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Driven to Destruction – The Streetcar Conspiracy

(Driven to Destruction is a series outlining how America became so dependent on the personal automobile, and how we must break this dependency if we want to create a sustainable way of life for future generations.)

The second installment of Driven to Destruction outlined how advertising trends have created a mystique-based car culture that is very difficult to transform. For 100 years, commercials from auto and oil companies have helped create a national ethos in which the automobile is king. But clever advertising is far from being the only culprit. Our love affair with our cars has also been fueled by the devious actions of a few major corporations – most notably General Motors.

The PBS documentary “Taken For a Ride” describes how the once ubiquitous electric streetcar was driven into the ground by the automobile. It wasn’t a fair fight:

When you’re talking about public transportation in America, for the first part of this century, you’re talking about streetcars. Trolleys ran on most major avenues every few minutes.

In 1922, only one American in ten owned an automobile. Everyone else used rail. At that time Alfred P. Sloan (President, General Motors) said, ‘Wait a minute, this is a great opportunity. We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can somehow turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars. And if we don’t, then General Motors’ sales are just going to remain level.’

Sloan had the idea that he wanted to somehow motorize all the major cities in the country. (GM bought) the largest bus-operating company in the country and the largest bus-production company. And using that as a foothold, GM moved into Manhattan. They acquired interests in the New York railways and between 1926 and ‘36 they methodically destroyed the rails.

When they finally motorized New York, GM worked hard to create the impression of a nationwide trend away from rail. But there was no trend. Buses were a tough sell. They jolted. They smelled. They inched through traffic. City by city, it took the hidden hand of General Motors to replace streetcars with Yellow Coach buses.

The piece-by-piece destruction of the streetcar industry didn’t stop with General Motors. A number of corporations in the auto and oil industries realized that it was in their best interests to work together:

In 1936, a company was founded that would grow to dominate American city transportation. National City Lines had no visible connection to General Motors. In fact, the director of operations came from a GM subsidiary, Yellow Coach, and members of the Board of Directors came from Greyhound, which was founded and controlled by General Motors.

The money to start this new company also came from Greyhound and Yellow Coach. Over the next few years, Standard Oil of California, Mack Truck, Phillips Petroleum and Firestone Tire would join GM in backing this venture. National City Lines grew quickly. By 1946 it controlled public-transit systems in over 83 cities. From Baltimore to St. Louis, Salt Lake City to L.A., the company had grown into an empire.

And this empire was created for one reason – to absorb as much of the streetcar industry as possible, and then to shut it down. Since this conspiracy of corporations was methodically destroying a very efficient and beneficial industry, there was antitrust action taken – but all that came of the proceedings were fines of $5000 for each company involved and $1 for the treasurer of GM who oversaw much of National City Lines’ operations.

The opening words of “Taken For a Ride” tell us why this tragic bit of history is so important for us today:

This is a story about how things got the way they are. Why sitting in traffic seems natural. Why our public transportation is the worst in the industrialized world. And why superhighways cut right through the hearts of our cities.

We might add, “And why when gas hits $4 a gallon, politicians on both sides of the aisle start chanting ‘drill, baby, drill".” We are addicted to oil because we are addicted to driving. And we are addicted to driving in large part because of the profit lust of a handful of men who ran a handful of corporations back in the 1930’s and 40’s.

This profit lust still exists today. The historical parallels are eerie. When the streetcars were shut down and GM conspired its way to soaring sales, many people who could not afford cars were left with few transportation options. Meanwhile, the government could do no better than laughably small fines.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Big Oil And Big Auto continue to rule the American transportation scene. These days, Standard Oil (ExxonMobil) is raking in record profits and GM is receiving huge government bailouts because it is now "too big to fail."

Looking back at the lessons of the streetcar’s demise, it is clear that breaking our dependency on the automobile will not be easy. There are many powerful forces working dilligently to maintain the status quo. How can we keep corporate interests from dominating the energy policy of the 21st century?

In the next installment of Driven to Destruction, we will look at how the development of the Interstate highway system deepened the impact of the car culture, and how its story can give us clues as to how to develop new attitudes about transportation in the future.

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Jim Moss

Jim Moss