Taken for a Ride
Have any of you seen the 1996 PBS documentary, Taken for a Ride? According to the PBS site, it's "a startling exposé of General Motors' role in dismantling street car transportation in the 1930's and in catapulting the automobile to the center of our national culture".
Considering GM's latest shenanigans, it seems to me that the time is ripe for reflecting on that corporation's history and, in particular, their rôle in The Great American Streecar Scandal.
I'd really like to see Taken for a Ride. I wonder if it can be downloaded anywhere.
Email them & see if you can get it on dvd. I remember seeing it on tv years ago, it was pretty good. There are also several books written on the subject, do a search in LCF & you'll prob. find them
Thanks. What does "LCF" stand for?
Living Car Free :)
Originally Posted by Ekdog
There was some of this mentioned in the documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" as well.
Yes, I saw the 1996 Documentary "Taken for a Ride" on PBS.
Can't believe it's been 12 years.
I saw "Who Killed the Electric Car", too.
GM should be paying to rebuild the streetcar system. We shouldn't be bailing them out.
I was hoping NetFlix would come out with this movie but no dice.
Public transporation was a private enterprise since inception but GM would change that by forcing us to use costly buses instead of inexpensive trolley cars. Today we are stuck paying transit companies hundreds of millions to run buses that can never be made private again.
TAKEN FOR A RIDE EXPOSES A DRIVING FORCE BEHIND THE DEATH OF PUBLIC TRANSIT IN AMERICA.
Before there were freeways, traffic jams, and pollution, America had cheap,
fast, flexible rapid transit. Sound like a pipe dream? The truth is, for the
first part of this century, smooth, clean, and comfortable streetcars ruled
America's cities. How -- and, significantly, why -- America's viable public
transit system vanished is the subject of TAKEN FOR A RIDE, a provocative
and disturbing film that blends investigative journalism, urban history, and
social commentary to create a compelling account of a dystopian nightmare
that didn't have to happen.
In 1922, most Americans relied on the efficient trolley networks that
crisscrossed the cities. Only one in 10 owned an automobile. General Motors
(GM) president Alfred Sloan recognized a huge marketing opportunity in the
remaining nine. Under his auspices, according to TAKEN FOR A RIDE, GM
spearheaded a plan to systematically eviscerate the nation's streetcar
companies, replacing them with bus lines that would eventually make way for
the ever growing number of private cars. Over the next 30 years, thanks to
the automotive industry's energetic public relations campaign, motorization
became synonymous with modernization. The great American love affair with the automobile was off and running.
Weaving together vintage propaganda films, colorful archival footage, and
interviews with former and current transportation executives and government officials, activists, historians, and critics, filmmakers Jim Klein and Martha Olson uncover a major force that brought America's rapid transit system to a screeching halt in an astonishingly short amount of time. TAKEN FOR A RIDE is a chilling commentary on GM's infamous slogan: "What's good for General Motors is good for America."
Starting in the 1920's, the film charges, General Motors executives --
placing their profit motives ahead of the public interest -- masterminded
the purchase and destruction of the nation's trolley companies. Tracks were taken up, destroying a mass transit infrastructure that would cost billions to replace. Trolley cars were torched and replaced with GM-manufactured diesel-fueled buses. Some citizens fought to keep their streetcar systems, but to no avail. The citizens of Los Angeles, for example, wanted to keep their beloved yellow car trolleys, but before long the GM-controlled trolley company had switched to buses, dramatically increasing pollution in Los Angeles. By 1946, National City Lines, a bus company funded and controlled by GM, Standard Oil, and the Firestone tire company, operated public transit in over 80 cities. The ascendancy of the car was soon to follow.
"This is the American dream of freedom on wheels!" crows a GM pitchman in a post-war automobile film showing masses of cars streaming through a
Byzantine cloverleaf intersecion. "An automotive age, traveling on
time-saving superhighways." In the 1950's, with a virtually unlimited war
chest, the U.S. highway lobby was by far the most influential pressure group in Washington D.C. In 1953, GM president Charles Wilson became Secretary of Defense, and used his position to push for interstate highways as a vital part of national security. That same year, Francis DuPont, whose family was the largest GM shareholder, was appointed Federal Highway Administrator. At DuPont's urging, President Eisenhower began construction on the then $50 billion Interstate Highway system. TAKEN FOR A RIDE features interviews with some of the people who waged a grassroots campaign against the urban highway plan, forming a strong network of their own as they battled the powerful highway lobby. The proposed highways, opponents argued, would bisect existing communities, slicing them to shreds. Pollution caused by the influx of cars would wreak havoc on the air quality in the surrounding neighborhoods. All over the country, people fought back against the interstates. They stopped 17 urban freeways across the nation, but most were built as planned. "It's not our government," one activist says sadly. "It doesn't belong to us because we haven't paid enough for it. The people who own the government have bought and paid for it."
