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LIFE ON WHEELS

More Than Fantasy in 'Roger's' Plot

July 28, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Roger Rabbit may not have been the only one who was framed.

By now, even if you haven't seen the hit movie, you've probably heard the story. You know that Roger is a "Toon"--an animated actor in a make-believe Hollywood of the 1940s, where the cartoon characters are as real as the live ones.

Roger is charged with a murder he didn't commit, and as he and private detective Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) work to clear his name, they uncover a conspiracy to wreck Southern California's impeccable public transportation system and replace it with something called--Hiss! Boo!-- freeways, which are supposed to be much better transportation but are actually a giant step backward.

An evil and mysterious company buys out the regional streetcar company to put it out of business and force commuters into cars.

"Why do I need a car?" Valiant says as he hops a ride on a streetcar. "Los Angeles has the best mass transit system in the world."

That underlying theme makes "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" to traffic planning what "Chinatown" was to Los Angeles' water politics, albeit with a lot more laughs. Both movies use established Southland fact-derived myths to give their fictional plots an aura of credibility.

Roger Rabbit's streetcars-to-freeway theme evoked loud reactions from fans at the theater where I saw the movie, possibly because they know how the story turned out in real life. Maybe it was also because they had heard this secret conspiracy business before. I first heard it when I moved here nearly five years ago, from a veteran Orange County driver with whom I happened to be stuck in traffic.

Here's the 50-cent summary: Southern California once had an efficient, inexpensive public transportation system, the Pacific Electric Company, whose "Red Car" trolleys whisked passengers nearly effortlessly all over Los Angeles and Orange counties and beyond.

The Red Cars traveled from as far inland as Riverside to the ocean, with 1,100 miles of track in four counties by the 1920s. Also, Los Angeles Railway trolleys crisscrossed that city with an extensive array of lines.

But in the 1940s, automobile manufacturers conspired--successfully--to deep-six the Red Cars, according to "Roger Rabbit" and much popular belief. Indeed, many historians have said that a consortium of major auto, tire and gasoline companies helped speed the demise of the railways, which were already failing financially.

Legislative analyst Bradford Snell told much the same story to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in 1974, according to the book "Los Angeles and the Automobile," published by the University of California Press, by Scott L. Bottles, an assistant vice president with Wells Fargo Bank.

"By purchasing controlling interests in urban railways, the corporations replaced electric trolleys with diesel motor coaches," Bottles writes, paraphrasing Snell's theory. "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.' "

Bottles in the book agrees with Snell, up to a point: GM did acquire a partial interest in L.A. transit companies, and the new owners did replace "what was once the largest electric interurban system in the world" with buses.

But even though many longtime Southern Californians look back wistfully at the halcyon days of the Red Car, Bottles has dredged up what he believes is evidence that in this case, at least, hindsight may be less than 20-20. He doesn't exactly say the auto companies were framed, but he acquits them of blame for the demise of the region's streetcars.

The reason the Red Cars disappeared, according to Bottles, was simply because people preferred the autonomy of the automobile. If indeed there was a conspiracy, then the public became a party to it by abandoning public transit when a better alternative came along. If there are villains, then we--or at least our predecessors--must be counted among them.

As automobiles became widely available, Southland residents voted with their wheels, so streetcar lines were deep into red ink by the time GM got into the picture.

Of course, with the cars came traffic jams, almost instantly. Roads were widened, those roads got crowded, and the cycle continues. Although it may be tempting--especially while lurching along the freeway on a hot afternoon--to imagine climbing aboard a Red Car and leaving the driving to someone else, my guess is that even if that choice were available, most of us here in Southern California would still rather drive.

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