By Fred Gurzeler, October 25, 2013
PART 1 OF FOUR PART SERIES-The prolific CityWatch contributor Ken Alpern (who just happens to be my friend and neighbor) recently wrote an article titled “Park It, LA!,” discussing (among other issues) the need for parking at Metro’s light rail stations.
This got me to thinking about parking in general, something most people don’t give a second thought about unless they are looking for a parking space or have recently received a parking ticket. It should come as no surprise that parking has been an issue in Los Angeles for almost as long as the automobile has been here and has been dealt with in many ways, mostly reactively because the proliferation of cars in Los Angeles during the first quarter of the 20th Century overwhelmed the infrastructure, people and politicians. We are, in many ways, still feeling the effects today.
One of the many points Mr. Alpern makes is that light rail will not make people abandon their cars, but if people can drive to a station, park and take the train, the service will be much more successful than if only used by people who leave their cars at home and walk to a nearby station.
For starters, we no longer live in the hey-day of Pacific Electric when many stations and many more lines were within walking distance. Historically speaking, the streetcar system was already in place when the “great merger” that created what we know as Pacific Electric occurred in 1911, just about when the automobile started growing in number.
The only major improvement PE made to the system after that was the construction of a subway in 1924 to move trains off the car congested streets of downtown Los Angeles and a few bridges to likewise segregate trollies and automobiles. Pacific Electric was also considered to be an alternative to the automobile; today’s light rail network would be better thought of as an extension to the automobile.
Because Los Angeles’ streetcar system was built before the rise of the automobile, there was no concept of “park and ride.” Indeed, the earliest reference I could find for that phrase as far as its use in Los Angeles is concerned is an April 26, 1957 article in the Los Angeles Times:
Although somewhat skeptical about results, the City Council yesterday approved a trip for three city officials, interested in traffic problems, to visit eastern cities and make a study of park-and-ride installations there.
One of the things the trip is expected to find out is why eastern park-and-ride systems seem to be financial successes while an experimental bus service here between the Hollywood Bowl and downtown Los Angeles is more or less of a “bust.”
(A reader from Van Nuys wrote to the Los Angeles Times a letter published April 30th about the “taxpayer-financed trip to eastern cities to study park-and-ride installations” asking, “Why is it necessary for the long-suffering public to pay for a midspring vacation for these … men? Can’t these men write letters and ask for information?” The more things change….)
If Pacific Electric had provided park-and-ride facilities, who knows how it may have evolved? We could have had a very different rail transit system today.
This article, however, is about the history of parking in Los Angeles. It is not going to be an exhaustive history; the drama behind the introduction of parking meters, for example, would be several pages by itself. It is also not about the history of the automobile in Los Angeles, although cars and parking are inseparable. After all, if the car is not being driven or repaired, it is parked somewhere.
Perhaps, then, the most suitable place to start is at home. If a house 100 years ago had a garage, chances are it was little more than an oversized shack off to the side in back of the house.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when garages built expressly for “machines” or automobiles – the word “car” over 100 years ago was used primarily for streetcars -- started to appear. If someone did have a garage, chances are it was for one car, and while we tend to associate the two car garage as a 1950s development, I did locate a January 30, 1910 advertisement in the Los Angeles Times for an $11,000 house on a 64x150 corner lot in the Wilshire district that boasted ten rooms, two baths, an attic and a “double garage with telescope doors designed for two machines.”
Ford’s Model T began production October 1, 1908, but it wouldn’t be until 1914 when perfected mass production of the car would truly bring automobile ownership to the average person, but the concept of a person owning more than one car already existed. And the ad is significant in that the garage was built for two automobiles as opposed to simply being a horse and buggy garage conversion.
One of the automobile pioneers in Los Angeles was a man named Norman W. Church. Mr. Church came to California in 1902 at the age of 27. He was a “large stockholder in various Midwestern corporations, most of them related to the automotive industry” (LA Times 1/8/53). (Years later Mr. Church would be one of the primary forces in getting a race track established in Inglewood.)
An August 28, 1904 Los Angeles Times article praised the “pioneer automobile man” and his “strong line of machines” ranging from the $1000 Cadillac to the $4000 Peerless, “probably the most expensive car on the market in Los Angeles.”
