Copyright 2009 Tom Wetzel


Big Merger Ends Subsidies from Real Estate Developers
The Main Problem with Pacific Electric
Class Conflict Over Rapid Transit Plans
Developers Shift Transportation Costs to Residents
The Demise of the Pacific Electric
The GM "Conspiracy" Myth
GM Prevents Electric Buses Getting a Foothold
Is Rail Rapid Transit Justified?
Bus Riders Union Criticism
Understanding Traffic Density
Subway to the Sea?
Transit and the Social Wage

What explains the demise of the Pacific Electric Railway?

The Pacific Electric (PE) Railway was a very extensive electric railway centered in Los Angeles. The railway linked downtown Los Angeles to various outlying satellite cities like Pasadena, Long Beach, and Santa Monica. The main routes of the system continued in operation until the late 1940s and then were quickly dismantled in the 1950s.

Why was the Pacific Electric dismantled? To answer this question, we really need to first answer another question: Why was Pacific Electric built?

The Pacific Electric Railway was a capitalist business. Yet its rail passenger operations almost always lost money. How was this possible? Why did it exist?

The Pacific Electric Railway was shaped by two conflicting capitalist interest groups at work in Los Angeles in the early 1900s: (1) big real estate developers and public utility investors, and (2) the big transcontinental freight railways.

Los Angeles was growing very rapidly in the early 1900s. From 1900 to 1912 the population of Los Angeles increased from 100,000 to 400,000. Large numbers of mostly native-born white Americans were migrating to the Los Angeles area, mainly from the midwest and other northern areas of the USA. Los Angeles had much less immigration from Europe in the early 20th century than big American cities in the northeast and midwest.

This huge influx of migrants spawned a huge real estate development boom. Before World War 1, there was little manufacturing industry in Los Angeles. The city was at the center of an agricultural region. Real estate development soon became the region's number one industry. People from the midwest who had owned a farm or small mercantile business might sell it and then use the cash to buy a house or a small orchard or business in Los Angeles. In 1910 Los Angeles had the highest home-ownership rate of any large American city — 45 percent of all households. A lot of this was flim-flam — people being sold on lots or houses they had a hard time paying off. Los Angeles in the early 1900s also had the highest percentage of married women working for wages. Couples had to have two paychecks to pay on the lot or house they were buying.

In working class areas like south-central Los Angeles you might see people living in tents or little one-room shacks. People would buy a lot and then they'd try to build their own house. So they were living in a tent or tiny shack while they were trying to do the building.

So there were big bucks being made converting inexpensive bean fields or open land to house lots or new communities, or broken up into small farms.

In the era before mass auto ownership, real estate developers had to arrange electric streetcar or commuter railway transportation to their subdivisions if they were going to sell real estate. A variety of streetcar and electric trolley lines came into existence to link subdivisions on the edges of the expanding urban area to downtown Los Angeles where the jobs and services were concentrated.

The first transportation network that was built up to serve this function was the Los Angeles Railway. Los Angeles Railway was a very comprehensive local streetcar network that had gradually expanded outward in the area within six miles or so of the downtown, from the 1870s through the early 1900s. Los Angeles Railway had been formed in the mid-1890s from the merger of a number of earlier cable, animal-powered and electric streetcar lines.

Henry Huntington plays an important role in the story of the Pacific Electric. Huntington was a very major real estate developer and public utility system tycoon in southern California. He first entered the picture in 1898 when he acquired ownership of the Los Angeles Railway. Huntington used Los Angeles Railway to support real estate development in the closer-in areas.

But Huntington also acquired huge amounts of acreage that were further out from the downtown than the area served the Los Angeles Railway. In 1901 Huntington got together with Jonathan Slauson and other investors to form the Pacific Electric Railway to serve their real estate development aims in the Los Angeles area. Both Slauson and Huntington owned huge amounts of land in the San Gabriel Valley and the PE began building lines eastward in 1902 to provide transportation for subdivisions in areas like Alhambra, South Pasadena, Azusa, and San Marino.

There were a number of other electric trolley systems being built between the 1890s and 1910 by real estate developers — Los Angeles Pacific to Hollywood and the westside, Los Angeles and Redondo, and more. The largest of the suburban electric railways operating out of downtown Los Angeles in the early 1900s was not Huntington's Pacific Electric but the Los Angeles Pacific. This very extensive railway ran streetcar lines out through Hollywood and suburban trolley lines to Santa Monica, Brentwood, and down the coast to Redondo Beach. The westside of Los Angeles began to take shape around the lines of the LAP.

An important source of financing for LAP was the Santa Monica Land and Water Company, headed by Robert Gillis. Los Angeles Pacific built a number of railways lines to serve Gillis developments in places like Brentwood. The heads of LAP — Moses Sherman and Eli Clark — also had extensive real estate development projects in Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Playa del Rey and Hollywood. Another real estate development project served by LAP was the Rodeo Land and Water Company, founder of Beverly Hills. Henry Huntington was also one of the investors in that company.

Trolley builders were often also involved in building up other public utilities to serve their subdivisions. Water and electric companies were often owned by the same people as the trolley companies. Huntington owned the San Gabriel Water Company and was the biggest investor in Southern California Edison when it was formed in 1917. Edison's largest predecessor company was originally started as a subsidiary of Huntington's PE.

With the real estate developers rapidly building a large network of trolley lines throughout southern California between 1900 and 1910, this soon became very much a concern in the headquarters of the big freight railways like Southern Pacific. These trolley lines all had the potential to become important freight feeder lines to the big transcontintental carriers. Huntington was very well aware of this and had designed his Pacific Electric with lots of private way and easy curves and grades to accommodate freight trains.

Edward Harriman, head of SP, was worried that these various trolley networks would fall into the hands of his competitors such as the Santa Fe or Union Pacific railways. Begining in 1903, Harriman and the SP began buying up the various trolley lines. Harriman's first buyout was the Los Angeles Traction and its subsidiary, California Pacific. L.A. Traction was a streetcar system in central Los Angeles that competed with Los Angeles Railway. California Pacific was its trolley line to San Pedro which competed with a Southern Pacific branch line. In 1906 Harriman gained control of the Los Angeles Pacific, and finally in 1910 he acquired Huntington's Pacific Electric. It was Harriman who created the post-1911 PE by merging Los Angeles Pacific with Huntington's PE.

Big Merger Ends Subsidies from Real Estate Developers

The merger of Los Angeles Pacific and Pacific Electric into the SP-controlled PE in November 1911 completely changed the role of the Pacific Electric Railway. From that point on, PE no longer built new facilities for passenger service to serve real estate developers, with only a few exceptions. The main expansions of PE after 1911 were the San Bernardino line in 1914 and the Fullerton extension of 1917. In each case a line oriented to freight operation was extended into an area where one of SP's competitors was entrenched. The line to San Bernardino along the foothills paralleled a Santa Fe mainline. In that period citrus was a rapidly growing source of freight loadings. Between 1898 and 1911 citrus shipments from LA County east quadrupled. So SP was interested in competing with Santa Fe for these shipments in the citrus belt east of LA. Fullerton was served by Union Pacific and Santa Fe back then but not by SP, so the PE extension enabled SP to compete for more citrus shipments in the Fullerton area.

PE did make a couple of minor passenger line extensions after 1911. In 1924 PE built an extension to Temple City. This extension was directly paid for by the company that developed Temple City. But this type of activity was rare after World War 1.

PE for the most part made no improvements to passenger facilities that were not forced on it by government regulatory bodies after 1911. For example the elevated structure at its 6th and Main station, built in 1916, and the short trolley subway tunneled in 1925, were built because PE was under tremendous pressure to remove its trains from downtown streets.

The Main Problem with Pacific Electric

And this leads us to one of the major problems with PE as a passenger railway. When developers invested in the trolley lines to serve their subdivisions, they were interested in providing only the minimum facility they needed in order to sell real estate. As a result, Huntington's network of electric railways south and east from Los Angeles all ended up pouring their trains onto downtown streets. Huntington's headquarters and main terminal, built between 1903 and 1905, was at 6th and Main. To get his trains to that site, Huntington simply put tracks in Main Street from 9th Street to 1st Street. Trains from Long Beach ran over 9th Street to Main and up to the terminal at 6th and Main. Trains from Pasadean ran over Aliso Street (site of the present Santa Ana Freeway) and then down Main. The result was a huge trolley traffic jam on Main Street (see photo below). The PE multi-car trains were all jammed onto Main Street traffic along with Los Angeles Railway's local streetcars. It was a terrible mess.

Jam on Main Street
This shot from the 1920s shows a Pacific Electric train caught in a jam with three Los Angeles Railway streetcars.

A solution would require the longer distance, higher speed trains to be removed from city streets. This would require running the Pacific Electric trains in subways or along viaducts. But those kinds of structures are expensive and the real estate developers who built the PE and the Los Angeles Pacific were not interested in spending those kinds of sums. This would have detracted from their profits.

The problem of trains running in the street became worse with every passing year. In the early 1920s, there was a massive increase in auto ownership. Running trains in mixed traffic with cars and trucks is inevitably slow. The Los Angeles Pacific was more plagued with this than Huntington's Pacific Electric. In 1911 the two systems were merged. The ex-Los Angeles Pacific lines included the Venice and Santa Monica lines and the Hollywood Boulevard, San Fernando Valley and Santa Monica Boulevard lines.

All these lines had very many miles of very slow operation in city streets. The trains to Venice and Santa Monica ran out down Hill Street from the terminal near 4th Street and then west on W 16th Street (now Venice Blvd). Private right of way began at Arlington Drive, miles west of the downtown. In later years a huge percentage of the entire travel time to Santa Monica and Venice was consumed in a slow slog on these streets. By the late '40s it took well over an hour to reach Santa Monica.

