A streetcar named REVENGE

I.  how the wheel turns…

We have long associated L.A. with the entertainment industry in mental space; and with cars and sprawl as a physical place. Reels and roads, one could say. The rotation of a film reel in a projection booth and the spinning of auto tires on freeways as symbols of Los Angeles in motion.

With the domestic automobile industry facing bankruptcy, I thought it would be worth considering the ghosts of wrecked transport industries in southern California for hints as how a retooled auto sector could possibly help meet urban transportation needs and how G.M. can potentially be steered towards a new, green line.

II. Cars, Tires, and Trolleys

In the post World War 2 period, Los Angeles was the nation’s second leading manufacturer of automobiles, trailing only Detroit. The City of Angels and its suburbs also churned out other decidedly non-ethereal products like tires and military aircraft. These industries tended to be unionized and are were among the bedrocks of the mid century boom, Southern California’s growing middle class, and the new housing tracts where they lived.

During much of this industrial expansion, workers could commute to and from some of these plants using the region’s once impressive network of streetcars, the red and yellow lines. In 1945, the yellow line, which served the central core of Los Angeles, was purchased by American City Lines, a subsidiary of National City Lines, a holding company partly owned by General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Standard Oil of Southern California. National bought up urban streetcar systems in cities across the United States and replaced the trolleys with diesel buses. With buses rather than streetcars moving people, firestone sold more rubber, standard oil sold more oil, GM, one supposes, sold more engines or bus chassis, and, as mass transit became less of an option, more cars.

A kind of myth has grown up that overemphasizes this conspiracy to eliminate urban streetcars. The film Who Framed Roger Rabbit features one version of the plot set in a cartoonized Los Angeles. While National City Lines did shut down L.A.’s yellow line (which in turn weakened the Red Line as connectivity suffered), the region’s street car network was already facing challenges. Without clear right of way and crossings, the trolleys often bogged down in traffic in streets increasingly full of private automobiles. This was also an era when the federal government began pumping massive amount of subsidies into road building and suburban mortgages. The red line had been situated hand in hand with real estate interests to allow commuting between Los Angeles and new developments further and further from the city. But if there was to be a race between streetcars and just plain cars to see which could better serve sprawl, the autos would win every time.

III. Ruins

Firestone and GM undercut the competition but they couldn’t escape the fate of scrapped trolleys and ripped up rail-lines. Their own outposts in the southland would eventually prove vulnerable to deindustrialization. The Firestone factory in Watts, which had been manufacturing tires from 1918, closed in 1980. The final scene in Thom Anderson’s documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (a movie on how the city has been a setting, character, and subject of films) is footage of the giant, closed factory, fallen into ruins, at once filling the screen, and sliding away. The shot, from the 1984 film Bless Their Little Hearts by Billy Woodberry and Charles Burnett, is haunting, not just because ruins summon up regret or nostalgia, but because from our vantage point in time we know some of what filled that gap – or failed to – in neighborhoods where the good jobs disappeared.

General Motors held out longer in the L.A. region. As the New York Times described the 1992 closure of its plant in Van Nuys:

“This shutdown was more bitter than most, ending auto building in a region where 14 million people are bound to their cars by lack of public transit, the far-flung freeways and a personal devotion matched nowhere else.”

One of the reasons that the plant closure was ‘bitter’ is that it had been strongly and creatively fought for a decade by an innovative alliance between autoworkers, other labor interests, community members, and elected officials. When GM finally shut the factory to take advantage of socialized medicine (literally- the company shifted production to facilities in Canada where the government, rather than employers, picks up workers’ health care costs), it exposed the limited range of options available to cities and advocates when trying to influence multinational corporations. You could try to shame them and you could try to bribe them with subsidies, but mobile capital held most of the cards.

Incidentally, the wheels of fate – and transit –spin in unusual ways. The coalition building to keep GM in Van Nuys inspired the formation of the Labor Community Strategy Center. One of their successful community organizing efforts has been Bus Rider’s Union, tireless in their advocacy for and litigation on behalf of the mainly low income people who ride L.A.’s bus system. And so the loss of a car factory has in a way reaped hundreds of new clean fuel buses.

IV. As goes General Motors …

Following a decades-long, stubborn gamble on large cars and light trucks; strategic decisions to oppose stronger fuel efficiency standards in the U.S.; and the shocks of the late 2008 financial crisis; the big three domestic automobile manufacturers are facing potential bankruptcy. They already were pledged $25 billion in federal subsidies earlier this fall, supposedly to cushion their shift towards cleaner and more fuel efficient vehicles. Now, with talk of need of a second, larger bailout, policy makers are considering a range of options.