Today, more people drive cars in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the
United States. The streetcar system that once operated so efficiently there has been reduced to a painfully inadequate bus service used mostly by the working poor. Across the country, the death of effective mass transit has drained the life out of urban centers as downtowns have become modern ghost towns.
This year, according to TAKEN FOR A RIDE, the nation's highways choked with passenger cars, the highway lobby has won 160,000 new miles of highways, four times the length of the present interstates. In urban centers, where there is no land to build new roads, the highway lobby, joined by the computer and information industry, has a modest proposal: double or triple the number of cars presently on the road, all electronically controlled, travelling bumper-to-bumper at speeds above 60 miles per hour on computerized highways.
Ironically, 28 cities in North America are now experimenting with light rail
systems -- the modern term for streetcars -- many of them using the same
routes trolleys followed 50 years ago. Cheaper to build than new highways,
holding out the promise of new life for urban centers, the light rail
systems have been so popular in Portland, Denver, and Sacramento that
citizens have voted for new taxes to build more. Which vision represents the future of America? "The choice is clear and urgent," says architectural
historian Lewis Mumford in a 1950's film clip. "Does the city exist for
people, or for motorcars?"
Co-Producer/Director: Jim Klein
Co-Producer/Writer: Martha Olson
Editors: Jim Klein, Tony Heriza, Deborah Shafter, Andrea Williams
Thanks for posting that, Steve. Now I want to see that documentary even more than before! I often tell my American friends how well I manage to get around here in Spain using my bicycle and public transport (even though the latter could be much better than it is), and they almost always come back with the "American cities were built around the automobile...mass transit won't work here because the cities are too big and spread out..." argument. It's quite obvious that if we look back 50 or 60 years we can see that it certainly is possible. If we've done it once, we can do it again.
In many cases they are correct. If you take a look at the way cities were laid out prior to WW2 and then see how they were added on to after 1950 there is a huge difference. It is going to take a huge effort to compact and relocate some things to make light rail and mass transit viable. The area I live in is a prime example. There is a smallish town of 8,000 on the county line just south of me. The county is considered 70% rural, the county population is over 100,000 and growing. People live in scattered subdivisions all over the county. Joe Farmer sells off 100 acres to a developer and bingo a new subdivision off 200 houses is born. The fact it is 18 miles from town on a two lane road has little bearing on things at this point. The cost of running any form of mass transit to serve 400 people here and 200 people another 7 miles down the road isn't cost effective.
Originally Posted by Ekdog
Also take the movie with a grain of salt, it is the conspiracy theory at work. Most transit systems lost money. I don't know of any transit system that makes money, they are and should be treated like the public utility they are. We subsidize the hell out of cars and IMHO we should provide equal funding for mass transit.
Just found out my University's library has this. I'm definitely checking it out!
Originally Posted by wahoonc
Good point. One thing to remember is that GM wasn't trying to kill public transit. They were trying to switch public transit to buses, because they built buses. They were following the American system of cutthroat capitalism. That's what companies are supposed to do.
The underlying problem is that we want everything to be privatized in this country. The objective truth is that there are some things that government can do more efficiently than the private sector--like snow plowing and mass transit. In these cases, cutthroat capitalism should be discouraged. Look at all the money we've wasted by pretending that Amtrak is (or at least should be) a private concern.
It's actually an urban myth that has been soundly debunked by urban studies theorists and researchers years ago. GM did conspire, yes, but not to replace the streetcars - they were trying to monopolize the buses that the streetcar owners were scrambling to replace their rail stock with. Poor public policy was making it impossible for the streetcar owners to afford to maintain or upgrade their rail lines, and switching to subsidized bus systems was simply the best decision according to the short term logic that their accountants had to deal with.
The real people who are to blame are the politicians. Houston its distant past had trolley cars which were in turn replaced with buses. One thing Houston also had was an extensive rail system in and around the city including a very nice rail station that was downtown. Over time the rail companies started to pull out leaving these rail right-of-ways to be absorbed by the city and county governments. At the same time the Major league baseball team was pissing and moaning that they wanted a new stadium. At the time no one in government had thought about retaining some of this old rail infrastructure for future use in mass transit.
