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Los Angeles Transit History

Los Angeles County has been served by public transit since 1873.  During this time, at least 220 private and public companies have operated transit systems that have included horse cars, cable cars, incline railways, steam trains, electric streetcars, interurban cars, trolley buses, and gas or diesel powered buses.  The major players in this long history are noted below. 

Brief Summary 1873 - present:

Main Street Railroad Company
David B. Waldron was authorized by the Los Angeles City Council on July 3, 1873 to "lay down and maintain two iron railroad tracks, theron propelled by horses or mules, and to carry passengers thereon..."  With this charter, he formed the Main Street Railroad Company. Waldron was not strongly motivated to pursue this venture and the enterprise did not become a reality.

Spring and West 6th Street Railroad
In 1874 the Spring and 6th Street franchise was issued to Judge Robert M. Widney (also one of the founders of the University of Southern California). The company served the downtown Los Angeles area from Main Street to Spring Street, to First Street, to Fort Street (now Broadway), then to Fourth Street, Hill Street, and finally Pearl Street (now Figueroa Street). This single track horse car driven line began public transit in Los Angeles.

Main Street & Agricultural Railroad

Main Street & Agricultural Railroad Company

The Main Street and Agricultural Railroad was the first suburban line in Los Angeles. This company was chartered in November 1874 and began operation in 1875 from Old River Southern Pacific on North Spring Street.  The line operated through the city on Main Street to Washington Boulevard and extended to Agricultural Park (now Exposition Park), traveling by way of Washington, Figueroa, and Wesleyan (now University Avenue).

East Los Angeles & San Pedro Railway Company
Also founded by Robert Widney, this line was incorporated on May 1, 1875 but did not begin construction until March 1876.  It ran north from Fourth Street and was intended to lay track to the new Southern Pacific depot.  It reached only to College Street and North Broadway.  Due to low patronage, the railway company folded after just four years.

Los Angeles & Aliso Street Railroad Company
The Los Angeles and Aliso Street Railroad Company was franchised in June, 1875 and regular service began in February, 1877.  Baseball fever increased ridership and a second line, the East First Street Line, was built.  It became a cable railway in 1899.

City Railroad Company
This line was chartered in 1883 and became the first line dedicated "exclusively to public transit."  Other lines under development were primarily focused on promoting real estate.  This horse car driven system ran from the Southern Pacific Depot south and west to a terminal at Washington Boulevard and Figueroa Street.

The Central Railroad Company
Also chartered circa 1883, the Central Railroad Company was developed to consolidate with the Los Angeles & Aliso Railroad and eventually merged with the City Railroad on May 1, 1886.

Main & Fifth Street Railroad
As the name suggests, the Main & Fifth Street Railroad (which began service on July 30, 1887) ran from First and Main Streets to Fifth Street and Central Avenue.  It was electrified by the Los Angeles Railway Company in 1897.

Los Angeles & Vernon Railroad
This company operated a horse car line on Central Avenue from Fifth Street to Vernon Avenue.  It was purchased by the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway in May, 1891.

Second Street Cable Railroad Company
Founded in March 1885, the Second Street Cable Railroad Company was a single track system opening from Spring Street to Texas (Belmont Avenue).

Temple Street Cable Railway Company
This line opened on July 4, 1886.  In 1888 it was extended to Dayton Heights.  It carried more passengers than any of the other lines.

Los Angeles Cable Railway

Los Angeles Cable RailwayLos Angeles Cable Railway

Incorporated in 1887, Los Angeles Cable Railway was the largest transit venture in the city, operating from Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles out to Westlake Park and Grand Avenue.  It was the last city line to convert to electrification. It was renamed the Pacific Railway Company in 1889 and was later sold to Henry E. Huntington.

Los Angeles Electric Railway Company
Charles H. Howland chartered this company on September 11, 1886.  It began operations on January 4, 1887 with the line opening from Pico Boulevard and Main Street traveling west to Harvard Boulevard.  In 1896, many of the major horse and cable cars operating in Los Angeles converted to electrical power.

Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway
The Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway was originally chartered in 1890 in Phoenix, Arizona by Moses Sherman.  It grew as Sherman negotiated to acquire additional lines.  He acquired the Los Angeles Electric Railway Company and was competing with James Crank of Pacific Railway for transit turf.  He acquired Pacific Railway in 1893 but lost it to yet another company.

