 April 1961. You can see the final days of this once-robust public transport system for yourself in the short film Ride the Last of the Big Red Cars.
This footage of the remaining red cars (as the Pacific Electrics fleet was commonly known) strikes an elegiac tone, especially to modern Angelenos. They have little more than history books and the rose-tinted memories of old-timers from which to reconstruct the heyday of urban rail in Los Angeles, a city which spent decades after the disappearance of the red cars saddled with the reputation as a car-dependent, smog-choked, freeway-bound yet traffic-paralysed dystopia and not without cause.
The Pacific Electric, along with the yellow cars of the Los Angeles Railway, made up the young southern California metropolis rail transit system throughout the first half of the 20th century. At the peak of their combined coverage and accessibility, they made Los Angeles public transportation the best in the country, if not the world. Why, then, did they vanish from the cityscape by the mid-1960s, their tracks yanked from the streets and their rolling stock tossed on the heap (or sent to Argentina)? What forces could have replaced the proud red and yellow cars with a fleet of plain old buses, the likes of which so many Angelenos still disdain today? It looks, to some, like the work of a conspiracy.
Between 1938 and 1950, one company purchased and took over the transit systems of more than 25 American cities. Their name, National City Lines, sounded innocuous enough, but the list of their investors included General Motors, the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Trucks, and other companies who stood to benefit much more from a future running on gasoline and rubber than on electricity and rails. National City Lines acquired the Los Angeles Railway in 1945, and within 20 years diesel buses or indeed private automobiles would carry all the yellow cars former passengers. Does that strike you as a coincidence?
It didnt look that way to the Federal District Court of Southern California, which in 1947 indicted nine corporations and seven individuals on counts of conspiring to acquire control of a number of transit companies, forming a transportation monopoly and conspiring to monopolise sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by National City Lines in violation of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. The conviction came in 1949, with GM, Firestone, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, and Mack Trucks found guilty and subsequently slapped on the wrists. (GM paid a fine of $5,000.)
The 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? set its story in the year 1947, pitting workaday Los Angeles private detective Eddie Valiant against the villain Judge Doom, a cadaverous, black-clad personification of all these backroom-dealing companies. In the films final act, Judge Doom reveals to Valiant his plot to build eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena.