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.

The Ideological Nature of Transportation

The British Public were so excited about the motorways in the 1960s that they printed postcards of service stations. The railways had a hard time competing in this modernist cultural environment.

Here’s an interesting  fact to mention next time you hear somebody railing against railway subsidies: During its entire history of operation since it was created in 1970, Amtrak, the American public passenger rail network, has received less in subsidies than the American highway network receives in a single year. Amtrak’s total subsidies since 1972 are estimated by the Cato institute (which has every reason to overestimate them) at around $13 billion, while the American Road and Transport Builders’ Association cites federal highway investment at around $40 billion per  year for at least the last few years.

This shouldn’t really be seen as paritcularly damning either of Amtrak or the highways, because it’s a pretty well-recognized fact that good transportation networks need subsidies. I have yet to encounter a single form of mass transportation that can be profitable on its own. Cars, trucks and buses need roads, and the various fuel taxes and fees paid for by drivers generally don’t cover the costs of building, maintaining and policing them. Trains are virtually always subsidized. Aviation is massively subsidized, with airlines receiving government bailouts fairly frequently. With the possible exception of active transportation such as walking and cycling (and even cyclists need roads), there are probably very few modern transportation networks don’t receive some money from the taxpayer.

One obvious implication of this is that we shouldn’t be pointing to subsidies to argue against the usefulness of particular modes of transport-something that critics of rail are particularly guilty of. But this has another important implication, namely that transportation infrastructures are inherently politicized. Regardless of your political position, you would have to be incredibly naive to believe that the government, in its benevolence, wisely considers the methods of transportation available to it and supports the most promising one. Subsidies are doled out at least partly due to political and ideological commitments. And this means that transportation networks are an inherently political and ideological entity.

To take one example from my own research, consider the competition between road and rail transportation in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain. After the Second World War, the British government undertook several projects to repair and update its transport system. On the railways, this took the form of the modernisation plan, which was launched in 1955. The plan was intended to introduce improved signalling systems, electric traction, station refurbishments, and a whole host of other improvements to prepare the newly nationalised British Rail for the demands of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Transport was also beginning to build the country’s first motorways. Starting with the Preston Bypass and the M1, which ran from London to Birmingham, the country’s modern road network gradually began to take shape. This all happened in the cultural and ideological context of modernism. This was a period of high modernism, when visions of a Jetsons-like future of a rational, efficient, high-tech and technocratic society were extremely popular. This modernism, I believe, played a very important role in shaping the transportation system as it exists today in the United Kingdom.

If  you read discussions about these two programs in both parliament and the press, however, you realize that the public perception of a modernised railway system was not the same as it was for a modernised road system. On the one hand, newspaper columnists tended to aggressively support motorway construction. This support was often based on the idea that the promotion of cars, buses and trucks was an essential part of being a progressive nation in the later part of the Twentieth Century. The Daily Mail put it in 1953, “like it or not, we are in the motor age, and we must make the best use of it” [1]. When the motorway program suffered setbacks, the government weathered a storm of criticism in the press. The Daily Express’s motoring correspondent, apparently not one for subtlety, penned one article about the motorways whose headline was “DREADFUL, DREADFUL, DREADFUL” [2]. Nobody questioned the costs of the project, and almost everybody with a platform seems to have been pressuring the government to make it happen as quickly as possible. The motorways were seen as modern marvels inherently deserving of support and investment

The railway modernisation plan had a very different hearing. While it did get some tentative support in the press, there wasn’t anything near the same pressure to see it through to the end. There were, indeed, many questions as to whether it was worthwhile in the first place. The editor of The Guardian speculated that it would be “…an unfortunate economic waste if, for example, the modern diesel trains now coming into service should fail to pay by 1970 because people had taken to their cars” [3]. One phrase that comes up again and again in the discussions of railway modernisation is the phrase “nineteenth century”. Increasingly, the railways were seen as an obsolete nineteenth century transport system when measured against the motorways and the cars that drove on them. The result was that when the financial situation got a little bit tighter, the modernisation program was curtailed and eventually gave way to the Beeching cuts, which eliminated more than half of Britain’s railway network in an attempt to make it profitable. The cuts got more support in the press than the modernisation, and that the phrase “nineteenth century” continued to be repeated by journalists supporting Beeching’s plans. The Daily Mirror, for example, proclaimed that “The plan for making Britain’s 19th century railway system fit snugly into the second half of the 20th century will impress the travelling public by its inescapable logic—and shock them with its ruthlessness” [4]. Many people saw the railways as an old-fashioned system, a relic of the previous century. And this meant that it was only logical to dramatically scale it back while motorways were being built.

To put it more simply: The railways were an easy target, and the suffered financial cuts as a result. The public and the press insisted on having motorways, while they were much less enthusiastic about the supposedly old-fashioned railway network. The ideology of modernism played a big role in this. Whether they drive on the motorways or travel on the scaled back railways, Britons today are living out the legacy of 1950s and 1960s technological ideology.

What this says for the present day is that we need to be very explicitly conscious of the role of ideology in the present transportation system. Cars are seen as the embodiment of freedom, individuality, and masculinity, and that supports continued public investment in roads. But cars are also increasingly seen as dangerous, antisocial, polluting machines. The clash between these two understandings of today’s transportation system will have important implications not only for tomorrow’s transportation system, but also for the global environment.

Primary Sources

[1] The Daily Mail., 1953. “Money for the Jam.” The Daily Mail. 24 July 1953. P. 1.

[2] Cardew, Basil., 1956. “Look, Mr. Watkinson! Look at this!”. The Daily Express. 24 February, 1956. p. 4.

[3] Savage, C.I., 1958. “What future for the railways? Next Few Years Decisive.”. 29 April, 1958. P. 11

[4] Beechcroft, J., and Morton-Smith, 1963. “The Railway Revolution”. The Daily Mirror .28 March, 1963. p. 15