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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

May 14, 1993

Air Date: May 14, 1993


LA's Rail System: Now and Then / John Reiger

John Reiger explores the golden age and demise of the electric rail system that dominated Los Angeles in the early part of the century. Local residents question a popular conspiracy theory regarding the rise of automobiles at the expense of the rail system, and speculate whether the newly opened Red Line will fare any better than its predecessor. (15:50)

Will They Ride?

Steve asks Michael Jackson, a Los Angeles talk show host for the last thirty years, the crucial question for the city's residents and their new subway system: will they ride? (05:21)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Peter Klein, Scott Schlegel, George Hardeen, John Rieger
GUEST: Michael Jackson

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Choked by traffic jams and deadly smog, Los Angeles is building a new rail system to make the city more livable. But once upon a time, L.A. had the largest streetcar system in the world. This week, the rise, fall, and rebirth of rail in L.A.

Down we have the first of the streamliners to come to Los Angeles. Shirley Temple dedicated it. A lot of these were thrown in the ocean off San Pedro to make reefs for the fish, for the fishermen, y'know? I see no evil in getting rid of the street cars. It was absolutely stupid, but no one wanted to pay. Everybody that had an automobile wanted the cars gone. Everybody.

CURWOOD: Public transit in L.A., this week on Living on Earth, right after the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

As the human population approaches five and a half billion people this month, the Clinton Administration plans to resume funding for United Nations population control efforts. The reversal of Reagan and Bush administration policy comes as the UN prepares for next year's Cairo conference on population. Peter Klein reports from the UN.

KLEIN: State Department counselor Timothy Wirth said that President Clinton has asked for a $100 million dollar increase in funding for population programs next year. He said the President is undoing the policies of the Reagan and Bush years, which refused to recognize population growth as harmful to the environment, and froze funding for programs that provide women with abortion counseling.

WIRTH: We hope that the United States will once again lead in the way that the world, I believe, expects us to lead, in which our citizenry feels that we have the obligation to lead.

KLEIN: At a news conference following the speech, Wirth emphasized that the US considers China's population policies coercive, and no US money will go towards its programs. For Living on Earth, this is Peter Klein in New York.

NUNLEY: Japan has lost a home-turf battle for the right to resume whaling. The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Kyoto, turned down Japan's request for a limited non-commercial catch of minke whales. Japan and Norway have threatened to quit the IWC over the issue. The commission agreed to consider an highly controversial proposal for an Antarctic whale sanctuary at next year's conference.

Dangerously high lead levels have been found in water systems serving more than ten percent of the US population. An EPA study shows levels in "high-risk" homes with lead water lines or interior pipes far exceeded the Federal limit of 15 parts per billion. The highest levels, 484 parts per billion, were found at the Camp LeJeune Marine Base in North Carolina. Lead can reduce intelligence and lower attention spans in young children.

Plutonium-contaminated bomb parts stored at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons plant near Denver haven't been inspected for up to three years, even though the material could deteriorate to the point that it spontaneously catches fire. Scott Schlegel has the story.

SCHLEGEL: Plant manager EG&G Incorporated has admitted that it discontinued the inspections in November 1989, after President Bush announced that Rocky Flats would be shut down. The plutonium-contaminated bomb parts are stored in thousands of canisters in a half-dozen buildings at Rocky Flats, where triggers for nuclear warheads were built until the end of the Cold War. Many of the plant's automatic fire detection systems reportedly have also been found inoperable. A plutonium fire would pose a major health threat to heavily populated metro Denver communities. Both EG&G and US Department of Energy officials did not return phone calls, but an EG&G spokesperson is quoted as saying that the lack of inspections pose no imminent risk to workers, the public or the environment. For Living on Earth, I'm Scott Schlegel in Boulder, Colorado.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

Two companies licensed by the National Park Service to operate marinas on Arizona's Lake Powell have been fined over a million dollars for dumping used lead batteries and other trash into the lake. The companies have exclusive contracts to provide recreational services on the Federally-owned lake, behind the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. More from reporter George Hardeen.

HARDEEN: In announcing the fine, the Arizona Attorney General's office called the dumping one of the biggest environmental outrages in state history. From 1980 until 1990, it was standard operating procedure for the marinas to dump waste into the lake, according to Assistant Attorney General Christina Fitzpatrick.

FITZPATRICK: We found everything from stoves and refrigerators and swamp coolers, to thousands and thousands of barbeque grills, lead acid batteries, propellers, anchors, steering cables.

