Rail Rapid Transit Now!: Early Freeways, “Bus Rapid Transit” & The Competing Transportation Plans Of 1948

One hundred years ago, the first traffic study of Los Angeles was published.

Bion J. Arnold explained “The Traffic Problem Of Los Angeles” in the November 4, 1911 issue of The California Outlook: A Progressive Weekly.

In subsequent years, congestion in the city was scrutinized, analyzed and demonized on an almost annual basis.

Proposed remedies ranged from separating streetcars from automobiles, an underground road network just for buses, monorails along the Los Angeles River and a vast network of freeways several times larger than what we know today.

In 1948, two traffic studies emerged, and the remarkable differences between them highlight not only the complex nature of mobility in the City of Los Angeles, but the ever-evolving analyses of the problem and possible solutions.

One would be hard pressed to find another single year with such divergent views of both the traffic problem as well as what to do about it.

Freeway median rail lines and transit stations

In February of 1948, The Rail Transit Action Group released their Rail Rapid Transit Now! document (16p. PDF).

It noted that construction of the Southern California freeway system was well underway, and that citizens should seize the moment and embrace the integration of rail lines in the medians of the new highways.

Coordinated by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the Rapid Transit Action Group consisted of 17 men (and no women) employed by the State, County, City and independent citizen consultants, as well a representative from Los Angeles Transit Lines and Pacific Electric Railway.

(The report notes that it carries the approval of the Group members, but not necessarily in their official capacities of their employment)

One year earlier, the Metropolitan Traffic and Transit Committee of the Chamber called for a “mutually-participating agency to be formed to devise a plan for rail rapid transit, and a method of financing.”

Infographics helped tell the story that L.A. was ready, if not overdue, for comprehensive rapid transit

In its foreward, the Rail Rapid Transit Now! report posed that there were three ways to move people daily in a modern city: by auto, by bus and by rail.

As “autos are too expensive for most people,” and since autos and buses both congest the streets, it was clear to the Group that rail must be separated from all other traffic when a city becomes as large as Los Angeles

After months of studying alternate methods of moving millions of Angelenos, the Group concluded that a new rail rapid transit system was absolutely needed, absolutely viable, absolutely fundable, and absolutely preferable.

This report stands out in the long line of historic local traffic studies for a number of reasons.

First, it is a study in marketing the novel idea of expanding mass transit in conjunction with the freeway plan.

Right on the cover, the plan states that:

It’s Needed — autos and buses can’t move Los Angeles’ four million people now.  Crawling traffic will come to a shuddering, chaotic halt when we have six million people, plus

Now Or Never — The modern way to build a rail rapid transit system is between the roadways of a freeway. The freeways are being built now. the rail system must be built at the same time

It Costs Less — Rail rapid transit will cost a fraction as much built in a freeway.  It can be financed.  It can be self-supporting.  And 4 times as many people can ride for 1/2 the cost, per person

The proposal spells out exactly what is necessary, what is involved, what it will take and why it is necessary now.

The plan's area-side system map, including "Bus Rapid Transit" (Click to enlarge)

The introduction explains that “freeways are basic,” and the ongoing “phenomenal” growth and unique nature of Los Angeles means the City must be accompanied by a comprehensive transit plan.

The cover of the report even touts a tagline for the newly proposed system: “LIVE where you like…WORK where you please,” later elaborating on this point by proclaiming that “it is every man’s desire to have a plot of ground free from the grind of factory and office…our people need not huddle in the shadow of office buildings nor gather close to the factories.”

This 1948 proposal was complete with outlines for how the project would be designed and funded — “None of the highway-user taxes will be used to pay for any of the cost of the system.”

It also outlined very specific routing recommendations for the early freeways (some of which were never constructed).

Freeway median rail would have serviced Downtown (Click to enlarge)

Rail operations were proposed for the medians of the Santa Monica Parkway, the Olympic Parkway, the Inglewood Parkway, the Harbor Parkway, the Ramona Parkway, and the East By-Pass.

Service from downtown to Hollywood and on to the San Fernando Valley was suggested via the Hill Street Subway, with downtown stations “about two blocks apart.”

Rail cars would be designed to operate at a top speed of 50 miles per hour, with colorful interiors to “ease rider fatigue.”

Once the report outlined the details, it delineated its benefits for everyone.

For the person who lives within walking distance, they could take advantage of easy access.

For people who were currently riding surface transit, the benefit was reduced transit time compared to the status quo.

The report’s “time savings” chart provides some intriguing comparisons between present rail, present bus, and proposed rail:  The current “Express” rail service from Downtown to Van Nuys saved a whopping 3 minutes off of the 91 minute travel time for local service, while the new system would take only 34 minutes!

For the car owner who was forced to drive everywhere, regular schedules would eliminate waiting time and therefore decrease travel time.

The new "Cahuenga Freeway" -- note existing rail lines in median

And for those who relied on automobiles for work — “the salesman, the buyer, or professional man” — roads and freeways would be less congested due to others opting for the new rail transit.

A quick glance at the proposed Area-Wide System Map shows the initial plan shares many of the same traffic corridors that were studied later and which eventually formed the foundation for our current light rail system.

One line going to the San Fernando Valley via the Cahuenga Pass, another along the Arroyo Seco into Pasadena, another south into Long Beach, and yet another along Inglewood Boulevard.

The Rail Rapid Transit Now! report is so full of convincing well-constructed arguments for mass transit, it’s hard to remember that it was written over 60 years ago.

