Streetcar History

Pacific Electric Service Map c. 1920 (Source:

During the early and mid-1900’s the historic streetcar served as a popular mode of transportation along Broadway.  The Los Angeles Streetcar system was primarily operated by Pacific Electric (1901-1961) and developed into the largest trolley system in the world by the 1920’s. This breath of scale enabled residents and visitors alike to routinely traverse the Los Angeles region, and connected many of Southern California’s communities. The system operated for over half a century, and at its peak traversed over 1,100 miles of track with  900 electric trolley cars; this dense network produced a rate of public transit usage higher than San Francisco does today on a per capita basis.

Pacific Electric Car #856 (Source: USC Digital Archives)

For years the system was considered by many to be “the vital cog in the city’s transportation system,” and according to author Steven Ealson, provided transportation for millions who enjoyed the streetcar so much they would “ride for miles simply for fun or for transportation to places of amusement.” The demise of the streetcar began with the unprecedented development of single-family tract housing designed and built to accommodate automobiles. This pattern of development quickened during post-war housing construction, and accelerated the demise of the streetcar system as the region became dependent on private transportation.

The convenience and accessibility of automobiles eroded the advantages of the historic streetcar system, and led to precipitous declines in ridership. Widespread adoption of diesel buses ultimately led to the abandonment of all streetcar systems on March 31, 1963. This ended nearly 90 years of streetcar service in the Los Angeles region.

Rising fuel prices, heavily congested freeways and roadways, and significant environmental impacts have diminished the region’s love affair with the automobile and now necessitates the development of an effective streetcar system. Considered intermittently for a decade, reviving a downtown streetcar is an idea that has been studied by CRA, Metro and the former CCA Red Car Advisory Committee. These efforts all found common ground within Councilmember José Huizar’s Bringing Back Broadway initiative, which is where Downtown property owners furthered the idea and pushed for the formation of LASI.

In the early years of the movement, the general concept was to create a tourist attraction focusing on historically significant resources while also providing transportation services similar to the Market Street Railway in San Francisco. After considerable research, interviews, tours, and outreach, the focus of the streetcar broadened its scope to promote revitalization and reactivation of historic resources (such as Broadway’s historic theaters), employment, housing, entertainment, tourism, and general economic development. This larger focus embraces a future-oriented development strategy to link and enhance crucial nodes within Downtown that reinforce the area’s diverse mixture of commercial, residential, and historic districts.

These efforts further work to promote the modern rail renaissance occurring in Los Angeles, and includes the opening of the Metro Blue Line in 1990, the Metro Red Line in 1993, the Metro Green Line in 1995, the resurrection of the Pacific Electric Red Car Trolley at the Port of Los Angeles in 2003, the Metro Gold Line and Gold Line Extension in 2004 and 2009, respectively, and the anticipated opening of the Exposition Line to West Los Angeles and Westside Subway Extension (“Subway to the Sea”).

Los Angeles is not alone in its thinking. In the last decade, cities across the United States turned to streetcars again for a permanent transportation circulation system because streetcars are crucial components of  urban revitalization efforts in congested urban cities.

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