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In 1897, Earle C. Anthony cobbled together one of the first cars ever made in Los Angeles. It gave rise to assembly plants run by the likes of everyone from Studebaker to Nash, and set the stage for one of the many things L.A. would become famous for. (Paved the way for people with first names for last names like Billy Joel, Elton John, and Larry David, too! -Ed.) But was Anthony’s preface inevitable? No.

But also, yes

The late Bob Hoskins (Watch "The Long Good Friday" -Ed.) has a throwaway line in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? about the state of public transportation in Los Angeles: “Who needs a car in L.A.? We got the best public transportation system in the world!” When the film debuted in 1988, the line was a heavy wink to the contemporary audience, all of whom knew the idea of public transportation in L.A. was nothing more than an afterthought. It also propagated the idea that public transit in L.A. was a viable, functional thing until the freeways arrived. Except that’s not entirely true.

Scenes from Futures Past: L.A. and the monorail
["Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"] propagated the idea that public transit in L.A.was a viable, functional thing until the freeways arrived. Except that’s not entirely true.
Scenes from Futures Past: L.A. and the monorail

The freeways didn't help things, but even by the 1910s, the failure of L.A.’s privately-owned Yellow Cars and Red Cars had been foreshadowed. By the end of the ‘20s, it was all but certain. Service quality kept going down, fares kept going up, and as private automobiles became more affordable, there was less and less rationale for relying on mass transit. The freeways were just the final nail in the coffin.

That is until the futuristic year of 1951, when the California State Assembly passed an act establishing the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority. Three years later and newly empowered, the LAMTA came up with an idea to stitch together the sprawling Los Angeles region: a monorail.

Despite its now-inseparable and iconic association with Chicago, at this point elevated rail had fallen out of favor with American cities. New York was busy tearing down els in Manhattan (even if it had no replacement service) and what became the Orange Line had left a scar through Boston’s South End. (As seen in the "St. Elsewhere" opening credits! -Ed.) But a monorail was not only modern and clean, but entirely in line with the Los Angeles promise of being a place where all your dreams would come true. (FYI: “Mono” means “one” and “rail” means “rail.” -Ed.)

Keen observers will note there is no Los Angeles monorail today, nor was there ever. And maybe that’s for the best. Other than Disneyland and Disney World, monorails haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory. Seattle has one, but it only makes four stops, Philadelphia had one but it was entirely within Wanamaker’s department store (The place from "Mannequin", right? -Ed.), and the New Jersey Turnpike was supposed to have one but never did. So not a great record.

That said, if any city in America could've made a sprawling monorail system work, it would've been 1950s Los Angeles. That it didn't has left us a less fabulously futuristic nation and world. And we all feel that with every jetpack we don't have.

Nobody Walks in L.A.: The Rise of Cars and the Monorails That Never Were [via Smithsonian Magazine]

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