Los Angeles Railway In Brief

© Tom Wetzel 2003
LARY's Seamy Side
Line-by-Line Statistics for 1940 (and Photo Tours)
Map of Streetcar Routes
Bus Expansion
The Era of Zone Fares

The Los Angeles Railway (LARY — pronounced "Larry") was the streetcar system around which central L.A. was developed. LARY used a yellow paint scheme — hence LARY was known as the "Yellow Car" system. Los Angeles area real estate and utility tycoon Henry Huntington gained control of LARY in 1898. The streetcar system grew rapidly through the first decade of the 20th century, when the population of Los Angeles more than tripled. After Huntington's death in 1927, the streetcar system was owned by the Huntington Estate (operator of the museum and library in San Marino) until its sale to National City Lines in 1944, at which time it was renamed Los Angeles Transit Lines.

The Pacific Electric "Red Car" system has become legendary in the history of Los Angeles. But in reality LARY/LATL had a much higher ridership — nearly three times as high.

During the 1940s about a million people lived within about a half mile of the bus and streetcar lines of LARY/LATL. By 1950 some LATL bus lines penetrated as far as Beverly Hills on the westside, and the 5 streetcar line — the longest line — reached 13 miles south to Hawthorne. But for the most part LARY/LATL services were concentrated in the area that today would be called "central Los Angeles", and it covered this area fairly intensively.

The all-time high transit ridership in central Los Angeles was achieved in 1946 when there were 424 transit rides per person handled by Los Angeles Railway, local central Los Angeles routes of Pacific Electric, and the jointly owned Los Angeles Motor Coach. By 1950 the level of transit ridership had returned to roughly the same level as the '30s — 249 transit rides for every man, woman and child in central Los Angeles. This is still quite high by present-day standards. This would be higher than all cities in the USA at present other than San Francisco and New York.

The '50s and '60s were the era when transit ridership crashed in Los Angeles. The all time low was reached in 1969 when the central Los Angeles portion of the bus network handled only 96 transit rides per person for the year.

For more on this topic see A History of Transit Ridership in Los Angeles.

LARY's Seamy Side

During the era of Huntington control (1898-1944), Los Angeles Railway had a poor reputation among ordinary Angelenos. For one thing, there was overcrowding.

When working class Angelenos compared the crowded and aging streetcars to Huntington's reputation as Mr. Moneybags, the result was often resentment. "Is he getting rich off of squishing us in?", they may have thought.

And it didn't help that Huntington's labor strategy was based on keeping wages low — and breaking unions. LARY broke union organizing efforts in 1901 and 1910. Huntington made it clear that anyone who joined a union was asking to be fired. During a major strike wave in 1919 -- telegraph operators and telephone and shipyard workers were already on strike -- the LARY and Pacific Electric workers walked out in unison. This almost became a city-wide general strike when railroad workers on the steam railroads that connected to PE started "hiding" freight cars bound for PE on isolated sidings around the region, to support the PE workers. The LARY and PE strikes were broken with massive hiring of scabs and heavy police support.

After another strike was broken by LARY management in 1934, the Amalgamated Streetcar and Bus Workers Union worked with the People's Transit Committee to put an initiative on the ballot to set up a competing city-run bus system. This probably would have driven LARY into bankruptcy. They got this on the ballot three times — in 1935, 1937 and 1939. These initiatives were all defeated. But in 1939 the union tried another tactic — they got an initiative on the ballot to require both a driver and a fare-collector on all streetcars. At that time LARY was trying to cut costs by converting to one-man operation, with the driver collecting fares. Although the voters approved this measure, the California Supreme Court threw it out. In July of 1942 the workers were able to take advantage of a wartime labor shortage in yet another strike — this one finally successful.

Scene During 1919 LARY Strike In the '10s LARY was notorious for the overcrowding on many of its lines. The shot at left was taken, however, during a 1919 streetcar strike. Because the Huntington management broke the strike by hiring untrained scabs, service continued to suffer from overcrowding for months afterwards. Overcrowding and strike-breaking were reasons that municipalization of LARY had strong support in the '10s and '20s. During World War II scenes like that at left returned to Los Angeles on the U line, serving Central Avenue, with reports in the press of people hanging on the bumpers and clinging to the steps.