Los Angeles Railway (Yellow Cars)

 LARyLARyLos Angeles Railway

Los Angeles Railway (1895-1945), also known as the Yellow Cars of Los Angeles, was the local streetcar transit system running down the center of city streets and connecting the city center to neighborhoods in about a six-mile radius of downtown.  There were about 642 miles of track at its peak in 1924.  An early competitor was the Los Angeles Traction Company (1894).  It was eliminated and Los Angeles Railway merged with the Main Street & Agricultural Park Street Railroad, the product of which retained the name Los Angeles Railway.  Henry E. Huntington became the owner in 1898 and maintained his interest in running the city lines.  The system slowly morphed into a bus system over the years until the last streetcar went out of service in 1963.  After a 27-year absence, light rail returned to Los Angeles with the opening of the Metro Blue Line in 1990.

Angels Flight® Railway

AngelsFlightAngels FlightAngelsFlight

This little inclined cable railway was built in 1901 by Col. J.W. Eddy to give Bunker Hill residents a public access up the steep slope from Third and Hill Streets to Third and Olive Streets.  It is #4 on the list of more than 1,000 Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments.  As a traditional funicular inclined railway, Angels Flight operates with minimal power because its two cars, Olivet and Sinai, are counterbalanced and are propelled by a cable rather than by any machinery in the cars themselves.  It began operations on December 30, 1901.  On its first day of operation, it carried more than 2,000 passengers -- and it stayed in continuous operation for over 60 years.  It was temporarily dismantled in 1969, much to the dismay of many Angelenos, to make way for the Bunker Hill redevelopment project.  Service was finally restored in February, 1996 with a City Council mandate to reinstall it.  It was reopened after being rebuilt with all new machinery and with the original wood cars restored on new steel undercarriages.  It is now the only survivor from 19th to 20th turn-of-the-century development on Bunker Hill.  Our collection of Angels Flight® images can be found here.

Pacific Electric Railway Company (Red Cars)  

Pacific Electric RailwayPacific Electric RailwayPacific Electric Railway

Henry E. Huntington completed his first line in 1902 which ran from Los Angeles to Long Beach. He later sold his shares to Southern Pacific. Various dates are cited but it is generally accepted that on August 24, 1911 (Source: Ride the Big Red Cars), the “Great Merger” took place when eight separate companies were merged into the Pacific Electric Railway Company.  The Pacific Electric conglomerate, developed by Huntington, consisted of a standard (4 feet, 8½ inches) gauge interurban system suitable for competing with steam railroad lines for freight or passengers.  Huntington retained the narrow gauge system (3 feet, six inches), consolidating them into the Los Angeles Railway (Yellow Cars). The Mount Lowe Line was the most famous use of the Pacific Electric tourist lines although beach excursions were also plentiful.

Pacific Electric Subway  

Pacific Electric SubwayPacific Electric SubwayPacific Electric SubwayPacific Electric Subway

Los Angeles' Pacific Electric Subway opened on November 30, 1925.  It ran 1,045 feet under Fourth and Hill Street to a portal near Beverly and Glendale Boulevards.  The Subway Terminal Building was a notable feature of the subway.  It had 250,000 square feet of office space and five wings with natural sunlight filling most of its rooms.

By 1933, Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway had included bus passenger service, but patronage of rail and bus had been crippled by the advent of the automobile.  This resulted in even larger declines in passengers in the later forties and fifties.  One reason noted for the change to buses was the serious drought of 1924 which caused a power shortage and required Pacific Electric to limit trolley service.

Various independent bus companies sprung up with intentions of competing with the existing system.  Most were purchased or subsumed by Pacific Electric or Los Angeles Railway.  They include:

  • Los Angeles Motor Bus Company, later renamed the Los Angeles Motor Coach Company (ca. 1930)
  • LA CBD & Westside Lines (1923-1949)
  • Motor Transport Company (1922-1939)
  • Original Stage Line Los Angeles-San Fernando
  • Pasadena Ocean Park State Line
  • Studio Bus line (Hollywood-Culver City)
  • Asbury Rapid Transit System (San Fernando Valley-Hollywood-Pasadena-Los Angeles Central Business District, 1930’s-1954)

In 1955, the last line using the subway was converted to buses.

Los Angeles Transit Lines - (1945-1958)  

Los Angeles Transit LinesLos Angeles Transit LinesLos Angeles Transit Lines

The controlling interest in the Los Angeles Railway was purchased from the Huntington estate by the National City Lines which was run by the five Fitzgerald Brothers.  They renamed it the Los Angeles Transit Lines and at the end of World War II, they sought to substitute buses on most of the street car lines.

