LA: a city of scandal?

This week we will look at how people move through the city. As the most visible urban flow, the city itself is shaped by, and in turn shapes how, where and why people travel. So, the existing infrastructure, and the urban sprawl of LA influences the way people move through the city, and in turn this movement of people ends up also changing LA. The cultural and material dynamics that influence this urban flow are representative of ‘the myriad of transformations & metabolisms that support and maintain urban life, combining infinitely connected physical and social processes’ that are vulnerable and easily altered (Heynen, Kaika & Swyngedouw, 2006: 2).

Transport in LA has a unique history. Examining this highlights the potential impacts social and political changes can have on the physical, or ecological landscape for decades to come.

Vehicles stuck in an LA traffic jam. The city’s Pacific Electric streetcar network made its final journey in 1961.
LA streetcars, 1961 (Guardian)

Between 1901-1968, LA had an extensive tram and rail network throughout the city. In what has been referred to as, the ‘great American streetcar scandal’, the network was purchased by a company called National City Lines, and then slowly dismantled, to make way for the growing automobile industry that would come to dominate the city’s transport system. Unknown to the city, investors in NCL included General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Mack Trucks and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company (LA Times). Later, these companies were found guilty by the Federal District Court of California of “conspiring to monopolise sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by National City Lines” and violating the 1890 Sherman Anti-Trust Act (Guardian, 2016). Although, while it’s tempting to blame corporate greed for the collapse of the streetcar, the system was already in decline. As cars became more popular, the number of people using the rail system began to fall. By 1940, LA already had 1 million cars on the road. This number doubled by 1950.  

A disrupted flow

The yellow car rail system represents a particularly vulnerable urban flow. When just 10% of LA started driving, the street cars, which lacked their own lane, were forced to slow down so much that they could no longer meet their schedule. In other words, their flow through the city was disrupted, and they could no longer continue to operate effectively. Consequently, more cars took to the road, introducing an increasingly problematic positive feed-back loop that often characterises a disrupted metabolic flow. Private cars made streetcars slower, which, in turn, encouraged more people to drive.

A motorcyclist in Los Angeles prepares to turn while driving along a street which is engulfed in a thick haze combined by fog and smog in 1958.
Figure 1: LA, 1958

The ramifications of these changes are still felt today. LA has long struggled to manage its air quality, with smog plaguing the city since the 1940s. In 1943, the quality of air was so poor that residents thought Japan had launched a chemical attack (Insider, 2020). The cities geography acts as a natural ‘pollution trap’ as the surrounding mountains, combined with temperature inversions, prevent atmospheric flow from dispersing particulates.

How Scary is LA's Smog? - Coalition for Clean Air
Figure 2: LA, 2016

The consequences

The intersection between LA’s natural surroundings, and its, perhaps, unnatural air pollution, exemplify the importance of considering cities as ‘hybrids’ of nature and culture. (Latour, 1993: 10). Only then, can we recognise the political and cultural dynamics of urban metabolisms. This is important when we realise ‘the existing literature [on changing air quality] is largely devoid of political analysis. This inevitably obfuscates the ways in which unequal power relations are “inscribed” in the air’, as poor air quality is felt by certain parts of the population more heavily than others (Graham, 2015: 195).

Figure 3: LA high poverty map, 2018 and the 1938 Street Car map, Illustrations my own

Figure 3 shows us the old tram network, roughly imposed on a map of poverty in Los Angeles in 2018. This clearly shows that the areas today with the highest levels of deprivation, are the same areas that had an extensive public transportation network running through them in the 1960s. Imagine if the poorest areas in still had good transportation links. What would the impact of this be? In London, where I’m from, the affluent areas tend to be the areas with the best public transport links. The presence, or absence, of transport infrastructure, can shape the city, both physically and culturally.

Figure 4: Vehicles per person, shown next to a map of air pollution. Illustrations, my own

Figure 4 focuses on vehicle ownership and air pollution. The map shows that South East LA, has some of the worst air pollution in Los Angeles, despite having one of the lowest rates of car ownership/capita.

