Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1920s

The last 100 years of transit and transportation planning in Los Angeles hold stories full of challenges and opportunities, successes and failures, and some surprises, little known “firsts,” and enduring urban legends.

We are taking a look back — decade by decade — at key resources from our collection to contextualize the seminal traffic, transit, and transportation plans for the region in order to provide greater understanding of how we arrived where we are today.

But first, some background…

Visitors to the Metro Transportation Research Library & Archive’s collections often ask about past mass rail rapid transit concepts, the birth of freeway planning, and what led to today’s multi-modal environment in this “car-centric city.”

They also speculate about what Los Angeles might have looked like if one or more of these plans been constructed.

Speculation, innovation, and creative suggestions are all hallmarks of local transportation concepts stretching back to the beginning of the transit planning era, even before the first official plans of the 1920s.

Many people don’t realize that Los Angeles had horse-drawn public transit systems, even an Ostrich Farm Railway, and like San Francisco, cable cars as well. These long-forgotten cable railways debuted in 1873 and ran through the late 1890s.

By 1900, bicycling had taken the nation by storm, and Los Angeles was no exception. Southern California was even home to a short-lived “bicycle highway.” A young visionary named Horace M. Dobbins sought to capitalize on the explosive interest in bicycling through construction of the “world’s first elevated bikeway” running from downtown Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles. It was strikingly different in another way: the bikeway was a toll road, requiring admission for use.

Another creative proposal for local public transit was Joseph Fawkes’ experimental suspended monorail, the Aerial Swallow.

He built a prototype vehicle and test track in his Burbank orchard, hoping to prove that the torpedo-shaped monorail could go 150 miles per hour. The public wasn’t convinced, and local skeptics doomed another proposed track between Santa Monica and Los Angeles.

In 1902, Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric opened its line between Los Angeles and Long Beach. The unprecedented first rail between these two cities heralded a forthcoming period of rapid growth for public transit.

Even by the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the city had a strong network of streetcar service (Los Angeles Railway) and interurban rail (Pacific Electric Railway), along with a small but growing presence of automobiles.

The 1910s witnessed rapid annexation of surrounding areas Los Angeles, while the arrival of water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct beginning in 1913 further fueled rapid growth. The city was also impacted by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1915, aware that its completion would increase freight movement and growth for the region.

In 1911, The California Outlook, a Progressive Weekly, published a 20-page article titled “Preliminary Report Upon The Transportation Problem of Los Angeles.” It is believed to contain the first recommendation for a subway for Los Angeles. Its author, Bion J. Arnold, was a renowned engineer and mass transportation expert, referred to as “father of the third rail.” He assisted in the conversion of electrified railways in Chicago, New York, Pittsburgh and San Francisco prior to being tapped to study the needs of Los Angeles.

Also in 1911, the “Great Merger” consolidated numerous interurban rail lines into Pacific Electric Railway.

It is easier to understand Los Angeles’ early rail systems if you relate them to today’s network.

Think of the “inter-urban” Pacific Electric Railway as the Metrolink of its day (only much more extensive and electrically powered) and consider the “intra-urban” Los Angeles Railway (also electrically powered) as the grandfather of the current urban bus system. Los Angeles Railway never ran more than six miles from the center of downtown Los Angeles.

By 1915, these streetcar lines were already being slowed by other forms of transportation in the growing city: horse-drawn vehicles were still prevalent, the bicycle was still popular, and the new automobiles were sharing the same roads. These factors may have contributed to passenger volume on Los Angeles Railway falling between 1913 and 1919.

Deteriorating local street conditions warranted a 1915 Study of Street Traffic Conditions and the Practicability of Subsurface or Elevated Construction for Urban and Interurban Transit Facilities.

This report analyzes congestion and compared it to other U.S. cities in great detail, concluding that “sub-surface construction as applied to urban traffic should be looked upon as a measure of last resort, a necessity forced by conditions for which there is no other remedy.”

But congestion was getting worse and streetcar speeds were impeded by new cars, as personal automobile use continued to grow from just a hobby or leisure activity into a primary modal choice and commuter vehicle. The number of automobiles registered in Los Angeles quadrupled in just eight years from 1914 to 1922.

Given the explosive growth of automobiles in Los Angeles following World War I, it is somewhat surprising that Pacific Electric Railway president Paul Shoup asserted that interest in automobiles had peaked in 1920, and were on a downward trajectory as Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway streetcar service was flourishing.

Also in 1920, the Los Angeles Mayor and City Council requested a report on Unification of Railway Terminals and Elimination of Grade Crossings in Los Angeles in hopes of solving the growing congestion problem. The report put forth a number of recommendations, including abolishing all grade crossings in the center of Los Angeles “at once,” and eventually throughout the city limits.

