When Los Angeles was declared to have hit “Peak Car”…in 1920!

There has been plenty of research published about the adoption and rapid growth of automobile use in Los Angeles in the early 1920s.

Some notable resources include Scott L. Bottles’ Los Angeles and the Automobile: The Making of the Modern City, and Ashleigh Brilliant’s The Great Car Craze, How Southern California Collided with the Automobile in the 1920s.

Over the years, we have dug deeper into our archival resources to pull out additional facets of this pivotal period in regional history. We previously documented that the number of vehicle registrations in Los Angeles had quadrupled in just an eight-year period from 1914-1922.

Automobile use exploded as the passenger vehicle transitioned from a hobbyist’s pursuit to a relatively affordable means of getting around the sprawling region and beyond.

It was quite a surprise, then, to have stumbled upon what was happening at the same time with local transit, as documented in an article published in Electric Railway Journal titled “California and Her Tractions, Part II.

As one of several features titled “A Series of Articles on Salient Phases of the Electric Railway Situation,” author Edward Hungerford details the then current state of public transit in the Los Angeles area.

And within that overview, he interviews Paul Shoup, Pacific Electric Railways president and vice-president of Southern Pacific Company.

Hungerford documents Pacific Electric’s earnings in a recent six-month period, and asks Shoup “for the real translation of these figures.”

Shoup responds by stating:

They mean that the peak of the competition of the automobile, publicly or privately owned or operated, has been reached out here — and passed. Not only is the rapidly rising cost of cars and tires and gasoline and oil beginning to deter the overenthusiastic motorists, but I think that the novelty of excessive motor riding also is rather wearing off. The hazards of driving on crowded highways are becoming more apparent and parking spaces in towns and cities more a question of doubt.

In addition to our great numbers of motor stage routes in every direction, we now have some 500,000 automobiles in California licensed for pleasure purposes, to which should be added the cars owned and operated by the 100,000 Easterners who come out here every winter. The competitive effect of all these cars has been, and still is, vast indeed. But we already can see in it a declining curve.

Say what now? Automobile use peaked in 1920 and was on a downward trajectory?

Shoup explains that Los Angeles Railway profits were consistent with those of Pacific Electric, but acknowledges that “increases in both operating cost and taxes had gone ahead a little more than proportionately.” But he intimates that the rising cost of automobile operation (gas, tires) means that cars will cease their encroachment into transit’s share of mobility.

This statement was part of an interview published in a national journal. Was he telling industry professionals what they wanted to hear? Did he want to assuage fears of rail employees that their jobs were going to disappear as more people purchased and used automobiles? Was he hoping that his perspective would turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy so he could remain atop Pacific Electric and Southern Pacific?

We will never know his true motivations, but it is notable that the head of the largest interurban system in the United States was preaching the economic viability of rail over automobiles just a few years before Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway debuted their joint coach service in 1923.

Those early buses were deemed the best option to quickly supplement the limitations of fixed-route streetcar lines, beginning with coach service on Western Avenue, Wilshire Boulevard, and Vermont Avenue. The city’s first bus line, a jointly operated Western Avenue coach line, intersected 18 different streetcar lines — making connections easier for people traveling across the city.

Deploying buses were surely a faster and more flexible way of meeting connectivity needs than building entire streetcar lines on busy avenues. This dynamic continued for decades as buses continued to replace rail transit across the region, and accelerated as more people moved further from the city center and began commuting via freeways — by either automobile or bus.

On another note, Hungerford also states with prescience that:

Even if our national supply of gasoline runs low and fails utterly to keep pace with our very great national increase of self-profpelled vehicles upon our highways, the automobile manufacturers will proceed promptly to develop a substitute fuel.

Indeed, Los Angeles began experimenting with alternative fuel buses just a few years later. Los Angeles Railway piloted a gasoline-electric bus on Wilshire Boulevard in 1925.