HARDEEN: The Del Webb Corporation and ARA Leisure Services paid the state's record environmental fine without admitting to any violation. The Attorney General's office also faulted the National Park Service for trying to hide information during the three-year-long investigation. The Park Service denies the accusation. For Living on Earth, I'm George Hardeen in Tuba City, Arizona.

NUNLEY: Two square miles of a minority neighborhood in West Dallas, Texas are among the latest sites to join the nation's Superfund list. The area is heavily contaminated with lead from a former lead smelter. Residents of the mostly Hispanic and African-American neighborhood have been fighting for years to have state or Federal authorities clean the area up.

Ecuadoran officials are blaming uncontrolled gold mining and logging for a landslide that killed as many as two hundred residents of a remote village in Ecuador. Heavy rains set off the slide, in which thousands of tons of rock and mud buried about 100 homes. The government is concerned that continued heavy rains could cause further disaster. Parts of the mines were dug directly beneath the town at depths of as little as 20 yards.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

Back to top

(Music up and under)

LA's Rail System: Now and Then

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(Subway sound)

CURWOOD: The new Los Angeles subway -- quiet, sleek, modern. This 4-mile route under downtown LA is part of the first phase of the nearly 200 billion-dollar plan designed to reduce the legendary dependence of Los Angeles residents on their cars. Riding the rails to work is a brand-new experience for many in L.A. But for long-time residents, it's a throwback to a time when L.A. had a vast streetcar system. The largest streetcar system, in fact, in the world. So what happened to the old red and yellow cars? And was their elimination a $200 billion dollar mistake? We sent producer John Rieger to Los Angeles to find out.

RIEGER: In the popular imagination. Los Angeles stands for traffic. (Fade up radio traffic report: "The southbound 710, injury crash . . ." fade under) An endless smoggy suburb, where everyone is driving everywhere and nobody's moving. ( Fade up "singing" traffic report in Spanish: "Aqui esta reporta de trafica . . .") Inching along at rush hour, it's appealing to imagine this as a city of streetcars instead of freeways. And yet Los Angeles once had more miles of electric railroad than any city before or since. It was a new kind of city -- the city of the future. And when that future came, it was this. This is the story of how we got here from there. Consider this. A 1907 guidebook to Los Angeles.

(Music up and under)

WOMAN'S VOICE: The story of the rapid but steady growth of Los Angeles reads like a fairy tale, and it cannot be readily understood until one takes into account what part the electric railways have had in the building up of this metropolis. It is now acknowledged that the modern transportation methods by way of electric car line have transformed the entire residential conditions. Distances have been swept away, and it is not only possible, but a daily practice, for people to live in the pure air of the country and yet be within easy reach of their business in town.

(Music up and under)

RIEGER: The electric trolley perfected in the 1880's changed American cities. With transportation, people could leave the crowded and polluted cores of older cities like New York and Chicago for the healthy rural atmosphere of suburban homes. But Los Angeles was a special case. With just 11,000 people in 1880, it would be, from the beginning, a city of suburbs.

WAX: It was part of the image of Los Angeles to create a city that was explicitly different from New York or Chicago, that was a city in a garden, that was low-density.

RIEGER: Martin Wax is a professor of urban planning at UCLA.

WAX: The street railways played a critical role because they enabled people to live in lower-density, outlying areas, and still work at the core, and in that way avoid the densities that had occurred in New York -- what we later, in a derogatory way, called sprawl, in the 'Teens and 'Twenties was seen as the way new cities should develop.

RIEGER: Los Angeles sprawled like no city before it. After 1890, it was suddenly the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. It had a pleasant climate, vigorous civic boosters, and an abundance of empty acreage requiring only a railroad line to turn it into desirable real estate. No wonder, then, that the electric railroads were built by real estate speculators. By 1911 the outlines of the city were in place. Downtown Los Angeles, with its Los Angeles Railway streetcars, would be the business and commercial center for a region of low-density suburban communities, all tied to downtown by the red cars of the Pacific Electric Railway. (Music changes to film score)
But by fifty years later, the streetcars had vanished. An alert and possibly overwrought railroad buff made this 16-millimeter film of the last days of the Pacific Electric. (Whistle sound; "Welcome aboard the Pacific Electric Line to Long Beach. It's now final -- this rail service will be discontinued in the next ten days. On April 9th, buses will be substituted.") By 1963 the streetcars were scrapped. The rails were torn up or paved over, the rights-of-way abandoned. Buses were substituted in what persists in the popular imagination as the transit crime of the century.

RICHARDS: When I was about six years old the streetcars stopped going by my house.

