Thursday, June 11, 2009

Planes, trains and automobiles, continued

A popular belief has it that there was a great conspiracy that took place in middle of the 20th Century that is directly responsible for the decline of public transportation in this country.

That a conspiracy took place is not in doubt. Several corporations, GM, Firestone, Standard Oil of California, to name a few, created holding companies which in turn purchased several privately owned transit companies across the country. Then they dismantled the existing streetcar systems and replaced them with buses which use tires and run on gas. And guess who manufactured those products?

The theory goes on to say that this dastardly act was an intentional effort to dismantle the transit industry and to set in motion the car culture that we are in today. Since buses as the theory goes are vastly inferior to streetcars, people became disillusioned and were forced into buying cars.

The death of intercity train travel is also tied to the conspiracy, although I can't figure out exactly how.

You can read about it in an unusually biased Wikipedia article here.

While the article lists many of the consequences of car culture that I've been lamenting, its cause and effect scenario leaves much to be desired.

It is certainly tempting to place the blame on corporation scoundrels secretly colluding to bring down public transportation in favor of the automobile for their own nefarious ends. While the companies in question profited illegally in what was unquestionably a conflict of interest, I think we're giving them way too much credit for intentionally destroying public transit in favor of the automobile.

I have no doubt that the change was inevitable and would have happened with or without the help of the corporations.

At the center of the storm is the streetcar. Today we look at them with wonderment, nostalgia for those old enough to remember them, and a missed opportunity given the fact that the infrastructure that once supported them is gone. We think of them as efficient, non-polluting alternatives to the city bus, which is considered by many only a last resort means of transportation.

The truth is that streetcars, at least as they existed until the late 1950s when they all but vanished from the American scene, had many of the disadvantages of buses, and in fact had a few disadvantages all their own.

  • Streetcar tracks were usually integrated into the street so they were affected by traffic just as buses.
  • The breakdown of a single car forced the shutdown of the entire line as a broken down vehicle blocked all traffic behind it.
  • As streetcars operated in the middle of streets, passengers faced greater hazards as they boarded and exited as opposed to buses where passengers board and exit from the relative safety of the curb.
  • While the electric powered streetcar itself did not produce exhaust, the generators that produced electricity to power the cars certainly did introduce pollutants into the atmosphere.
  • The construction and upkeep of the infrastructure for streetcars is hugely expensive compared to that for city buses.
There were many reasons that made buses attractive to transportation companies, flexibility, fewer operators necessary to run them, passenger comfort, the list goes on and on. By the time streetcars disappeared, they were considered a relic of the past, outmoded, and inefficient.

It seems logical that as the writing was on the wall, the evil auto related companies saw an opportunity to sell buses, tires and gas. Nothing less nothing more.

But wait there's more...

Running a public transportation system was never a very profitable enterprise, in fact by mid-century the private companies that once owned and operated the transportation systems around the country were all absorbed into public transportation authorities run by local governments.

The same is true for passenger trains. Even during the golden age of American rail travel, the 1920s through the 50s, passenger service was at best a break even proposition. The railways saw passenger service as necessary public relations for investors. The real money was in freight.

By the 1960s passenger service became far less than break even and the railroads couldn't abandon it quickly enough. Amtrak was formed by the federal government to preserve a modicum of passenger rail service in the States, certainly not to monopolize it as the Wikipedia article suggests.

There are many reasons for the decline of passenger trains, one of which is the rise of the airline industry which made long distance train travel seem ridiculously impractical. But it was the automobile that did the most damage.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the passenger train in the United States was the implementation of the Federal Interstate highway system that began during the Eisenhower administration. While inter-state highways already existed, (think of the famous Route 66), the Interstates took driving into new and unimagined territory. Where a long distance drive was once an adventure with many unexpected twists and turns, the Interstates insured that every mile of highway would be consistent, predictable, and above all safe, or as safe as high speed auto travel could possibly be.

As long as gas was cheap, the convenience and freedom of driving made travel by car much more attractive and economical than train travel, especially for trips under 300 miles or so.

Today gas is no longer cheap, but old habits are hard to break and the die has been cast. So where do we go from here?

Believe it or not, I'm going to advocate, are you ready for this...

bringing back the streetcar!

But more on that later...

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