Perhaps more importantly, it proposed “a Union Passenger Station for all main line carriers, and that station should be entered by regular trains of all divisions of the interurban lines.” This exhortation was the beginning of a battle over a union station for Los Angeles that stretched more than two decades.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Traffic Commission was formally organized in 1922 to “solve the constantly increasing traffic congestion problems of the City of Los Angeles.” Their report The Los Angeles Plan: a Selected Traffic Program points out that the city had already earned the dubious distinction of having more automobiles per capita than any other large city in America and warned (in all capital letters) that Los Angeles is a city of narrow streets, narrow sidewalks, and dangerous grade crossings.

This report stressed that “subways for strictly local service are problematical,” but went on to suggest that a circuit system for later development should begin with construction of a north-south line located somewhere between Figueroa Street and Los Angeles Street, and a second east-west line should be located under Bunker Hill.

But it is clear from the 1922 report that something had to be done soon to alleviate crippling congestion in Los Angeles. Its conclusion ominously stated: “Something must be done, and this something must be started NOW. To put off adopting a plan, until the congested district dies of strangulation means that a new district will spring up elsewhere, leaving depreciation of property value, and disaster in its wake.”

In 1923, an exhaustive Report on Some of the Problems of Operation of the Los Angeles Railway looked at what could be done from the streetcar side of the transit challenges, making a number of operational recommendations and proposals.

This was followed by the 1924 Major Traffic Street Plan for Los Angeles commissioned by the City and County. The consulting board, including noted urban planner Frederick Law Olmsted and others, put forth that “the street traffic congestion problem of Los Angeles is exceeded by that of no other city.”

The statistics on street traffic volume increases in Los Angeles County between 1914 – 1923 are astonishing.

The report advocates for maximum use of street space, widening and opening streets, restricting unnecessary traffic movements and separating streetcars from automobile traffic wherever possible.

At this point, if there was any doubt that Los Angeles was already a multi-modal city, one only needs to consider the circumstances surrounding the climax of Harold Lloyd’s 1924 film Girl Shy, in which he races across Los Angeles on a Pacific Electric streetcar, several automobiles, a fire engine, a policeman’s motorcycle, and a horse wagon.

Track miles for the Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway systems peaked around 1925, stretching across the Los Angeles Basin from the San Fernando Valley to the Inland Empire, and south to Orange County.

The most influential transportation plan of the period is the 1925 Comprehensive Rapid Transit Plan for the City and County of Los Angeles.

This is one of the earliest plans commissioned by the City and County of Los Angeles. The consultants, Kelker, De Leuw & Co. of Chicago, were asked to create a plan to accommodate a future city population of 3,000,000. the plan shows a number of proposed immediate and future subways:

  • Across Hollywood to La Brea
  • From downtown out 7th Street, up Vermont Avenue, across Third Street initially to Larchmont Boulevard as a subway with a future extension on elevated rail out Third St. to Beverly Hills then down Wilshire to the ocean in Santa Monica
  • A subway from downtown across Pico Boulevard, initially to Pico/Rimpau with a future extension to Venice Beach

Solid lines represent mass rapid transit routes recommended for immediate construction to relieve downtown congestion, dotted lines predict future extensions that will be necessary to serve population increases.

The plan recommended for immediate construction included 153 miles of subway, elevated rail, and street railways at a projected cost of $133,385,000.

The plan was effectively shelved due to strong opposition from the business community regarding planned sections of elevated rail, along with voter reluctance to tax themselves for the benefit of the privately held Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railways.

This plan contemplated subway tunnels in downtown, rail in widened future freeways (red on map) and bus rapid transit lines (green on map) at an estimated cost of $68,000,000.

1925 also saw the beginning of Los Angeles’ experiment with alternative fuels. “Gasoline-electric” double-decker buses, made in California, began running as auxiliary vehicles to streetcars.

This bold plan inspired Clarence R. Snethen, the Executive Secretary for the Los Angeles Traffic Commission, to declare that “1926 will see material relief in traffic congestion, and by so doing, bring added prosperity to Los Angeles.”

However, rapid expansion of parkway planning for automobiles, strong patron dissatisfaction with transit overcrowding, slow speeds and old equipment on Pacific Electric Railway and Los Angeles Railway, along with voter apathy, once again shelved plans for a new mass transit system.

As the 1920s came to a close, Los Angeles would witness the beginning of the Great Depression along with numerous transportation challenges: a continuing struggle with street railway solvency, uncertainty over road infrastructure planning in light of exponential automobile traffic, and an ongoing battle over a union station for the three major railroads serving the area.


More Past Visions:

Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1930s

Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1940s

Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1950s

Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1960s

Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1970s

Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1980s

Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 1990s

Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 2000s

Past Visions of Los Angeles’ Transportation Future: 2010s