The lines to Hollywood were even more of a problem. The end-to-end operating speed of the Hollywood Boulevard streetcar line was only 11 miles per hour. To get to Van Nuys required a very long, slow slog in street traffic out Sunset Blvd and Santa Monica Blvd and then over Cahuenga Pass. The trip to Van Nuys from downtown took an hour and a half in the late '40s.

Class Conflict Over Rapid Transit Plans

In the rapid transit plans of the 1920s, the Santa Monica and Venice trains would have been brought into downtown in a multi-track subway under Pico Boulevard and another subway would have been built under Hollywood Boulevard from Vermont to La Brea. Subways with three or four tracks would allow express trains to run long-distances without stopping, passing local trains serving the local neighborhoods. The following map shows (in red) the rapid transit structures proposed for immediate construction in the 1925 rapid transit plan, and the various existing Pacific Electric lines that would make use of these structures.

1925 Rapid Transit Plan

The following image shows a cross-section through a four-track express station as proposed in one of the Los Angeles rapid transit plans in the '20s-'30s era.

Four-track Subway Express Station

The rapid transit plans of the '20s and '30s proposed rapid transit stations spaced about a half-mile apart along Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard (through Silverlake) or through the Wilshire and Westlake neighborhoods or along Pico Boulevard. This would have made these rapid transit facilities more useful to neighborhood residents than the Red Line subway with its spacing of stations every mile. The one-mile spacing used by the MTA on its rapid transit lines tends to reduce the ridership. This misguided policy was originally adopted because of the original plan for a system that would run to far-flung parts of the county. In other words, the system was originally conceived more as a suburban commuter railway than an urban metro. (This defect could be repaired by the construction of new stations in the more densely populated neighborhoods.)

The rapid transit plans of the '20s also proposed to build viaducts or subways in parts of Los Angeles not served by the Pacific Electric, such as Boyle Heights, the Wilshire district and along Moneta Avenue (now South Broadway) in south-central Los Angeles. The following streetcar lines would have been replaced by rapid transit lines under the 1925 rapid transit plan:

But subways and viaducts are expensive. Residents of Los Angeles would have had to create tax funding to help build these structures. They couldn't be financed solely on the basis of the fares paid by riders.

The privately owned transit companies were disliked by many Angelenos in that era for a variety of reasons. They were anti-union and broke strikes. They provided poor service. In 1919 PE and Los Angeles Railway smashed a mass strike on the streetcar systems by hiring permanent replacements. Los Angeles Railway did the same thing again in 1934.

Many people in Los Angeles were unwilling to tax themselves to provide any funds for these private companies. On the other hand, efforts by the labor movement for city ownership in the World War 1 era and '20s were fought by conservatives. PE management opposed municipalization because SP feared it would lose control of lines that carried significant amounts of freight.

The conflict in Los Angeles in that era was very similar to the conflict over subway funding in New York City during and after World War 1. Most of the existing New York City rapid transit system was built between 1913 and 1928 through a program called the "Dual Contracts." This meant that the city taxpayers provided the funds to build the subways but they were then leased to private for-profit transit companies, IRT and BMT. But by World War 1 there was tremendous opposition to subsizing the private for-profit transit companies... from socialists, "Progressives" and the Heart press. That's why New York City shifted to a city-operated subway with the construction of the Independent subway in 1925.

The same conflict existed in L.A. The labor movement and much of the working class population and many middle class "Progressives" were unwilling to tax themselves to create a system that would benefit the Southern Pacific (owner of PE) and the Huntington interests (owners of Los Angeles Railway). And in Los Angeles no agreement on creating a city-run system emerged because the local business elite were dead set against the city taking over ownership of Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway. This stalemate continued to exist throughout the period from World War 1 through the late '40s.

So no transit equivalent of the Department of Water and Power was created. (The L.A. Department of Water and Power is the nation's largest city-owned public utility. It came into being as the result of a three-decades long fight of socialists, progressives and the local labor movement for public ownership of the city's power system.) If there had been that sort of institution for public transit, then people might have been more willing to vote for tax funds to build rapid transit structures. Clearly, private enterprise was incapable of providing an adequate rapid transit system.

The Demise of the Pacific Electric

Because the Pacific Electric passenger services were designed and built by people who were gaining profits from real estate development, they were not financed simply to make money providing a passenger service. And in fact the PE passenger operations as a whole never made a profit. Some of its lines may have made a profit in certain periods. In the '20s the Hollywood Boulevard line — PE's busiest route — was making money. The Southern Pacific was willing to accept the perennial operating losses of PE because SP made quite a bit of money off the freight business that was fed to SP by PE. In the '20s to '50s era PE was the main hauler of freight to and from the combined ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

SP was slow to cut the passenger services because it was a regulated utility with a very poor public reputation in California in the early 1900s. It was "the Octopus" that had corrupted local politics, in the eyes of many. Many people believed that it was only right that SP-PE should use their profits from freight operation to subsidize passenger service.