Originally Posted by JusticeZero
The local sports Authority and professional baseball team started electioneering to use the old rail station for new major-league baseball park; however, there was never any full disclosure about how useful Union Station could be to downtown in its original role. So John Q. public fearing the loss of the Astros to another major city voted on the creation of Enron Field/Minute Maid Park completely negating the use of this structure for rail. If the history, location and potential use of Union Station in it's original purpose had been fully disclosed Minute Maid Park would be located elsewhere. Instead, we wound up with a whizbang pop the top baseball stadium with limited parking, narrow downtown streets that turn into a gigantic parking lot whenever there is a baseball game and now that we are experimenting with light rail all the old infrastructure has been converted to other uses. The old rail right-of-ways were given to TXDOT for expansion of freeways (the 610 loop to Katy I-10 expansion comes to mind). Yes there used to be a rail right-of-way that went straight to Katy which is now sitting under the concrete of the I-10 feeder.
Meanwhile, the Metropolitan transit Authority (METRO) has decided to implement light rail right down Main Street converting a very narrow street into one that's even narrower (I would say impassible now by motorized vehicles) and the trains themselves have collided with over a hundred cars since light rail was implemented . the rail line itself goes virtually nowhere from UH downtown to the medical center. To add insult to injury there is no way to expand the line unless they destroy the accessibility on yet another major road. :mad::notamused:
^^^^ Typical story in the US and reflects the shortsightness and total lack of long range planning. I think it is caused in part by our tax structure. In the US you amortize the costs over 20 years, so things are built to a cheap standard. In Europe (someone correct me if I have bad information) the amortization of commercial buildings is over a much longer period, therefor they are built to to a better quality standard. They also don't have the cheap energy and wide open spaces to provide cheap land.
I finally got my hands on the film, and there were interviews with researchers, politicians and people who worked for the streetcar companies who were hardly convinced that this is "an urban myth that has been soundly debunked". I do like to read all sides of an argument, however, so perhaps you could post some links to those studies that you believe prove that GM wasn't behind the dismantling of the streetcars.
Originally Posted by JusticeZero
Transportation Quarterly (long academic piece)
Originally Posted by Ekdog
www.1134.org (short piece, illus.)
Google search page
Basically, the conspiracy deniers say that the streetcars were economically doomed because buses are cheaper and more flexible. Streetcars were already on their way out before GM started buying the streetcar companies. GM bought streetcar companies in order to sell them GM built buses. They were convicted in court of this, but acquitted of trying to kill the streetcars.
The most often quoted source I am aware of is Adler, Sy "The Transformation of the Pacific Electric Railway: Bradford Snell, Roger Rabbit, and the Politics of Transportation in Los Angeles." Urban Affairs Quarterly, Volume 27, Number 1, 1991. T
he theorists I have dealt with all deny that buses have advantages per se over rail, as flexibility is a minus rather than a plus in public transit, and buses lack specific advantages over rail.
However, they do note that rail infrastructure was traditionally seen as the responsibility of the single user (the rail company) to upgrade and maintain, while the highway system was socialistically subsidized in full and did not cost the transit company a dime.
In the LA case in particular, attempts to gather funding for railway repairs were blocked by neighborhoods through which no railways had been built. As another case - also noted by Sy, as I recall - unions blocked transit companies from using split shift transit operators as offpeak ridership sagged, requiring an eight hour shift for drivers who were primarily only busy during rush hour, then another eight hour shift for drivers busy during the return rush eight to ten hours later. Caught under soaring costs with no public financial support, they made the rational choice to replace their EOLing stock with the cheaper bus equipment. The fault s not, therefore, that of an evil corporation, but rather our own poor policy decisions. As this is a difficult pill to swallow, the conspiracy theory is a salve for wounded egoes.
The carfree movement is quick to blame auto companies for social ills. Often there's a lot of blame to be spread around. Auto companies build cars for a profit--that's their only job. Overseeing them, regulating them and subsidizing them are jobs for others, like governments and consumer organizations.
Originally Posted by JusticeZero
The link to that article is in my post, just above your post.
Originally Posted by JusticeZero
I checked all three of your links, and Sy's piece wasn't one of them. I heavily cited Adler in my thesis, so ii'm pretty familiar with the piece in question. Adler is CITED in Slater, and referred to by the blog author, but Adler's article is not actually found in your links. A pity, as i've been looking for a cleaner PDF to replace my dogeared paper copy.
Originally Posted by Roody
Sorry, I got confused. My link was to a study in Transportation Quarterly, not Urban Affairs Quarterly. Roger Rabbit was mentioned in the text, but not in the title.
Originally Posted by JusticeZero
Did you read the Trans Q article? If so, what did you think? Is your thesis available online?
