Friday, August 31, 2007

The Death of Mass Transit

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Excerpt from Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser; copyright Eric Schlosser.

Southern California had recently given birth to an entirely new lifestyle -- and a new way of eating. Both revolved around cars. The cities back East had been built in the railway era, with central business districts linked to outlying suburbs by commuter train and trolley. But the tremendous growth of Los Angeles occurred at a time when automobiles were finally affordable. Between 1920 and 1940, the poplulation of southern California nearly tripled, as about 2 million people arrived from across the United States. While cities in the East expanded through immigration and became more diverse, Los Angeles became more homogenous and white. The city was inundated with middle-class arrivals from the Midwest, especially in the years leading up to the Great Depression.

It was the first large-scale migration conducted mainly by car. Los Angeles soon became unlike any other city the world had ever seen, sprawling and horizontal, a thoroughly suburban metropolis of detached homes -- a glimpse of the future molded by the automobile. Other cities were being transformed by car ownership, but none was so profoundly altered. By 1940, there were about a million cars in Los Angeles, more cars than in forty-one states.

The automobile offered drivers a feeling of independence and control. Daily travel was freed from the hassles of rail schedules, the needs of other passengers, and the location of trolley stops. More importantly, driving seemed to cost much less than using public transport -- an illusion created by the fact that the price of a new car did not include the price of building new roads. Lobbyists from the oil, tire, and automobile industries, among others, had persuaded state and federal agencies to assume that fundamental expense. Had big auto companies been required to pay for the roads -- in the same way that trolley companies had to lay and maintain track -- the landscape of the American West would look quite different today.

The automobile industry, however, was not cotent to simply to reap the benefits of government-subsidized road construction. It was determined to wipe out railway competition by whatever means necessary. In the late 1920's, General Motors secretly began to purchase trolley systems throughout the United States, using a number of front corporations. Trolley systems in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Montgomery, Alabama, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and El Paso, Texas, in Baltimore, Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles -- more than one hundred trolley systems in all -- were purchased by GM and then completely dismantled, their tracks ripped up, their overhead wires torn down. The trolley companies were turned into bus lines, and the new buses were manufactured by GM.

General Motors eventually persuaded other companies that benefited from road building to help pay for the costly takeover of America's trolleys. In 1947, GM and a number of its allies in the scheme were indicted on federal antitrust charges. Two years later, the workings of the conspiracy, and its underlying intentions, were exposed during a trial in Chicago. GM, Mack Truck, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California were all found guilty on one of the two counts by the federal jury. The investigative journalist Jonathan Kwitny later argued that the case was "a fine example of what can happen when important matters of public policy are abandoned by government to the self-interest of corporations." Judge William J. Campbell was not so outraged. As punishment, he ordered GM and the other companies to pay a fine of $5,000 each. The executives who had secretly plotted and carried out the destruction of America's light rail network were fined $1 each. And the postwar reign of the automobile proceeded without much further challenge.


jettybetty said...

If Jesus does not come back soon, those of that commute without mass transit will pay for this for years--don't know if something similar to this happened in Texas, but the traffic here just continues to get worse--by the time they upgrade the freeways--it's already in need of the next expansion. I would LOVE to be able to take mass transit to work! Thanks for this interesting piece.

Tony Arnold said...

Traffic is a mess everywhere. Stayed tuned, more The Death of ... posts coming.

JMG said...

I loved this book when I read it a few years ago. It was the death of JMG eating fast food. I had forgotten about this part.

Tony Arnold said...

I wasn't much of a fast food fan myself, now I will be even more aware of the bad macroeconomical effects of the industry.

JMG said...

The passage you quoted is just a small example of how we are at the mercy of the large corporations and their backscratching with the government. The majority of laws that are passed have the ultimate goal of helping big money get bigger at the expense of the regular people.

On the subject of mass transit, I'm surprised that we have a commuter train between Lebanon and Nashville. It'll take years, if ever, to get them between Nashville and all the other outlying areas. And when and if this does happen, you can bet that the trains will run on diesel and not electricity.

Tony Arnold said...

The majority of laws that are passed have the ultimate goal of helping big money get bigger at the expense of the regular people.

Your really going to love some of the upcoming excerpts that from the book that deal directly with that comment.

JMG said...

You're going to try to keep me ticked off for the next few days aren't you?

Tony Arnold said...

Weeks my friend, weeks.