Nobody Drives in LA — Historic Los Angeles Transit Railways

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 sometimes 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 without access to a car.

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). Whereas cities with less wealth than Los Angeles, like Hong Kong, Osaka, Seoul, and Taipei have shops, restaurants, vending machines, &c. There is hope, however. In 2025, Metro will complete its first train station with a public restroom. What a concept!


SOURCES

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.

4 thoughts on “Nobody Drives in LA — Historic Los Angeles Transit Railways

  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.

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    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.

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    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!

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