Opinion: Public mass transit was once a rich part of SoCal—why not harness that history?

Transit is a complicated matter, especially in Southern California.

Here in the land of concrete ribbons of freeways, transit is directly connected to tangible infrastructure like our sidewalks, our highways, our neighborhood streets, even our airspace, with both international and municipal airports. It is deeply intertwined with social matters like accessibility, one’s sense of comfort, classism and racism, just to name a few. And the way we cater (or don’t) to transit has an impact on our geospatial field—from climate change and livability of marginalized communities to increasing or decreasing public safety.

This complicated interplay—one which cars and freeways play as significant a role as housing laws in order to redline communities and segregate social populations, like Boyle Heights—is a central figure of our current conversation.

This complicated interplay is why two pedestrians were killed yesterday by drivers crashing into them in the city of Los Angeles; one of them a 4-year-old girl walking to preschool with her mother.

This complicated interplay is why more than 20 pedestrians and bicyclists have been killed in Long Beach by drivers this past year.

This complicated interplay is why the state will not meet its emission goals—pushed back over a hundred years if we keep up our current car culture—and why passenger cars now represent over a quarter of all the state’s emissions.

And this complicated interplay fuels the Catch-22-like public outcry over traffic and congestion consistently presents: On one hand, proclaiming “If SoCal actually had good transit, I wouldn’t need my car,” but then not supporting any better or alternative transit system.

Bus-only lanes on a freeway and bike lanes cause outrage—”We aren’t Europe!”—and mass transit expansion is met with farcical outrage. (Beverly Hills’ protest against the Purple Line extension included a Hamburglar-like purple mascot dressed in the armor of Thanos, suggesting he will destroy half of Beverly Hills by extending his power. I kid you not.)

Amid all this cognitive dissonance and a stubborn, socially self-induced allergy to anything outside our cars, there remains little discussion about how the Los Angeles region actually used to be home to one the nation’s most extensive fixed-rail transit systems.

And Long Beach was a key connector and contributor to that network. A contributor, mind you, that has led to the creation of a park along its old right-of-way near Colorado Lagoon.


A Pacific Electric red trolley heads north on American Avenue, now Long Beach Boulevard, between First Street and Ocean Boulevard. Courtesy of the USC Archive.

“The Red Cars played a major role in early Southern California,” said David Housh, curator of the Pacific Railroad Society’s museum in San Dimas. “In the first half [of the 20th century], that was the only way people could get around—and that, historically, needs to be remembered.”

The Los Angeles Inter-Urban Railway, most commonly known nowadays as the Pacific Electric Red Car Railway, was once a booming network that, in less than a decade after its creation by Henry Huntington in 1901—the man behind Huntington Library & Gardens and one of California’s most influential figures—had hundreds of electric rail cars zooming from Pasadena to Los Angeles and beyond.

Surely, this railway system was built by Huntington out of greed: it connected his many properties, often featuring attractions and activities overseen by his estate. (And it was eventually owned by the county before its dismantle.)

And with this, the success of the lines brought Huntington to an idea to garner even more wealth: if he sold the railway to rival Southern Pacific, they could then merge every system in the Southland and he could more easily collect even more money from the properties he owned—and this was no small achievement.

Courtesy of the USC Archive.

We’re talking not just Southern Pacific taking over the Inter-Urban Railway but the Los Angeles Pacific Railway, the Los Angeles and Redondo Railway, the San Bernardino Valley Traction Company, the San Bernardino Interurban, the Redlands Central, and the Riverside and Arlington systems.

This was dubbed “The Great Merger” and thereafter became known as the Pacific Electric Railway, allowing Huntington not only easy access to his swath of real estate throughout the region but connecting millions of people each year and forever cementing the Southland’s place as a destination.

In fact, by 1914, some 1,600 red cars were coming in and out of the Downtown Los Angeles hub every single day.

At its pinnacle in the mid-1920s, one could take a streetcar from Riverside to Downtown Los Angeles to Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach. The contemporary myth that Los Angeles was predicated on the freeway is just that, a myth, the folklore of the freeway remaining true to this day.

From Glendale to Gardena, Pasadena to Palos Verdes, many of these places became towns and cities because of the Pacific Electric Red Car network and outside of its hub in Downtown Los Angeles, Long Beach was the area most patronized by and attractive to riders.

A No. 1522 Pacific Electric red car leaves the Pacific Electric Building at Sixth and Main streets heading to Long Beach in Los Angeles in Dec. 1960 shortly before service ended in 1961. Courtesy of the USC Archive.

Long Beach’s network of electric trolleys was not just vast but exorbitantly convenient. Constructed in 1903 and a common destination once the Red Car network expanded, it ran the entire stretch of what is now Ocean Boulevard, from the eastern edge of the Los Angeles River across the coastline and into Naples.

By the end of 1923, Long Beach’s local lines had more than 4.5 million riders that year alone, bringing in some nearly $400,000 in revenue to the rail system with its contribution.

The most prominent of these lines was the namesake track, the Long Beach Line which opened on July 4, 1902 and offered a 2.85-mile track that connected folks to Los Angeles (later prompting the inspiration and creation of the Metro Blue Line, now the A Line, in 1990).

Its downtown terminus was at the corner of Ocean Boulevard and Pacific Avenue; during the early 1900s, Pacific Avenue ended directly at City Hall at Third Street and just east of what is now the Billie Jean King Library. From there, its cars operated east on Ocean Boulevard to American Avenue (now Long Beach Boulevard), north on American Avenue to a terminus in North Long Beach at the junction of the Newport Line, a short distance north of Willow Street.

Here is an entire interactive map of the network thanks to Militant Angeleno:

“Imagine what Long Beach would be like today if it featured a streetcar system more extensive than those of San Francisco or Portland, current sterling examples of urban fixed-rail transit,” said Brian Ulaszewski of City Fabrick when previously discussing the railway. “People would be able to access areas more efficiently, more enjoyably.”

But as companies like Standard Oil and General Motors began to garner power by creating buses and the almighty car, the popularity of the red cars dropped significantly, particularly when targeted by the auto and oil industries, who painted trains as unsafe, uncouth and unbearably archaic.

Come April of 1961, the Long Beach Line was the last of the red car lines to be in service, with a ride looking like this before it was replaced by a bus line via connection through what we now call the 710 Freeway:

Interest in the red cars re-emerged after the millennium with older folks and new schoolers alike wanting to taste what the red car system was like. It prompted the Port of Los Angeles to resurrect the line along San Pedro’s now-demolished Ports O’ Call complex, stretching from the Marina Station at 22nd Street to the Cruise Control Center where luxury liners would take off into the Pacific.

The line consisted of two replicas, modeled after the 1909 red car, as well as an original 1907 trolley that occasionally ran the tiny line. The $11 million project opened in July of 2003, only to be shuttered just over a decade later in 2015, with the Port citing rising costs as the reason it had to abandoned the reuse project.

Brian Addison is a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

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