Mr. Church erected the “first building to be constructed for the [automobile] business in Los Angeles” at 116-118 East Third Street at the beginning of 1904. The structure included an “above garage.” An electrically controlled elevator, 12x14 feet and the largest in the city, was used to raise the automobiles to the second floor storage rooms. While technically not public parking, the building did represent the prototype of future public parking structures.
This is a good place to pause and clarify that the main thrust of this article will be about parking in downtown Los Angeles. (Parking in the suburbs was generally not an issue at the time, although the advent of preferential parking clearly indicates that it is an issue today.) Parking 100 years ago became a huge problem when thousands of cars converged on one place at one time. One such example is cited in the July 6, 1915 Los Angeles Times:
There were 9000 automobiles at Venice yesterday by actual and careful count. This is a record attendance of the motor driven vehicles. Every vacant lot, side street, parking space and alley was filled to overflowing. The new auto pier with accommodations for 700 machines was covered by 9 o’clock in the morning.
The principal trouble was controlling the host of gasoline invaders. The regular policemen could not possibly do the work and help had to be solicited from many outside sources. Life guards, firemen and special patrolmen assumed the additional responsibility.
The “auto-parking pier” was built in 1914 by the Kinney company to “alleviate the auto-parking situation” and “serve for the hundreds of autos which now fight for space on Windward avenue on Sundays and holidays” (LA Times 12/9/13).
With rare exception such as the Venice auto pier there was little to no proper off-street parking and certainly little to none provided by the city itself, which made parking in downtown Los Angeles a daunting task.
A November 29, 1914 article in the Los Angeles Times headlined “The Traffic Problem in Los Angeles” has photographs of fender to fender street parking, “all space taken in motor park during noon hour” and “no room at Spring St. private auto park.” The article says “Los Angeles has the best drivers in the country …. accounted for by the fact that only an expert can drive a car on the streets of this city.” Among the many traffic ills, the article notes that “the most serious of all local traffic problems is the parking.”
Often it is impossible to find a place to park a car even in the evening. Within blocks of the popular cafes there is not a vacant parking space on busy nights and in the middle of the day it is a hardship to be in the city with a machine. The man who drives his car to business often has a stall at a garage or a vacant lot parking space. These are often several blocks from the owner’s office.●●●
There are dreams of elevated boulevards and underground street railways. Some suggest auto parks on the tops of buildings and in the basement of department stores.
If the automobile continues to thrive in Los Angeles, as it most probably will, the day will come when there will be several stories in the Los Angeles city streets; then the driver of an automobile will have some chance.
Two years later the Los Angeles Times (December 10, 1916) wrote “TRAFFIC PROBLEM IS GETTING WORSE DAILY.” The article noted that “registrations show 121 cars are sold daily in Southern California” and that “the sale of automobiles is going to go on. No one wants to stop it. And what’s more, the sales are going to increase.” The Los Angeles Times had asked readers to offer suggestions on how to solve the traffic problem. One reader offered this solution:
Why not use Central Park for auto parking. The grass and flowers don’t buy us anything, and that space would go a long ways towards solving the traffic problem …. [Make] parking free or charge 10 or 15 cents a day.
Drivers themselves started making changes to alleviate some of the parking problems as noted in this June 15, 1919 Los Angeles Times article:
A large number of people who own large, heavy cars have recently been purchasing a smaller car in which to run around town …. The larger cars are so hard to handle and the streets are so crowded that it is a difficult thing to find a parking space large enough to accommodate them. A car with a shorter wheel base and a turning radius can … slide into almost any parking space. And then there is the question of economy …. A smaller car … is considerably less expensive to operate.
Even though the lack of enough parking in downtown Los Angeles was a known issue for years, despite a lot of hand wringing, little was done about it by the City Council. Office buildings with underground parking were rare to non-existent and the only city provided parking was on the street. A reference to “underground parking” was noted in the November 7, 1920 Los Angeles Times as almost throw-away trivia:
Municipal underground parking stations for motor vehicles have been in operation in Europe for more than ten years. They are found in Berlin, Paris and Rome. The average capacity of the subway garages is 260 cars.
Faced with the parking issue, did the City Council of Los Angeles come up with a most excellent plan? Of course they did!