PE-SP was finally forced to move to eliminate rail passenger service by truly massive financial losses of the late '30s. This pressure was relieved temporarily by World War 2, when PE made a very large profit off its freight operations and passenger losses were greatly reduced. In the late '40s very heavy financial losses from rail passenger operations resumed.

This July 1949 brochure was part of PE's campaign for replacement of the rail system with buses.

Developers Shift Transportation Costs to Residents

After World War 1 real estate developers in Southern California and elsewhere had stopped funneling capital into public transit to provide trasportation to their subdivisions. They began shifting the costs of providing transportation to the residents themselves. Residents could now be expected to buy their own transport vehicles — their cars. And developers in the '20s began organizing homeowners into assessment districts to finance streets and roads, and then in the '30s voters began to approve more tax funding for roads. This completely relieved the real estate development industry of the financial burden of providing capital for transport systems.

With no funding from real estate development profits, there was systematic disinvestment in public transit. Transit companies had a much harder time getting capital. They began shifting to less expensive strategies for providing services, especially motor buses. The vast majority of the expansion of public transit in Los Angeles in the '20s and '30s occurred through motor bus services. This was how both PE and Los Angeles Railway kept up with new development and growth in the '20s and '30s. The main advantage of motor buses compared to streetcars for surface transit is avoiding the track construction and maintenance costs.

By the late '40s PE's bus operations were making a slight profit while its rail passenger operations were losing huge wads of cash.

Reliance on people getting around in motor vehicles has many negative side effects: air pollution, noise pollution, making streets less safe for kids or elderly people, creating more dispersed development patterns that require more driving. Oil refining is itself a highly polluting industry.

The flip side of this is that public transit can help to provide social benefits: less air pollution, less traffic noise, more compact land use patterns. But transit operators can't translate these public goods into market revenue. The only (major) revenue they can obtain is from the farebox.

This means that investment in public transit needs to be socially organized. It can't survive on a market capitalist basis.

Nowadays the problem of global warming has brought home the socially destructive consequences of reliance on individualized vehicle transportation. The USA in particular contributes a fourth of the world total of greenhouse gases. And a large part of this derives from the inefficient transportation system that relies on individual market incentives. But market costs to users of private motor vehicles don't include impacts on global warming. Again, the market doesn't properly price the private motor vehicle use.

Pacific Electric did contain some private rights of way that would have been useful for rapid transit, if it had been taken over by a public agency. The following pair of photos illustrates this. The first photo shows a PE train running eastbound past the 20th Century Fox "ranch" circa 1941. Century City was built on the "ranch" property in the late '60s. The second photo shows exactly the same view in 1999. The street at right is Little Santa Monica Boulevard.

Some PE rights of way are in fact used as part of the MTA's current rapid transit system. Both the El Monte busway and the Long Beach light rail line are built mainly on PE rights of ways. But many useful rights of way were paved over to expand streets.

The GM "Conspiracy" Myth

Didn't General Motors play a role in the demise of Pacific Electric? Indirectly. The greatly intensified pace of work in auto plants introduced by Henry Ford brought the price of the Model-T from $825-$850 in 1908 to a low of only $270 in the mid-'20s. General Motors was forced to adopt Ford's methods in order to compete. This reduction in the price of cars made mass ownership of automobiles possible.

But General Motors didn't buy up the Pacific Electric, as some seem to think. This idea seems to be based on a confusion with the Los Angeles Railway. A consortium of bus suppliers (including GM, Chevron, Philips Petroleum, Goodyear and Mack Truck) did acquire Los Angeles Railway in 1944. (The consortium operated through a holding company, National City Lines.) But Los Angeles Railway was a separate company from PE.

Because PE's rail passenger operations were losing money, but owned by a private for-profit corporation, no special intervention was required for it to go under. No "conspiracy" was needed.

The source of the General Motors "conspiracy" theory is Bradford Snell's report American Ground Transportation, written for a congressional committee in 1974. Snell claimed a role of GM in the demise of Pacific Electric. Apparently Snell did, in fact, confuse PE with Los Angeles Railway.

As Cliff Slater says in his lengthy attempt ( to refute Snell's "conspiracy" theory about the decline of trolleys in American cities, the real issue in this debate is "simply whether or not the buses that replaced the electric streetcars were economically superior to them."

Streetcars running in mixed traffic in city streets are a type of local surface transit that is inevitably rather slow. For this reason, it can only really compete for relatively short distance trips. Buses operating in those same traffic conditions can only serve that same market. (For example, the average ride on MTA buses in central Los Angeles is 2.6 miles.) Buses do contribute to wear and tear on street pavements. But they share the pavement with many other vehicles. Streetcars do have more costs than buses because they can't share out the guideway maintenance costs with lots of other users the way buses do. If streetcars have no special advantages, then there is no economic reason to prefer streetcars to buses.

But that's not the end of the story because PE wasn't just a typical urban streetcar system (like Los Angeles Railway). It also had potential for conversion into a rapid transit system.

