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Who killed LA's streetcars, according to 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit?'

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L.A.'s streetcar system was the envy of the world in the early 20th century. But who really killed off the network so that cars could rule the roads?

Los Angeles isn't a cartoon, but it is a main character in the 1988 film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"

The movie will be preserved this year in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress along with 24 other important and influential films.

On the surface, it's a bright, noir comedy about cartoon actor Roger Rabbit who's wanted for murder.

But there's an important plot point that has a basis in history: Roger is framed as an elaborate scheme by villain Judge Doom to demolish L.A.'s mass transit trolley system known as the Red Cars.

In their place, Doom plans to profit on the new project being developed by the city: freeways.

"Eight lanes of shimmering cement running from here to Pasadena!" he monologues in the film's climax. "Smooth, straight, fast. Traffic jams will be a thing of the past."

In real life, the Red Car system did fall by the wayside as automobiles took over the roads. Some say there was even a conspiracy at work to make it happen, just like in "Roger Rabbit" (but without the cartoons).

What was fact and fiction about mass transit in the movie?

The Golden Age of the Red Cars

The Red Car network had veins that connected far-flung stretches of Southern California – Santa Monica to San Bernardino, Newport Beach to Van Nuys, Pasadena to Long Beach and more.

Between it and the more local Yellow Car system, riders could ride on the rails on one of these streetcars to almost anywhere they wanted to.

"It was the most extensive urban rail transit system in America, if not the world," says historian Colin Marshall. "It's farther than even the most ambitious Metro plans you see today of what's going to happen in, like, 2050 or 2060 with the current wave of construction."

This map shows the former layout of the Pacific Electric railway system, known as the Red Cars.
Creative Commons
This map shows the former layout of the Pacific Electric railway system, known as the Red Cars.

Its true heyday was between 1901 and 1961, but unlike today's Metro system, they weren't public entities.

"These were essentially real estate development tools consolidated by magnate Henry Huntington," says Marshall. "He had huge amounts of real estate, and he ran his consolidated Red Car system out to the tracts of land that he owned."

And there was no better way to get home buyers to move to then-remote and relatively inaccessible areas that he was developing, like Redondo Beach and Huntington Beach.

Although the rails proved hugely popular with everyone.

"It was the system of choice to get around before cars really became the institution they became in Los Angeles," he says.

Who was behind the Great American Streetcar Scandal?

The Red and Yellow Cars ceased service by the early 1960s, and cars reigned supreme.

How L.A. got there was the subject of conspiracy theories.

In "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" Judge Doom used his shell company Cloverleaf Industries to buy out the Red Car system. Then, he would dismantle it.

With mass transit out of the way, people would be forced to buy cars. And Doom positioned himself to profit from the freeway construction that would be built in the Red Cars' place.

But in real life, some people believe this truly happened. They call it the Great American Streetcar Scandal.

Instead of Judge Doom, the perpetrators were car companies.

"The idea was, simply, that General Motors and a bunch of other companies that were beneficiaries of the automobile economy got together and bought up streetcar lines around the country so they could dismantle them," says Marshall.

The theory sprung up in a 1973 paper by anti-trust attorney Bradford Snell, and gained more traction when it was distributed among the U.S. Senate.

"That really solidified the idea in the Los Angeles zeitgeist that the loss of the streetcars was foisted on the public by a shady cabal of automobile manufacturers, oil companies, tire manufacturers," he adds.

And with people of today frustrated by traffic congestion, this might sound reasonable.

"It's almost perfectly logical to think, 'This wasn't public choice. This wasn't us. This had to have been foisted on us, because nobody would choose this,'" says Marshall.

Angelenos killed the Red Cars, not car companies

Marshall says the Red Cars' demise wasn't because of GM or any other car company.

It's because fewer Angelenos were taking it.

"The ridership had plummeted. In the 1920s, you had almost a million people who were riding this thing," he says. "By the 1930s, it was far fewer in a city that was far bigger."

They became less reliable, too, and started to get a bad rap from the public. The Red Cars were never profitable nor were they meant to be, either, since they were privately owned.

As a result, the system started to shut down.

"And only in about 10 percent of the cases did General Motors and their National City Lines, the shell company they were using to buy the streetcars, have anything to do with it," says Marshall. 

Riders take one last ride on a Red Car on March 19, 1961, from the 6th and Main terminal in downtown Los Angeles.
University of Southern California
Riders take one last ride on a Red Car on March 19, 1961, from the 6th and Main terminal in downtown Los Angeles.

By coincidence, the greater availability of cars came onto the scene during those decades, too.

"The allure of the automobile was so great, especially in the postwar era," he says.

Los Angeles decided that cars would be the preferred way to get around, not the Red Car trolleys.

So, in reality, car companies were framed for the Red Cars' decline.

"It's very easy to look back on them as the Golden Age of Transit," says Marshall, "when in reality, it had its problems, too."

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