The Red Cars and L.A.’s Transportation Past

USC Digital Library

Photographers from the Dick Whittington Studio captured dramatic changes to L.A.’s built environment from the mid-1920s until the studio ended operations in 1987. Some of the starkest transformations were seen in Southern California’s roads and freeways—and rail lines that once spanned 1,100 miles to connect neighborhoods and communities throughout the region.

The Pacific Electric Company—operators of the famous “Red Car” network of streetcars and buses—was a frequent Whittington Studio client. As explored by “Who Killed the Red Car,” the premiere episode of season five of the Emmy-winning USC Libraries and KCET series Lost LA, the company’s electric railway system was the world’s largest during the 1920s.

During L.A.’s World War II-era population boom, as workers from throughout the U.S. filled the Southland’s defense factories, the Red Cars saw tremendous growth in ridership. With wartime rationing of gasoline and rubber, L.A. residents depended on the Red Cars more than ever—and ridership peaked at 300,000 rides per day and 100 million rides annually.

By the mid-1950s, however, the storied mass transit lines had been dismantled, and the Red Cars were discarded in heaps on Terminal Island. The fate of the Red Cars was inextricable from L.A.’s postwar car culture. During the 1950s, L.A. expanded its freeways and organized its streets and other features of its built environment to better support the car—and personal, rather than public, transportation.

The Whittington photographers capture another time and another transportation reality prior to the 1950s. Thanks to a generous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the USC Libraries are digitizing 37,000 photographic negatives created by Whittington photographers during the 1930s and 1940s.

Included in the newly published photographs from the NHPRC-supported project are Pacific Electric cars and buses, street scenes throughout the Los Angeles region, and the Arroyo Seco Parkway—better known as the 110 Freeway—just after its last stretches were completed in 1941. Also included are images of dream cars like John Cobb’s flying saucer-like Railton Special that set a land speed record of 369.7 miles per hour in 1939.