View the h-urban Discussion Logs by month
View the Prior Message in h-urban's March 1998 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
View the Next Message in h-urban's March 1998 logs by: [date] [author] [thread]
Visit the h-urban home page.
Posted by Martha J. Bianco <firstname.lastname@example.org> Portland State University Klein, James, and Olson, Martha. "Taken for a Ride." Videotape. Hohokus, NY: New Day Films. 55 minutes. Every once in a while, the popular media publishes or broadcasts a piece that places the blame for the decline of public transport and the rise of the private automobile on an evil conspiracy featuring the auto industry, the federal government, and the highway lobby. One of the most recent forays into the conspiracy-theory explanation is "Taken for a Ride," a video billed by its producers as a "documentary," which was broadcast on PBS in the summer of 1996. Although this video devotes some time to the federal government-highway lobby conspiracy theory, the bulk of this "story about how things got the way they are" [unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from the videotape] is devoted to the charge, most notoriously stated by antitrust attorney Bradford Snell, that General Motors (GM) conspired with Standard Oil, Mack Truck, National City Lines and Firestone Tire, to bring about the destruction of the streetcar system, replacing the track-bound vehicles with motor buses that were so unpopular that people were forced into their automobiles . "Between 1926 and 1936, they [the conspirators] methodically destroyed the rails," reports the narrator of this video. This is simply not true . America's streetcar system had been in decline since 1920, the year in which most companies saw their peak ridership. Many companies had already started to put motor buses on some of their routes for the simple and logical reason that buses were less expensive both to purchase and operate. By the 1930s, many track-tied streetcars were well past their prime: noisy, dilapidated, slow, and, most problematic from the riders' point of view, inflexible: they could not easily move around traffic jams, let alone modify their routes. New gasoline buses (the diesel engine was not available until 1936) were quieter, smoother, faster, more flexible, and, above all, cheaper. Most buses were put on lines where transit service had not previously existed (e.g., routes into suburbanizing territory). These routes were, for the most part, quite lightly traveled. A transit company weighing the respective costs and benefits of investing in a new streetcar for $14,000 (plus tracks and overhead wiring) to service a low-density suburb, versus a $3,000 gasoline bus, requiring no other infrastructure (and requiring only one person to operate) had absolutely no incentive to choose the streetcar over the bus . Certainly there was no incentive from the franchising agencies. Transit franchises often required costly route extensions, modern equipment, frequent headways, payments to cover street paving and bridge construction, taxes, and various other fees and obligations. While exacting these charges and restrictions, the franchising agencies typically provided nothing in the way of policy direction. Mass transit was left to private enterprise, with public involvement only in the form of franchise regulations. Conspiracy-theory advocates, including the producers of this video, commonly refer to the antitrust investigation of the late 1940s in an effort to show that GM and it subsidiary company, National City Lines (NCL), were indeed guilty of conspiracy. "The government's case was straightforward," says the video's narrator. The defendants "were found guilty of conspiracy to monopolize the local transportation field." Again, this is misleading, if not completely untrue. The facts of the matter are these: A two-count indictment was issued against GM, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Firestone Tire, National City Lines, and Mack Truck in 1947. The criminal case began in 1949, with a conviction being issued in April 1949 (Mack Truck was later acquitted). The first count of the indictment charged the defendants with conspiring to "secure control of a substantial number of the companies which provide public transportation service in various cities, towns and counties of the several states, and to eliminate and exclude all competition in the sale of motor busses, petroleum products, tires and tubes to such transportation companies then owned or controlled by National City Lines, Inc." The defendants were found not guilty on this count. The second count charged the defendants of conspiring to monopolize part of the interstate trade and commerce of the U.S. The defendants were found guilty of this charge . In other words, the defendants were never tried for nor convicted of monopolizing "the local transportation field" or, in Snell's words, destroying "100 electric rail and electric bus systems in 56 cities throughout the country" . What they had done, and what the Court found to be a violation of interstate antitrust legislation, was to restrict the NCL transit companies to purchasing vehicles and other products (oil, petroleum, tires) from the defendant companies and not from any other companies. The original agreements limiting NCL to these companies were the quid pro quo for GM lending start-up money to NCL at below-market rate. The agreements, called "requirements contracts," were not in and of themselves found to be illegal; rather, their existence in light of the below-market loans constituted, in the Court's opinion, an impingement of free trade (the requirements contracts were eliminated in 1949). These details aside, what the video's producers and other conspiracy theorists maintain is that NCL was created by GM for the purpose of going into cities, destroying the streetcar systems, and replacing the streetcars with the less-desirable buses. Here is, in a nutshell, what actually happened: Since 1923, when Yellow Truck & Coach first began producing motor buses, GM had owned slightly more than 50 percent of that company's stock. In the 