Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

On the Road Again
Observations from a Life-Long Interest in Transportation.

Back when I was a lad (a lot of my stories start that way, don’t they?) we lived on Fifth Avenue in Monrovia.  Fifth was the boundary between Monrovia and Arcadia, and our house was between Colorado Boulevard and Huntington Drive.  A lot of our weekday traffic was gravel trucks with loads of aggregates from the Azusa and Duarte areas heading for Pasadena, which fascinated my brother and me, but was a headache to the Monrovia Street Deptartment, which sent out a Ford Model AA truck with assorted sizes of gravel and a tar sprayer to patch the pavement in front of our house a rather frequent intervals.  

The trucks came west on Huntington Drive and turned north on Fifth, then west on Foothill Boulevard to avoid going through downtown Arcadia.  It was a fascinating assortment of heavy duty trucks—GMCs, Macks, Brockways, Whites and other marques.  We also got the Transit Mix concrete mixer trucks from their plant in East Pasadena, just east of where the Gold Line parking structure is now.  They were unusual in that they used chain drive, like an old Bulldog Mack truck from the early days of trucking.  My guess is that the axle manufacturers hadn’t come up with an axle that could support a mixer unit and be hollow for the axle shaft to transmit the torque from the differential to the hub.  

Occasionally we’d see a rig with a low-bed trailer carrying a large construction machine to the Kiewit yard a couple blocks away, or maybe a unit from the J. E. Haddock Co. (for which my Uncle John did engineering work back in the late 1940s).  These shipments could cause trouble, if a very tall machine snagged our phone wire—one of my parents would have to go to our nearest neighbor, call the telephone office and have them send out a lineman to put the wire back up.

Going east and went by our abode was the Pacific Electric Monrovia-Glendora Line, which, in addition to the Big Red Cars in passenger service, had a daily freight train that carried mostly rock products from some of the same quarries that filled the trucks and trailers.

For many years, freight service was powered by electric locomotives, many of which I later learned were built by Pacific Electric in their own shops.  By the late '40s, PE was using diesel locomotives for many of their runs, such as this Baldwin diesel that my mother photographed in 1949 or 50.  There’s nothing left of this scene— after the tracks were torn up in 1952, the right of way stood vacant for many years, but was finally sold off and developed for senior citizen housing.   The driveway where my mother was standing to take the photo was partly on railway property, and the southern half was an easement.  When the developer wanted to build a wall on the actual property line, they had to provide a driveway running on the north side of the house (which my brother and I had sold in the 1990s) and build a new garage. The PE embankment was graded down to street level and a set of new dwellings were constructed running from Fifth Avenue to Monterey Avenue (which PE always called Ninth Avenue).  Note the waiting house on the left it was a fairly recent addition— I remember seeing the PE section crew rolling it off a small flatcar and onto the concrete base some time around 1947.

One way to start a discussion about local passenger transportation is to consider why the personal automobile has become the dominant mode in the US.  In a few places, such as Boston, New York City, Chicago and San Francisco, public transit plays an important role.  In most other metro areas, getting people out of their cars and into a bus or train is an uphill battle.

One cynic observed: Of course the automobile took over-- look at all the wonderful human character traits it plays to:  Impatience, selfishness and laziness.  Impatience is a part of American culture; I once saw a personalized license plate that read H8 2 W8 ("hate to wait").  We tend to be in a hurry, packing our days with activity.  "Road rage" resulting from this frantic lifestyle makes the headlines.  One of the annoyances of using public transit systems is waiting for a bus or train.  The observation that railroad stations have "waiting rooms" points up this fact.  Compare this with the automobile, ready to go at a moment's notice, any time, day or night. 

 Then there's selfishness.  From time to time various state and local agencies tout the virtues of ride-sharing and/or van-pooling.  They're wonderful ways to cut fuel consumption, air pollution and road congestion, but many drivers are reluctant to give up the control represented by the steering wheel.  When you're in your own car, you choose the route.  If you want to stop at your favorite hobby store on the way home, nobody will object.  If you want to listen to music, it's your choice from the radio or the stereo player.  Is your car showroom fresh or a wastebasket with wheels?  It's your choice. 

The laziness aspect can be seen in several ways: ever watch someone drive around the mall parking lot looking for a parking space 25 feet closer to the door?  Unless one lives next door to a bus stop or railway station, there's a walk involved in getting to public transit, while the car is right out in the driveway or garage.  And once you get to the destination stop, there may be more of a hike to the actual building.

