Last month, I heard a great NPR piece on Los Angeles and the history of its streetcar system. Seems that the automobile-choked L.A. has finally built one leg of a light-rail system – and not surprisingly, it follows an old streetcar route. Sound familiar? It’s just like St. Louis’s MetroLink, which follows transit routes that were established more than 100 years ago.

Reporter Mandalit del Barco interviews Zev Yaroslavsky, county supervisor for Los Angeles. Yaroslavsky fondly recalls the red streetcar line that went from downtown L.A. to the beach. “You know, when you look at the map of the old red car,” says Yaroslavsky, “it brings tears to your eyes because we had a great system. It could have been modernized and improved upon, but it would have been a lot cheaper to modernize and improve it than to dismantle it and then recreate it.”

“By the roaring 1920’s,” reports del Barco, “more than 1,000 miles of electric trolley lines and trains rails ran through the ever-expanding Los Angeles. The Pacific Electric’s red and yellow streetcar lines led to L.A.’s early real estate boom.”

But by 1963, says Del Barco, “L.A. replaced the last of its streetcars with a web of freeways and bus lines.” That, she says, “led to conspiracy theories that the streetcars were dismantled by private companies who stood to profit: General Motors, Standard Oil and tire companies.”

But Art Leahy of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority says that L.A. “was truly the city in love with automobiles. They were unlimited. They were cheap. They were convenient.” Leahy, whose parents were both streetcar operators, says that no one much cared when the “Red Cars” stopped and buses became the new vehicles for public transit. As he says, “Nobody anticipated that this freeway system would get choked down like it is today.”

This same story could be told about St. Louis – and about countless cities around the country that dismantled their streetcar systems in favor of the automobile. What we wouldn’t give now to have the streetcars back!