On the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy

The demise of streetcar systems like this one in Los Angeles was probably not due to their being bought out and shut down by car companies. Picture from the Huffington Post.

When I tell somebody about my research, they often bring up the alleged General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, a popular folk-tale in the history of American transport. The story goes something like this: At the early twentieth century, virtually every major North American city had a streetcar system, which was basically a lower-tech version of what still exists in a few cities such as Toronto and San Francisco. These systems posed a problem for the rapidly expanding car industry, and so a few car companies (most notably General Motors) bought out many local streetcar systems and immediately shut them down, in order to push the United States towards dependency on the private automobile.

Now I’m just a lowly PhD student, and my research focuses on intercity transport rather than urban transport. So there are many people more qualified than me to comment on whether or not this actually happened. What I can do is point to a few of these people and the arguments they make.  An excellent paper to read if you’re interested in this history is Zachary Schragg’s The Bus is Young and Honest. According to Schragg, the elimination of the New York City streetcars was more due to the bad reputation then held by streetcar companies than to any shady dealing by automobile executives. Like most forms of private transport infrastructure, New York’s streetcars functioned essentially as a monopoly. While some legislation tried to counteract this, for example by legally imposing a fare of a nickel, the streetcars did pretty well for themselves in the nineteenth century. Most people could not afford their own transport, and so anybody who wanted to travel within the city would have basically no choice but to accept the terms offered by the streetcar companies.  This caused resentment among those who thought a nickel was too much to pay for what was often a crowded, dangerous ride. Basically, The New York City streetcars were like the Comcast of their time.

The public got their comeuppance in the 1920s and 1930s, however, as inflation continuously cut down the value of the five cent fare and streetcar companies struggled to balance their books. Streetcar companies mounted a campaign to have the fare changed to a dime, but much of the public and political establishment was uninterested in helping an industry that had been so happy to exploit them when the shoe was on the other foot. When the mayor flatly refused their request for a fare increase, the streetcar lines cancelled several lines services to put public pressure on the mayor. The mayor’s response was to replace the streetcars with buses. And that was the beginning of the end for the New York streetcars.

Of course, Schragg’s account only covers New York City. But in my opinion it is far more likely that the demise of the American streetcar was due to this kind of local politics than that it was due to the conspiratorial actions of car manufacturers. Cars were already gobbling up huge chunks of passenger travel by the start of the 1930s; the United States did not need any extra push into car dependence. Furthermore, my own research has revealed that the pattern Schragg describes played a role in long-distance transport as well. American railways in the early twentieth century were monopolies, and like the streetcars, the public and the political classes often saw them as monopolistic, exploitative, and generally untrustworthy. This eventually resulted in the creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which in 1920 was given veto power over any railway fare increases. This was absolutely crippling during the Great Depression, when the railways, faced with competition from the roads, couldn’t even adjust their fares without a lengthy series of government hearings. but when they tried to change the law to be more favourable, many of the railways’ complaints fell on deaf ears.

This seems to be a very common pattern: Privately owned infrastructures tend to be monopolies and so they often arouse public anger. This leads to regulations restricting the actions of the companies owning those infrastructures, but the public anger continues. As soon as a new and exciting technology whose problems are not yet widely understood provides a viable alternative to those monopolies, the regulations make it very difficult for the old system to compete, while the distrust of the people who own the old system makes it very difficult for them to get the regulations changed.

So no; General Motors probably did not buy out the streetcar systems in order to push the country towards car dependency. But that doesn’t doesn’tean that the story is not still interesting as a folktale. Why does it still have so much lasting power?

I think it has something to do with portraying our present-day concerns about technology into the past. Today, the car-based transportation system is not in a very strong discursive position. It is not a monopoly like the railways of the past, but it has still aroused concern and condemnation due to things like climate change, local air pollution, congestion, accidents, road rage, noise, and the bulldozing of neighbourhoods to build highways. To put it bluntly: the moral status of our transportation system is not very good right now. But people seem to have trouble understanding that the moral status of technological systems can change over time. People who are opposed to the car system today tend to assume that the only way such a system could have come into being in the first place is by some kind of trickery. Similarly, railroads and municipal light rail have a pretty good reputation these days, and so when people note that they used to be more dominant, it’s assumed that their downfall must have been due to foul play. Whence the popularity of the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy theory.  

