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Map shows LA’s Red Car system in its 1920s heyday

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So many stops

Pacific Electric 1926 map
The map details every Pacific Electric route in 1926.
Courtesy Jake Berman

Los Angeles can be a tough city to navigate using public transportation alone, but it wasn’t always that way.

A new map created by amateur cartographer Jake Berman details Pacific Electric’s sprawling “Red Car” rail network as it appeared in 1926, harkening back to the days when LA was home to one of the largest mass transit systems in the world.

At that time, Red Cars traveled throughout Southern California, with hundreds of stops from Santa Monica to San Bernardino. If some of the routes look familiar, that’s probably because some of Metro’s current lines trace old Pacific Electric rights of way.

Berman, who sells maps of transit systems real and fictional on his Etsy page, tells local news website L.A. Taco he wanted the map to represent a version of the city that “wasn’t totally dependent on the car.”

As Berman points out, the streetcar system was largely developed by wily tycoons such as Pacific Electric owner Henry Huntington, who used the railroad to connect people to his real estate developments.

Streetcar tracks once crisscrossed Los Angeles. Photographed here is a Red Car traveling on the old Fletcher Drive wooden bridge.
Metro Library and Archive

In his 1984 essay “Autos, Transit, and The Sprawl of Los Angeles: The 1920s,” UCLA professor emeritus Martin Wachs explains that the streetcar system, not the automobile, defined the boundaries of LA’s urban area and fostered the region’s early growth.

Starting in the 1940s, however, the rail system was slowly dismantled, and Angelenos were forced to rely on cars and buses when navigating the city.

Plenty of people blame this on General Motors and other companies tied to the auto industry, which oversaw a buyout of Pacific Electric’s rival company, the Los Angeles Railway, in 1945.

But as Railtown author Ethan Elkind told Curbed last year, that’s not necessarily fair. By the time the streetcars stopped running, service had become unreliable and local leaders had turned their attention to the growing freeway system.

As LA expands its new rail network, Berman’s map provides a reminder of how extensive a transit system in the area could be. For a glimpse of what the future might look like, check out this map from Adam Linder.

And for more old LA maps: