Stupid Question ™
July 23, 1998
By John Ruch
Q: I understand Los Angeles once had the largest public transportation system in the world. What happened to make it a commuter’s nightmare?
A: Pretty much the same thing that’s happening to Columbus, Ohio and most other decentralized, suburban-sprawl cities. Namely, car addiction.
In pre-car days, LA’s transit system was cutting-edge. By 1890, when its population was under 50,000, the city had adopted both cable-driven and electric street cars. Philadelphia, 20 times bigger, was still using horse-drawn buses.
An interurban train between outlying cities started in 1895. The train/street car system rapidly evolved into an efficient people-mover.
But then, in 1914, came motor buses and “jitneys”—early hired cars that would zip ahead of street cars and steal their passengers. By the next year, patronage on the rail systems had plunged.
Personal cars became popular in LA very early due to the warm climate (early cars were no good in snow), plenty of suburban garage space and—ironically—a sprawling city structure the rail lines had helped create.
By 1919, car congestion downtown was so bad most experts thought it would force commuters back to the rails. It didn’t.
The 1924 city charter mandated development of a subway and elevated train system like those in other cities, but there was no funding. More motor bus lines were the only result.
After that, a string of city transit plans always made rail systems subordinate to freeways.
Between 1940 and 1968—the year the last street car was shut down—LA built its 138-mile freeway system. It had already become a national joke.
Because freeways attract new development and inspire new drivers, they in effect create more traffic than they’re designed to carry.
Only 5 percent of commuters carpool full-time. Killer smog, largely car-generated, continues to plague the city. Commuter satisfaction with the freeway system peaked at 30 percent.
Traffic-weary and non-car-owning voters finally approved sales tax increases in 1980 and 1990 to fund the new Metro Rail System.
This consists of an inner-city subway and suburban commuter rail meant to link to other cities’ future systems.
A couple commuter lines are running, and the subway’s mismanagement- and disaster-plagued construction continues.
It’s a multi-billion-dollar effort to play catch-up with the rest of the metropolitan world. LA has paid a cultural price for car dominance: today half the central business is parking lots and in the 1980s, when the metro area’s population was 11 million, only 30,000 people lived downtown.