RIEGER: Since that day, in his Providence, Rhode Island youth, Wally Richards has been a faithful streetcar partisan. Now he spends his spare time working here, at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Paris, California, final resting place for a few honored veterans of L.A.'s streetcar past.

RIEGER: Now, these are Los Angeles railway cars?
RICHARDS: These are Los Angeles railway nowadays, yep. The streetcars left the streets of Los Angeles in the latter part of March of '63, and these little old cars that were all worn out and terribly expensive to maintain went to Cairo and lasted for twenty years with practically no maintenance. (Sound of walking ) Down here we have the first of the streamliners to come to Los Angeles. Shirley Temple dedicated it. A lot of these were thrown in the ocean off San Pedro to make reefs for the fish, for the fishermen, y'know?

CAMERON: Right here we're on Spring Street. Spring Street was traditionally the financial district where all the banks and the stockbrokers' offices . . .

RIEGER: You can still catch a glimpse of the Los Angeles of the streetcar era, here in the self- important brick and granite facades of the old downtown, where each building still proclaims the name of some city father of the 'Teens and 'Twenties. But according to David Cameron, president of L. A.' s Electric Railway Historical Association, the offices upstairs are mostly vacant now, and the once-posh storefronts are given over to the new multicultural bazaar of struggling minority businesses and check-cashing services.

RIEGER: This is the downtown that the streetcars built.
CAMERON: Absolutely.
RIEGER: It seems to be whispering in our ears -- "sic transit gloria."
CAMERON: That's probably appropriate.

RIEGER: To imagine the old downtown in its glory, you have to picture these streets crowded with streetcars. So crowded, in fact, that at rush hour the packed trains slowed to a crawl. The red cars converged here like the spokes of a wheel, speeding the wealth and commerce of the suburbs downtown. But once the big interurbans reached the city streets, they became tangled in the traffic of pedestrians, streetcars and increasingly, automobiles.

CARR: In the beginning, around 1910, 1915, your running time was pretty good.

RIEGER: Randy Carr, like his father before him, was attorney for the Pacific Electric Railway. He wrote the official company history of the Red Cars' demise -- a story bound up with the growth of the automobile.

CARR: The automobile came into being and by 1920 it was expanding and the people all lived along the railroads, so they would build new highways along where the people were, and where you'd have private right-of-way and could build, all of a sudden you're on a street with vehicular traffic and people and kids running across your track. It slowed down your operating time.

(Sound of steam engine)

RIEGER: Competing for ridership and space on the road, the automobile would become the bane of the streetcar. As early as 1915, Los Angeles had eight times more cars per capita than the rest of the country. The city needed transportation to continue its low-density growth. But the speculators who'd built the railroads had left them mired in debt. They couldn't afford to build new lines. They couldn't replace aging equipment. They were accused of restricting service to keep the cars full. They were running in the red, but the utilities commission wouldn't permit a fare increase. The public looked on the railroads as corrupt, and felt no inclination to bail them out. Instead, they turned to the automobile. Martin Wax.

WAX: I think that the automobile was seen as a populist response to the monopoly of private millionaire capitalists who ran the rail lines and who the public thought provided them with inadequate service. Today perhaps we turn that around. We talk about traffic congestion and the pollution that the automobile causes and the highway-automobile-petroleum lobby, but picture the venom that we direct at that industry now being directed in 1920 instead at the street railways.

RIEGER: By the early 1920's Los Angeles had serious transportation problems. Downtown, the mingling cars and trains had fought each other almost to a standstill, threatening the business district's vitality. The streetcars had helped create that vitality by making downtown the center of the region. But now more and more people were driving to get there. So in 1924, downtown and suburban taxpayers together supported a sweeping plan to improve the city streets. But when planners offered a companion plan the following year to modernize the streetcars, the consensus collapsed.

(Door closing, footsteps)

RIEGER: This abandoned subway, less than a mile long, would have been part of a system of subways and elevated rails that would get the trolleys out of downtown traffic and win back riders from their automobiles. In effect, planners wanted to turn the streetcar system into a modern rapid transit system. Instead, this became the last major improvement the system would see. David Cameron.

CAMERON: The subway that actually was built from this site on out was less than a mile long, but it was a fragment of what was to have been a grand system.
RIEGER: Was the subway received with enthusiasm by the public?
CAMERON: Absolutely, there was big crowds and the public officials praised the railway to the skies and we believe that there was a considerable increase in travel. But then when the Depression hit, the whole financial picture changed and things started going downhill.