1920s, Yellow's management "conceived the idea of motorizing streetcar companies in small cities. For some years streetcar companies in small urban communities had been losing money and this, coupled with the depression following 1929, had resulted in depreciation of rolling stock and an inability on the part of streetcar companies adequately to serve the public" . Yellow apparently encountered difficulty in persuading "the power companies to motorize and give up their streetcars in order to give better service and at a profit" . "Yellow, therefore, decided that the only way this new market for buses could be created was for it to finance the conversion from streetcars to buses in some small cities" . So, in 1932, Yellow management decided to "authorize the incorporation of a holding company with a capital of $300,000." Meanwhile, Roy Fitzgerald, a private bus operator whom the video refers to as a "front man," was "conducting similar activities in other small communities and buying their buses from Yellow" . In 1936, GM organized National City Lines to finance these acquisitions and to take over the operation of the other Fitzgerald properties. The court documents go on to state that "National [City Lines] followed a policy of replacing old streetcars with new buses, of revising routes in order to serve newly developed areas not accessible to the old trolley lines, and of modifying schedules to minimize congestion in the handling of passenger loads. In each instance, National was able substantially to improve service and, in most cases, to reduce the fares in existence at the time of the acquisition" . What were GM and NCL trying to do? Were they really trying to destroy the country's streetcar system, undermine public transport, and divert travelers to automobiles, as Snell and other conspiracy theorists maintain? Or were they merely trying to create a market for their new product: the diesel bus (note that the diesel technology became available in 1936, the very same year that NCL was formed)? This theory - the "technology foreclosure theory - seems to make a lot more sense than the conspiracy-to-destroy-transit theory . "Taken for a Ride" grabs the attention. It is not boring. It's well produced. There is a dramatic and heart-wrenching segment about the transit workers (primarily supervisors) who lost their jobs when the buses replaced the streetcars. The song "As Time Goes By" plays nostalgically over black-and-white film sequences of streetcars burning. This image, by the way, is an absolute favorite of conspiracy theorists: nothing seems to make their point more than a photograph of a junk heap of transit vehicles - especially set afire. But transit workers had been used and abused since the days of the horse-drawn streetcar. Unions fought hard to keep one-man streetcars from displacing workers from what had been two-operator cars well before the motor bus was a threat to workers' livelihoods . And burning old streetcars seemed the only economical means of dealing with equipment that, at 25-plus years of age, was well beyond its prime . It is important to keep in mind three facts with respect to the conspiracy-theory explanation for the decline of transit in the U.S. One is that, as noted, buses were already in operation in many cities before NCL was formed. Another is that bus installation occurred in all cities, even those many, many cities where NCL never established a foothold. Finally, the decline of transit had already begun by 1920, before Yellow manufactured its first bus and before GM got involved in the transit business. This video has no place in any type of academic setting other than, perhaps, a class on how the popular press manipulates public opinion. To a very few, such as this reviewer, the film clips of Snell addressing the Senate Committee on the Judiciary are interesting for their historical imagery. Unfortunately, by relying heavily on the testimony of Snell, interviews of disgruntled employees, and popular conspiracy myths, the producers of "Taken for a Ride" were, themselves, taken for a ride. ---------------------  Snell, B. American Ground Transport, 1973. Reproduced as an appendix to U.S. Congress, Senate Committee on the Judiciary, The Industrial Reorganization Act: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly on S. 1167, Part 4A, 93rd Cong., 2d sess., 1974, A-2, A-29.  Bianco, M.J. "The Decline of Transit: A Corporate Conspiracy or Failure of Public Policy? The Case of Portland, Oregon."_ Journal of Policy History_ 9 (1997): 450-474.  "Tomorrow's Street Car,"_Transit Journal_ 80 (July 1936): 219.  Exhibit 2: Findings of the United States Court of Appeals Seventh Circuit, United States v. National City Lines (Criminal Conviction), 186 F.2d 562, Jan. 31, 1951. In U.S. Congress. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The Industrial Reorganization Act: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly on S. 1167, 1974, 1873.  Snell, B. Testimony before the U.S. Congress. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The Industrial Reorganization Act: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly on S. 1167. Part 3: Ground Transportation Industries. 93rd Cong., 2d sess., 1974, 1839.  Exhibit 6: Excerpt from Hearing Before Antitrust and Monopoly Subcommittee Entitled "A Study of the Antitrust Laws," Dec. 8, 1955, Pt. 8. In U.S. Congress. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. The Industrial Reorganization Act: Hearings before the Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly on S. 1167, 1974, 1820.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid., 1821.  For the development of the technology foreclosure theory, see Jones, D. M., Jr. _Urban Transit Policy: An Economic and Political History_. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1985.  Freeman, J. B. _In Transit: The Transport Workers Union in New York City, 1933-1966_. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.  Roberts, E. A. "Life Expectancy of Street Cars." _Transit Journal_ 80 (September 1936): 305. Copyright (c) 1998 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@H-Net.Msu.Edu.