Basically, the conspiracy deniers say that the streetcars were economically doomed because buses are cheaper and more flexible. Streetcars were already on their way out before GM started buying the streetcar companies. GM bought streetcar companies in order to sell them GM built buses. They were convicted in court of this, but acquitted of trying to kill the streetcars.[/QUOTE]
It's a myth that buses are cheaper. New York City articulated buses are costing 900K a piece and double deckers will be 650K! These buses are retired every 12-18 years which is why the fare is doubles every 15 years!
Compare this to a heritage trolley that can be refurbished for 250-300K and last for 25 years or more! Heck, New Jersey still have lightrail cars from the 40's and can be operational within weeks if we had the funds. In Europe, they are running trolley's that are over 50 years old.
From LightRail now:
Light rail transit (LRT) railcars have an average economic life in the range of 30-40 years. With midlife rehabilitation, some railcars 60 years old, and older, continue to operate in daily service (e.g., San Francisco, Kenosha). The Perley Thomas heritage streetcars still operating in New Orleans are more than 80 years old. There are plenty of examples with more modern vehicles. For example, the orginal U2 LRT trams in Frankfurt/Main, Germany, which began operating in 1968, are still going strong after 38 years of service.
What a difference 60 years makes! From what this thread is saying, if there's any real guilt here, it's in the way the decision makers were thinking at the particular time. Back in the late 40's, it was assumed that buses would be cheaper because the roads were public repsponsibility, etc. Nowadays, we're looking at factors that wouldn't have been considered 60 years ago.
Which is to say, rather than a conspiracy it's more due to a learning process that unfortunately progressed way too slowly.
That's a good way to look at it. It's more important to understand the challenges to developing public transit than it is to place blame on something that happened many years ago. It's almost never the case that one party was simply to blame, and everybody else was totally innocent.
Originally Posted by sykerocker
Thinking about the earlier demise of streetcars, and reading this thread, brought up a couple questions in my mind about the possibility of bringing them back:
- What makes streetcars cheaper than buses? With the need to lay new track, It seems like they'd be more expensive. What are the costs compared to developing comparable bus lines?
- It was said that buses are more flexible than streetcars, but flexibility is bad in a public transit system. What does this mean?
- How much electricity does it take to run trolleys? Would cities have to build more power plants to supply streetcars with power?
- Which cities have put in new streetcar systems? How are they liking them? I heard that ridership on San Diegos new trolleys was disappointing.
If anybody can answer any of these questions, I'd appreciate it.
My thesis is not at the moment posted online; I can do so sometime later in the week, or I can send it to you.
Slater seems to be something of an 'economic rationalist', which alas is not terribly rational in many cases. He shows a poor understaning of modern transit networking theory by claiming that wildcat jitneys PARALLELING the streetcar line were a positive; such lines damage profitability of existing infrastructure, but do not greatly enhance service.
Slater has, as many economic rationalists do because of their philosophical kinship, a marked preference for bus systems and a dislike of rail. As most "rationalist" do, no opportunity to insult rail systems on any basis, true, untrue, or immaterial, is missed. At one point streetcars are described as having a dsadvantage against buses because streetcars "had" to let passengers off in the middle of the street. As visitors to Portland can attest, that is in no way a real limitation; rail systems can let their passengers off wherever the stops a constructed, on street or otherwise.
Slater also repeatedly states that streetcars are simply outdated technology, as if merely asserting the fact would make it true. It is true that the original streetcar infrastructure was no match for the modern buses being developed at the time; however, neither was the old streetcar technology any match for the modern rail technology available at the time. The issue there was not that the buses were superior, but that the financial tructures in place were weighted toward buses as the replacement technology.
Slater also echoes the common justification that "A motor bus was self-contained and went where needed which allowed easy route changes." This has, in fact, proven to be as useful of an innovation on transit vehicles as the development of integrated stereo systems has been on bicycles. Transportation patterns simply do not shift as economic rationalists imagine they do; rather, they anchor themselves along fixed transportation systems and are more encouraged to develop as the reliability and fixed nature of the transit system increases. A rail corridor creates a greater economic benefit than an unreliable ('flexible') bus route which may be uproted and moved without notice. This specific fact was, in fact, what my thesis ended up highlighting.
Slater's arguments appear to exist in a world in which on-the-street competition is the only reasonable view of the world. In fact, this form of competition has been the cause of many of the problems faced by transit in future years., as highlighted in places such as Melbourne. (best source of this analysis provided by Paul Mees, in much of his works). While Slater's paper is a very good description of the fate of the streetcar systems, it nonetheless holds a strong bias toward the preferences of his specific theoretical background, one which has been shown lacking in it's ability to accurately model development outside of t's own self-fulfilling prophecies. As such, t should probably not be used to attempt to project future planning goals.