Note: This is an encore post from 2005 and originally appeared on the 1947project.
Perhaps one of most the common and ingrained bits of wisdom about old Los Angeles is the vast conspiracy of bus companies and car dealers that did away with the streetcars.
But to delve into mass transit in the 1940s is to plunge headfirst into the rabbit hole of “Alice in Wonderland” and never return. Master plans, freeways, congested traffic, parking, one-way streets, buses, comparisons with Seattle’s solutions to mass transit, newspaper editorials and letters from angry readers; it’s all there, just as hotly debated as today.
The trackless trolleys, so detested by homeowners in 500 block of South Wilton Place, had been in the works for more than a year. Today, we would say they most resemble electric buses powered by a network of overhead wires. More maneuverable and with a better suspension than streetcars running on tracks, they also didn’t contribute to smog, like diesel-fueled buses.
In fact, an electrical trolley had been used by a resourceful land developer in Hollywood in 1913, when Charles Spencer Mann had two built to ferry prospective buyers up Laurel Canyon, from Sunset and Laurel Canyon to a tavern named the Log House at Laurel Canyon and Lookout Mountain Drive.
To simply a vastly complicated subject, wartime reallocation of manufacturing drastically affected mass transit nationwide, with more than 2,000 vehicles out of service for lack of parts while many others (the 1900-rattletrap variety, as one letter writer described them) were pressed into service long after they should have been scrapped.
The idea in postwar Los Angeles was to eliminate many of the turns made by streetcars that slowed traffic. Tracks were to be condemned and the new trackless trolleys were to be added, along with “streamlined streetcars” and buses.
Support was high for the trackless trolleys in some areas. They didn’t pollute and were quieter than buses but had better acceleration, according to The Times. They seated as many people as a bus—45—but the aisles were wider so there was more room for people to stand. They were more expensive than buses ($18,000 vs. $20,000/ $170,355.35 vs. $189,283.72 USD 2005) but cheaper than a streetcar ($26,000/ $246,068.84 USD 2005).
While the most costly, streamlined streetcars also accelerated more quickly than buses (0-30mph in 6 seconds vs. buses 0-30 mph in 10 seconds) and accommodated the most people (buses and trackless trolleys seated 45, while trackless trolleys had more standing room than buses; streetcars seated 65 and with standing passengers could carry 150).
The people of the 500 block of South Wilton Place, headed by Joe Shaw—and yes it’s that Joe Shaw, brother of recalled Mayor Frank Shaw, were part of a larger issue: Making 5th and 6th Streets one-way (as they remain today, east of the Harbor Freeway), eliminating streetcar turns and a revised route for the No. 3 Line.
Housewives sounded the alarm and stood watch to keep the transit crews at bay, hearings were held, writs were issued and appeals were heard. The transit company taped off the proposed turn-around in a paved lot for tests. On July 21, 1947, the Wilton Place residents dropped their objections and the turnaround was installed.
As one transit official said: “It’s the same old story. People want transportation—but they want the streetcars or buses in the next block, in the other fellow’s block, not in theirs.”
No. 3 Line: Starting at 58th Street and Central; north on Central to 5th Street; West on 5th Street to Beaudry; 6th Street; Wilton Place and 5th Street; to a private right of way near Gramercy Place. It returned via 6th Street from Gramercy to Central to 58th Street.