GM Prevents Electric Buses Getting a Foothold

so, there are actually several other questions:

To answer these types of questions, you'd need to look not only at the prices individuals or enterprises would pay out of pocket in market transactions. It's necessary to look at total social costs. As I've pointed out above, individualized motor vehicle transportation has many social costs not effectively measured by the out of pocket costs to drivers. Air pollutants like nitrogen oxide, contribution to grreenhouse gases, noise pollution (a cause of stress) from traffic on freeways and major thoroughfares. Motor vehicle based land use patterns are extremely inefficient in use of space, spreading venues out all over the place, and making collective transport less feasible and solidifying auto-dependency.

To answer the second question I pose above, fossil-fuel burning buses are not economically superior to electric trolley buses. This issue is directly relevant to the GM "conspiracy" story. That's because GM was interested in selling diesel buses. GM and the other owners of National City Lines did buy up cash-strapped streetcar systems to convert them to motor bus operation in the '30s and '40s. The main competitor for motor buses at that time was the electric trolleybus. Electric trolleybuses made a lot of sense for streetcar companies because they already had overhead power systems in place. And the trackless trolleys would enable them to eliminate the track maintenance costs. A careful study by David St. Clair, The Motorization of American Cities, shows that electric buses had lower market costs overall than fossil fuel buses. (This economic advantage becomes even greater when we include non-market social costs like the exhaust pollution of diesel buses.) Thus the vertical monopoly created by GM and the other organizers of National City Lines did retard the development of the electric trolleybus in places like Los Angeles. After World War 2, most or all city-owned streetcar routes in San Francisco and Seattle were replaced with buses. But both cities built large trolley bus networks to replace the streetcars.

This didn't happen in Los Angeles because the main city streetcar network (Los Angeles Railway) had been acquired by NCL in 1944. The NCL company in Los Angeles did create two trolleybus lines, but this happened only due to the fact they already owned these trolleybuses. NCL had purchased in the '40s East Bay Transit serving the Oakland area around the same time it bought Los Angeles Railway. The previous management of East Bay Transit had developed a plan to replace streetcars with electric trolleybuses and had already ordered some by the time of the NCL buyout. NCL then moved those trolleybuses south to Los Angeles in 1948, to replace two streetcar routes.

If the city of Los Angeles had acquired Los Angeles Railway before World War 2, it is very likely that many more electric trolleybus lines would have been created to replace streetcar routes. The city ownership of the electric distribution system in Los Angeles also makes this outcome likely.

Is Rail Rapid Transit Justified?

What about the third question, the justificationn for rail rapid transit?

In large cities (like Los Angeles) effective public transit requires not only serving the market for short trips (as typical surface bus transit does) but also needs to serve the potential market for longer distance trips. This is what rapid transit systems do. For example the average ride on the Red Line subway in Los Angeles is 6.2 miles, and the average ride on the Blue Line is 7 miles. As I pointed out above, the average ride on buses in central Los Angeles is 2.6 miles.

I need to add one qualification here. When I talk about a "ride," I'm referring to the distance a person goes each time they get on a transit vehicle. This is not necessarily the same as the average trip length. Very often people have to transfer from one bus line to another to get where they're going. In that case their trip actually involves two bus "rides." Traditionally about half of all rides on surface transit in central Los Angeles involved a transfer. So the average bus trip length is probably closer to 4 miles.

Similarly, many users of the Red Line or Blue Line take a bus to or from the station, or they walk some distance. The total trip is the distance from their starting point to where they were going. Thus The average trip length for the rail transit users will also be longer than the distance of the train ride. The train ride is just part of the trip.

When I say that rapid transit and surface transit serve different markets, I don't mean that they necessarily serve different people. Women buy both shoes and blouses, but the market for women's shoes is a different market than the market for women's blouses even if they serve the same people. People at all income levels want to make trips of varying lengths across the city. They're being able to do so at an affordable price is part of every person's "right to their city," the right to access to jobs and housing and schools and so on.

Bus Riders Union Criticism

In terms of markets of public transit services, the MTA did a comprehensive survey of the market for its rail and bus services in 1998. The following table has the results of those surveys. About 7 percent of the Red Line riders are transfers from the Metrolink suburban commuter railway at Union Station. If we were to subtract the Metrolink transfers, the Red Line ridership would be 78 percent non-white.
Subway RidersMTA Bus RidersBlue Line Riders Green Line RidersL.A. County Population
White non-Latino25 percent13 percent11 percent14 percent 29 percent
Family incomes
under $15,000
33 percent69 percent 52 percent40 percent13.7 percent
under $50,00081.6 percent96 percent88.5 percent 80 percent47 percent
No vehicle available62 percent80 percent 68 percent65 percent30 percent

Thus, the Blue and Green Line ridership comes overwhelming from working class communities of color, and the subway ridership is predominantly from these communities as well. However, the Blue and Green lines seem to atract more of the members of these communities with somewhat higher (working class) incomes and more people who have access to motor vehicles than does the bus system.

