Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


Did poor customer service kill LA streetcars?

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

It may come as a surprise to most, but despite LA's freeway-laden car culture reputation, we were once an "electric railway paradise."According to Robert Gottleib's Reinventing Los Angeles during peak years in the 20s, 6,000 streetcars served over 115 routes, covering 1,000 miles of track and between 520 and 700 miles of service. 

Commuters wait for electric trolley (May 22, 1944). Photo by: James Ruebsamen from LAPL Herald Examiner Photo collection.
Of course, we all know that erstwhile paradise didn't last and we usually blame the rise of the automobile for that, but in Gottlieb's discussion, his choice of words made me realize there was something else at play. As streetcars and automobiles were vying for road supremacy, streetcars forgot one simple truth of survival in business: you've got to keep the customers happy.

Female shopper being helped up by train conductor during annual "Downtown Dollar Days" held every fall (September 1, 1933). Photo from LAPL Photo collection. 
It is not unusual to hear of corporate strategies that depend on customer happiness nowadays. From Burger King's burgers the way you want it to Zappos' often insanely good customer service, ventures have come to realize that it's practically suicide not to think about their end-user. Turns out in the first half of the 20th century in LA, that was still a lesson urban streetcars would have to learn.

Gottlieb writes:
....rail and interurban streetcar use during the 1920s and 1930s increased in numbers of passengers, length of travel time, and extensiveness of transit lines and destinations. Despite that growth, however, the railroad companies continued to neglect the passenger side their business in favor of the more lucrative freight operations, which, in the case of the Pacific Electric system, meant that 75 percent of their cars in service by the mid-1920s were not earmarked for freight rather than transit. Privately owned but publicly regulated, rail service was still the mainstay of the urban commuter but had also become the target of public criticism for its delays and increased fares.
Faced with continual delays and increased costs to the consumer, why wouldn't people choose a more convenient option? Henry Ford's Model T was relatively inexpensive and perhaps weighed against the option of increasingly unreliable streetcar service, what could any pragmatic commuter do but explore the possibility of going with the horseless carriage.

At the same time, automobiles had incessant advertising on their side, promoting itself as central to the Southern California lifestyle. During the depression, more and more federally-funded freeways added to jobs and income, but left streetcars barely able to keep up with maintenance and labor costs. The car industry also apparently had some corporate espionage planned. Taken all together, these things finally led to the demise of the streetcar system and the resulting convoluted knot of roadway we now call the freeway.

Over time, freeways continue to be widened to make room for more demand, but it's fast becoming a vicious cycle that promotes pollution (car exhaust, fossil fuel consumption, additional impervious surfaces that contribute to urban runoff) and isolation (single driver commuter).

Now, after decades of dealing with traffic and SigAlerts, it looks like Angelenos are finally ready to loosen the hold of the horseless carriage. Increased support for public transportation projects and new line openings have a few of us looking forward to leaving our cars in the garage once again.

But, the age old lesson of good customer experience still lingers. If public agencies forget their constituents--neglect to provide a safe, reliable and enjoyable riding experience--we might yet see another autopia come rushing back, 0 to 60mph in under a second.


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