The true story, that cars and buses might have actually looked like a pretty good idea in the 1930s, while trains and trams had a nasty reputation, is less appealing not only because it requires more nuance, but also because it has implications for the present day. If the Americans who so eagerly dashed towards a car-culture in the 1930s were so mistaken about it, then what does that say about the new kinds of infrastructure that get us excited today? It means that we might have to think much more carefully about replacing our existing technological systems with things like drone delivery, Google fibre, or 3D printing. It means that we need to be sceptical of anybody offering a quick technological fix to our problems today. We can still support radical new technologies, but only after a great deal more thought.


Tesla, Patents, and Ideology

Next time the world is getting you down, just remember that there’s a major car company that uses internet memes from the 1990s in its publicity.

You may have heard that Tesla Motors recently released all their patents to the world for free. Here’s Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s explanation for why he took this somewhat unorthodox move:

“Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

When it comes to the charging infrastructure, there is a very good reason why Tesla might want to do this. By allowing anybody to build a supercharger station on their own initiative and on their own dime, Tesla is effectively downloading the risk of building their infrastructure onto other people. Given the growing popularity of and excitement around Tesla cars and electric cars more generally, I would be very surprised if there wasn’t a significant number of people who saw a local electric car charging station as a good investment. This will help reassure potential buyers that they can count on having charging stations available nearly anywhere, which will in turn help Tesla sell cars.

The decision to release all the patents on the cars themselves is a bit more puzzling. I’m not going to presume to fully understand its reasons or its implications. I’m not a patent lawyer, and while the efficacy of patents is discussed in the academic circles in which I travel, it’s not really my topic of expertise. It will be interesting, however, to see whether this leads to more electric vehicles being built using Tesla technology, to compete with Tesla. Maybe this will open the door for specialized electric vehicles such as buses, delivery vans, or construction vehicles. Maybe a bigger ecosystem of competing electric vehicles will give Tesla an edge by further legitimizing the technology, which Tesla will retain their lead in due to their considerable experience making them. Or maybe they will be awash in cheap knockoffs within 10 years and be driven out of all but the luxury car market. It’s probably a good move for the planet, but as for what it means for Tesla, it’s probably too early for me, or anyone, really, to say.

But one thing that is interesting about this is the language that Musk uses to justify the decision. He is using the anti-intellectual property language which has been developing for some time now in opposition to the software and entertainment industries. Musk is, at least apparently, putting this language into practice in a very big way. In fact his blog post makes explicit reference to the open source movement. Of course, it’s possible that Musk is just paying lip service to the idea of open source, while he is actually releasing his patents for purely business reasons. Political figures like Musk always attempt frame their actions by reference to whatever ideology or symbolism is trendy at any given point in time.

But even if Musk is merely posturing, there is still something interesting here. The ideology of the open source movement is becoming increasingly important. Virtually anybody who knows how to program a computer and doesn’t stand to make a lot of money from patents will say that it’s a good idea. Google and Mozilla both make liberal use of open source software, and creatives, such asAmanda Palmer and the guys behind Cards Against Humanity all openly encourage the pirating of their work.

Maybe the recent development at Tesla is a signal that this ideology is starting to effect how the technology business works. If more technology companies follow the example set by Google and Tesla, then it could mean a big change in how technology gets developed. It would fundamentally change the rules by which engineers and entrepreneurs play, the effects of which are probably too complicated for anybody to realistically predict. And that would have some kind of effect on the kinds of technologies that get developed, the speed with which they get developed, and the ease with which they diffuse into society.

If that’s the case, then this is evidence of something that is constantly ignored in discussions of business and technology: ideology matters. Economists and policymakers like to assume that firms and engineers are perfectly rational calculators who follow their business sense and whose behaviour is basically predictable. But who could have predicted the rise of the open source movement? Ultimately, Engineers are people. And so are entrepreneurs. And like all other people, they filter their perceptions about the world through a lens of ideas, assumptions, and principles, and that changes how they act, and has a profound impact on the technologies they develop. That means that technology, like anything else, is susceptible to the influence of culture. Most intriguingly, it means that we can influence technology purely through ideas.

Boats and Borders: A Longwinded Meditation on our High-Carbon Society

Cars embarking on the cross-channel ferry at Dover. Is this really the most efficient way to carry people across water?

