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Why Phoenix, and Los Angeles, got rid of their streetcars at the end of the 1940s

Since it's been so long since the late 1940s, not many people can actually remember the street car system in Phoenix and in Los Angeles. Street cars, or trolleys, have survived in museums, in imaginations, in popular literature, and in movies. And so, when the question arises as to why these systems went away after World War II, no one really likes to point out that they were a terrible mess by then.

If you prefer conspiracy theories, then going back in time and seeing what was really happening will actually be kind of boring. Both Phoenix and Los Angeles had grown around what is now called "Light Rail". It was all financed privately by Real Estate developers, like Moses Sherman, and yep, it made these guys rich - especially in Los Angeles! Of course, once the real estate was all developed, the cities took over these systems, and by the 1940s, they were, to say the least, pretty beat up - especially in Los Angeles, where they got a LOT of heavy use.

In Los Angeles, the decision was made to invest in freeways, beginning with the Arroyo Seco (the Pasadena Freeway). By the 1940s, the streets of LA were terribly clogged with cars, and so the freeways helped relieve that. And LA continued to build freeways, only slowing down the construction by the 1970s, when the public's taste for them started to sour.

In Phoenix, the trolley cars just stopped, but no freeways were built until the 1960s (and then only one - I-17) until the 1980s. Phoenix made the decision to create "mini-freeways" of gigantic multi-lane roads set a mile apart. When traffic congested, another lane or two were added. Nowadays, some of these surface streets are as wide as football fields - which only pedestrians seem to notice!

Contrary to popular belief, the introduction of automobiles didn't cause the trolley cars to disappear. Autos were common in Phoenix and Los Angeles decades before the end of the trolley cars. But with improved road construction, and freeways, the autos became much more popular, and the old trolley cars were condemned and taken out of service.

Image at the top of this post: Streetcar making the turn north onto 2nd Avenue from Washington in the 1940s.

The maze of electrical wires over Washington in the 1940s.

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1 comment:

  1. The streetcar killer was buses. This timeline bears that out: