The 24-Hour City: 104 Years Of Owl Transit Service In Los Angeles

— By Matt Barrett

Los Angeles has been a 24-hour city for much longer that most would imagine, and transit service has played an important role in keeping the city moving overnight for over 100 years.

(LAMTA Car 3022 trundles down the R Line tracks on owl service in 1963. Photo courtesy of Alan Weeks)

According to the September 11, 1906 edition of the Los Angeles Examiner newspaper, in a brief article entitled “Owl Cars Are Run on Principal Lines”:

The “owl” car service began last night. Cars on the principal lines left First and Spring streets at 1 and 2 o’clock. They were well patronized. The lines included are Boyle Heights, Grand Avenue, Vernon Avenue, University, Main Street, and Pico Heights.

At the time service began, these lines linked Downtown with what were then LA’s most populated neighborhoods around 6th and Rampart, Central and Slauson, Boyle Heights, 46th and Wesley, Vermont and 54th, and Pico and Wilton.

Owl service continued in operation as the fledgling network of streetcar lines, buses and interurban rail lines was purchased in 1911 and organized into two main transit companies: Pacific Electric, for long-distance interurban service, and Los Angeles Railway serving urban inner-city Los Angeles.

As Los Angeles grew outward, so did the length of the lines offering owl service. Special owl service guides were published and system maps included extensive owl service information for passengers.

Even as streetcar service slowly began the conversion to bus service, beginning as early as 1925 and continuing until the last rail line was shut down in 1963, owl service remained a part of the transit system – as it does today.

(This 1947 brochure advertised LAMTA‘s Owl Service)

Currently, Metro has 59 buses running on 26 lines during its overnight owl service, roughly midnight to 5 a.m., connecting Downtown to points north to the San Fernando Valley, south to Long Beach, east to El Monte and west to Santa Monica and Venice.