I’ve recently been invited to speak at my first conference. Even more exciting than that is the fact that the conference is being held in Valencia, Spain. So within literally half an hour of receiving my formal inviation, I came up with a very exciting plan: Go to the two-day conference in Valencia, and then go find a nice Spanish beach to lie on for the rest of the week. I immediately commenced procrastinating from my real work by planning my trip from Manchester to Valencia. Being a bit of a hippy environmentalist who loves trains and boats and hates sitting in front of screaming babies on planes, I looked for a some combination of rail and ferry networks that would get me there. This turned out to be frustrating, however. Partly because the Spanish rail network is an a bit of a shambles, but more importantly because many of the ferries from Southern England to Spain do not allow foot passengers on board.

It is this last point that I want to riff on a little bit in this post. If the fact that many of our major water-borne transport networks can’t be boarded without a car isn’t a knockdown demonstration of car culture, then I don’t know what is. Even those ferries that do allow foot passengers often put them at a considerable disadvantage. I know from experience that such boats often require foot passengers to disembark using a bus that drives off the boat after all the drivers have already left, which effectively adds at least half an hour to the journey time. And port facilities are rarely well-connected to railway or bus terminals. I’ve had to walk over a mile to catch a ferry in the past.

The reason this is so problematic is that ferries are the only really sustainable way to travel over water. My flight to Valencia, which I reluctantly booked after two days of fruitless searching for a viable ferry itinerary, will emit 0.3 tons of carbon dioxide each way, which will add up to a whopping 40% of my ideal annual carbon budget over the course of the whole trip. So if we are going to transition to a sustainable economy then ferries are going to have to play a big role. The problem here is that, under the status quo, in order to avoid using the most environmentally destructive form of transport on the planet (flying), it is highly advantageous and sometimes mandatory to own a car, which happens to be the second-most environmentally destructive form of transport on the planet. There is very little space for people who choose to forego both technologies, and this is a problem.

What I’d really like to see here is an alternative ferry system, designed specifically for foot passengers. It would involve boats that are big enough to carry a large number of passengers safely across the English Channel, but not the behemoths designed to carry cars and trucks. I would like to see these boats making quick, cheap, efficient trips across the channel, in which people would embark on foot from a small pier, rather than having to wait for countless vehicles to be painstakingly loaded on at a gigantic terminal. Of course, I have to confess that I know virtually nothing about the ferry business, and there are probably a lot of very serious problems with the suggestion I have just made. It would, at the very least, require considerable changes to port infrastructure and dominant travel habits. It would also require a major change to how customs and immigration services are managed. More border guards would have to be built at more ports, and they would have to be built with foot passengers, rather than a stream of motor vehicles, in mind. I’m no more an expert on customs and immigration than I am on passenger marine travel, but somehow I doubt that border agencies could easily be persuaded to do such a thing.

This brings me to the final point of this somewhat rambly post: Maybe border guards are an unexamined part of the transport system. Border stations are expensive, and immigration agencies probably save money by building a small number of big checkpoints at major transport hubs. I’m willing to bet that a small ferry entrepreneur couldn’t simply request one wherever she needs it. Since most long-distance travel takes place between separate sovereign states, modes of transport that connect to pre-existing border control points at airports and large ferry terminals have a major advantage over alternatives. This locks in established unsustainable transport systems. Even the land border between Windsor and Detroit-the most highly trafficked border in the world-requires pedestrians to board a “tunnel bus” in order to cross the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. So groups like No One Is Illegal can add one more argument to their arsenal: Borders contribute to climate change.

The general point I’m trying to make here is that the systems that entrench environmentally destructive technologies manifest themselves in complex and surprising ways. We build boats that can only be boarded by cars, and the legal structure of international travel encourages the use of pre-established transport systems. If we want a more sustainable future, then we need to be critical of all this stuff. And we need to have the courage to change it.

Sustainability, Drop-in Innovation, and the Self-Driving Car


Most environmentalists might be more excited about the bicycle on the right, but Google’s self-driving car may well have more potential to enact real sustainability.

In transition studies we like to talk about what we call “drop-in innovations”. What this refers to, roughly, is a radical new technology that can be easily implemented without difficult modifications to existing social and technical structures. Smartphones are a good example of a drop innovation: The infrastructure and social practices associated with cell phones already existed, and so iPhone, Blackberry, and Android phones were easily accepted, allowing them to be the catalyst for some pretty major social and technical changes.

Existing infrastructure and social practices constitute a major stumbling block for many sustainable technology schemes, so the concept of drop-in innovations is very important in sustainability. If you want to use a new technology to change the way human society interacts with the natural world, then you will have an easier time accomplishing your goals if your new technology can be simply purchased off the shelf  without requiring any major changes as a prerequisite for its use.

