Los Angeles is commonly thought of as a prototypical North American sprawl city formed by the automobile. In fact, Los Angeles’ nodal and linear urban morphology was defined by a rail system, long before the introduction of the automobile.
Before the introduction of the first railroad, Los Angeles was a small and relatively insignificant pueblo consisting of collection of unaffiliated rancheros with a population of 4,385 people. In the late 1880's, the first national rail line brought an influx of people and capital to the area causing a real estate boom.
This explosive growth continued throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, bolstered by the continued expansion of rail infrastructure. Real estate magnates, understanding that access was essential to property values, built lines leading to new areas for development. In this sense rail lines were the “lost leaders” created to improve real estate prospects rather than only to produce revenue. Thus the demise of the rail system was built into its creation as the rail was no longer necessary for developers once the large swaths of land that they owned were parceled and sold.
By the 1940s, the rail system was in disrepair. Infrastructural funding shifted away from rail to auto-based transportation. Thus in a very short period following World War II, all the rail lines were purchased and rapidly dismantled to be replaced with buses. By 1963, the last public rail line was decommissioned, leaving the city that once boasted the world’s most extensive rail system, without a single line. It is during this period that Los Angeles became infamous for its cars, smog and traffic jams.
Almost immediately after the Los Angeles rail system was decommissioned, proposals for new systems were drafted and put before voters. By 1990, congestion, high gas prices and environmental concerns finally created a public willing to reinvest in public rail infrastructure. An ambitious rail plan was created and approved for public funding. This plan, which continues to be implemented and expanded, calls for lines that will eventually access the majority of the county.
Los Angeles Passenger Rail