Downtown subway stops would be approximately every two blocks

It even includes some early versions of things we didn’t become familiar with until much later on.

One would be the concept of “Bus Rapid Transit.”

While it is commonly believed that the first BRT system was deployed in Curitiba, Brazil in 1974, the proposed feeder system for the rapid rail proposal is named “bus rapid transit” in both the body of the report and its accompanying maps.

Another surprising inclusion is early “infographics,” using images to convey statistical data and charts.

The Chamber of Commerce sure knew how to tell a story to sell an idea.

Even the financing seemed too good to be true.

System costs were pegged at $309 million, with annual revenue at $51 million after revenue collected for other operators supplying connecting service.

1940s Arroyo Seco Parkway traffic would benefit from rail rapid transit

Track and equipment maintenance, power, administration, insurance, depreciation, amortization and the like were pegged at a total of $51 million as well, making the system financial viable as envisioned by the Group.

The Plan envisioned a “Rapid Transit District” much like the Metropolitan Water District, which would issue bonds.

The governing body’s organization and powers are further spelled out in the document along with the call for legislative action, additional studies, how the District would be set up, and how bonds would be sold.

As compelling an argument it was, it never came to be.

The Los Angeles City Council refused to adopt a resoution endorsing the proposed legislation sponsored in the Rail Transit Action Group’s proposal, and the plan fizzled.

The Rapid Transit Action Group touted the potential for greatly reduced travel times throughout the County

The freeways had been championed as so convenient and modern, they were wholeheartedly embraced by the motoring public.

In Los Angeles And The Automobile: The Making Of The Modern City, author Scott Bottles notes that while fixed-rail systems were prohibitively expensive and often took years to build, the movement in the late 1940s was toward motor coaches.

“Buses, however, could begin operating immediately and perhaps stem the tide of decentralization.”

According to Eli Bail’s From Railway To Freeway: Pacific Electric And The Motor Coach, Pacific Electric hired noted transportation manager Arthur C. Jenkins to develop an independent study of what was needed for profitable transit.

Jenkins, who by then had launched his own consulting engineering office, “proposed ‘modernization’ that would bring Pacific Electric passenger service up to current industry standards (which meant bus substitution) in order to restore profitability in the face of increasing costs and inability to attract new patronage.”

Later in 1948, the proverbial other shoe dropped when the City of Los Angeles’ Traffic Survey Committee released their traffic analysis and proposals.

Street Traffic Management For Los Angeles: Appraisal And Recommnedations Prepared For The City Of Los Angeles (75p. PDF) stressed the need for a comprehensive approach to traffic.

Automobiles were not the problem at all.

Rather, it was the lack of a Traffic Commission and traffic engineering department that made congestion so terrible.

In this plan, mass transit is mentioned only in passing, while bus transit and the burgeoning freeway system’s capacity to move both people and goods are praised in myriad ways several times.

It notes that “a pedestrian sometimes could pass a street car in the downtown area,” accompanied by a photo of streetcars stuck in automobile traffic, while not addressing what could be done to improve the surface public transportation.

Mass transit is described as “slow and overcrowded,” while “cars on some lines are completely filled at the outer ends of the lines [while] local patrons are unable to board the cars and so resort to their automobiles.”

The report notes that much of Los Angeles’ modernization and growth has come about during the automobile era, and eagerly anticipates the promises of the freeway.

1948 Proposed Parkways System Map (Click to enlarge)

The proposed local freeway system is described as “sharing no right of way with pedestrians or mass transit…the properly designed freeway becomes the logical answer, and one that has won general public approval.”

“Less than 20 miles of freeway are in existence today, but heartening progress is being made…although the ultimate system probably will never exceed one per cent of the street mileage, it will possibly carry as much as 50 per cent of the total vehicle miles.”

While it goes on to state that “mass transit can and should operate wherever desired lines of mass movement exist,” the report clearly touts the advantages of the freeway system as the solution to the City’s traffic and congestion.

In contrast to the visionary appeal of a multi-modal plan for the region as proposed by the Rapid Transit Action Group, the Street Traffic Management report looks at new proposals for the existing transportation system (plus shiny new freeways) via coordination of maintenance and enforcement officials and additional local bureaucracy.

It summarizes the end result as lessened congestion and fewer accidents.  Improvement to the existing transit system or planning for a new one were not part of the picture.

The following year, plans for a comprehensive Los Angeles transportation plan took yet another pivotal turn.

Another year, another plan: 1949 was ushered in with an entirely new concept -- monorail

In 1949, a new report came out which sent Los Angeles off on a wildly different course for yet more transit studies and proposals.

The Preliminary And Supplemental Report No. II Of The Assembly Fact-Finding Committee On Highways, Streets And Bridges (38p. PDF) slammed the Rapid Transit Action Group’s proposal for rail down freeway medians.

It asserted that the Group had previously endorses a proper plan and was now insisting that it was just “a” plan, not “the” plan to combat congestion, and that the Group also had preconceived ideas of what the ultimate plan should entail.

Ironically, the State Assembly’s report also had preconceived ideas, touting yet another mode of transportation — monorail, with an image of sleek “modern” suspended overhead rail gracing its cover.

This new turn in the history of our local transportation planning would usher in the second half of the 20th century, a new transit agency for Los Angeles led by appointees of the Governor, the era of monorail proposals, a decades long fight over a predominant transit mode, and eventually the planning for our contemporary subway and light rail lines.