When I wrote this essay some years ago, I forgot another aspect of “automobility”: Vanity.  One luxury import “marque” (to use the car snobs’ term) even uses “You are what you drive” as a slogan.  If it wasn’t for the concept of “making a statement”, most of us would be driving Honda Accords, Toyota Camrys or similar cars that get the job done without attempting to impress relatives, friends and total strangers with your “coolness.”  For family excursions and errands which require more cubic feet than a sedan, there’s the SUV vs. minivan question.  Consumer Reports reviewed the Honda Odyssey recently, and started off saying: Sorry, image conscious parents.  Despite the popularity of SUVs, none of them can match a minivan for overall versatility and practical family transportation.  I suppose to some people, image is important.  Motor vehicle ads on TV certainly play up to this part of the human psyche, telling all the guys in the audience that the sponsor’s product will attract more “hot chicks” than you’d know what to do with, or turning your shy, nerdy son into a “big man on campus” because you drive him to school in your new luxury car. 

An illustration of the "control" aspect of driving may be taken from a song that Roy Clark recorded back in the '60s: "Right or Left at Oak Street."  One might call it a "Suburban and Western" song, it's the sad tale of a man whose life isn't truly wretched, but it's not very happy.  His wife is a nag and his children are brats, and everyone he knows seems to be doing much better financially and emotionally than he is.  To borrow a song title from the Punk Rock era, "Life Sucks, Then You Die".  Every morning Monday through Friday he climbs into his beat-up old car and drives to work.  Every morning he comes to Oak Street.  Every morning he has to make a decision: one way will take him to his workplace for another eight hours of soul-deadening toil; the other leads to an Interstate on-ramp and ?????  We don't know. 

Johnny Cash recorded one possibility in "Understand Your Man", in which the narrator hits the road.  My guess is that Roy Clark's subject will just keep plugging away in his rut until he finally keels over. 

Guys like him may gripe a lot, or stoically carry on, but they're not likely to do anything daring.  He probably knows that trying a road trip in his old car would be asking for trouble.  Unless he had an easily marketable skill, he would think long and hard about leaving his job, no matter how dull it is.  Unless he had friends or relatives with whom he could bunk down while sorting things out, he probably wouldn't want to be paying for daily lodging, even at Motel 6 rates. 

Now, what does all this have to do with transit?  Consider if our man was in a car pool- -would he ask the driver of the day to "let me off at the Greyhound station" on the way to work?  If he rode a bus or train, it would look suspicious if he walked to the stop or station with a suitcase.  With a car it's easier to hide-- he could smuggle clothes and other travel items out to the garage over a period of weeks and stash them in an old box (his garage is probably such a mess that it's easy to hide things).  When he's finally ready to make a break for it, he just has to move the box into the trunk and try not to act nervous (most wives have a sixth sense that can detect when husbands are up to something.)    It may have an element of masochism, the decision at Oak Street every day, the thought that escape from his weary existence is there with the turn of a steering wheel, or maybe it's all that keeps him sane.

My first wife rode the local transit bus as a teenager in the '50s (rail transit in our area being only a memory), but as soon as she had enough money saved up, she bought a car.  She later told me that there was a man who used to ride the bus and harass girls and young women (ties in with some of today’s headlines, doesn’t it?), and she’d had enough of that, plus the bus service was fairly infrequent and didn’t always go where she wanted to go.  As far as I know, she never rode a bus again.  This was back when one could buy a used car for about $100, fill it with gas at 25 cents a gallon, run it until something major failed and find another clunker.  I later learned that this was part of the GM strategy: sell new cars on the GMAC installment plan, encourage the more prosperous motorists to trade in fairly often by making incremental improvements in performance and styling, and have an ever-widening stream of used cars traveling down the economic food-chain.  Many years ago I had folks who had been to Europe saying, “You’d love it in Germany (or Switzerland, or Holland)”— trains go everywhere and most of the cities have streetcars and/or metros.  This led me to visit the German Consulate General in San Francisco (on one of the cable car lines, for bonus points) and interview one of the consular officials, who explained some of the differences between Germany and the US regarding cars.   Driver’s licensing is much more rigorous in Germany - none of the “Where did you get your drivers license?  In a box of corn flakes?” that we have here.  Instructors must be licensed, and their “alumni” are tracked - if too many of an instructor’s graduates are cited or get into accidents, his or her certificate can be revoked.  Cars, too, are kept under much tighter scrutiny.  They have to be inspected at specified intervals, a process that takes at least a day and maybe two.  Even body damage has to be repaired before approval is given— no banged-in doors or primer splotches.  Add-on equipment is also regulated— car owners can’t just go down to the custom shop and have chrome rims installed; they have to be authorized for that particular make and model.  Imagine trying to register a low rider in Germany.