Metropolitan Coach Lines - (1953-1958)  

Metropolitan Coach LinesMetropolitan Coach LinesMetropolitan Coach Lines

Pacific Electric sold its passenger rail cars and buses in October, 1953 to Jesse Haugh who organized the Metropolitan Coach Lines bus company.  Service began June 19, 1955. Haugh purchased a $30 million dollar property value for only $500,000 cash with the promise that he would improve bus service and abandon the rail portions.  Metropolitan Coach Lines bought Asbury Rapid Transit on August 3, 1954.

Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority - (1951-1964)  

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The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority (LAMTA) was first formed as a transit planning agency by the State of California in 1951.  It was empowered to formulate plans and policy for a publicly owned and operated mass rapid transit system that would replace the crumbling infrastructure of privately owned and operated systems.  The enabling legislation mandated that the Governor appoint the LAMTA’s seven-member Board of Directors in consultation with local officials.

In 1957, the legislature gave the LAMTA the authority to purchase and operate existing privately-owned bus lines with capital provided by the sale of revenue bonds.  They acquired the Los Angeles Transit Lines (successor to Los Angeles Railway and Los Angeles Motor Bus companies), Metropolitan Coach Lines (successor to Pacific Electric Railway and other independent bus companies), and Asbury Rapid Transit System to create the first publicly-owned and publicly-governed transit system in Los Angeles, effective March 3, 1958.

The LAMTA Act of 1957 stated “It is hereby declared to be the policy of the State of California to develop mass rapid transit systems in the various metropolitan areas within the State for the benefit of the people.  A necessity exists within Los Angeles County for such a system.  Because of the numerous separate municipal corporations and unincorporated populated areas in the metropolitan area, only a specially created authority can operate effectively.  Because of the unique problem presented in Los Angeles County and the facts and circumstances related to the establishment of a mass rapid transit system therein, the adoption of a special act and the creation of a special authority is required.”

Prior to the creation of a public agency to operate transit services in Los Angeles, the California Public Utilities Commission approved all fare and routes modifications, line by line.  The new LAMTA now had the power to approve those changes at the local level.

During its tenure, the LAMTA presented three major mass rapid transit system proposals for Los Angeles County, including the now infamous monorail plans.  The LAMTA’s final plan was knows as the “Backbone Route.”  It consisted of elevated rail from El Monte to downtown, continuing on as subway from downtown to Century City along Wilshire Boulevard.  The agency even held a groundbreaking ceremony in 1962 with Governor Pat Brown and the media in attendance, touting the project as vitally important.  Unfortunately, without adequate powers of its own and without state and federal funding partners (they hadn’t been formed yet), the Backbone Route project went nowhere.

In 1964, the State Legislature recognized that they had granted limited authority to the LAMTA to solve the transit problems of the Southern California area.  As the LAMTA was currently constituted, it would be unable to deliver the needed comprehensive mass rapid transit system.  It did not have the power to levy taxes for any purpose whatsoever, its Board did not wield sufficient political influence to build broad public support, and it did not have the right to acquire real property by eminent domain. While it could issue revenue bonds, it did not have sufficient revenue sources to implement a large-scale system with broad local support.

This agency was also created to develop a monorail system along the Los Angeles River.  In 1958, The Authority was allocated state funds to purchase the Metropolitan Coach Lines and the Los Angeles Transit Lines for $33.3 million, thereby marking the transition from private to public ownership and operation of transportation in Los Angeles.  The Long Beach line was discontinued under this agency on April 8, 1961.  The rest of the street cars on the five remaining lines were discontinued by March 31, 1963.

