April 25, 2003
FOLLOW-UP: Prompted by Patrick Sullivan?s extensive, interesting comments, I spent a little time Googling the charge that General Motors maliciously and heinously destroyed urban mass transit in America. In addition to the link cited below (see Wednesday, 4/23/03), two online sources for the charge are as follows: excerpts from the film, "Taken for a Ride," by Jim Klein and Martha Olson, shown on PBS. This film was extensively praised. (Also here.) The charge originates principally in the work of antitrust attorney Bradford Snell, former staff member for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly; an article by Mr. Snell is here.
But, alas for lovers of mass transit everywhere, the hypothesis appears to be profoundly flawed. We can start with the ever-reliable Cecil Adams who concludes, ". . . blaming GM [for the decline] is like blaming the inventor of gunpowder for war." A Los Angeles Times article reports, ". . . most historians agree that GM and the other mega-companies only helped to speed the end of the railway, which already was deep into red ink." It points out some serious problems with the mass transit lines as of the early 30s: ". . . mass transit riders complained of massive traffic jams and hourlong delays. The hard wooden seats and the open-window 'air-conditioning system' in the summers were no picnic either. The conflict between the trolley and the automobile was often played out at intersections, where they collided repeatedly, resulting in many injuries and deaths. Newspaper editorials raised the alarm about the accidents and crusaded against the streetcars."
Another nice, short piece debunking the claim was written by Stan Schwarz, system administrator for the U.S. Geological Service and "lapsed science nerd," and is here. It provides a half dozen links to other good resources: one by Cliff Slater, advisor to the Reason Foundation, and one by George Hilton, professor of economics at U.C.L.A.
Another academic, Vincent Mareino at Georgetown, concludes, "Many groups attempted to influence the future of American transportation. Nevertheless, majority rule won out in every case. Citizens were fallible, and often took actions not necessarily in the best interests of a minority or even a majority of the population. Yet those actions were never coerced or forced by outside conspirators."
But the best piece I found in my short search is a paper by Martha J. Bianco, "Kennedy, 60 Minutes, and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of the Decline of Urban Mass Transit." (Available from this page in Adobe .pdf format.) Professor Bianco details the charge, and it seems to me, decisively refutes it. Her analysis is consistent with Professor Mareino's: government regulation and government policy played key roles in the decline. "The fact is that transit companies faced demands either by their riding constituency or by the regulatory bodies to provide unprofitable service. Transit companies were politically and often legally unable to refuse to provide unprofitable service. The motor bus allowed them to operate such service at the least loss, since it would have been entirely prohibitive for them to extend streetcar tracks or install trolleys on suburbanizing routes, where they were required to provide service." (p. 13.)
But, Professor Bianco asks, if the story is so clearly wrong, why does it persist? Because it serves the purposes of policy activists with an agenda, an agenda to replace cars with mass transit. "The GM conspiracy myth, understood in this way, makes a great deal of sense. It becomes irrelevant that GM did or did not cause or even contribute to the decline of mass transit in the U.S. What becomes compelling, from a larger perspective, is the manner in which the GM story is used, the political and economic climates in which it is most likely to emerge, and the types of policy initiatives under consideration during the periods in which the story is being told." (p. 21.)
This is going to make a fine story for a couple of my classes.