Corruption and Cars

A very slickly produced video, edited in a style to appeal to Millennial and younger viewers, nevertheless makes a fairly plausible case that a lot of corruption was involved in turning American cities into car-centric areas.

It may surprise you to learn that cars, in the four years immediately after World War I, killed more Americans than World War I. It's not going to surprise you at all to learn that the Feds stepped in to stop local governments from banning cars from cities, and instead imposed a new model Federal law designed by a 'safety commission' whose membership was almost entirely car manufacturing corporations. Nor will it surprise you that GM and others bought up all the streetcar firms serving American cities, so they could destroy them. You'll probably be surprised they were convicted for doing it, but not by the consequences they faced.

So give the kids your ear for a few minutes, 'cause they've got a point or two this time. 


Christopher B said...

Nor will it surprise you that GM and others bought up all the streetcar firms serving American cities, so they could destroy them.

I'm a railfan and historic railroader, and a minor trolley fan, but that story is a myth that needs to die.

There is no question that a GM-controlled entity called National City Lines did buy a number of municipal trolley car systems. And it's beyond doubt that, before too many years went by, those street car operations were closed down. It's also true that GM was convicted in a post-war trial of conspiring to monopolize the market for transportation equipment and supplies sold to local bus companies. What's not true is that the explanation for these events is a nefarious plot to trade private corporate profits for viable public transportation.

The main point of "General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars" and other critics of the conspiracy theory is that trolley systems were replaced by bus systems for economic reasons, not because of a plot. Bus lines were less expensive to operate than trolleys, and far less costly to build because there were no rails. Extending service to rapidly growing suburbs could be accomplished quickly, by simply building a few bus stops, rather than taking years to construct rail lines. So, buses replaced streetcars.

J Melcher said...

There is a long and fascinating old essay by Megan "Jane Galt" McArdle about urban rail and the economic "signals" embedded in such projects.

Anyhow, the thing relates to a current essay / book review about Henry George and "land rents" over at Star Codex.

Short version of the juxtaposition of the two: IF a government builds a rail system, it creates more-or-less permanent locations of high value. Insiders (think George Plunkitt of Tammany Hall) who buy into those real estate projects early make out better than bandits. If an more versatile or agile service becomes available, values equalize among locations, which is great for everybody but graft-harvesters like Plunkitt. GM bus lines were once the agile competitors. Uber and Lyft are this week's.

Grim said...

Hmm. Interesting. It was the first I've heard of it, so it could be there is more to the story; or it could be that that the truth lies in the middle. GM benefitted from bus lines, too, in a way that it did not benefit from streetcars.

I have always wondered why the old streetcars vanished in cities like Atlanta, because it seemed to me a system whose value wouldn't have diminished. Bus lines can be more readily re-routed, or established; but on the other hand, once you've sunk the costs of laying the rails, they last a long time. San Francisco is still using theirs, or was when I was out that way last time.