Nobody Drives in LA — Historic Los Angeles Transit Rail

I know that it’s not the case — but even the most recently transplanted Angeleno should know that Los Angeles was built around railroads. The first steam train appeared in Los Angeles in 1869, nineteen years after the city was incorporated. The first horsecar showed up in 1874. The first trolley began operation in 1885. The arrival of the transcontinental railroad ignited the first population boom in 1888. Electric trains were launched in 1890 and before long the region boasted the largest electric interurban rail network in world history.

Trains were an essential amenity in navigating Los Angeles and were thus often built by real estate developers. Streetcar suburbs were colloquially known as “toonervilles,” after the then-popular comic strip, Toonerville Folks (a.k.a. The Toonerville Trolley That Meets All the Trains). There were so many train lines and so many operator that this map is not complete. I did include, though, the first line (the Spring and Sixth Street Railroad Company), the biggest network (Pacific Electric Railway), and the most historically popular (Los Angeles Railway). I’ll add more over time.

Of course most of those early trains have vanished (most — because Angels Flight — inaugurated in 1901, moved to its current location in 1996). Many trains were replaced with buses — which, I suppose, is why so many vintage train nerds hate buses so much. I, for the record, have no problem with buses. Sure, they (for reasons I don’t honestly understand) lack the romance of even a streetcar but most people ride transit to get places, not for charm, and Los Angeles County’s buses have, since their introduction in the 1920s, been the the workhorses of our transit network.

That said, Los Angeles buses (and bus riders) have never been given the respect they deserve. Without bus-only lanes, they mired in traffic alongside private automobiles. Without frequent service, it often makes more sense just to walk. Without decent bus stops (e.g. ones with seating, shelter, lighting, route maps, charging stations, waste bins, Wi-Fi, &c), buses will remain the last resort, rather than first choice, for those with access to a car or bicycle.

Our trains, meanwhile, are nice (if slow) but our train stations are inexcusably lacking considering the fact that Los Angeles is the third wealthiest city in the world (measured by gross municipal product). The train stations in Hong Kong, Osaka, Seoul, and Taipei — all less wealthy than ours — have brightly lit shops, excellent restaurants, vending machines, breastfeeding rooms, art exhibitions &c. Metro train riders, on the other hand, wait inside stations that have all the charm of a parking garage and should they need to use the restroom, well, there’s a doorway or elevator where, from the smell of it, many have peed before. There is hope, however; Metro is building its first station with a public restroom in Beverly Hills. Metro predicts it will open in 2025 — so, realistically, probably 2028.


The Electric Railway Historical Association of Southern California

Metro Transportation Library and Archive: History of Transit in Los Angeles

Los Angeles Transit Agencies

“The Militant’s Pacific Electric Archaeology Map” by the Militant Angeleno (2015)

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.

16 thoughts on “Nobody Drives in LA — Historic Los Angeles Transit Rail

  1. You must have not experienced public transit stations in many other US cities, because L.A. definitely has some of the most cleverly themed, and consistently clean stations I’ve came across.


    1. I don’t know; I’ve taken mass transit in Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, San Francisco, New Orleans, Tampa, Princeton, and San Diego — to name a few. It’s true that Los Angeles’s Metro stations are “cleverly themed.” However, I’d trade a mural for a well-maintained restroom any day. Los Angeles stations, too, might be better than those of most American cities, but that’s a very low bar. Los Angeles is the second-wealthiest city in the world’s wealthiest country and once upon a time — during the Great Depression, no less — the money was somehow available to put restrooms and restaurants inside inside Union Station. Imagine if Los Angeles’s transit was in a league with any East Asian country instead of pretty good for a third world one.


    1. Oh, I’d love that, obviously. I just had ramen after riding with a friend in a car to a mountain for a hike. I’d have loved to have walked to a train station, eaten ramen inside, and then taking the train to the base of the mountain. Maybe someday!



    One way to start a discussion about local passenger transportation is to consider why the personal automobile has become the dominant mode in the US. In a few places, such as Boston, New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, public transit plays an important role. In most other metro areas, getting people out of their cars and into a bus or train is an uphill battle.

    One cynic observed: Of course the automobile took over–look at all the wonderful human character traits it plays to: Impatience, selfishness and laziness. Impatience is a part of American culture; I once saw a personalized license plate that read H8 2 W8 (“hate to wait”). We tend to be in a hurry, packing our days with activity. “Road rage” resulting from this frantic lifestyle makes the headlines. One of the annoyances of using public transit systems is waiting for a bus or train. The observation that railroad stations have “waiting rooms” points up this fact. Compare this with the automobile, ready to go at a moment’s notice, any time, day or night. Then there’s selfishness. From time to time various state and local agencies tout the virtues of ride-sharing and/or van-pooling. They’re wonderful ways to cut fuel consumption, air pollution and road congestion, but many drivers are reluctant to give up the control represented by the steering wheel. When you’re in your own car, you choose the route. If you want to stop at your favorite hobby store on the way home, nobody will object. If you want to listen to music, it’s your choice from the radio or the stereo player. Is your car showroom fresh or a wastebasket with wheels? It’s your choice. The laziness aspect can be seen in several ways: ever watch someone drive around the mall parking lot looking for a parking space 25 feet closer to the door? Unless one lives next door to a bus stop or railway station, there’s a walk involved in getting to public transit, while the car is right out in the driveway or garage. And once you get to the destination stop, there may be more of a hike to the actual building. And there’s more to it than an aversion to walking: my wife worked for many years in Times Mirror Square at 1st & Broadway in LA. She usually drove and parked in the parking structure on 2nd St., which had direct access to the building. When her car was in the shop, she’d take the bus from San Gabriel (it stopped near the service station) and go downtown. The problem was getting from the bus stop to the TM building–dodging all the winos and weirdoes that infest that part of town. Yeeccchh!

    When I wrote this essay some years ago, I forgot another aspect of “automobility”: Vanity. One luxury import “marque” (to use the car snobs’ term) even uses “You are what you drive” as a slogan. If it wasn’t for the concept of “making a statement”, most of us would be driving Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys or similar cars that get the job done without attempting to impress relatives, friends and total strangers with your “coolness”. For family excursions and errands which require more cubic feet than a sedan, there’s the SUV vs. minivan question. Consumer Reports reviewed the Honda Odyssey recently, and started off saying: Sorry, image conscious parents. Despite the popularity of SUVs, none of them can match a minivan for overall versatility and practical family transportation. I suppose to some people, “image” is important. Motor vehicle ads on TV certainly play up to this part of the human psyche, telling all the guys in the audience that the sponsor’s product will attract more “hot chicks” than you’d know what to do with, or turning your shy, nerdy son into a “big man on campus” because you drive him to school in your new luxury car. Then there’s the athlete who finally makes the “big leagues” and signs a multi-million-dollar contract to hit, throw, carry or catch some kind of round or spheroidal object. It’s not true in all cases, but one of the first things many of these players do (especially if they came from a “financially challenged” background) is buy the biggest SUV or the sportiest coupe they can find. Alas, a sad number of them use more of the big bucks to go out and party, knowing they can cover any bar tabs, and proceed to run their fancy ride into something large and unyielding.


  3. That map of the Los Angeles Ry. lines reminds me of why I spent 15 hours in a 747 twenty years ago, flying to Melbourne, Australia. The tramway system in that city is the nearest thing to the LARy system in the world of today. And, the Aussies have an electric suburban railway system that brought the Pacific Electric to mind. G’day, Mate!


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