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Bad Rail Service Began L.A.'s Auto Obsessesion

September 13, 1987|Scott L. Bottles | Historian Scott L. Bottles is an assistant vice president with Wells Fargo Bank. This article is adapted from "Los Angeles and the Automobile," to be published this month by the University of California Press

Old myths die hard. For years Los Angeles area residents have believed that the rise in popularity of the automobile occurred because the region's extensive electric railway system fell victim to a conspiracy. This erroneous conclusion emerged largely in response to the claims of critics like Bradford Snell.

In a widely quoted report to the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1974, Snell, a legislative analyst, argued that automobile manufacturers conspired during the 1940s to destroy a thriving, efficient system of streetcars in cities throughout the United States. By purchasing controlling interests in urban railways, the corporations replaced electric trolleys with diesel motor coaches. The inefficiency of the buses in turn led to the demise of a once-healthy public transportation network and left urban residents with the automobile as their only means of transport. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, Snell claimed, had reshaped "American ground transportation to serve corporate wants instead of social needs."

Snell believed that Los Angeles' experience epitomized the malevolent plans of the consortium. "The noisy, foul-smelling buses," wrote Snell, "turned earlier patrons of the high-speed rail system away from public transit and, in effect, sold millions of private automobiles."

It is true that General Motors and other automobile-related manufacturers invested in a company that purchased urban streetcar lines. During 1944, the Henry Huntington estate sold the Los Angeles Railway (LARY) to American City Lines, a subsidiary of National City Lines. Minority stockholders in National City included GM, Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire and Rubber, Phillips Petroleum and Mack Truck. The new management immediately began to replace streetcars with buses. Two years later, a federal grand jury brought suit against National City for several antitrust violations. A trial in Chicago brought both acquittals and convictions; most important, the corporate stockholders of National City divested their holdings before the suit came to trial.

Up to this point, Snell is on safe ground. A company partly owned by automobile-related manufacturers purchased a streetcar line in Los Angeles and converted some rail operations to bus service.

Snell's argument falls apart when he implies that the rise in popularity of the automobile occurred largely because of a General Motors-sponsored conspiracy. LARY management had decided to replace nearly all the company's trolleys with buses four years before American City purchased the network.

The real irony of Snell's report was that he portrayed the traction companies as virtuous, responsible public utilities trying to provide service even while fighting off the evil designs of the automobile manufacturers. In reality the situation was just the opposite. People in Los Angeles during the first three decades of the century constantly complained about the quality of rail transit. From their point of view the railways sought to profit at public expense--running too few cars, refusing to build necessary cross-town lines into lightly populated areas and bribing elected officials for favors. Frustrated by inadequate service, residents turned to the automobile manufacturers to supply them with an alternative means of transport, believing these corporations could liberate them from the inefficiencies and corruption of the traction companies.

Founded in 1781, Los Angeles remained an isolated small town until the 1880s when the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad linked it with the rest of the country. From that time, the region grew rapidly. By 1910, the city boasted impressive streetcar and interurban systems that allowed much of the population to move into suburban developments. The central business district after 1890, however, dominated the regional economy and Los Angeles retained a centralized urban structure until the late 1920s.

The adoption of the automobile in Los Angeles did not come easily, as motorists had to fight the railways for the right to use city streets. Once large numbers of motorists began driving into the downtown area, congestion became severe. The City Council attempted to resolve this problem by enacting a rigid no-parking law in 1920. But it soon became apparent that a majority of Los Angeles' citizens wanted to facilitate rather than restrict vehicular movement. Enmity toward the traction companies and the general perception of the automobile as a democratic piece of urban technology influenced them to support automobile transit as an alternative to the inefficiency and seeming corruption of the railways. Heavy public protest and economic pressure forced the council to rescind the law.

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