Why Did the Streetcar Disappear?

imageA few weeks ago I penned what I considered a clever narrative about the rise of the automobile to the point of our present-day near complete dependence upon it. In that post, I made the assumption that the automobile earned its preferred status by out-competing all other modes of transportation in the hearts and minds of the American people and our policymakers. Well today I take up my (virtual) pen once again to tell you that in making this seemingly safe assumption, I mistakenly left out of this narrative a chapter of our public transportation history so dripping with drama and intrigue that when I found out about it this past week I could hardly sleep soundly at night. It is the story of the humble electric streetcar (also known as the trolley, tram, or urban rail), the undisputed king of public transportation in the early part of the twentieth century. Valued for its ability to provide much more cost-effective convenience in walkable urban centers than the fledgling motorcar, its demise was no accident. So what really happened? Well prepare to be shocked.

Let’s begin by reviewing the story we are usually told. Richard Weingroff, the Federal Highway Administration’s unofficial historian writing under the pen name “The Rambler”, provides the following explanation:

“Through the mid-1950s, transit was provided throughout the country mainly by private companies. With ridership declining, many companies were financially strapped. Despite pressure from local officials, the companies were cutting unprofitable lines, putting off maintenance, raising fares-and moving in a downward spiral. Many were still profitable in the mid-1950s, but bankruptcy was in their future.”

Weingroff attributes these troubles to a cultural shift:

 “The Rambler humbly (for him) suggests that before writing about this era, anti-sprawl authors might want to read about the 1950s, an era when the American people loved automobiles, the newer and bigger the better. They loved vacation road trips and the mobility the automobile gave them in their daily lives. They eagerly awaited their first glimpses of the new car models each fall. By the mid-1950s, they longed for the promised freeways that President Eisenhower and Members of Congress were certain they would be applauded for making possible.”

It sounds like a reasonable explanation, doesn’t it? That’s what I always thought until I happened to stumble across this incredible passage in Ted Nace’s Gangs of America:

 “Now consider a different crime, committed by the leadership of General Motors together with Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, B.F. Phillips Petroleum and Mac Manufacturing. In 1936, the five companies formed National City Lines, a holding company that proceeded to buy electric trolley lines and tear up the tracks in cities across the nation. Each time it destroyed a local trolley system, National City would license the rights to operate a new system to a franchisee, under the stipulation that the system convert to diesel-powered General Motors buses.

By 1949, more than one hundred electric transit systems in forty-five cities had been torn up and converted. In April of that year, a federal jury convicted GM and the other firms of conspiracy to commit antitrust violations. But the penalty turned out to be negligible. The judge set the fine at $5,000 for each company. H.C. Grossman, treasurer of General Motors and a key player in the scheme, was fined one dollar. After the conviction, the companies went back to purchasing transit systems, removing electric trolley lines, and replacing them with buses. By 1955, 88 percent of the country’s electric streetcar network was gone.”

Is that what really happened to our streetcar system? Private companies bought out their competition for ridership, destroying an amazing wealth of infrastructure? I told you there would be drama…

The 1996 documentary Taken for a Ride (below) suggests that this is exactly what happened, and even explains that it was deliberately done with the knowledge that, once destroyed, the rail system would be far too expensive for cities to restore. Replacing old street car lines with highways cemented our relationship with the automobile and dramatically increased the amount of money the average American family spends on transportation each year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American family spent 8.3% of their income on transportation in the streetcar era (1936-38). Two decades later (1960), with the streetcar network largely disassembled and highway construction underway, that number rose to 14.7%. Today, we spend approximately 19% of our income on transportation costs.

My eyes having been opened to this incredible episode, I can’t help but return to my other assumptions. I have always assumed, for example, that our built environment is the product of years of best practices and lessons learned, and by and large a composite of good-faith efforts to serve and enhance the quality of public life. Yes, there will always be private interests, but in the end our democracy would be able to vet out selfish motives and restore justice in the public realm. In the case of the streetcar, I think it is clear that this assumption doesn’t hold up. An efficient and beloved system was ripped out for all the wrong reasons and never replaced. Those who were responsible were never held accountable and American families, the environment, and our local places continue to bear the cost.

It is clear to me that this situation demands justice. But how? Is it already too late? Weigh in with your thoughts and comments below!

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