USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 26, 2012

Public Transportation Transformation in Southern California and the Environmental and Health Problems it has Caused

Filed under: Energy,Los Angeles Politics,Pollution — admin @ 6:15 pm

Los Angeles once had a thriving public transportation system, mainly of electric streetcars owned and operated by the Pacific Electric Company. Pacific Electric’s trains branched out from the heart of Los Angeles for a radius of 75 miles to San Fernando, San Bernardino, and Santa Ana making (at the time) the world’s largest interurban electric railway system (see Pacific Electric Railway picture for details). Snell argues Pacific Electric is responsible for the manner in which Los Angeles is geographically sprawled today. The electric railways were first constructed in 1911, and it “established traditions of suburban living long before the automobile arrived” (Snell).

In 1940, General Motors (GM) purchased $100 million worth of portions of the Pacific Electric system under the auspices of Pacific City Lines (a bus company made up of GM and Standard Oil of California). In 1944, GM and Standard Oil gave American City Lines (also an affiliate of GM) to motorize Los Angeles, whereby American City Lines purchased Los Angeles Railway (the local electric streetcar system), scrapped the electric transit cars, tore down power transmission lines, took out tracks, and established a system of buses. These buses were specifically built by GM and ran on Standard Oil (Snell).

GM had the ability to do this because of its serious influence throughout the United States. At the time, there were the “Big Three” car companies: GM, Chrysler, and Ford. GM, however, had by far the most power of them all. Snell argues Chrysler and Ford depended greatly on GM for supply of various parts that were crucial to their automobiles. GM, Ford, and Chrysler at the time annually contributed around $14 million to lobbyists for promotion of automotive transportation; their leading rivals could only afford about $1 million to lobby for rail transit. The magnitude of sales, the number of American employees, government revenue from corporate taxes, and the almost monopoly the Big Three had, enabled them to levy serious political influence. The Big Three saw public transportation as standing in their way of selling cars – each public transportation vehicle held up to 50 spots per trip that could otherwise have purchased automobiles (Snell). It makes sense then for the Big Three to levy their power to move the United States to personal automobiles.

GM also had built a solid grasp on city bus production. Seeing as both their cars and the buses ran on diesel fuel, it was an easy transition for them. In the 1920s, when the automobile market was saturated, GM expanded into other types of transportation, mainly city buses. Snell states “Beginning in 1932, [GM] undertook the direct operation and conversion of interurban electric railway and local electric streetcar and trolley bus systems into city bus operations.” GM formed an agreement with Greyhound Bus Corporation, putting many GM executives onto Greyhounds Board of Directors, and aiding the Greyhound Bus Corporation financially; until 1948, GM was the single largest shareholder in the Greyhound Corporation (Snell). In 1928, Greyhound announced its intention to convert commuter rail operations to intercity bus services. In 1936, GM together with Greyhound, Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, and a parts supplier come together to make National City Lines (intercity bus transportation). By 1939, GM and Greyhound had been successful in converting electric streetcar lines to National City Bus Lines in Pennsylvania, New York, St. Louis, among others (Snell).

Interestingly enough, GM realizes in the 1950s they make more money by selling cars than buses; 10 times more to be exact (Snell). Buses also have higher operating costs due to the fact that “diesel buses have 28 percent shorter economic lives, 40 percent higher operating costs, and 9 percent lower productivity than electric buses” (Snell). Thus, GM actually had an incentive to decrease bus ridership. Buses, however, are noisy, produce diesel smoke, and slower than electric rail cars. Thus, Snell argues, the move to diesel buses may have actually created a long-term effect of selling more GM cars; the public transportation was no longer a desirable option, so people purchased personal automobiles.

Slater, however, contradicts Snell’s argument. Slater claims buses would have replaced streetcars, regardless of GM’s intervention. He argues by 1944 bus lines were already carrying as many passengers as electric streetcars (58). In addition, he states, Pacific Electric also had a bus operations for public transit as well. However, he misses the point that the urban sprawl of Los Angeles was created by the electric railway system, thus it was perfectly suited to be dependent on it.