In addition to looking at the capacity of different transit facilities, we can also look at how much it costs to provide each unit of benefit to riders. The more miles you travel on a transit line, the more resources you're using up. Thus we can think of each mile of travel as one unit of benefit. Thus one way to look at the efficiency of transit operations is to look at the expense per passenger mile.

The Labor/Community Strategy Center (organizers of the Bus Riders Union) claim that buses are less expensive. But what we see is that the operating expense for buses per passenger mile is typically higher than for rail systems (Note 5):

Expense per passenger mile (2007)
BusSubway/elevatedLight rail
Los Angeles0.580.450.50
New York1.150.31
Washington DC1.170.44
San Francisco Muni1.091.16

BRU leaflet portraying urban rail lines as the enemy of the rider.

The Strategy Center/Bus Riders Union has often criticized the investment in rail transit on the grounds that it is not oriented to serve working class communities of color. I don't believe this is plausible in regard to the MTA's urban rail network, but they have a more plausible case in regard to the Metrolink diesel commuter railway. This operation, created in the 1990s with hundreds of millions of dollars of sales tax funds from Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside Counties, links downtown Los Angeles to a very far-flung suburban and ex-urban region. A study in the '90s indicated that the 63 percent of Metrolink riders work as managers and professionals. The average household income of Metrolink passengers was 81 percent higher than the Los Angeles County median household income. Also, two thirds of the riders were white.(Note 1)

This is not unusual among suburban commuter railways in the USA. They typically have a more affluent ridership than urban public transit systems. For example, the Metro-North and Long Island commuter railways in New York have a ridership that is 79 percent white whereas New York city subway riders are 49 percent white. Median income of bus and subway riders in New York City is about $34,000 (10 percent below the city median income). For Metro-North, 42 percent of the riders have incomes over $100,000. (Note 3)

Moreover, Metrolink has not been very successful. It ranks at the bottom in traffic density among American commuter railways. The following list compares suburban commuter railways by traffic volume (passenger miles per route mile):

Metro-North (New York): 6,542,376
Chicago: 3,337,798.5
Peninsula Corridor (San Francisco): 3,063,205
Baltimore: 1,105,703.5
Metrolink (Southern Calif): 681,614

(For data source see note 2.)

When I say that there are valid criticisms of Metrolink, it is important to be clear about what I am not saying. I'm not saying that public transit should be oriented to serving only the "poor" or "racial minorities." This is the mentality that reqards public transit as a welfare program. Public transit can't be central to the life of urban areas unless it has the ability to serve the majority of the population. Public transit should be viewed as a public good...such as a system for comprehensive provision of health care or a system of public parks or the Social Security system. The thing about public goods is that they are benefits that we want to be available for everyone...or at least the majority. An affordable public transit system is necessary to make real everyone's right to the city...their right to have affordable access to all the various things the city has to offer — jobs, parks, entertainment, medical facilities, schools and universities.

In the case if Metrolink, however, hundreds of millions of dollars of public funds were used to create a system designed to serve an affluent minority....not the working class majority.

If we look at Metrolink fares, we can see why its ridership is skewed to mainly the affluent minority of the population: The fares are very high. A one-way weekday trip from Union Station to Covina (about 18 miles) is $6.50. A trip from L.A. to San Bernardino is $10.75. These high fares exclude most working class people from using this system regularly. Also, the high fares result in a lower ridership. Unlike the MTA, Metrolink does not offer monthly or weekly passes with discounted fares.

The San Bernardino line...Metrolink's busiest very centrally located through the San Gabriel Valley and into San Bernardino and could potentially attract a high ridership. Moreover, many of the communities it runs through are working class suburbs. But it would need to have lower fares to be affordable for a broader segment of society.

Understanding Traffic Density

Buses can also be used for rapid transit if they have things like infrequent stops or dedicated rights of way. Whether to use buses or rail transit (which is more expensive to build) in any given case depends on things like the potential volume on a given route. The point to rail transit is to provide capacity for a higher travel volume through train operation and to support more compact, less auto-oriented land-use patterns.

Traffic volume can be measured by looking at how many units of benefit are being crammed into each mile of a route. We can think of each mile you're on the transit vehicle (bus or train) as a unit of consumer benefit. The farther you go, the more benefit you're getting...and the more resources you're using. Thus, the more units of benefit (passenger miles) a line provides per mile of length, the greater the flow. This is why I think that the best way to measure the traffic flow...and thus the size of the "pipe" that we need to handle by looking at the average number of passenger miles a transit route or system serves up per route mile per year.