Miscellaneous bus companies acquired by LAMTA and their beginning service dates:

  • Crosstown Suburban Bus Lines (South Los Angeles County, 1961)
  • Foster Transportation Co (Alhambra, 1962)
  • Riverside City Lines (1963)
  • Glendale City Lines (1962)

Southern California Rapid Transit District - (1964-1993)  

 SCRTDSCRTDSCRTDSCRTD

State legislation enable the creation of the SCRTD on August 22, 1964 to serve the Southern California region, including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties.  This Agency superseded the LAMTA and was mandated to improve bus systems and design and build a transit system for Los Angeles.  Bus improvements were recognized in the development of the El Monte Busway in 1974 and its Mini bus service in the Central Business District.  The SCRTD was successful in securing federal funding for a backbone rapid transit system: the Metro Rail subway project. The SCRTD, like its predecessor, also acquired local suburban bus companies.  They included:

  • Pasadena City Lines (Pasadena local lines - 1940-67)
  • Inglewood City Lines (Inglewood local lines - 1942-67)
  • Blue & White Bus Company (South L.A. local lines - 1967-1971)
  • Eastern City Transit (East L.A. local lines - 1949-1971)
  • San Pedro Motor Bus Association - (1961-1973)
  • Highland Transit (San Pedro - 1938-1972)
  • San Pedro Transit Lines (Harbor City-San Pedro - 1961-1973)
  • Western Greyhound Lines (Long Beach-Santa Monica Lines - 1923-1974)
  • Ontario-Upland Bus Lines - (1928-1973)
  • Pomona Valley Municipal Transit System - (1966-1972)

In 1973, the State formed County public transportation agencies for Orange (OCTD now OCTA), Riverside (RTA) and San Bernardino (OmniTrans) Counties, giving local control to their rapidly growing populations.

Los Angeles County Transportation Commission - (1976-1993)  

 LACTCLACTCLACTCLACTC

In 1976, the California state legislature enacted Assembly Bill #1246 which created the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission (LACTC) to oversee public transit (bus and rail, shuttles, dial-a-ride, paratransit) and highway policy in the nation's largest county.  The legislation, drafted by Assemblyman Walter Ingalls, required LACTC to approve all plans and funding with respect to transit capital development, transit operations and highway capital development.  LACTC's authority over highways was ultimately subject to approval by the California State Transportation Commission.  The authority of LACTC was similar to that of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York or the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) in Chicago, except that these organizations have little or no jurisdiction over highways.  LACTC is credited with the construction of the Metro Blue Line, Metro Green Line and completing construction of the Metro Red Line.

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Agency ("Metro" : 1993 - present)  

 LACMTALACMTALACMTALACMTA

The California State Legislature created the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (LACMTA) in April, 1993 via a merger of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and the Southern California Rapid Transit District.  "Transit" was expanded to "Transportation" as the agency combined both county-wide roles of the two predecessor agencies.  The LACMTA is responsible for operating the clean air CNG-powered Metro bus fleet, Rapid Bus lines, and Metro's Blue Line, Red Line, Green Line, and Gold Line.  In addition to our operating function, we plan, fund and construct multimodal transportation solutions throughout Los Angeles County.

Other Transit Systems Operating in Los Angeles

The following systems (and their beginning services dates) operate independently or in their own municipalities but also interface with LACMTA service.

Metrolink - Metrolink began operations on October 26, 1992 through funding in part from the LACTC.  The rail right-of-way was purchased from the Southern Pacific Railroad as part of a $345 million acquisition price for the entire system.  It operates under the auspices of the Southern California Regional Rail Authority and presently carries an average of 24,000 daily passengers, on six routes, over 416 miles of track, and serves 45 train stations throughout six counties.

Access Services Inc. - This service is designed exclusively for passengers requiring specialized transportation vehicles and services mandated by the American with Disabilities Act. Originally managed by the LACMTA, the Department was restructured as a non-profit, independent agency under the name Access Services in 1994.

Culver City Municipal Lines - March 4, 1928

Long Beach Transit - 1963 (originally owned by National City Lines)

Santa Monica Bus Lines (Big Blue Bus) - April 14, 1928

Foothill Transit - December 19,1988

Commerce - January 21, 1962

Los Anngeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) - October 28, 1985

Torrance - 1940

La Mirada - 1973

Gardena - January 15, 1940

Montebello - 1931

Norwalk - August 1, 1974

In addition to the brief history contained here, more detailed history can be found in the following resources:

Books:

From Horse Car to Red Car to Mass Rapid Transit: A Century of Progress by Thomas H. Shanks. (Virginia Beach, VA : Donning Co., 1991).

From Railway to Freeway: Pacific Electric and the Motor Coach by Eli Bail (Glendale, CA : Interurban Press, 1984).

Yellow Cars of Los Angeles edited by Jim Walker (Glendale, CA : Interurban Press, 1977).

Street Railways and the Growth of Los Angeles by Robert C. Post (San Marino, CA : Golden West Books, 1989).


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