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April 25, 2003

FOLLOW-UP: Prompted by Patrick Sullivan?s extensive, interesting comments, I spent a little time Googling the charge that General Motors maliciously and heinously destroyed urban mass transit in America. In addition to the link cited below (see Wednesday, 4/23/03), two online sources for the charge are as follows: excerpts from the film, "Taken for a Ride," by Jim Klein and Martha Olson, shown on PBS. This film was extensively praised. (Also here.) The charge originates principally in the work of antitrust attorney Bradford Snell, former staff member for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly; an article by Mr. Snell is here.

But, alas for lovers of mass transit everywhere, the hypothesis appears to be profoundly flawed. We can start with the ever-reliable Cecil Adams who concludes, ". . . blaming GM [for the decline] is like blaming the inventor of gunpowder for war." A Los Angeles Times article reports, ". . . most historians agree that GM and the other mega-companies only helped to speed the end of the railway, which already was deep into red ink." It points out some serious problems with the mass transit lines as of the early 30s: ". . . mass transit riders complained of massive traffic jams and hourlong delays. The hard wooden seats and the open-window 'air-conditioning system' in the summers were no picnic either. The conflict between the trolley and the automobile was often played out at intersections, where they collided repeatedly, resulting in many injuries and deaths. Newspaper editorials raised the alarm about the accidents and crusaded against the streetcars."

Another nice, short piece debunking the claim was written by Stan Schwarz, system administrator for the U.S. Geological Service and "lapsed science nerd," and is here. It provides a half dozen links to other good resources: one by Cliff Slater, advisor to the Reason Foundation, and one by George Hilton, professor of economics at U.C.L.A.

Another academic, Vincent Mareino at Georgetown, concludes, "Many groups attempted to influence the future of American transportation. Nevertheless, majority rule won out in every case. Citizens were fallible, and often took actions not necessarily in the best interests of a minority or even a majority of the population. Yet those actions were never coerced or forced by outside conspirators."

But the best piece I found in my short search is a paper by Martha J. Bianco, "Kennedy, 60 Minutes, and Roger Rabbit: Understanding Conspiracy-Theory Explanations of the Decline of Urban Mass Transit." (Available from this page in Adobe .pdf format.) Professor Bianco details the charge, and it seems to me, decisively refutes it. Her analysis is consistent with Professor Mareino's: government regulation and government policy played key roles in the decline. "The fact is that transit companies faced demands either by their riding constituency or by the regulatory bodies to provide unprofitable service. Transit companies were politically and often legally unable to refuse to provide unprofitable service. The motor bus allowed them to operate such service at the least loss, since it would have been entirely prohibitive for them to extend streetcar tracks or install trolleys on suburbanizing routes, where they were required to provide service." (p. 13.)

But, Professor Bianco asks, if the story is so clearly wrong, why does it persist? Because it serves the purposes of policy activists with an agenda, an agenda to replace cars with mass transit. "The GM conspiracy myth, understood in this way, makes a great deal of sense. It becomes irrelevant that GM did or did not cause or even contribute to the decline of mass transit in the U.S. What becomes compelling, from a larger perspective, is the manner in which the GM story is used, the political and economic climates in which it is most likely to emerge, and the types of policy initiatives under consideration during the periods in which the story is being told." (p. 21.)

This is going to make a fine story for a couple of my classes.


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Rail systems are as different as the metropolitan areas they served. You can read here about
BART and how it replaced the Key System in the Northern California.

There's nothing in the sources cited to suggest that metros or states or even the national government couldn't keep the passenger railroads afloat, or improve them, at public cost. It's not as if auto companies paid for the interstate highway system. We did. Somehow none of the comparisons take into account the huge subsidies.

The more interesting question is not whether anyone killed the railroad, but whether that was a good thing. Two different questions. I'm curious how the destruction of the rail system has allowed for unbridled sprawl over the past fifty years (not a good thing).

david higham

It should be noted that even "if" only the charge that GM helped speed along the destruction of mass transit in the U.S. that would be a very serious charge. It shows how market forces are manipulated and distorted by the "winners". It provides a rather signifigant rebuttal
to the idea of pure free market and the idiotic presuppositions of libertarian philosophy.

One might remember that while rail companies were losing money , so were bus companies. Though they had the help of a ruthless billion dollar corporation backing them.

Ted Craig

What people costantly seem to fail to grasp is automobiles are mass transit. They move masses of people. This is proven every day on highways in every major metropolis. In fact, automobiles beat out other forms of mass transit because of their efficiency, not because of any malevolent plot. Let's say there is a delay on a subway track, caused let's say by a derailment. A group of people traveling in another train are delayed until the blockage is removed because there is no other route for them to take. Trains and buses must by their nature follow a set pattern, with only some variance allowed. If they don't, the entire system doesn't work. Now let's say there is a delay on a major highway, caused by a truck rolling over. All the individual drivers behind this blockage can utilize alternate routes of their choosing to get around this blockage.
I find it especially amusing that those on the left attack large corporations like General Motors. Do they not realize that if it weren't for Big Business, we wouldn't have Big Labor, the breeding ground of most leftist thought in this nation?

Brian Guenzel

I thought Goodyear was involved too. Interesting post, I had seen that doc in my urban sociolgy class. There does seem to be an anti-corporate vibe in the pro-mass-transit crowd. Would be typical to stigmatize cars with a corporation- I am waiting for something a little more demonizing like comparing it to tobacco ;) It is curious that they always want subways and trains as the mode for the city when, forgive me I am not an economist, but it seems that more, small, cleaner burning buses would be cheaper and more adpatable to changes in daily traffic, as well as short and near term changes in the city at large.

David Tipton

The piece by Martha J. Bianco is fully fallacious. Do some digging and check her sources.
You will be shocked by the plagerism contained within...

David Tipton

The piece by Martha J. Bianco is fully fallacious. Do some digging and check her sources.
You will be shocked by the plagerism contained within...

Bill Bolton

> The piece by Martha J. Bianco is fully fallacious....

I did do "some checking" and that leads to the conclusion that the "piece by David Tipton" is is the thing which is "fully fallacious". I was indeed "shocked" by the attack on Bianco through nothing but slur and inudendo!

Nathanael Nerode

"In fact, automobiles beat out other forms of mass transit because of their efficiency"

Very funny.

Yes, they're more efficient for low-volume, low-capacity routes.

They're far, far, far, far less efficient for high-volume routes. Japan has an official grid with volume on one axis, speed on the other, and the appropriate mode in the middle. It's no surprise that cars are only at the lowest-volume end of the grid. Buses satisfy medium-volume and relatively low-speed. Trams fill in high-volume and low-speed. Trains fill the medium-volume or high-volume, high-speed slots.

Of course, when autos became popular, there was simply less volume of traffic total, because the population was so much smaller.

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