Some transit advocates assert that the typical American got sold a big bill of goods by the auto makers, the oil companies and the housing developers.  According to this school of thought, most of us have been brainwashed into thinking that "real Americans" drive cars and live in single-family houses.  Apartment dwellers and transit riders are “second-class citizens.”  Cities are thought by many to be terrible places to raise children.  Once again you have the issue of control.  Part of our legal tradition is a man’s home is his castle.  Or to quote a folk song parody: This land is my land, it isn’t your land, and you better get off, ‘fore I blow your head off.  One conspiracy theory holds that after World War II, the federal government passed the GI Home Loan program to encourage veterans to buy single-family homes in the burgeoning suburban tracts.  The idea was to disperse the working class into suburbs where they would be so busy maintaining houses, mowing lawns and taking care of cars that they wouldn’t have time to listen to radical agitators.  (I don’t have a source for this theory, but over the years I’ve worked with and had classes with people with a wide variety of viewpoints, so I picked it up somewhere)

One development that hurt both bus and trolley business was the advent of broadcast television.  Instead of taking transit to the movie theater, folks would stay home and watch Uncle Miltie, Ed Sullivan or a whole host of other entertainment choices (even with only a half dozen channels to choose from).

We can also look at how automobiles kept improving, while many transit operators kept pre-World War I streetcars in service, usually because they didn’t have the money or borrowing power to buy new ones.  As late as 1949, Pacific Electric was still running cars that dated back to before the first Model “T” rolled out of a Ford plant.  Autos, on the other hand went from open-air roadsters and touring cars, to all-weather sedans and coupes.  Engines became more powerful, riding quality became smoother, tires were less likely to blow out, and features such as radios and heaters became popular.  World War II put private cars on hiatus, but after a few years of pre-war carryover models, things started changing again.  

The '50s saw automatic transmissions and V-8 engines in the low priced three brands.  Air conditioning showed up in luxury makes, becoming common as the century wore on.  Of course, by now the battle was over, and the gas buggy had won.   Anyone who used public transit, outside of a few major cities, was considered a loser, and an object of pity.  Then came the '70s, and a pair of gas crunches.  Suddenly there wasn’t a filling station on every major corner (and lots of minor ones) dispensing gas at 25 cents a gallon.  Detroit iron gas guzzlers didn’t look so impressive, but to this day, even when gasoline went over $4 a gallon for a while the vast majority of local transport is provided by individually owned motor vehicles.

As late as Sept. 1971, regular gas at a name-brand station in a major city was still 28.9 cents a gallon, and San Francisco was the only city west of El Paso, Texas with electric railway service.

I’ve often thought that one of the selling points for individually owned and operated cars can be expressed in Huey Long’s slogan, “Every Man a King”.  And the king doesn’t ride in a bus or streetcar with the commoners*.  According to one author, when the economy improved to the point where even the “colored people” in the South could afford, if nothing else, a fourth-hand Flivver, some of the “white folks” were upset because their legislators couldn’t figure out how to apply Jim Crow segregation laws to the streets and highways**.  Another story from the same era concerns the 1940 movie version of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  The report was that as soon as this tale of the downtrodden Okies leaving their ruined and foreclosed farms in Oklahoma and migrating to the supposed promised land of California in their caravans of wheezy old jalopies hit the screen, the Soviet film bureau got a print and ran off bootleg copies, presumably with Cyrillic subtitles.  These prints were distributed to cinemas throughout The Motherland, but were soon withdrawn when the buzz reached the film authorities’ ears.  The audiences were more interested in the fact that in “Amerika” even the peasants had motorcars, than in the miseries of the migrants.  Owning an automobile was far beyond the wildest dreams of the average Ivan and Olga.  The only kind of motor vehicle anyone outside the higher echelons of the Communist Party could expect to drive would be a tractor, or maybe a truck in a Red Army convoy.