RIEGER: Stuck in traffic and losing riders, the Pacific Electric lost money -- lots of money. They began abandoning losing lines, converting some to buses. With the flexibility of the automobile, the life of the region was spreading out, away from the old downtown served by the streetcars into regional centers. The fixed and inflexible rails no longer went where the people were. But a bus could go wherever there was a street, and there were more and more streets -- including, in 1937, a plan on the drawing board for a freeway system. Which brings us to the transit crime of the century.

(Soundtrack: First voice: "In that vision, I see a place where people get on and off the freeway, on and off, off and on, all day and all night . . .")

RIEGER: It's the piece of streetcar history we all know, even canonized by Hollywood in this film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? -- the conspiracy to dismantle the greatest electric railroad in the world, replace it with buses from General Motors and enslave Los Angeles to the freeways.

(Soundtrack: First voice: "My God, it'll be beautiful. Second voice : "Come on, nobody's going to drive this lousy freeway when they can take a red car for a nickel. First voice: "Oh, they'll drive. They'll have to. You see, I've bought the Red Car so I could dismantle it.")

RIEGER: But that's not what happened. Randy Carr handled route abandonment hearings for the Pacific Electric Railway.

CARR: I tried a lot of these hearings. The witness shout, Ah, we oughta have the streetcar system, we can't do without it. Well, I said, who's gonna ride it? Well, I'll ride it. I said, take your girl out Saturday night on it? Hell no! Well, I said, where we gonna get our revenue? And then we'd have this thrown at us, a bunch of groupers, they started to say, oh, well, you made a deal with General Motors to buy buses and you were financing General Motors and for that reason you abandoned your rails. It's a lot of bullshit.

RIEGER: What did happen was this. In 1944 the Los Angeles Railway was sold to National City Lines, a transportation holding company whose minority stockholders included General Motors, Firestone, Standard Oil, and others. It gave the railroad fresh capital to undertake its longstanding plan to convert to buses. But National City Lines had contracts with those shareholder companies to buy buses and other equipment without competitive bid. And eventually, National City Lines was convicted of illegal restraint of trade. But the streetcars were unpopular and obsolete. Wally Richards.

RICHARDS: I see no evil in getting rid of the street cars. It was absolutely stupid, but no one wanted to pay. Everybody that had an automobile wanted the cars gone. Everybody. I used to talk 'em up because I believed in 'em, and people say, get 'em off the street, get 'em outta here, junk 'em, get buses, do anything, just get rid of 'em. This was 90, at least 90 percent of the popular opinion at the time.

(Sound of subway horn)

RIEGER: So how can it be that we find ourselves today riding through downtown Los Angeles on a new subway system? Why was it that in 1973, just ten years after the last streetcar, Tom Bradley promised L.A. in his first campaign for mayor, to bring back the rails?

(Subway warning bell)

FALIK(sp?): The public realizes we need to do something about the congestion and the pollution of the motorcar.

RIEGER: Abe Falik(sp?) is a retired Los Angeles city planner and chairman of the Coalition for Rapid Transit.

FALIK(sp?): We're putting $186 billion dollars -- 'B' with a billion -- into the metro rail system over the next thirty years. About 60 percent comes from sales taxes, and those sales taxes were voted in by the people.

(Subway sound, fade into music under)

RIEGER: Today Los Angeles is a city of crowded freeways, choking smog and suburban sprawl, from which most traces of the 'city in a garden' have long since vanished. That $186 billion dollars will build an extensive new network of subways, trolleys and commuter trains. But are Los Angelenos really ready to give up their cars, or did they vote for the new rail systems so somebody else would ride? Randy Carr.

CARR: How're you gonna force them to use public transportation? It's not sound.
RIEGER: But don't you think people have come full circle? They're getting disillusioned with their automobiles, they're tired of this air pollution.
CARR: Well, are they? My mother lived to be a hundred years old, and she crabbed about this damned smog every day she lived. You see what I mean?

RIEGER: Wally Richards.

RICHARDS: The San Bernardino Line runs right down the middle of the San Bernardino Freeway, and there they are, stopped bumper-to-bumper, and this train goes shootin' by at 79 miles an hour, that's what it's allowed. It isn't going to be long before they realize that that's the way to go.

RIEGER: For Living on Earth, this is John Rieger in Los Angeles.

Back to top

(Fade out traffic report over music)

Will They Ride?

CURWOOD: Will they ride? Well, you could ask all the planners and bureaucrats and historians you like, but who really knows the hearts and minds of the city better than a talk show host? Michael Jackson began talking to L.A. -area residents 31 years ago, just about the same time of the last run of the old Red Cars. He joins us now from the studios of KABC-AM, where he's host of a popular talk show. Mr. Jackson, what do the people that you talk to think of the return of the rails to the city of automobiles?

