While countries around the world are addressing traffic and pollution with revitalized public transportation and increased pedestrian-friendly spaces, most North American cities are simply pouring the cement for another parking garage. Increasingly bewildering is the fact that the international economy is crying out for more practical, money-saving alternatives to skyrocketing gas prices.
American transit: the planner’s conundrum
Comparing American transit systems to those in other countries like Amsterdam, author Russell Shorto writes:
When I noted that Manhattan’s bike lanes seem to be used more for recreation than transport — cyclists in Amsterdam are dressed in everything from jeans to cocktail dresses, while those in Manhattan often look like spandex cyborgs — Mr. Hemel told me to give it time. “Those are the pioneers,” he said. “You have to start somewhere.”
Although New York’s public transit network is far from perfect, it is often hailed as one of the best in the United States.
On the other hand, the city of Los Angeles is a stand-alone example of the failures that can result from the suburban-sprawl-accommodating, automobile-based urban planning type that is the hallmark of the majority of North American communities.
But it hasn’t always been that way.
Metropolitan Los Angeles, a network of urban and suburban communities and the site of some of the nation’s most congested highways, was once home to the largest electric railway in the world.
The Pacific Electric Railway, or “Red Car” system, incorporated streetcars, light rail, and buses to link cities in LA, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside Counties. The rail system was an extreme success; high passenger rates led to the development of urban areas around rail lines and transit centers. The Railway ‘s extensive service area covered terrain as far as 55 miles outside of San Bernardino and 50 miles from Redlands, near Riverside. PE was one of the few interurban transit systems in the U.S. to also operate electric Railway Post Office Routes, an important source of revenue.
Supporting the PE Red Cars was the Los Angeles Railway, which provided local streetcar service to central LA and surrounding communities. These trolleys, or “Yellow Cars,” were even more popular than the Red Cars, since they serviced the most densely populated areas of Los Angeles, including Hawthorne and West Los Angeles.
The interconnected railways of Los Angeles enjoyed their heyday in the 1920s, but stopped running in 1961.
By the late 1930s, the influential Automobile Club of Southern California drafted an elaborate plan to create an elevated freeway-type “Motorway System,” a key aspect of which was the dismantling of the streetcar lines, which were replaced with buses that could run on local streets and the new express roads. City planners who began to draw out blueprints for the plan included light rail tracks in the center margin of each freeway; that portion of the plan was never implemented.
Cecil Adams points out that over time, the city attempted to phase in buses, which were seen as a better alternative to hard-to-maintain trolleys:
Buses were looked on as the transit industry’s salvation because they were cheaper to operate and maintain than trolleys, with no tracks or wires. In fact, the PE had begun to convert to buses in 1917, and had changed over 35 percent of its system by 1939. A state commission in the late 30s urged that busification continue, and by the early 1950s most of the tracks were gone. The last line gave up the ghost in 1961. It’s too bad — some think the PE could have been the nucleus of a decent, if heavily subsidized, modern rail system.
In terms of the future of public transit in America, the problem isn’t so much that we have a long way to go, but rather that we have a lot to recover.