May 20, 2006


I like driving in my car: Americans' obsession with their cars did not come about by accident. (Paul Harris, May 18, 2006, Guardian Unlimited)

In between the wars many American cities had fully functioning electric tram systems that shuttled millions of citizens from their homes to their jobs without the need for a private car. American cities were more compact, more walkable and had vibrant downtowns that were the centre of urban life.

Even in southern California, which is now seen as the ultimate creation of the automobile, railways and trams were a huge part of life. Los Angeles was served by the largest mass transit system in the nation, including 1,000 trains a day running on the Pacific Electric Railway's 760 miles of track.

But take a drive - and it will have to be a drive - through most major US cities today (and particularly LA) and you see a different world. Downtowns lie abandoned to office blocks, gridlock rules on city freeways that have destroyed old urban neighbourhoods and suburbia sprawls out across miles upon mile of territory that only a generation or two ago was rural farmland. The figures tell the story best.

Americans make one billion trips a day and just 1.9 percent of them are by mass transit. There are 220m cars in a country of 290m people. The average US family makes 10 car trips every day.

But this did not just happen. Big business and government helped plan it this way. Many of those electric tram lines ended up being bought by car firms, notably General Motors. Between 1936 and 1950 a holding company backed by GM, Firestone and Standard Oil bought 100 tram firms in 45 American cities. They were dismantled and replaced by GM buses: more inefficient, more likely to lead to congestion and, in the end, more profitable to GM. Many bus lines then failed, leaving consumers with no choice but to buy cars.

But it was not just 'conspiracy' by the big car firms. Urban planners of the 1940s and 1950s seemed possessed with a manic zeal to push the car at the expense of public transit. Their vision was a sprawling suburbia linked by huge, broad expressways. One of the most influential was Robert Moses, who is responsible for much of modern New York's sprawl. Though never elected to office he was probably the most powerful man in New York from the 1930s to the 1950s. He once declared 'Cities are for traffic' and planned to build a huge freeway through downtown Manhattan that would have levelled much of SoHo and Greenwich Village.

Just think of that. Some of the most culturally and financially valuable real estate in the world was scheduled for destruction just so car owners could get across Manhattan more quickly. Many other less famous (but no less vibrant) neighbourhoods across America were not so lucky.

The focus on the car was a tragedy of human planning.

The greatest trick of the Devil was to convince Americans they chose to be programmed into cars.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 20, 2006 8:53 AM

The GM conspiracy against public transportation is a typical lefty conspiracy theory: the individual is blameless; powerless before large corporate interests who work nefariously against the national interest. It is also, like all lefty conspiracy theories, fantasy. The Themerisol nuts are Spock compared to the GM nuts.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 20, 2006 9:34 AM

The (non-existant) mass transit system in our little town doesn't tow a tandem axel BBQ pit. Thus, I am "programmed" to drive an F150. Now I get it.

Posted by: JR at May 20, 2006 9:49 AM

How else can one listen to baseball on the radio if not in one's car?

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 20, 2006 10:53 AM

Moses didn't even like vehicular tunnels because they weren't "showy" enough in displaying the benefits of big-government public works -- it took FDR to kill his Brooklyn-Battery Bridge plan. And the Lower Manhattan Expressway would have been nothing compared to the Mid-Manhattan Expressway, which would have put a 30-foot tall elevated I-495 right across 30th Street.

But now that the damage is done in New York and elsewhere, any effort to reconnect mass transit to commuting, especially in post-World War II big cities, has to recognize the fact that many people travel not from suburb to downtown, but from one outlying area to another to either go to work or shop. Designing central hub systems where all trains and/or buses lead downtown before they go anywhere else is destined to only have limited success in getting people out of their vehicle.

Posted by: John at May 20, 2006 11:13 AM

Here in NH our radios work in the house too. It's neat.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2006 11:14 AM

It was, of course, the military, not GM.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2006 11:16 AM

I've posted info on the subject before, but studies show the decline in trolleys and trams started at the end of the '20s, and only the economic collapse of the '30s and the wartime resource restrictions of the '40s allowed them to survive so long. The one in Minneapolis, for example, never made a profit either decade. And a major cause was overregulation by local gov'ts. Most of those companies bought out by "holding company backed by GM, Firestone and Standard Oil" were bought for their monopoly franchines and valuable downtown land and such and dismembered in good ol' capitalist "creative destruction."

But never underestimate the power of the true believer to believe in anything that supports their cause.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 20, 2006 11:21 AM

Baseball on the radio in your house rather than your car is unAmerican.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 20, 2006 11:25 AM

In New York, the main profit problem was the private subway and bus companies had to have any rate increase approved by the city government, which in the case of the subways, held the fare at a nickle for 36 years until it was able to take over both companies (it raised the fare to a dime eight years later, and to 15 cents five years after that. But the zooming fare hikes really didn't start until after the last of the major omnibus companies was put into receivership and acquired by the city in the early 1960s.

