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Spencer Crump: Ride the Big Red Cars

We used to have the greatest public transportation system in the world, so goes the oft-told Los Angeles lore. Then, a shady consortium, their own strings pulled by automakers and road-builders, bought all the trains and the tracks just to rip them out and scrap them. I don’t know about that; I sense a few too many viewings of Who Framed Roger Rabbit stoking a conspiracy-minded fire. We do know that, in the Pacific Electric and Los Angeles railways of the early twentieth century, this city did indeed boast the most extensive and beloved local and interurban train service anywhere. And we know that, by the early sixties, all of that had gone. But I figured the hows and the whys of the five decades in between were more complicated than the bitter, empty laments for the old trains I hear from those too young to have ridden them — or that, a few drinks into the night, I’d probably deliver myself.

Spencer Crump’s Ride the Big Red Cars comes recommended by, of all people, Reyner Banham, the well-known English architectural critic and Los Angeles lover who wrote The Architecture of Four Ecologies. Banham found great joy and fascination in freeway driving — he learned to do it so he could “read Los Angeles in the original” — and held out little hope for traditional rapid transit. “Even though [the Los Angeles freeways are] vastly better than any other urban motorway system of my acquaintance,” he wrote, “it is inconceivable to Angelenos that it should not be replaced by an even better system nearer to the perfection they are always seeking. A rapid-rail system is the oldest candidate for the succession, but nothing had happened so far. The core of the problem, I suspect, is that when the socially necessary branch has been built, to Watts, and the profitable branch, along Wilshire, little more will be done and most Angelenos will be an average of fifteen miles from a rapid-transit station.”

Things have happened now. The Red Line subway under Wilshire, having made agonizingly slow progress over the past two decades, still has twelve miles to go, but the Blue Line train, though — the “socially necessary branch” — runs to Watts and all the way to Long Beach besides. It actually does so along the same path of the very first Pacific Electric line Southern California-building magnate Henry Huntington opened in 1902. In Crump’s telling, Huntington took only nine months to build it, and build it well; the Blue line took five years. “Crump thinks Los Angeles’ Blue Line is a step in the right direction,” wrote Jim Washburn in a 1992 Los Angeles Times article catching up with the author, ”but says that by running it at street level, it is crippled same the way the PE eventually was by having to contend with automotive traffic crossing its path.”

Here we have one clue as to how Los Angeles let rail transit slip from its hands. Crump’s book covers, in great detail, how the region’s interurban lines and trolleys expanded so quickly and won such a large, admiring ridership. The system’s peak seems to have come in the twenties to perhaps the early thirties, after which, a brief revival during the Second World War notwithstanding, it was all downhill for Pacific Electric’s red cars (and presumably the Los Angeles Railway’s yellow ones, too). Building in the days when automobiles were scarce and roads suitable for automobiles scarcer still, Huntington laid most of his track either at street level or on the streets themselves. But when car ownership came to the everyman, a savage battle for road rights ensued. Badly slowed by having to move in mixed traffic and stop at many new vehicle crossings, the trains went from a public perception as the height of efficiency to its nadir. Soon, the per-mile operating cost of a personal car fell below the equivalent Pacific Electric fares. Then, after the war, came the freeways.

“We’ve created sort of a hell here,” said Crump in that Times article. “We are only faced with a tremendous and complete traffic jam that doesn’t give us anything. This freeway driving is not only lonely, but it makes me uptight and stressed being in that bumper-to-bumper traffic.” But I can understand how appealing a city of gleaming new cars and soaring new motorways must once have seemed. Few foresaw the debased, utilitarian condition of American motoring ahead, and fewer still understood that the further backward a place bends to accommodate the automobile, the less it merits a visit in the first place. If anything has made Los Angeles second-class in the past fifty years, that has. I can’t say I suffer much New York envy, except when it comes to their transit. Yes, New Yorkers complain ceaselessly about it — when asked what he dislikes about living there, Tao Lin memorably cited “the comically unreliable/loud/dirty subway-system” — but at least it’s there.

Both New York and Los Angeles’ “public” transit systems were, before 1940, wholly or in large part, privately owned. But New York City bought and continued to operate the subway lines, whereas the City of Los Angeles passed on the trains in its territory. “The greatest failure,” Crump writes, “came in the slowness of the public and public officials to grasp the fact that the role of providing transportation could not be filled by private enterprise.” The libertarian in me honestly wonders about that, but the deal is done: Los Angeles now has a public agency to handle its trains, and that agency does seem to be building and running new lines. These take their sweet time to materialize — evidently you can’t just throw thousands of Irishmen at the problem anymore — and tend to do so on whichever old rights-of-way happen to remain, the location of current centers of commerce be damned. Yet at this point I see reasons to remain just on the side of optimism, and I imagine Crump — whether he’s still with us, I don’t know — would too.

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