Regardless of which side one takes in the controversy, in 20/20 hindsight, it is clear public electric streetcar transportation would have most likely been the healthier option for the residents of Los Angeles. Traffic congestion and the number of cars on Los Angeles freeways and streets causes a serious amount of pollution that is damaging to human and environmental health.

Los Angeles is one of the largest cities in the nation in terms of population, all of who need transportation. Transportation, however, encourages further development and settlement of people, as we saw with the direct correlation between urban sprawl and the extension of the Pacific Electric railway system. This extension can have positive influences on the economy due to the growth of business and transportation of goods, but comes with a cost.  Freeways have a direct impact on the human and their environment ranging from human health concerns to the disruption of ecological communities.

The construction of freeways can displace residents and small business owners. Local communities fight against freeways near their homes because it can bring down property values from the noise, air pollution and overall loss of a certain quality of life. Freeways can drastically alter the native landscape and ecological community.  The loss of habitat land for wildlife can have a direct impact on the ecosystem and alter the genetic make up of a species due to the separation.  This can result in a loss of biodiversity, susceptibility to disease and extinction.  The construction of many freeways has resulted in a loss of wetlands and/or the contamination of waterways essential to a community’s water supply; ultimately contributing to the decline in water quality in our oceans through surface water run off.  Freeways have a direct impact on air quality and mobile air pollution contributing to climate change, smog and the overall air quality of that region.  All these factors play a role in why stakeholders vehemently fight for there rights to bee heard in the transportation planning process.

An example of stakeholder involvement in transportation planning, specifically in regards to a freeways environmental impact on the surrounding region, is the I-710 highway that connects the two largest ports in the world, Long Beach and Los Angeles, to the rest of Southern California.  The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles import 40% of all U.S. goods.  Due to mass movement of goods and an increasing amount of traffic due to the high volume, environmental and health challenges facing the area are high. In 2005 the I-710 Corridor Project Study was commissioned to look at the challenges and ways to improve traffic congestion and enhance the quality of life for residents and communities of the surrounding area.  The findings of this report were staggering. Los Angeles has attempted to improve and reduce the environmental and health risks demonstrated in the findings.

The I-710 passes through 15 communities with 1 million residents; 70% of these residents are minority, low-income communities.  These communities persistently exceed national air quality standards, which is due to the mass transit from the ports to the rest of the state and country. One small example is diesel emissions, the report stated, caused 2,000 premature deaths.

In 2009, the American Lung Association identified Los Angeles as the most polluted city in the nation from ozone and particulate levels.  Besides improving traffic congestion through the possible widening of lanes, building tunnels, elevated ramps and other infrastructural development the city must all take into consideration the needs of the already damaged health of the communities.  As mentioned earlier there are a number of stakeholders within this type of project and for the past 3 years the city has been trying to work with the communities and local organizations to identify pollution problems and resources to solve these problems. This is an ongoing concern and while currently the focus is on the I-710, these problems are related to all highways.

This post was written by Jasmine Davis, ’12 who is graduating this spring with a BA in Environmental Studies, and Elise Fabro who is graduating this spring with a double major in Environmental Studies & Political Science, and she is pursuing a progressive Master’s in Environmental Studies.

Works Cited

Environmental Justice: Los Angeles Area Environmental Enforcement Collaborative | Pacific Southwest, Region 9 | US EPA.” US Environmental Protection Agency. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
Goffman, Ethan. “Highways and Environmental Impact Issues.” CSA. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.
Slater, Cliff. “General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars.” Transportation Quarterly51.3 (1997): 45-66. Print.
Snell, Bradford C. “A Market Structure as the Determinant of Industry Conduct and Performance.” American Ground Transport. CarBusters, Mar. 2001. Web. 25 Apr. 2012.