We could let GM, Ford, and Chrysler go bankrupt. The working out of their debts under court supervision would likely hit their workforce hard as the companies would continue mass firings of older workers and default on obligations to retired employee’s pensions and health care. The government could step in to help these workers rather than the company itself. In fact, one thing that would be of great assistance, and not just to car companies, would be to create some kind of national health care program that would relieve employers of the obligation to pay for insurance directly. (Remember the reason the last auto factory left L.A.)

We could bail the companies out combined with stronger environmental policies. The Federal Government could significantly, rather than tepidly, increase the CAFE standards (the minimum miles per gallon that cars sold by a company must average) and reclassify light trucks and SUVs as cars for these purposes to remove an incentive to build gas guzzlers. The government could mandate that a certain portion of cars built and sold be alternative fuel vehicles. General Motors actually already produces lots of flex-fuel and fuel efficient vehicles. They just make and sell them in Brazil and Europe, not the United States, where their strategy has been to deny the reality of climate change and lobby to keep fuel efficiency requirements laughably low.

Or we could invest in or purchase the car companies and make them produce different kinds of cars. Perhaps require that all of their vehicles be electric or plug in hybrids within 5 years. Lots of commentators are speculating about the possibility. Here’s Josh Marshall:

“So maybe we take GM into some sort of managed restructuring, push out management, clean out the equity holders, and use the ‘company’ as the vehicle for leapfrogging the US into the 21st century, non-hydrocarbon auto industry.”

And big changes don’t need to stop with car engines. Why not get the new GM to build more buses, trains (including the supertrain that will hopefully be built linking union station in L.A. with San Francisco)? And why not more bicycles, one of those industries that has been offshored to asia?

My colleague Bob Gottlieb recently posted his thoughts on re-localizing bicycle. Check it out.

GM can stay GM. But rename the company General Mobility, rather than General Motors, to reflect a shift towards increasing people’s options for getting around.

V. A new, green line

I considered “Revenge of the Red Line” as an alternative title for this post about comeuppance and transportation. (Either of the phrases would make a nifty title for a classic Hollywood film noir, by the way). But let’s hope, rather, that a new green line can grow from the ruins of our out-sized car culture.

>>Thanks to Kayt Fitzmorris for helping research proposals for green bailouts

>>Check out chapter 5 of Gottlieb’s recent book Reinventing Los Angeles if you are interested in a fuller account of transportation in L.A.
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Posted in Transportation
6 comments on “A streetcar named REVENGE
  1. abh1wordpress says:

    This is a great piece, historic, timely and futuristic. I just remarked to my brother, this past weekend, that I wish the big three automakers would be retooled to build public transportation in our cities. Imagine the amount of work that could be created by financing light rail projects in such cities as LA, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City and Chicago.

  2. mark says:

    thanks. I remember how the subway trains in washington DC, where I used to live, were manufactured in Italy. It would be nice to have domestic transit and green industry go hand in hand.

  3. BusTard says:

    Brilliant piece.
    Say, are any of you going to the Echo Park Film Center this Thursday to see “This Was Pacific Electric”? I strongly suggest attending. (No, I have no part with place nor the organisation sponsoring it. I feel that it should be a film to not miss.) It is by the Edendale Library near Sunset and Alvarado.

  4. markvalli says:

    Thanks for the tip on the film. it looks good- I may try to go.

  5. VerdeYoda says:

    I think this piece is dead on. In Washington DC, along a few select roads, you can still see the old street car lines that were abandoned in favor of the automobile. Now as the ever growing number of cars choke up highways, urban planners are reaching back to the past and looking at streetcars in a different light. The reality is that to transport large amounts of people back and forth, you need to emphasize public transportation. A great deal of blame of why we no longer have efficient methods of mass transportation lies at the feet of greedy automobile executives. I am torn about the bailout for the Big Three, who through ill advised approaches of making as much money as possible with SUVs (taking advantage of a significant tax loophole)sealed their own fate. I realize the ripple effect that the Big Three going down would have goes beyond their own employees but also effects companies that supply them with parts. On the oher hand, giving them a blank check for ‘business as usual’ will not work.

  6. markvalli says:

    Yoda, you are wise as your namesake. Transparency across the board in how transportation decisions are made would be good.

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  1. [...] of the Corralitas Red Car Property that snakes through silver lake near the 2 & 5. Although I’ve written about the red line before  I didn’t know that there used to be a 300 ft long wooden [...]

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