Episode 70: The Great Red Car Conspiracy

When Eric Molinsky lived in Los Angeles, he kept hearing this story about a bygone transportation system called the Red Car. The Red Car, he was told, had been this amazing network of streetcars that connected the city—until a car company bought it, dismantled it, and forced a dependency on freeways.

If this sounds familiar, it might be because it was the evil scheme revealed at the end of the Robert Zemeckis’s 1988 movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

But like most legends, the one that Eric heard about the Red Car is not entirely accurate. It’s true that Los Angeles did have an extensive mass transit system called the Red Car, which at one time ran on 1,100 miles of track—about 25 percent more more track mileage than New York City has today, a century later.

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But the Red Car wasn’t the victim of a conspiracy. The Red Car was the conspiracy.

Our reporter Eric Molinsky spoke with historian Bill Friedricks, who says that to understand the Red Car, you first need to know about Henry Huntington, one of the major power brokers of Los Angeles. If you’ve ever heard of Huntington Beach, Huntington Park, or the Huntington Library, this is that Huntington.

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Henry Huntington was the nephew of railroad magnate Collis Huntington, who mentored Henry and taught him the family business. When Collis Huntington died in 1900, Henry expected that he would inherit his uncle’s company, Southern Pacific. But Southern Pacific’s board didn’t want another Huntington in charge. They forced him out, but gave him a $15 million payout (about $400 million today).

Henry Huntington took his money and headed for Los Angeles. He purchased the biggest transportation system in the city, The Los Angeles Railway (LARy), and then incorporated it into a new company called Pacific Electric. Huntington also started building hundreds of subdivisions on the periphery of Los Angeles, and used Pacific Electric trains—bright red trolleys—to connect the subdivisions to downtown Los Angeles.

Over time, though, Huntington had built so many subdivisions that his Red Car couldn’t do a good enough job connecting the city’s disparate areas. The Red Car was never designed to be a comprehensive system like the New York City Subway; rather, it existed primarily to get people in and out of Huntington’s subdivisions. Angelenos who could afford cars found it was easier to get around by driving. The Red Car fell into disrepair, and was mocked as a “slum on wheels.”

Eventually, Southern Pacific (the company Huntington thought he would inherit from his uncle Hollis) bought Pacific Electric, and in 1926 they offered Los Angles a massive plan to use public dollars to build subways and elevated trains around downtown L.A. But California voters didn’t trust Southern Pacific, which had meddled in California politics for so long that people called it “The Octopus.” The people voted against the plan.

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Red Car routes were decommissioned, and bus routes and freeways would eventually replace the Red Car entirely. The last Red Car ran in 1961.

But if you look carefully, you can still spot evidence of the old Pacific Electric Railroad company, especially around Santa Monica.

To find out more about the Red Car, check out Bill Friedrick’s book, Henry E. Huntington and the Creation of Southern California (which you can read, in entirety, for free!).

Or, you can just go play L.A. Noire.

No longer an Angeleno, Eric Molinsky is now based in Brooklyn, where he makes radio and draws people on the subway.

7 thoughts on “The Great Red Car Conspiracy

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  3. The conspiracy to buy up and dismantle public rail was real, but it was not to sell cars. Rather it was to sell buses. Although I’d far rather use light rail than buses in a strange city, simply because rail lines are more direct, buses are far more flexible and don’t need tracks. In fact they were called “trackless trolleys.”

    Streetcar lines were abysmally unprofitable and lots of lines resorted to building housing developments or amusement parks to boost ridership.

    Los Angeles doesn’t sprawl because it has freeways, it has freeways because it sprawls, and urban sprawl in many cities was first created by streetcars. And before that, in cities built on the water, steamboat suburbs sprang up.

  4. Roman, you are attempting to compress a long and complex story into a very small space and in so doing you have lost the story. Streetcars served established urban centres, in LA that service was provided by the companies that ended up forming the LA railway (Yellow Cars). Interurbans were aimed at reaching suburban development areas and reaching urban centres outside the metropolis, and that’s what the Pacific Electric did. Of course they were intended to profit from new divisions, this happened across the world – look at the land development activities of the Underground railways in London or the propert arms of the Japanese private railways. In Switzer4land ‘private’ railways have most of their stock held by local authorities and have been used to support development.
    The resulting streetcar/interurban suburbs were not sprawl; they relied on development within walking distance of the car line. They were much more like modern Transit Oriented Developments. Se the work done by UC Berkley on Streetcar Suburbs.

    Southern Pacific bought PE because it was interested in the freight terminal rights and business, it wasn’t really interested in passenger operation, hence the neglect of the business.
    The Transit Conspiracy did exist, but it probably had more effect in cities other than LA. LA’s problems were idiot politicians, graft and poor management

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