Baseball on the radio in your house rather than your car is unAmerican.

Which is why XM's 10-year contract with Major League Baseball made so much more financial sense than Sirius' seven-year deal with the NFL.

Posted by: John at May 20, 2006 12:11 PM

How can you be anti-city and pro urban mass transit at the same time?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at May 20, 2006 12:19 PM

He really is that bad at math. Jeff Guinn tried to explain the network topology to him once or twice and it was even more hilarious than the Permanent Floating Darwin Bashing Thread.

Posted by: joe shropshire at May 20, 2006 1:19 PM

oj. You get am radio in your house? I'm surprised because when we lived up there in the mountains of Vermont, am radio reception was very chancey and at night you never knew what you'd pull in, Boston, New York, Chicago, South Bend, even Charlotte. Funny thing, we get those same stations on the nonce here in central Florida.

Of course, now you can listen on your computer which makes life immeasurably easier. Hoorah for wifi!

Posted by: erp at May 20, 2006 1:44 PM

Robert: Bingo! I say this in a friendly way, but one of the fun things about this blog is finding OJ's contradictions. E.g.: Darwinian speciation is impossible because only God can make a species, but apparently God is too limited in his powers to set up a natural system that naturally creates species.

Posted by: PapayaSF at May 20, 2006 1:50 PM

That's it! The corportions tricked us into cars the way they tricked us into guns.

You need a really good historian to write this one up. I understand that Michael Bellisiles guy is looking for a job.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 20, 2006 2:27 PM

No trick, they just had Ike do it.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2006 4:03 PM


People will work in cities, but live outside--mass transit will get them there.

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2006 4:06 PM


There's no such thing as species. Genus maybe.

Of course, I own the biggest, gasoline-suckingest car I can get my hands on, and haven't been near a train in years that wasn't run by Walt Disney.

[Editor's note: Touche!]

Posted by: oj at May 20, 2006 4:07 PM

"I like Ike"

Posted by: jdkelly at May 20, 2006 4:34 PM

Yes, they made cars affordable, convenient and fun. Damn them. Damn them all.

Posted by: David Cohen at May 20, 2006 6:17 PM

Cars equal freedom. When you get on a mass transit system, you go only where and when the system dictates. In my car, if I get a wild urge to turn West and see what lays beyond the horizon, I can do it. In mass transit, riders are abject prisoners of public transit unions, and pay a regular price for that in places like France and Italy. Plus, as an earlier post noted, my boat looks funny being towed behind a light rail train. American's have always been willing to pay the price for freedom. Gas prices and a little conjestion don't partucularly bother us. I for one refuse to ride mass transit for the same reason I oppose socialism of all kinds. I'm not a sheep. I don't like being herded.

Posted by: JonSK at May 20, 2006 6:48 PM


In my car, if I get a wild urge to turn West and see what lays beyond the horizon...

I get that urge too. At least, when I'm sitting on my sofa watching car ads on TV. I really do intend to turn West someday and see what lays behind the horizon, but in the meantime, I have to finish fighting through traffic jams to do all those never-ending, useless, inefficient errands.

Posted by: Peter B at May 20, 2006 7:10 PM

Peter, Do it. Nothing better than heading west with no particular place to go, at least in the U.S. You alwalys end up somewhere interesting, especially if you've read your history

Posted by: jdkelly at May 20, 2006 7:30 PM

Riding along in my automobile
My baby beside me at the wheel
I stole a kiss at the turn of a mile
my curiosity running wild
cruisin' and playin' the radio
with no particular place to go...

And after all, who needs that when there's baseball on the radio in the house?

Posted by: joe shropshire at May 20, 2006 7:50 PM

joe, Had the song in mind when I made the post. Don't know why the ballgame would be on the radio in the car, or the house, for that matter. On the tube,in the backgroud, while surfing Mr. Net, perhaps.

Posted by: jdkelly at May 20, 2006 8:15 PM

Best car/driving song?

I nominate Jonathan Richman's Roadrunner.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at May 20, 2006 9:46 PM

Radar Love.

Posted by: joe shropshire at May 20, 2006 10:00 PM

Hot Rod Lincoln.

Posted by: ratbert at May 20, 2006 11:51 PM

You can't catch me
No baby you can't catch me
'cause when you get too close you know
I'm gone like coooool breeze

Mr. Chuck Berry

Posted by: ted welter at May 21, 2006 12:27 AM