John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
It's true – this 1960s video of L.A.'s "Red Car" rail system proves it!
There once existed a day when Angelenos didn't drive to get across town. It's true: This old video of Southern California's "Red Car" system shows actual L.A. residents getting on and off mass transit, and not just because a pothole wrecked their Ford Falcon.
"Red Car" was a network of light-rail trains, electric street cars and buses that connected L.A. with cities in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. During its heyday in the 1920s, the system was the largest electric-powered intercity railway in the world; its owner, Southern Pacific, juggled more than a thousand trains on a thousand miles of track every day. (Check out the system map.) Among its many fun historical side notes, comedian Harold Lloyd stole a Red Car and took it for a joy ride in 1924's Girl Shy, and its operators relied on automated grade crossings called "wig-wags."
The railroad system started experiencing troubles after California's populace fell in love with automobiles and freeways. By the beginning of the '60s, most of the Red Cars had been converted to buses.
But you can still take a virtual journey on one of the cherry-colored trams, thanks to this documentary footage of the very last Red Car to ride from downtown L.A. to Long Beach. Shot in April 1961, the film shows the rather nice interior of the cars, which have attractive rows of lights and pull-strings for passengers to signal stops. Its distressed orangish tint, meanwhile, kind of makes it look like the commuters are taking the Nonstop Express to Hell, as their blatting vehicle passes under the unfinished Santa Monica Freeway, through Watts and Compton and over the Los Angeles River.
The folks at Soapbox & Praeses Productions, who uploaded the film to YouTube, write that "[w]e found this in the LA Public Library downtown in 1996 while assembling footage for a cancelled project based on Janet Leigh's autobiography 'There Really Was a Hollywood.' The library gave it to us in exchange for giving them a Betacam SP telecine master." Sounds like a fair exchange, both for the librarian and for fans of mass-transit history: