In recent weeks, the proposed Downtown L.A. Streetcar has been in the news, owing to reports that the project’s backers would seek to fast-track funding. For those who aren’t aware of the project, the idea is to build a streetcar (of the “modern” variety) loop through Downtown Los Angeles’ historic core, between the civic center and the convention center area. A good run-down of the project, and its merits as a transit endeavor, can be read here.
It doesn’t take a lengthy analysis to see that the transportation value of this project (which is projected to cost nearly $200 million) is pretty questionable for the amount of money that will have to be spent. Downtown L.A. is already heavily served by transit service, with the Red/Purple subway lines passing literally under some of the very streets the streetcar would run along, and a second subway through the area currently under construction. Bus service is abundant, with a system of circulator shuttles already carrying people around Downtown for only 50¢ a ride. The streetcar’s route is a one-way loop, which has limited transportation utility, and would run in mixed traffic with cars, meaning it would be no faster—and likely even slower—than existing bus service.
But it would be a mistake to look at this—or any “modern streetcar” project for that matter—as a transportation endeavor. Moving people is a secondary objective to the actual goal of these projects, which is stimulating gentrification.
Ever since Portland, Oregon built a modern streetcar line between its downtown and the Pearl District—transforming it into a suddenly trendy neighborhood of pricey real estate—urbanists, civic boosters, and developers have been trying to replicate this example in cities across the country. Since the Portland Streetcar began running, similar systems have opened in Tacoma, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Tucson, Atlanta, Dallas, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, Cincinnati, and Detroit. The results have been… mixed, to say the least. New lines in Detroit, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. experienced extended delays prior to opening, while the streetcars in Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Salt Lake City have seen very underwhelming ridership.
But those are just the cities that actually built new streetcar lines. I got to see a pitch for a Portland-style streetcar first-hand when I was living in Albuquerque, where the city leadership proposed a streetcar of their own in 2006. The system would have had two lines: one along Central Avenue, where it would have merely replaced existing local bus service, and one to the airport, where it may have presented some improvement over existing transit service, but not a lot. But it wasn’t sold on those terms, it was pitched on the basis of spurring development. And looking back on it, what strikes me is how bald-faced they were about that. I vividly recall a public meeting where the transit director excitedly talked about visiting Portland and showed off pictures of development in the Pearl District, only for the crowd to remain totally unmoved. They were quickly beginning to see that there was nothing here for them.
The Albuquerque streetcar proposal triggered a quick and heavy backlash. Supporters of the streetcar project kept trying to come up with reasons for people to back it, only to keep coming back to some variant of “it’ll help development,” probably because there were no other legitimate reasons to support it. At first, I was excited about it because I was a transit supporter and it was a lot of money going towards transit, so that’s good, right? (In my defense, I was a teenager at the time.) But no popular support for the streetcar proposal emerged and the opponents were successful in pushing it back for “more study”, where it died a quiet death. This has turned out for the best; now Albuquerque is constructing a bus rapid transit line along the same corridor, which, while controversial with locals in its own right, does present actual solid transit benefits over existing service.
Real estate development has always been the raison d’être for most streetcar lines, and Los Angeles is a vivid example of this. Around the turn of the 20th century, streetcars were built by private developers as a way of connecting the city to their new development. All of the neighborhoods immediately surrounding Downtown Los Angeles were originally built as streetcar suburbs, as well as quite a few neighborhoods further beyond. Over time, operation of these disparate lines were consolidated into private monopolies, which is how in the 1900s all of the various streetcar enterprises in L.A. wound up being merged into just two companies, the Los Angeles Railway and the Pacific Electric, both of which were conceived by two men: Henry Huntington and Isaias Hellman.
Huntington’s name is well-known to Angelenos today, but Hellman has become fairly obscure. However, he was a significant figure in the development of Los Angeles as an American city following the Mexican-American War. Hellman was one of L.A.’s first bankers and became a major investor in the city’s utility and streetcar companies, as well as an advocate for bringing the Southern Pacific railroad to Los Angeles. He did business with much of the early city’s elite, including Harrison Gray Otis, the notoriously anti-union founder of the Los Angeles Times, and Edward Doheny, the first oilman to successfully drill for oil in Los Angeles (later he would become the inspiration for the oilman character in Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, later adapted into the film There Will Be Blood).
In 1890, Hellman moved to San Francisco—then the financial center of the West Coast—and became one of that city’s most powerful bankers. But over the years he had amassed vast land holdings in the Los Angeles area, and he was looking for a way to develop them. In the 1890s, the easiest way to develop land was to build a railroad through it. In San Francisco, he met Henry Huntington, then a Vice President of the Southern Pacific railroad, and introduced him to Los Angeles. Together, the pair pooled their resources together to engineer a takeover of the city’s various streetcar enterprises, and then began building the Pacific Electric as a means to develop the land surrounding the city. Henry Huntington became extraordinarily wealthy for it.
Once in a while, you’ll hear someone remark that Los Angeles used to have “the greatest transit system in the world.” Usually this is stated by an environmentalist or a transit advocate (or Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) to suggest a city that lost its way in a frenzy of automania and freeway building. “Greatest” is an awfully questionable claim, but it is true that the Pacific Electric was once the world’s largest streetcar network, stretching all the way out to Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, and Newport Beach. However, Los Angeles didn’t have the world’s largest streetcar network because it was a super progressive city that loved public transit. It had the world’s largest streetcar network because it was a vast, sprawling area with a lot of land to develop, and some shrewd businessmen eager to make that happen.
City Councilman José Huizar, a supporter of the proposed Downtown L.A. streetcar, said the following in a written statement:
Streetcars were once the pillar of Los Angeles’ transportation system. I talk to Angelenos all the time who are really excited to see a piece of our history and culture resurrected through our L.A. Streetcar project. Beyond the nostalgia factor, the L.A. Streetcar will be a boost to tourism and a major economic driver for businesses along the route, as well as a critical first-last mile transportation connector for multiple rail and bus lines in downtown.
He’s not entirely wrong on that first point: there is a historic precedent here, although it’s not quite as rosy as he makes it sound. (Also, freeways have also been the pillar of Los Angeles’ transportation system, but I don’t think that’s a good argument for building more of them.)
But there is a crucial difference between this project and the streetcars of old: civic leaders like Huizar are demanding that public money be devoted to what will ultimately only be private good. And that public money will come in the form of transportation dollars, at the expense of real transportation improvements.
If developers want to build a streetcar in Downtown Los Angeles, that’s fine. But let them pay for it.