Better Bike Pacific Electric Ride

Beverly Hills station pictured in 1920.
Our first station was a join effort between land developers and railroad speculators. First named 'Morocco,' our stop on the mainline put this town in business.

Last weekend’s ride along the abandoned Pacific Electric right-of-way through Beverly Hills was an exploratory romp along the rails (so to speak) to put into historical perspective¬† the role of railroads in the development of Beverly Hills. The transportation patterns we follow today do originate with the rails, which first came to this area in the 1890s. By 1900 we had a station here, and in 1932 we got a second, larger depot. But by WWII it was over for passenger rail in Beverly Hills. Nevertheless,these early rails did establish a pattern for transportation that continues to this day, and will likely determine tomorrow’s transportation patterns will too. We took a tour to see how it looks today.

Red car route map showing Beverly Hills
Red car route map courtesy Tom Wetzel

Better Bike was joined on our ride by a handful of riders from Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, and even as far away as the Pacific Palisades – all drawn by the prospect of looking though back through time onto the golden era of the ‘red cars,’ those electric trolleys that plied the region and that connected Beverly Hills to Santa Monica, Venice, Hollywood, Downtown Los Angeles and beyond.

We followed the original path of the two rail lines that served our city: the Santa Monica- Hollywood main line, which terminated in the West at Ocean Avenue. It branched out to the Soldiers’ Home (today’s VA complex) and Brentwood via San Vicente (aka the Westgate line). To the east, the mainline followed Santa Monica boulevard through today’s West Hollywood and on to Downtown via Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park and then a tunnel on Hill Street. This line branched out to a Hollywood Boulevard loop.

Burton Way
Burton Way looking east. The PE red cars used to run the north side, where the westbound traffic flows today.

The other line that served Beverly Hills actually terminated here, at the station located between today’s Burton Way and Santa Monica Blvd at the intersection of Canon Dr. That line originated Downtown, too, and headed west on Venice to the Vineland junction at San Vicente, then northwest, turning left to continue west on Burton Way into the heart of Beverly Hills. Back in the era of the red cars (prior to WWII) there was also significant freight operation on both lines, with the latter serving a large lumberyard where today’s commercial (light industry) triangle stands.

Little Santa Monica Boulevard at Canon Drive looking west
Little Santa Monica looking west from Canon Dr. near the city's first train depot.

Our ride started at Civic Center, then passed the two (!) earlier station locations and continued west on Little Santa Monica though perhaps the potentially finest local bike route corridor we could have. The east-west connectivity of Little Santa Monica between Century City and Burton Way, threading though the Golden Triangle, is tantalizing especially given the mix of small retailers and specialty shops on this corridor. With a bike lane and some promotion, this could be the finest stretch of bike-accessible neighborhood retail south of San Francisco.

Riding the right-of-way at the Western Gateway
Riding the old right-of-way between SM Blvd. and Little SM at the Western Gateway

We continued to the Western Gateway, where development awaits the city’s decision on how to move forward on the strip of privately-owned land that fronts the south side of Santa Monica Boulevard. THIS was the old mainline right-of-way, and it is still zoned for transportation. This makes it available for reuse as an active transportation corridor….unless the city moves ahead with rezoning the land for commercial development. [Read more about the gateway policy discussion.]

Our ride then turned east, tracing the old right-of-way where we could, but braving the traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard where we couldn’t.

Sharing the boulevard with an SUVThis stretch of the route was a sober reminder of how important it is to separate the modes on a major corridor, and suggested the need for revisiting the old right-of-way for safe and pleasurable active transportation use.

We’ve been talking casually with the Rails to Trails folks about making that thematic linkage. Recalling the PE history gives us an historic hook to hang our mobility hat on: why not make that strip of Santa Monica Boulevard land an anchor for a regional pedestrian and cycling corridor? (Same with the Burton Way historic railcar route. Let’s make that a Rails to Trails multimodal corridor with bike lanes in both directions and a pedestrian trail down the median.)

Eastern end of the old PE right of way
Pacific Electric right-of-way sans tracks. The track was removed in the mid-1980s to make way for....what exactly?

Without a doubt the most poignant stretch of the old railroad is at the eastern end northeast of Beverly Blvd. Here, fenced in as if safeguarded from development, is fenced-in, privately-owned land that awaits environmental remediation.

The city is in slo-mo negotiations to acquire the property, so we won’t hold our breadth. But the land (along with the triangular median) that was once the Pacific Electric line to Hollywood begs for refashioning into tomorrow’s transportation active-recreation corridor. We’ve even taken the liberty of visualizing a bikestation on the relict triangle.

Our view of what a bikestation could look like at Santa Monica and Doheny.
Our view of what a bikestation could look like at Santa Monica and Doheny. What do you think?

At Santa Monica and Doheny, we heard from Kevin Burton, member of the West Hollywood bike task force and founder of tomorrow’s West Hollywood Bicycle Coalition, about his city’s steps toward bike planning. As our northeast neighbor, West Hollywood may establish a template for our baby steps in active transportation planning.

We’ll be posting more historic photos and maps as they become available. In the meantime, consider the long history of passenger rail in Beverly Hills.

What’s Next?

Building the mainline started as early as 1888 with a frenzy of speculative stock sales and land grabs. Yes, it was all about speculation: the buying of land; then rolling out the rails; platting the homesites, and then selling the plots. They gave these folks a plot of land and the means to get there and the land boom was on! Their practices would not seem out of place in today’s speculative energy sector, and in fact the Westside was famous for its many oil derricks long before even the first home was built here.

Now think about what the future of transportation will look like in Beverly Hills. We won’t be rid of the car, but I doubt that tomorrow’s roads will look anything like they do today. We’ll see streets marked carefully for road sharing; expensive parking will deter motorists; and land itself will be too valuable for parking garages. We predict that the only parking today’s public garages will accommodate over time is the parking of land itself as it awaits a higher and better use (as the planners say).

Last weekend’s ride was an exploratory adventure that we hope will serve as a basis for future rides. We will invite policymakers to join us to visualize the possibilities; school children to learn about rail history; and transportation advocates of all kinds interested in seeing a new piece of the regional connectivity puzzle fall into place. Let Better Bike be your tour guide. Stay tuned for further details. Follow us on Twitter, subscribe to our feed, find us on Facebook, or just sign up for our¬† e-newsletter!