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510 streetcar on Spadina Ave. in Toronto's Chinatown on December 10, 2012. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
510 streetcar on Spadina Ave. in Toronto's Chinatown on December 10, 2012. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

The Green Highway

Conspiracy theory: Where have all the streetcars gone? Add to ...

Toronto’s chaos-creating mayor, Rob Ford, has taken an unyielding stand against streetcars. Meanwhile, Los Angeles, once home to the world’s largest electric streetcar system before it was wiped out by the bus lobby, is now well along the way to building a new streetcar line downtown.

Yes, sprawling Los Angeles has freeways everywhere but they are utterly jammed most of the time. Adding a small streetcar line won’t solve its transportation problems, but the addition of streetcars is both helpful and symbolic.

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It was a long time ago and things have changed, but in the 1920s, Los Angeles’ Pacific Electric Red Car system featured the world’s largest network of streetcars with more than 1,100 miles of track throughout Southern California. Obviously, the rise of the automobile drastically cut into the user base and, by 1963, the streetcars were extinct.

Here’s the conspiracy theory in which Los Angeles played a major role: from the 1930s into the 1950s, a company created and financed by General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Truck and others bought more than 100 streetcar systems in 45 cities across the United States – including the largest one in Los Angeles – and converted them into bus operations. Commonly known as the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, many of the companies involved were convicted in 1949 of a minor charge of conspiracy to monopolize interstate commerce. If the story seems familiar, it’s because it was featured in various films, including Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

So here we are with Los Angeles today, the car capital of the world, with its once world-leading streetcar fleet having been sent to the scrap yard by a conspiracy of oil, tire and car companies. But now there’s a citizen’s movement which has gathered enough public, taxpayer support to bring the streetcar back.

Voters recently approved a ballot measure that will collect $62.5-million through property tax assessments on land parcels, office buildings and condos around the proposed line, which would run about four miles through the downtown. The other half of the money comes from the Feds.

In spite of Ford’s contrary views, although it’s likely the Los Angeles citizens’ group pushing streetcars has never heard of him, the West Coast streetcars boosters say, “Modern streetcars are designed to integrate with the existing urban environment, can be constructed quickly and flow with traffic in a shared right-of-way. It will be accessible to wheelchairs, parents with strollers and cyclists with bikes.”

Traffic jams on Los Angeles freeways are awful and unending. However, its public transit system is well planned, extensive and averages 1.6-million transit trips per weekday – making it the third-largest transit agency in the United States. But it’s a drop in the bucket compared with automobile commuting.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority, the agency responsible for Los Angeles transit, has bus, light rail and subway services. But it’s interesting to note that the buses account for 1.3 million of the 1.6 million weekday transit trips. It appears the “conspiracy” achieved its objective. In spite of recent government support, only 6 per cent of the 29 million daily trips originating in Los Angeles County are by public transit.

I’m not here to say that electric streetcars are the answer to Los Angeles’ or Toronto’s horrible traffic, transit and pollution problems – although in the right places they make a lot of sense. Even Los Angeles has figured that out.

In high-density cities, if we ever want to control unlimited automobile use, subways are the answer. In this, the erratic Ford may have got something right. Whether he can deliver is highly debatable.

Madrid is a city of comparable size to Toronto and it knows how to get subways built. Madrid has 293 kilometres of subway lines serving 272 stations. Toronto has 70 kilometres serving 69 stations. By Madrid’s standard – a good one – Toronto should have four times the amount of underground rapid transit as it has now.

When Los Angeles starts getting its head around multi-modal public transportation, including streetcars of all things, maybe Toronto should open its eyes to radical possibilities. I’ll have more next week that car-obsessed commuters will also hate.

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