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What Ever Happened to Public Transportation?
July 2nd, 2010

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In 2009, National Geographic conducted an annual study measuring and monitoring consumer progress toward environmentally sustainable consumption in seventeen countries around the world. The resulting “Consumer Greendex” found that Americans ranked as the world’s least green consumers. Of all the nations surveyed, we have the lowest percentage of people who use public transit on a daily basis. And we have the highest percentage of people who never, ever, take public transit.

How did this happen? Are we Americans that antisocial? I don’t think so. But our public policies have had unintended consequences.

The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 produced an enormous network of highways across the United States. The largest public works project in American history to that date, it paid for a vast suburban road infrastructure, making commutes between the suburbs and urban centers much easier and far quicker. In part, the system was justified for reasons of national defense. It provided roads big enough to carry our tanks, in case the Russians invaded.

But it also had several unanticipated results. It furthered the flight of citizens, businesses, and investments from inner cities. It led to huge increases in the population of suburbs and a decline of walkable cities with good public transit systems. It greatly increased the use of petroleum and consequently the amount of air pollution. And it ushered in an auto age in which almost every transportation decision has been oriented around private cars and trucks driving on public highways.

The bias is built into our language. We speak of “investing” in highways and “investing” in freeways and parking spaces. But we “subsidize” trains and buses. Officials criticize bus, rail, and other public transportation alternatives for “losing money.” Lost in this language is the fact that public transit is a civic necessity. Buses, railroads, and other forms of public transportation can no more “lose money” than roads and highways.

Today, with the exception of a few of our larger cities, most notably New York, U.S. public transit systems have been profoundly neglected. A third of all mass transit users in the entire United States use the New York City system, which is why New York is the only city in the country where more than half of the households don’t own a car. And even New York, widely acknowledged to have the best public transit system in the United States, falls far short compared to systems in Tokyo, Moscow, Taipei, London, Seoul, Paris, Hong Kong, Berlin, and Copenhagen.

Public transit in the United States has not always been so neglected. In the 1920s and 1930s, almost every town in the country had a light- rail system trolley service. Mass transit was convenient, cheap, and plentiful.

But in the years between 1936 and 1950, there took place one of the sorriest events in our nation’s history–what has become known as the “Great American Streetcar Scandal.” A number of large corporations, including General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, and Phillips Petroleum, operating secretly through front organizations, conspired to purchase streetcar systems in forty- five major U.S. cities, including Detroit, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Baltimore, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. The consortium then proceeded to completely dismantle the trolley systems, ripping up their tracks and tearing down their overhead wires.

For this, General Motors and its corporate allies were indicted in 1947 on federal antitrust charges. For two years, the workings of the conspiracy and its underlying intentions were exposed in federal court. Eventually, despite being represented by the best attorneys money could buy, the defendants were found guilty by the federal jury.

Amazingly, the executives who secretly contrived and carried out the demolition of America’s light- rail network were fined a grand total of one dollar each. Having destroyed the mass transit network that would otherwise have been their competition, the auto and oil companies quickly acquired dominion over the transportation policies of the country. The subsequent rise of the car culture and the abandonment of public transit in the United States were made possible by a series of public policy decisions that benefited the very industries–big oil and big auto–that had conspired to destroy the country’s light- rail service.

To cite one prime example: Lobbyists from the oil and auto industries persuaded state and federal agencies to assume responsibility for the tremendous expenses involved in building and maintaining roads. This created the illusion that driving was much less costly than using public transport. If the auto and oil companies had been required to pay even part of the cost of roads, just as trolley companies had to pay to lay and maintain track, the true cost of the private automobile would have been more apparent, and public transportation would never have been suppressed.

Another example: Governments at every level have required businesses, as a condition of their licenses and permits, to provide ample parking spaces. What if instead local zoning ordinances required workplaces to be located within walking distance of public transit?

One final example: It has long been considered a basic legal principle that if a product causes harm by design, the producer may be held legally responsible. And it’s well known that rates of cancer, asthma, emphysema, and other lung diseases are higher in smoggy cities and worse yet in neighborhoods that include heavily trafficked highways. Why, then, has no car or oil company ever had to pay a cent to cover the medical costs their products have caused? Instead, points out the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes, “Consumers and, ultimately, taxpayers have always footed that bill–a subsidy worth trillions of dollars” to the car and oil industries.

Now we’re seeing where our obsession with the private car and truck has taken us–into gridlock, pollution, and dependence on imported oil. We’ve come to a turning point in history, in which serious questions are ours to answer. How can we best support alternative modes of transportation that are better for the environment and for public health? How can we create climate-and community- friendly transportation systems?

These comments are moderated to support respectful, non-commercial, and open-minded dialogue.

3 Responses to “What Ever Happened to Public Transportation?”

  1. Ken Miller says:

    I retired from Amtrak in May, after 38+ years. Every single year we went through funding crises, with detractors constantly deriding the “subsidies” for rail passengers. No matter how often we tried to get people to pay attention to the subsidies for roads and air travel, they ignored it.

    If only we could find a way to make people understand that public transportation is truly an investment that will improve the quality of our lives!

    I now live in a county that has NO public transportation into or out of the entire county! At one time we had an Amtrak Thruway Bus connection, but that vanished due to low ridership. Hardly surprising – the bus parked for several hours between arrival and departure. The parking place was just outside a travel agency that actually sold Amtrak tickets. I stopped in once and asked how many people they had who used the bus connection. Their response – “What bus connection?”

    Sigh.

  2. Paul Kemp says:

    Great article! Thanks for your fine historical research on the story of why we are so tied to our autos. My parents used to show me where the streetcar tracks were in Miami, my home town.

    Now, many parts of suburban Florida don’t have sidewalks, so walking is difficult and dangerous, and bus service is poor. To make it worse for those without cars, motorists frequently throw objects and buzz by bicyclists at high speed.

    Oregon, where I live now, is far more civil and has relatively good public transit service — for as long as the budget can support it.

  3. Bob Davis says:

    This is a subject close to my heart. I am a long-time (47 years) member and volunteer at a railway museum that preserves and operates some of the Pacific Electric and Los Angeles Railway cars that used to serve Southern California. At various times in my life I have made use of the bus lines that serve my area. My idea of a great vacation is to ride as many local and long distance trains as possible. On the other hand, (where’s President Truman’s one-handed economist when you need him?) over the years I’ve owned a wide variety of motor vehicles, and have even catalogued them in a rolling-stock roster like railfans compile about locomotives or trolley cars. Many of these vehicles illustrated one of the difficulties in “selling” public transportation, especially here in Southern California. Cars that would have long since gone to the scrapyard in harsh, Northern climates still soldier on, providing handy transportation to folks at the low end of the economic ladder. Air pollution laws have removed the worst clunkers from the streets, but Easterners are often amazed by the old cars still running here. My first wife (now deceased) was a good example. After some unpleasant experiences on the local bus lines as a teenager, she bought a third-hand Kaiser as soon as she had enough money (probably less that $100). When “Wilhelm” failed, she bought a Buick (that really did belong to a schoolteacher) for $100, which was still running when we got married. Over the years, she drove quite an assortment of cars, but as far as I can recall, never set foot in a bus again. Ironically, the reason why she moved to Monrovia, where I met her in high school, was that she and her mother were looking for a place to live, and they observed Monrovia from the windows of a Pacific Electric Red Car. It looked like a nice town and they settled here. So my daughters can thank the railway (among other things) for their being here, even though the Monrovia line was abandoned long before they were born.

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