With that in mind, I’d like to turn your attention to the self-driving car. Many will likely be skeptical of Google’s latest innovation, pointing out, for example, that we already have self-driving cars called buses. But I think this criticism misses the point. Buses are going to have a very hard time changing peoples’ travel habits because they come with a lot of social, political, financial and infrastructural baggage. The same thing goes for trains, which will require massive infrastructural investment in order to compete with cars.

The self-driving car, however, has an advantage over these other means of transportation. So long as self-driving cars are legalized (and it looks like they will be), there is nothing stopping a few pioneering travelers from buying them. These people would be able to travel with all the convenience that attracts people to cars, and they would pay no infrastructural or financial penalty for their choice.

Once self-driving cars catch on, however, there are a huge number of ways they could be made greener. They could be fitted with electric motors, for starters, but if we think beyond that, we can imagine even more exciting possibilities. Suppose, for example, that some enterprising taxi firms start running self-driving electric cars that can be called to pick up passengers using a smartphone app. Such a system would require no drivers and thus be extremely cheap to operate, and would free travelers from the hassles of parking, refueling, or maintenance. A fleet of such cars could form long trains on highways, in which they could draft off each-other and save enormous amounts of energy-something that would be highly unsafe with human drivers. They could constantly circulate, or automatically return to out-of-the-way garages, thereby freeing up a great deal of urban space otherwise used for parking.

This is all very speculative, of course. But it’s an important example of the power that a drop-in innovation can have. Radical system change is undoubtedly far more exciting than such incremental and uncertain improvements, but it’s also a lot more difficult. I’d love to see cities of the future that are criss-crossed with electric trams and cycle lanes, but there are a lot of physical, political, social, technical, and financial barriers in the way of that. The only major obstacles I can see in the way of the system of automated vehicles I have just described are driving schools and cabbies-not exactly groups who wield enormous political influence.

There seems to be a lot of optimism about the future right now. With projects such as spacex, the hyperloop, the oculus rift, and google glass, it seems like we may finally be moving towards the future that was imagined in 1990s films. Environmentalists should seize on this trend to find promising new technologies that can save the world, rather than stubbornly insisting on pre-established visions.

The End of the Automobile?

Is an end to this in sight?

I’m reading a lot of British transportation history these days in order to frame my research, and I have discovered in the process that many books on the subject are a bit antiquated. This can mean that they make hilarious predictions about the future (one proposed jetpacks as a plausible means of future transportation; another suggested hovercrafts), yet their datedness has a bit of value to me as a historian. While they may not reflect the most cutting-edge scholarship, these books can say a lot about the continuing history of the subject by revealing the author’s own prejudices. Such is the case with one 1975 book I am in the process of reading. Its author, Derek Howard Aldcroft, of the post-war era that “…in a period when passenger transport has expanded rapidly, the private road vehicle has swept all before it”. It makes sense that he would write that. In 1975, the growth rate in passenger-miles traveled by car had recovered from a small hiccup caused by the 1973 fuel crisis, and resumed the meteoric rate of increase that had persisted since the end of the Second World War. The use of trains and buses, meanwhile, had done nothing but stagnate and decline over the same period. From Aldcroft’s perspective, then, the long-term triumph of the passenger automobile may well have seemed a near-certainty.

Of course, this would have come as sad news to the fledgling environmental movement that existed in the 1970s, and similar assertions are frequently made today, much to the chagrin of climate activists. But must we agree with Aldcroft? Perhaps we have learned something about the fate of the private car in the last forty-odd-years that Aldcroft may not have anticipated. It’s too big a question to answer adequately in blog form, but I’m going to try and clarify some of the relevant issues a little bit. I’m not going to bring a whole lot of new information to the table-I think that most people reading this will already know the facts I am citing. I am just going to frame the situation in a way that I think is productive for thinking about the question.

First, it has to be noted that the automobile is a textbook example of a strongly entrenched socio-technical regime. There are strong cultural, economic, political, technological, scientific, and infrastructural forces that have become attached to the widespread use of the private automobile, and are not likely to allow it to decline without a fight. Existing sustainable transportation niches are constantly being frustrated by these forces. The fact that many roads were only designed with the safety of motorists in mind deters many people from taking up cycling. In many places, cultural norms strongly encourage the ownership of a car, and discourage the use of public transit. Train systems are unable to expand due to policymakers who are unwilling to allocate the necessary subsidies, while those same policymakers are often happy to spend millions on new highways. Massive urban sprawl makes it difficult to construct walkable communities. Meanwhile, niche-innovations designed to take advantage of existing infrastructure, such as the electric car, are hobbled by the fact that the internal combustion engine has a several-decade technological head-start, and a considerable cultural advantage.

