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Jitneys, Buses, and Public Transportation in Twentieth Century Los Angeles

  • Author(s): Stroup, James Nicholas
  • Advisor(s): Gudis, Catherine
  • et al.
Abstract

This project uncovers the role of buses and their riders in shaping Los Angeles urban history in two crucial moments. First, while the private automobile inexorably altered American mobility, the bus quietly became the dominant form of public transit, replacing streetcars by the mid-1950s. I argue the jitney (the precursor to the bus, a short-lived owner/operator business phenomenon throughout the U.S. in the 1910s) directed the shift into automobile-based public transportation by giving riders a choice in transit, ultimately resulting in the end of interurban rail service. Secondly, the movement into public ownership of mass bus transit in the 1950s was inspired in part by riders, resulting in the municipally-directed systems we now find common. This decision to create publicly-owned public transportation occurred in the post-WWII context of Cold War fears of government oppression and socialism, marking transportation as something of an outlier in the cultural construction of social and municipal responsibility. Still, the limitations placed upon transit by Angelinos in the form of funding and planning failures ultimately reinforces the skepticism of government as a provider of services.

The dissertation intends to prove that riders directed the movement into road-based public transportation in a quest for more efficient transportation that met their needs more effectively than urban rail. It further analyzes the moral and ethical implications of why 1950s Los Angeles--amid a historical moment actively promoting private mobility in the form of massive federal and state highway programs--chose to assume public control of an erstwhile private industry. Public ownership changed the sort of access into transportation planning and operation, allowing ethical and moral issues (such as the social effect of fare increases, union activity, and unprofitable route service into low income areas) to challenge the dollars-and-cents approach to transportation planning previously, and unsuccessfully, embraced by private ownership. Although the boundaries placed upon public transit by citizens of Los Angeles ultimately emphasize ideas of limited government (in keeping with other Cold War-period studies of American culture), the assumption of public transportation under public ownership in the 1950s was an important change in the cultural interpretation of transit as a social responsibility, rather than a private entrepreneurial opportunity.

In each step of this dissertation, riders are the primary catalyst, directing the changes in transit through market forces, through choice in the technology they preferred, or through funding of transit projects. Despite all the urban planning and top-down transit schemes--private or public--riders retained the ability to reshape transit in L.A. in the twentieth century through each moment of the city's transportation history.

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