The Demise of American Public Transportation
At the dawn of the 20th century, most American cities of over 10,000 residents had their own, privately owned streetcar company. The trolley lines were built by real-estate developers to entice buyers to purchase homes and to increase the value of the homes they were selling. During the 19th Century, this was the primary way for many people to transit across town. With the advent of transcontinental railroad service in 1869, folks could travel across the region, state, or country by taking their neighborhood streetcar downtown and boarding a long-distance train. So began the golden-age of rail transportation.
GM and the Removal of Rail-Based Transit
In 1922, with Ford's Model-T having made inroads in the still nascent automobile market, there were still vast numbers of people relying on streetcars as their sole means of transportation. GM President and CEO Alfred P. Sloan saw an enormous money-making opportunity and established a special company unit charged with replacing streetcars with cars, trucks, and buses. By converting streetcar lines into bus routes, knowing the lack of appeal of bus riding, he counted on huge numbers of people buying cars.
Origins of the Highway Lobby
Sloan courted oil companies, tire manufacturers, and anyone having to do with motorized transportation to create the National Highway Users Conference in 1932, an enormous umbrella association with more Washington lobbying power than any other interest group. This group was the beginning of what we know today as the highway lobby, the powerful interest group responsible for keeping the country in automobile dependency.
Pushing America into Automobile Dependency
The prime vehicle for pushing America into automobile dependency was the GM front company National City Lines (NCL), according to many accounts. NCL was a bus company reorganized in 1936 by GM into a holding company with the express purpose of acquiring and converting streetcar companies into bus routes. NCL began by purchasing 13 transit companies, including two recently improved streetcar lines in Butte, MT and Beaumont, TX, and by 1947 had acquired more than 100 streetcar systems in 45 cities.
Case-in-Point: The Destruction of Los Angeles Streetcar Lines
The Los Angeles Railway was sold to NCL in 1945 and renamed Los Angeles Transit Lines. In its heyday, there had been over 1200 trolleys serving more than 20 streetcar lines. Rather than simply replacing streetcars with buses in the beginning, NCL used deceptive tactics such as the 'slow and painful' method of cutting service by gradually reducing service frequency. Streetcars appearing every five minutes would now only appear every 10 minutes, then 12; and after awhile, the 12 minute frequency interval would be reduced to 15 minutes, then to 20, and then to 30 minutes. Frustrated passengers would stop riding the streetcars, giving NCL a financial reason to replace them with buses, much of which they did in the late 1940's to early 1950's. This type of scenario was repeated in many cities across the country, despite much public outcry.
Replacing Private Transit with Publicly Funded Highways
In 1949, GM and others were convicted in Federal Court for Conspiracy to Monopolize Interstate Commerce, but the streetcar systems continued to be bled dry and replaced by belching, diesel buses. Moreover, the highway lobby gained a White House foothold with the 1953 appointment of GM President Charles Wilson as secretary of defense. Wilson pushed for a nationwide, freeway building program, saying it was essential for national security. That same year, Francis DuPont, whose family owned the largest share of General Motors, became the chief administrator of the federal highways! He was the key to Congress passing the largest public works bill in history, the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act - a gargantuan $25 billion, 41,000 mile highway building project to be paid for with a gas tax. More highways meant more driving, then more taxes, then more roads, in a perpetual cycle which continues today.
The Return of Rail to American Cities
In automobile dependent Los Angeles, the nation's second most populated city with a large, sprawling land-mass, rail transit is making a comeback, if not fast enough to start tearing down some of the freeways built over old streetcar lines. Much of the credit for the city's growing rail-based transit system goes to former mayor Tom Bradley, who pushed hard to build a high-quality transit system, one that could transport far greater numbers of passengers than buses. Numerous other cities with population densities high enough to support rail investment are adding their own rail-based systems, recognizing their long-term value.