That being said, we would be foolish to completely discount the possibility of a major transportation transition taking place during the next few decades. Strong regimes can be broken up with the appropriate landscape pressures, and there are some pretty important landscape pressures currently acting on the car regime. The most obvious one is political: a lot of people are getting pretty concerned about the environmental impact of cars. Increasing smog problems in major cities and concerns about the environmental costs of fuel extraction, as is the fact that the private automobile has become symbolic of the high-carbon lifestyle practiced in the industrial west. Rising fuel costs are making the private automobile less appealing from a financial perspective than it once was. Congestion is becoming increasingly problematic in urban environments, leading some local governments to apply measures like congestion charging and car-pool lanes, as well as enhancing public transit services. Lastly, the economic crisis means that many people simply cannot afford cars, meaning that they are developing lifestyles that do not require them-a development which is scaring many car manufacturers. All of these things taken together could potentially start to break up the strong socio-technical entrenchment of cars.

So what we have in the case of cars is a strongly entrenched regime holding strong against a few promising niches, but threatened by some important landscape events. This is exactly the kind of situation that has lead to major transitions in the past. The car itself seemed to many to be little more than a fad for rich people at the turn of the century, but as a niche-innovation it had a lot of potential, and when the world wars damaged the railroad regime and changed the industrial structure of Europe and North America, cars were well-positioned to capitalize on that change. This is not, however, a guaranteed outcome. It remains to be seen whether the existing pressures on the car regime will be enough to permit the development of a radically new transport system.

This may be cause for hope. (From The New Statesman)

I am not, of course, an entirely disinterested observer. I am concerned about the effect of cars on urban environments, air quality, and the global climate and I would like to see a more sustainable system replace them within my own lifetime. While I am not sure that this will happen, I can say that some recent evidence gives me reason for cautious optimism. A number of researchers have looked at transportation data from the last decade or so and noticed a surprising phenomenon: it seems as though the trend that Aldcroft noticed, in which car use was rapidly increasing over several decades, began to slow down some time in the 1990s, and may have even started to reverse itself in some places. The use of cars is still an order of magnitude higher than the use of trains, bicycles, and other alternatives, but we may be witnessing the beginning of a change. Whether these statistics truly represent a “peak car” moment leading to a major transition, or a mere blip, resulting from temporary economic conditions. I would ask skeptics to keep in mind, however, that firmly entrenched technologies can and have been brought low in the past. Before the car became popular, railroads were dominant for nearly a century. Before that, the millenia-long history of horse-drawn travel would have made the horse-drawn wagon seem as old and as resilient as time itself. And on the sea, steamships replaced sailing vessels after a comparable historical dominance. All of these systems became considerably entrenched over their long histories, and yet they were brought low in good time. Compared to them, the car’s sixty-year history makes it appear positively fragile. How much longer its history goes on, and how much more entrenched it becomes, remains to be seen.

Further Reading:

Aldcroft, D.H., 1975. “British Transport Since 1914: An Economic History”. London: David and Charles.

Fouquet, R., 2012. Trends in Income and Price Elasticities of Transport Demand (1850-2010). Basque Centre for Climate Change BC3 Working Paper Series 2012-01.

Newman, P., and Kenworthy, J., 2011. “Peak Car Use: Understanding the Demise of Automobile Dependence.” World Transport Policy and Practice 17.2. pp. 31-42.

Sheller, M., 2011. “The Emergence of New Cultures of Mobility: Stability, Openings, and Prospects”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 180-200.

Wells, P., Nieuwenhuis, P., and Orsato, R.J., 2011. “The Nature and Causes of Inertia in the Automobile Industry: Regime Stability and Non-Change”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 123-139.

Zijlstraand, T., and Avelino, F., 2011. “A Socio-Spatial Perspective on the Car Regime”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 166-179.

Ehret, O., and Dignum, M., 2011. “Introducing Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Vehicles in Germany”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 229-249.

Goodwin, P., 2011. “Providing Road Capacity for Automobility: The Continuting Transition”. In F. W. Geels, R. Kemp, G. Dudley and G. Lyons (Eds) Automobility in Transition? A Socio-Technical Analysis of Sustainable Transport. London: Routledge, 2011. pp. 140-159.