The legacy

Like all forms of urban metabolism, the flow of people throughout the city depends on access. The poorest communities find themselves the least able to participate in the vehicular network on which LA relies today. There is a metro service. The city has 93 subway stops in total. By comparison, New York has 472. In LA, what takes 20 minutes to drive, often takes well over an hour on public transport. Moreover, the most impoverished parts of the city, that are also the most polluted.  This also points to the ever-growing interconnectedness between cities and nature. How is something as ‘natural’ as air, a basic necessity for us all to live a healthy life, been so changed by the city. Urban spaces are not separate from nature, they transform nature. If, like LA’s air quality, that transformation is for the worse, nature may also transform the city in unjust, often heart-breaking ways, forcing unforeseen shift and adaptations.

Gardener, S, 2014 ‘LA Smog: the battle against air pollution’ –

Graham, Stephen. “Life Support: The Political Ecology of Urban Air.” City (London, England) 19.2-3 (2015): 192-215. Web.

Heynen, Kaika, Swyngedouw, Heynen, Nik, Kaika, Maria, and Swyngedouw, E. In the Nature of Cities : Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism / Edited by Nik Heynen, Maria Kaika and Erik Swyngedouw. London: Routledge, 2006. Print. Questioning Cities Ser.

Insider, 2020 ’35 vintage photos reveal what Los Angeles looked like before the US regulated pollution’ –

Latour, Bruno, Bruno. Porter, and Porter, Catherine. We Have Never Been Modern / Bruno Latour ; Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Los Angeles Times, 2003 ‘From the Archives: Did Auto, Oil Conspiracy Put the Brakes on Trolleys?’ –

The Guardian, 2016 ‘Story of cities #29: Los Angeles and the ‘great American streetcar scandal” –

Los Angeles High Poverty Map 2014:

Vehicles/ person map, 2000:

Map of Air pollution, 2014: in a new tab)

Image of smog in LA, 2016 –

4 thoughts on “LA: a city of scandal?

  1. This is once again a great post. I found it especially interesting as I didn’t think of people as being an urban flow until now. I especially like your insights into the history of transport, race and environmental injustice in LA. As always your visuals are amazing, specifically where you annotate the images. I have a question for you to dwell on. As you have highlighted, minority groups are especially impacted by poor air quality. What do you think can be to reduce this inequality? Could it come in the form of policy like we have here in London (ULEZ, congestion charges) or is it a deeply racial/political issue that is driven by poverty and discrimination. I would love to hear what you think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, thanks for such a great comment. Thats a tough question! I think some kind of congestion charge could be introduced, but it would need to be regulated. I think that if the charge was dependant on a) the drivers income and b) where they lived that might help to ensure that the brunt of the cost is bore by the wealthier residents driving in from the Hollywood Hills for example. This could then be used to subsidise transport developments. My post on Green Infrastructure touches on the possible gentrification that comes with cleaner urban spaces so I would not recommend only charging only based on postcode as this might drive up property prices and force poorer communities away from their homes.

      I think fundamentally the transport system in LA needs a huge amount of development, as until it easy to get around without a car, people will still rely on them. I also think that that the desirability/ exclusivity of areas like the Hollywood Hills is dependant on how polluted other areas of the city are, and in this sense the pollution is rooted in poverty and discrimination. However, despite being a deeply racial/political issue, I think measures like congestion charges can still help to improve the quality of life for LA residents if managed correctly. Thanks for engaging with me!


  2. A really interesting analysis of the history of LA’s transport infrastructure that transitions into discussions of the marginalisation of residents. The use of imagery and personalised maps compliments your readings ideally. Maybe a brief introduction to what you interpret as some potential mitigation strategies/ solutions to marginalisation might further extend this blog. Great work though!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi, thanks for your comment! It was really helpful. I’ve gone into more depth on potential mitigation strategies, building on a broader discussion on environmental justice in the last few blog posts. Thanks for encouraging that line of thinking!


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