Did A Conspiracy Really Destroy LA's Huge Streetcar System?

When it first premiered in 1988, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Seemed most likely to be remembered for its innovative blend of live-action and animated footage, or for it’s uncomfortably sexualized presentation of a cartoon bunny. In Los Angeles, though, the film's legacy will always be its revelation to the popular masses of the great conspiracy that destroyed a once-great public transit system.

For those unacquainted, the theory goes like this: back in 1945, a sinister corporation called National City Lines took over the thriving Los Angeles Railway, which served most of the sprawling region. Then, over the course of the next two decades, LA's extensive streetcar network was eliminated and the iconic Red Cars were replaced with shiny new buses. The principle investors in National City Lines? None other than prominent bus maker General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Standard Oil of California (now Chevron), and Phillips Petroleum.

The streetcar, then, was deliberately destroyed by the companies who stood to gain the most from its disappearance. Not only would this facilitate the sale of buses, it would induce greater demand for automobiles—along with tires and oil. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The part of National City Lines is played by the maniacal Judge Doom (in turn played by Christopher Lloyd), who confesses, "I bought the Red Car so I could dismantle it!"

In many ways it's a perfect conspiracy theory. There's a majestic and very public force for good (the beloved streetcars) eliminated by a very private group of shadowy individuals, all in pursuit of profit. But is there any legitimacy to it? Not so much, according to a new story in The Guardian. In fact, the streetcars might just have been doomed long before National City Lines got involved.

As The Guardian points out, it is true that in 1949, the Federal District Court of Southern California found the corporate investors of National City Lines guilty of "conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies" in violation of antitrust laws. To be sure, these companies were trying to cash in as much as possible on rising demand for their products. Still, there's not much evidence to suggest that they actually plotted to destroy electric rail lines. For one thing, National City Lines bought (and soon discarded) the Yellow Cars of the Los Angeles Railway, but never the famous Red Cars of the Pacific Electric system. Those were officially taken out of operation in 1961, by none other than the Metropolitan Transit Authority (an ancestor of LA Metro).

The basis for the idea that GM and others "killed the streetcar" comes largely from testimony before the US Senate by antitrust lawyer Bradford C. Snell. In 1974, when smog had nearly consumed Los Angeles, Snell argued that "General Motors and allied highway interests acquired the local transit companies, scrapped the pollution-free electric trains, tore down the power transmission lines, ripped up the tracks, and placed GM motor buses on already congested LA streets."

This accusation, however, ignores fundamental problems that the streetcar system in Los Angeles had been facing for years. The dirty secret about the streetcar lines: they were wildly unprofitable and were slowly losing riders. In Transport of Delight, Jonathan ED Richmond points out that the Pacific Electric line managed to turn a profit in only two years between 1923 and the end of World War II. Meanwhile, between 1945 and 1951, the number of riders carried each year fell by nearly 80 million.

Cheaper to operate and requiring less maintenance, buses began phasing out the streetcars very early. In 1926, 15 percent of the total miles traveled by Pacific Electric riders was along bus routes; that number would more than double by 1939. By the time that National City Lines entered the picture, the dismantling of the streetcar system was well underway. As The Guardian puts it, "one can confidently accuse General Motors and their National City Lines of nothing worse than scheming to profit from a trend already in motion."

So who is to blame for the death of the streetcar? Well, you can certainly start with local and federal government officials who encouraged the kind of suburban sprawl that made effective public transit difficult to maintain and prohibitively costly to operate. But, ironically, much of the sprawl in Los Angeles is actually the direct result of the streetcar lines themselves. As Martin Wachs argues in "Autos, Transit, and the Sprawl of Los Angeles: The 1920s," "The extent of the metropolitan region has not grown significantly since [1910]. And most of the more recent growth has consisted instead of filling in the spaces between outlying centers associated with important stations on the Pacific Electric." On the other hand, the areas around long defunct stations are still denser than other areas decades later.

The wily Henry Huntington engineered his Pacific Electric system largely as a means of transporting people to and from the large tracts of land where he was developing housing. The most prominent streetcar line, then, was never meant to be economically viable. For Huntington, it was simply a way to access the real profits of home sales. Because of this, when automobiles first became available for mass consumption, Angelinos gravitated toward them immediately.

And that brings us to the final component of the streetcar's ultimate demise. As The Guardian points out, local voters rejected a plan to bring streetcar lines under public ownership in the 1920s, keeping them in the hands of private companies unwilling to make costly but necessary investments in infrastructure improvement. Furthermore, Angelinos passed on public transit legislation for decades, embracing instead the development of improved roads, tunnels, and eventually freeways. The emphasis on auto traffic had the unfortunate effect of slowing down the once reliable streetcar. As Richmond points out, a ride on Pacific Electric's Long Beach Line took just 41 minutes in 1910. By 1954, it was up to a full hour, with trains regularly arriving as much as 30 minutes behind schedule.

Conspiracy theorists dreaming of a lost utopia by the sea, outfitted with the greatest public transportation system in the world, must come to terms with the fact that in the matter of the streetcar's disappearance, we Angelinos may have no one to blame but ourselves.