*As I recall the King in one of Europe’s constitutional monarchies was photographed riding a bicycle some years ago.

** There were “sundown laws” that made it unsafe for black people to be seen driving in certain towns.

We’ve discussed the popularity of owner-operated motor vehicles and why getting Americans to “share the ride” or “leave the driving to us” is an uphill battle.  A subsection of this discussion is the gradual (and in some cases sudden) replacement of electric railway cars with internal-combustion-powered buses.  Much of the blame has been placed on General Motors.  To streetcar partisans, the recent financial distress of GM has seemed like long-delayed Justice!  But making GM the whipping boy for all the problems of urban and suburban mobility is a major oversimplification.

The PUHCA: The Public Utilities Holding Co. Act passed by Congress in the mid-1930s required power companies that operated electric railways to divest themselves of the trolley lines, and deal with them at arm’s length.  Previously, many power companies, especially those that had started out generating electricity for a railway system and selling surplus juice to residential and commercial customers, had been quietly subsidizing the railway operation with favorable electric rates and by covering some of the overhead expenses.  In many cases, this act pushed marginal railway operations over the edge and made them targets for takeovers by bus-oriented companies.

The nickel fare: In many cities, a five-cent fare was written into franchise agreement allowing the railway companies to use the city streets.  As wages and prices rose, the streetcar companies tried to raise fares, but since passengers far outnumbered shareholders, this was a politically difficult process. 

Two-man cars:  Several cities had ordinances requiring a motorman and a conductor on every streetcar, San Francisco and Chicago being two important examples.  When transit buses became competitive with streetcars, the fact that they were nearly always run with just a driver encouraged "bustitution” on lines that might have lasted longer if trolleys with safety car equipment were allowed to run with only an operator.

Poor PR from the traction companies:  Many streetcar companies had poor public and/or employee relations.  Overcrowded cars, surly crew members and service interruptions due to strikes made the companies targets of public wrath.

Railway maintenance:  For many traction companies, getting rid of the streetcars and going all-bus meant being able to lay off the track gangs and overhead line crews.  Just pay the license fee and let the city or county worry about maintaining the right of way.

Obsolete equipment:  Today, visitors to railway museums enjoy riding in hundred-year-old streetcars and interurbans.  It was quite another thing to depend on such relics to get to work every morning.  Some fortunate cities had PCC streamliner trolleys, with smooth rides and comfortable seats, but in many cases, the modern cars shared tracks with wooden cars built before World War I.

Right of way usurpation:  This cause of abandonment hit close to home; the Pacific Electric Monrovia-Glendora line went right past my boyhood home, but it was replaced by bus service in 1951, when the route from downtown Los Angeles, which went past the south side of Union Station, was taken over for the 101 (Santa Ana) Freeway.  At one time there had been plans for an elevated railway from the PE terminal at 6th and Main to the start of private right of way at Macy Street Yard (near LA County General Hospital) , but neither Southern Pacific (which owned PE), nor any government entity had the money for such a project.  In other parts of the country, road widening and conversions of city streets to one-way traffic spelled doom for the trolleys.

Dirty tricks:  There were a number of cases in which the disappearance of streetcars was linked to crooked business practices.  The story of Twin Cities Rapid Transit in Minnesota wound up with streetcars being sold off cheap and some of the men involved being sent to the slammer.

But the gloom of yesteryear has been replaced by ground-breaking, last spike (or track clip) driving and opening day festivities.  Electric railway lines have opened faster than I can get out to ride them.  Places that lost streetcar service in the 1940s are seeing track laid and cars running.  LA Metro has three lines under construction, and we’ll have the ground-breaking (as these ceremonies are done nowadays, an opportunity for dignified grownup to play in a sand pile) for the next segment of the Gold Line from Glendora to Claremont or Montclair scheduled for Dec.2.

The end of the line so far, Gold Line APU Citrus station.  The tracks head eastward, but end west of Barranca St.  The Pacific Electric line to Glendora ran just a few hundred feet north of here up into the 1950s.  The PE wanted to extend their line to San Dimas, but the Santa Fe objected and the state Railroad Commission sided with Santa Fe.  Now, over a hundred years later, the PE plan will be carried out — on the old Santa Fe route.  Somewhere in this area will be the official ground-breaking on Dec. 2 (probably on the Citrus College campus.


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