We can see the difference that rail transit makes in capacity if we compare the traffic volume handled by different facilities, such as:
RouteTraffic Volume
(passenger miles per route mile)
Average Ride Length (in miles)
Subway (Red Line)11.15 million (2007)6.2 (2001)
Blue Line7.9 million7.1
All MTA light rail lines5.6 million (2005)7.1
Orange Line busway3 million (2007)5.9
MTA Vermont Avenue bus line (205/305)2.53 million (1997)2.2
MTA Wilshire Blvd bus line (20/21/320)2.64 million (1997)4.2
MTA Normandie Ave bus line (209)748,000 (1997)2.4
MTA Wilshire Blvd/Whittier Blvd
bus service (720/18/20/21) (2001)
3.9 million720: 5.9
18: 2.6
20/21: 3.75

In the comparisons above I took the two busiest MTA surface bus routes (Vermont and Wilshire) and compared them to the traffic volume of the two MTA rail transit operations. The L.A. subway fares quite well in terms of usage compared to other rapid transit systems in the USA (compared by traffic volume):

New York: 33.76 million
DC Metro: 14.9 million
Boston: 14.46 million
BART: 12.56 million
LA subway: 11.15 million
Chicago: 11 million
Philadelphia: 10 million
Miami: 5.84 million
Baltimore: 4.7 million
Cleveland: 1.35 million

It is particularly worth comparing the subway ridership volume with the current volume of bus ridership along the Wilshire Boulevard corridor. The big jump in bus ridership volume from 1997 to 2001 was due to the creation of a rapid bus operation with stops at one-mile intervals, which resulted in a 42 percent increase in the number of rides. The Rapid Bus (route 720) volume was approximately 2.38 million passenger miles per route mile. Local bus service served up the other 1.52 million passenger miles per route mile.

The proposed subway under Wilshire Boulevard is very likely to generate at least as high a volume as the existing subway. The subway's current traffic density is nearly three times as great as the total current bus operation along Wilshire...and this is after the big jump in volume with the introduction of the Rapid Bus line. The traffic volume of the 720 Rapid Bus line along Wilshire is less than one-fourth of the current subway traffic volume. Even if dedicated lanes were added, a surface bus rapid transit operation along Wilshire Boulevard would provide only a fraction of the capacity and traffic volume of a subway. (Note 4)

The MTA light rail network also fares quite well in comparison to light rail systems in the USA (compared by traffic volume):

Boston Green Line: 8.4 million
Los Angeles Blue Line: 7.9 million
All Los Angeles light rail: 5.6 million
Portland: 3.8 million
St. Louis Metrolink: 3.16 million
Philadelphia: 1.56 million
Cleveland: 1.5 million048
Baltimore: 1.17 million
San Jose: 1 million

Grand Avenue station
The busy Blue Line station at Grand Avenue serving L.A. Trade Tech.

Thus, even with land-use patterns that have been shaped by decades of building around the automobile, Los Angeles has transit corridors that can generate the sort of high volume that can justify investment in rail rapid transit. I mention all of this because often various erstwhile experts will say that Los Angeles is ill-suited to rail rapid transit. And this is often cited as evidence for the claim that nothing was lost in the demise of the Pacific Electric. (For an example of this viewpoint see Professor Peter Gordon's website ( or

Subway to the Sea?

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has recently helped to revive the project of building a subway under Wilshire Boulevard, proposing a "subway to the sea" -- a $6.1 billion, 12.5 mile extension of the L.A. subway from Wesern & Wilshire to Santa Monica. The Los Angeles MTA predicts...very conservatively...a ridership density of about 12.5 million passenger miles per route mile for this extension. Wilshire Boulevard since the '60s has become L.A.'s linear downtown, with millions of square feet of office space scattered at various sites from Koreatown to Santa Monica...Century City alone contains over 9 million square feet of office space. The corridor also has many cultural and educational and health care related sites...from the County Museum of Art to UCLA and the UCLA Medical Center. For more info on this project you can visit the Subway to the Sea Coalition.

The Strategy Center/Bus Riders Union has consistently opposed this project and proposed dedicated bus lanes on Wilshire Boulevard instead. However, the MTA analysis of the Wilshire Boulevard alternatives points out that the operating speed of the busway would be only 16 miles per hour...not much faster than ordinary local bus service in some of the less congested parts of L.A. such as areas of the San Fernando Valley. The subway, on the other hand, would offer an end-to-end speed of 32 miles per hour.

Also, running buses along the surface, with the need to stop at various traffic lights along the way, inherently lowers the capacity of a surface bus facility. Bus rapid transit is a good solution for moderate density corridors, as the Orange Line busway shows, but it is woefully inadequate for the potentially very high density corridor along Wilshire.

Rapid, affordable transportation to jobs and other venues along the Wilshire Boulevard corridor for low-income working class people in central Los Angeles is very important to ensuring their "right to the city" -- ready access to all the things a city a has to offer.

To the extent that rail rapid transit and other forms of public transit can contribute to supporting less inefficient land use patterns, they can contribute to an economically superior (more socially efficient) result.

But seeing this requires getting past the assumption that "the market is always right." The market destroyed the Pacific Electric, but it doesn't follow that this was the economically best outcome.

Markets often lead to less efficient results because they facilitate cost-shifting behaviors. When Henry Ford destroyed the old mechanical crafts and created soul-crushing discipline and monotony and stress for auto workers, he got a lower price car. But in this case a cost was being shifted onto the workers. Oil refiners shift pollution of their facilities onto the people in the surrounding communities. Diesel bus operators shift the bad health effects of diesel pollution onto surrounding communities.

A problem with markets is that they only count the costs you can force someone to pay you for. If I drive my motor vehicle around and contribute a bit to your lung ailment being worse, you can't force me to re-imburse you for that. The market doesn't "give people what they want" in this case because I can dictatorially shove my exhaust down your throat.

Cost-shifting often leads to economic inefficiency because the person or organization doing the cost-shifting may contribute to a total outcome that has more overall human costs compared to the benefits received.

Transit and the Social Wage

Because of the decades of disinvestment in transit and failure to build a rapid transit network in Los Angeles, there is huge potential but suppressed demand for longer distance transit trips across the urban expanse...that is, longer than the type of shorter distance ride served up by the surface bus system.

At the same time, the importance of rapid transit should not be seen as justifying a reduction in the financial benefits that L.A.'s huge low-income population receive through transit fare subsidies.

The past three decades has been a period of declining wages and health and other benefits for the majority of the working class population of the USA. This is why the so-called social wage has such importance. The "social wage" refers to benefits that working class people receive through government-subsidized benefits -- the Earned Income Tax Credit, subsidies to affordable housing programs, Social Security disability programs...and subsidies for low fares for public transit.

And this presents a problem for Los Angeles. Capitalist real estate development interests have historically had the dominant influence over local government transportation and land-use policies. The very great influence of this section of the local elite has historically biased the policy of the MTA (and its predecessor, the L.A. County Transportation Commission) to favor rapid transit expansion projects over maintaining existing low fare subsidies and service levels for low-income working class people of color...the transit system's main ridership base.

From 1985 to 1995 the transit fare rose from 50 cents to $ increase of 170 percent. This was a far higher increase than any increase in inflation in that period. Moreover, the wages of low-income bus riders were stagnant during that period. In essence, the LACTC..and then the early MTA...were looting the bus operating subsidies to pursue an aggressive system expansion agenda. Rapid transit is particularly relevant to real estate interests because of the higher value of properties once new rapid transit access is secured.

The importance of access is illustrated by the recent successful campaign to pass Meausre R, which includes dedicated funding for the Subway to the Sea and other rail transit projects. The largest donation to that campaign came from the L.A. County Museum of Art, which is located virtually on top of a proposed subway station on the Wilshire subway extension. The directors of the museum donated $900,000 to the campaign. To justify this, they pointed out that in surveys people have listed inaccessibility as their main reason for not visiting the museum more often.

From 1996 to 2006, the Strategy Center and their Bus Riders Union project were able to force the MTA to invest more in the bus system and avoid a transit fare hike. This occurred under the terms of a "Consent Decree" signed between the MTA and the Strategy Center in 1996. This was a voluntary concession on the part of the MTA, at the insistence of then-mayer Richard Riordan.

No Seat No Fare Campaign poster 1998
A poster from the BRU's 1998 "No Seat No Fare" fare strike campaign to protest over-crowding.

The consent decree was a response to the general discredit the MTA Board had achieved in public perceptions in the mid-'90s. This discredit was the product of outrage over the fare hike in 1995 and accusations of corruption and mismanagement in rail construction projects...illustrated by events such as the infamous collapse of a Hollywood subway tunnel and a long list of lawsuits against construction firms.

As soon as the consent decree expired in 2006, the MTA Board moved to do a fare hike in 2007. Although the cash fare was lowered to $1.25 from $1.35, prices were hiked on other fare instruments such as monthly passes. This is why the upshot was an actual increase in MTA revenue...taken out of the pockets of the bus riders.

This is a problem because maintaining the social wage for the low-income half of the working class is just as important a priority as expanding rapid transit, if we consider both social justice and desireability of expanding transit usage. Due to a huge hike in the fare, annual transit rides per person in central Los Angeles fell from 136 in 1989 to 112 in 1997 due to fare hikes...a drop of almost 18 percent. (For a history of transit ridership in central L.A. see my essay The Carless Majority.)

Thus there is in fact a need for the Bus Riders Union to keep the MTA Board's feet to the fire to keep fares low and not deteriorate service. Building an extensive rapid transit network in Los Angeles is highly desireable, but keeping fares low...maintaining the social equally important.


Note 1: "Metrolink Wins Round of Praise from Its Riders", Los Angeles Times, 5/15/93.
Note 2: Data on traffic density is drawn from 2007 transit agency reports to the Federal Transit Administration. These reports are available from the national transit database at: Data for particular Los Angeles bus routes is drawn from the 1997 MTA ride survey.
Note 3: Sources on New York transit demographics:
"Worried by Ridership Figures, Metro-North is Trying Harder", New York Times 8/1/2008
Note 4: Source for data on the Wilshire Rapid Bus and current traffic volume is: Final Report: Los Angeles Metro Rapid Demonstration Program, March 2002
Also: Westside Extension Alternatives Analysis Study, September 2008
Note 5: Expense data is from the Federal Transit Administration (