How Tire Companies Supposedly Sabotaged LA's Early Transit System

By Jacob Shelton

"Red Car" of the Pacific Electric. (Oleknutlee/Wikimedia Commons)

To efficiently get around Los Angeles, you have to drive a car, but it wasn't always like that. At the turn of the 20th century, the city was speckled with the "Red Cars" of the Pacific Electric Railway Company, but by the '60s, they had disappeared. Where did all the Red Cars go? Some people think General Motors singlehandedly took them out, but it's a little more complicated than that.

Streetcars In Los Angeles

In 1926, Los Angeles had one of the largest mass transit systems in the world. With hundreds of stops between Santa Monica and San Bernardino, it was possible to get around the entire growing sprawl for the price of a nickel without ever setting foot in a car. When the Great Depression hit, however, Pacific Electric Railway began to suffer along with everyone else. The value of a nickel fell, and the city refused to allow a fare increase. Innovations in the automobile industry as well as new, more flexible bus lines operated by the Los Angeles Railway (which also owned the Yellow Cars that roamed the tracks alongside their red counterparts) meant Pacific Electric was hemorrhaging customers.

The opposite should have happened, as the population of Los Angeles County swelled from fewer than 200,000 to more than 2 million between 1900 and 1930, but as the city expanded to accommodate all these new people, trolley lines did not. There was a brief uptick in Red Car riders during World War II, when rationing was in full effect and Angelenos were conserving gas, but once the fighting was over, more cars crowded the road than ever before. "Crowded" is an apt descriptor: Cars drove the same lanes as trolleys, so as more cars entered the fray, trolley serviced slowed immensely.

1968 General Motors T8H-5305. (Oran Viriyincy/Wikimedia Commons)

National City Lines

By 1945, Pacific Electric was inextricably in trouble, but the nail in their coffin actually had nothing to do with them. A company called National City Lines bought up the Los Angeles Railway only to rip up the tracks that sent their Yellow Cars—and by extension, Pacific Electric's Red Cars—through the city streets to make way for a new fleet of buses, putting an end to the whole streetcar system in Los Angeles. It just so happens that the principle investors in National City Lines were General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, Standard Oil of California, and Phillips Petroleum. You know, a lot of folks who had a vested interest in the success of the automobile.

It didn't help that just four years later, those corporations were found guilty of "conspiring to acquire control of a number of transit companies, forming a transportation monopoly" and "conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by National City Lines" in violation of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. Sure, General Motors also made buses, so it's not like they wanted to kill off public transportation completely, but they wanted it powered by diesel. About 30 years later, antitrust lawyer Bradford Snell testified before the U.S. Senate 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 G.M. motor buses on already congested L.A. streets."

Interstate 5 approaching the Newhall Pass Interchange. (Chevy111/Wikimedia Commons)

Who Killed The Electric (Street)car?

To place the blame for the downfall of the Los Angeles streetcar system solely at the feet of these corporations, however, would be overly simplistic. By the time National City Lines stepped in, the trolleys were already on their way out, and they weren't exactly blameless in their own demise. A big disadvantage of the rail system was lines that couldn't be easily moved to accommodate the shifting structure of the city, and L.A. streetcar tycoon Henry Huntington specifically built lines to ferry passengers into the city from his own housing developments to encourage them to live there, so there was shadiness all over.

For the most part, however, there was just no stopping the rise of the automobile. Throughout the three decades following the Great Depression, L.A. politicians and businesses were more than happy to accept federal funding to build new roads and freeways, and Angelenos went all-in on the car craze. They didn't anticipate the decades of smog and gridlock they were buying along with their shiny new toys, but the combination of a city transformed around car culture and federally funded infrastructure proved more disastrous to the transit system of Los Angeles than any single corporation.

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.