Line-by-Line Statistics for 1940

This is an incomplete listing. Bus lines are not listed. Click on the line letter or number to see photos of that line.

per Route Mi.
P10.174,8007,400W. Pico-E. 1st St.
37.035,3005,000W. 6th-Larchmont
L6.529,1004,400W. 11th-Olympic-L.A. High
S12.451,7004,170Western-W. 7th-Avalon-Central
V11.847,000 4,000 Vermont-Vernon-Leonis
R11.244,7004,000W. 3rd-7th-Whittier Blvd
B8.132,300 4,000Ascot-Brooklyn-City Terrace
J12.549,100 3,900Jefferson-Santa Fe-Pacific Blvd.-Walnut Park
U13.049,2003,800Central Ave-Figueroa-USC-So. Vermont
W15.751,0003,200Washington-Monte Vista-York Blvd
22.97,4002,500Belmont-3rd (Crown Hill)
88.120,7002,50054th St.
79.624,3002,500So. Broadway-Spring St.
521.846,7002,100Hawthorne Blvd-Crenshaw-Eagle Rock Blvd
O9.018,9002,100No. Main St.-So. Main St.
107.915,4002,000Vernon Av.-No. Broadway
D3.15,6001,800W. 6th St.-Alvarado
F12.921,4001,600E. 4th-So. Hoover-So. Vermont
913.219,5001,40048th St.-No. Broadway
Shuttles8,600Edgewear Rd.,Euclid-Evergreen,Indiana St.,Gage Ave.

Map of Streetcar Routes

The map below shows the Los Angeles Railway streetcar lines, and population density, in 1938. (To avoid making the map unreadable, I've not included LARY bus lines or lines of Pacific Electric, or bus lines of Los Angeles Motor Coach — a joint operation of PE and LARY.)

LARY 1938

Bus Expansion

Between 1917 and 1931, Los Angeles Railway only expanded streetcar route mileage by 5 percent, even though the population of Los Angeles doubled in that period. Beginning in 1923, Los Angeles Railway began a major program of expansion using motor buses. Mainly these were cross-town and feeder routes. LARY also teamed up with Pacific Electric to create a joint bus operation, Los Angeles Motor Coach, which operated mainly on the westside of the city.

Buses came to Los Angeles in 1923 through a huge political fight. To read the story of that fight, take a look at When Buses Started Running in Los Angeles.


During the late 1930s LARY was generally able to generate a slight operating profit. Most of the lines listed above operated at a loss. However, the P and U lines generated enough profit to overcome the losses of the other streetcar routes. In 1944 LARY became LATL — a subsidiary of the infamous National City Lines consortium financed by motor bus suppliers (General Motors, Philips Petroleum, Mack Truck, Standard Oil of California, Goodyear). Through vigorous cost-cutting, fare hikes, and replacement of streetcars with buses after World War II, LATL was generally able to generate a return on invested capital in the vicinity of 5 percent until purchased by the state of California in 1958.

In 1958 LATL was combined with Metropolitan Coach Lines (the bus system that replaced Pacific Electric) under state ownership, forming the first MTA. As late as 1969 the central Los Angeles portion — basically the old LARY network — of the government-operated Los Angeles bus network was still operating at a profit. (Farebox revenues from the central Los Angeles portion of the bus network were 17 percent higher than operating expenses.) Indeed, profits from the central Los Angeles bus network helped to subsidize the big suburban bus expansion of the '60s and '70s in areas such as the San Fernando Valley. Those out-lying bus operations were big money-losers.

But this "self-sufficiency" had a certain price:

The first taxpayer subsidy for public transit in Los Angeles was finally instituted in 1971 when the state legislature passed the Transit Development Act, which provides a quarter-cent of the state sales tax for public transit systems. The RTD bus system expansion of the late '70s, with a growth of more than two-thirds in weekday passenger boardings, was financed through this thin sales tax support.

The Era of Zone Fares

The Los Angeles Railway and its various successors (LA Transit Lines, the first LA MTA, the RTD) charged additional amounts depending on the distance you wanted to travel. This was enforced through surcharges for crossing fare zone boundaries. For example, in 1972 the base fare for the first four miles was 35 cents and each additional four-mile zone was an additional 7 cents. The following map shows the Los Angeles Transit Lines bus and streetcar lines, with fare zone scheme, circa 1954. Riders found this system very annoying, and it slowed down operation as the driver had to examine the "zone checks" or transfers to make sure everyone had paid to go into the next zone. In 1974 RTD decided it was not worth the bother and instituted a flat fare.

Los Angeles Transit Lines Early 1950s