- September 25, 2017
Did car companies conspire to destroy America’s public transport system?
We assume conspiracies occur in dark rooms. We think of shadowy cabals, plotting behind the scenes and carrying out sinister plots. But not all conspiracies are quite so hidden. Take, for example, the state of the public transport systems in many of the biggest cities in the United States of America. For close to a century, they’ve been the target of a very different kind of conspiracy. But it’s no less sinister.
To better tell this story, we should look back to the 1920s. At this time, General Motors was beginning to emerge as not only one of the biggest automobile manufacturers in the country but in the world. For a company who wanted to sell cars to every person in America, there was a natural enemy: public transport.
At the time, many cities had small-scale transport networks. These were mostly rail, with trains or trams. For cities which were growing by the year, these networks allowed people to get around, for example, Detroit, far easier than they might otherwise have been able to do so. It was a time when only 10% of Americans actually owned a car, so these trams, trolleys, and trains were very popular.
Naturally, these public transport networks were a threat. Not just to General Motors, but also to tire companies, gas companies, and other associated businesses. They decided to do something about it.
GM’s response is perhaps the best known. They helped to form and fund a company named National City Lines. The aim of this company was to take over and run the privatized public transport networks which existed in the cities. By 1946, NCL controlled the streetcar networks in 80 cities around America. Later, it would become known as the “Great American Streetcar Scandal.”
Once companies such as the NCL owned the public transport networks in cities such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St Louis, Detroit, Baltimore, and many others, they set to work. They deliberately made the services worse. This could be through underfunding, cutting the number of routes provided, ripping up tram tracks, removing the essential wires from over the tracks, and other tactics. Gradually, they deconstructed the entire networks and made them unusable. People’s only other option was to buy a car if they wanted to travel.
This did not go unnoticed. In 1947, for example, General Motors were indicted on federal antitrust charges. Over the course of the next two years, the wider conspiracy began to be unraveled by the government. Even with the most expensive attorneys in the country, the conspiring companies were found guilty.
So what was the punishment for the heads of these companies? Many of them faced a fine of precisely one dollar. After destroying the inner-city rail networks – in some cases, for good – the conspirators got little more than a slap on the wrist. Car companies, gas companies, tire companies, and others had completed their aim of destroying the competition.
By this time, the damage had been done. For a start, the decades without viable public transport had given rise to a car culture in America. Everyone simply had a car. What had begun as a necessity became a key part of the American mindset. It became almost unthinkable not to own a car.
When the NCL and similar public transport companies did replace the tram and train networks, many of the replacements relied on buses. While a viable form of public transport, the buses still came under the general automobile umbrella. They would be manufactured by companies such as GM and would always need types, gas, and so on. This was a far more preferable option for the conspirators. It was also hoped that the uncomfortable conditions of inner-city buses would compel people to buy more cars.
From the 1950s and 1960s onwards, the conspiracy took on a different tone. With the main competition removed, the conspiracy could use different tactics. They began to rely on one of the main forces of modern American politics: the lobbying group.
The National Highway Users Conference was one such group. GM was a key part of the group’s formation, helping it become one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. Using donations and political favors, they helped guide the lawmakers’ hands. They created legislation that was friendly to car manufacturers. The growing highway system was part of this effort, as well as the marginalization of large rail networks. Charles Wilson, president of GM, became Secretary of Defence in 1953. Part of his political work was to help create the Federal-Aid Highway Act, which provided $25 billion to be spent on highways from one side of America to another. It was one of the greatest acts of public spending in history, born from the mind of the automobile industry and, ultimately, fueling their bottom line.
While the carmakers managed to get the government to pay for the highway system, tram companies were still required to pay for the cost of installing tracks or tramlines. In doing so, the automobiles companies managed to convince people that their cars were the more economical option.
What’s more, they pushed for the car to become a key element of the American dream. The car represented freedom, they told people, showcasing GM promotional films in schools and public spaces.
Even today, the conspiracy endures. One need only look at urban planning legislation. Many building projects will require a certain number of parking spaces if they are to receive a permit. This is rather than requiring that a public transport network be able to service all parts of the city or that commercial properties be built near stations or stops. The utilization of the automobile is now sacrosanct in American law.
As a result, many cities have no viable public transport system. Pollution and smog from the sheer number of cars made many cities suffer for decades. Furthermore, the country has become dependent on the acquisition of oil and gas as a means of powering the huge number of automobiles. When this supply is threatened, the country goes into crisis. There is no public transport option to fall back on.
The conspiracy to decimate the American public transport networks was hugely successful. The conspirators were never punished and they became a lobbying group with just as much – if not more – power and influence. Sometimes the conspiracies are not hidden in the shadows. Sometimes, they’re clear for all to see.