JACKSON: Wonderful -- for everybody else.

CURWOOD: So they think that they don't have to do it, huh?

JACKSON: No, I'm -- Let's put it this way. I come into the studio early, the freeways are already crowded. We're all going to different places. Topographically this is unlike any other city anywhere else at any time. It is all so spread out. Think of almost anywhere -- people go downtown here or to that particular region there, but in this city we all have our own agenda, we go where we have to go.

CURWOOD: All right, well, if nobody actually wants to ride this, why are they willing to, people willing to vote to tax themselves to pay for it -- it's a $200 billion dollar tab over the next thirty years?

JACKSON: Ah, because it will get the other guy off the freeway. See what I mean? We think -- we hope -- but we don't know. You know, it's going to work eventually. The critics will tell you that it's the, it's the late 20th century answer with a 19th-century system of transportation. But it will work eventually, when it's all integrated -- when you have monorail with subways with buses, when you have vast areas where you can park your car and be able to then get on some form of rapid transit. Where I think it's going to become very useful, seriously, is when it starts to get through the San Fernando Valley. Now if you think back, when I came here, that San Fernando Valley was very sparsely populated. It's now over one and a half million people. So when the subway starts going through there, and out beyond the other valleys, then we'll be able to see people saying, I've gotta use a rapid transit, because the transit on the freeways is getting ever slower. But none of us view it at this stage as something immediate. But why? Well, take the situation with our mayor. You know, we've had him around for twenty years, that was his number-one promise, and we're just finishing our first four miles. It's taken twenty years.

CURWOOD: All right, now to get from here to there, you say eventually people in L.A. are gonna use this system, but what about between here and there -- are there any sort of incentives you think that can be used to get people to ride?

JACKSON: Well, first of all, let's step back again. When I mentioned the fact that this is sort of a current solution to a yesterday problem, or a yesterday way of resolving today's problem, who goes downtown in L. A.? I mean, I don't know many people, a few lawyers and I promise you they're not going to go in the subway, a few businessmen and they're not going to travel that way. They've made the mistake, I feel, of making the hub the hub -- making the center of the city where everything meets up. So when I say eventually, when they get the message and spread farther abroad, then I think more people will use it.

CURWOOD: You grew up in London, where you have public transport --

JACKSON: Oh, well, I use it all the time.

CURWOOD: -- and can you compare your two cities, Los Angeles and London?

JACKSON: Funny you should mention that, because you grow up relying on the Tube. I was a little boy, a very little boy in World War II, and they saved our lives, we, the subway, the Tube, the Metro, the Underground, as we called it. Because we would go down there as an air-raid shelter. It was the heart -- I mean, it really was, the artery of a great city. But beyond that, it is so well designed -- it takes you everywhere and anywhere. So we had one jump-start on Los Angeles in that it has been for the entire century the prime mode of transportation in London. It has never been the prime mode of transportation in Los Angeles.

CURWOOD: All right, now if you were king -- if you were king, Michael Jackson, would you build this subway and transit system in Los Angeles, for $200 billion dollars?

JACKSON: Yes. Because I'm planning for the next century. And we like to think of ourselves as the place where the stone hits the water, causing a ripple-out effect . We like to think of ourselves as the trendsetters, people in the vanguard of new ideas and planning for the future. Many of us thought of this as the city of the 20th century, and then all of a sudden towards the century's end we began to think, maybe we're not, maybe other people have better ideas. So were we girding for King Jackson here, I think would definitely say rapid transit, but I'm not sure that it would all be underground. I think we have more and more to use the corridors that we currently have and have surface or light-rail.

CURWOOD: All right, well, I want to thank you, Michael Jackson, and I just want to ask you one quick question -- do you think that the subway system will be a success when you get your first call from a subway phone?

JACKSON: Oh, yes, and I shall try and find a way of making sure that no other radio station can receive calls from subways.

CURWOOD: Michael Jackson, host of the very popular talk radio program in Los Angeles on KABC-AM. Thanks for joining us.

JACKSON: My pleasure. Good day, sir.

Back to top

(Music up and under: "Walking in L.A.")

CURWOOD: If you have any questions or comments on our program, drop us a line, at Living On Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Mass., 02238. Or give us a call on our listener comment line, at 617-868-7454. You can use your car phone.

Living on Earth is produced and edited by Peter Thomson. The coordinating producer is George Homsy. Our director is Deborah Stavro. Our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page and Colleen Singer Coxe. Our engineer is Laurie Azaria, with help from Rita Sand and Monica Spain. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

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(Music up and out)

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