Atlantic Cities
Charts

Be Careful How You Refer to the So-Called 'Great American Streetcar Scandal'

Richard Greenwald's recent very brief history of getting from Brooklyn to Queens was so enjoyable that it was easy to overlook a questionable passage he slipped in toward the end on the so-called "Great American Streetcar Scandal."

Greenwald writes that in the early-to-middle 20th century a consortium of automotive interests (led by General Motors) bought up streetcar lines in a number of cities and converted them to bus routes. He then states that this group was ultimately found guilty in federal court of "conspiracy to monopolize mass transit." A few readers pointed out the cloudy assertions here, but not quite as many as one might expect considering the volume of work debunking this affair, so it seemed worth it to give the urban legend a very brief history of its own.

Over the years many formidable voices have taken the view espoused by Greenwald. The most influential proponent of this side was an attorney named Bradford Snell, whose 1974 Senate testimony introduced the scandal theory to a wider public. In subsequent years media outlets from PBS to Harper's repeated Snell's arguments that GM had murdered mass transit. This account became a central plot theme in the 1988 movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and lord knows Jessica Rabbit could be quite persuasive.

This side boils down to a capitalist swindle foisted upon unsuspecting city residents; in Snell's words:

General Motors' destruction of electric transit systems across the county left millions of urban residents without an attractive alternative to automotive travel.

But a great many competing voices consider this entire notion to be little more than popular myth. The legal record shows that the federal government did not in fact convict GM of a vast streetcar scandal, but rather merely an attempt to corner "the sale of supplies" in the auto industry. A number of scholars and even some pro-rail publications explain that the situation was much more complex than Snell suggested. The strongest rebuttal came from transit scholar George Hilton (on whose work Snell had ironically relied) in his own 1974 Senate testimony (p. 2204):

I would argue that these [Snell's] interpretations are not correct, and, further, that they couldn't possibly be correct, because major conversions in society of this character — from rail to free wheel urban transportation, and from steam to diesel railroad propulsion — are the sort of conversions which could come about only as a result of public preferences, technological change, the relative abundance of natural resources, and other impersonal phenomena or influence, rather than the machinations of a monopolist.

So what really happened? The cultural transition from streetcar to bus use involved a blend of transport technology, urban policy, road funding, and residential preference far too complicated to cover in this brief space. But the basics of the shift are well-covered in a review published by Cliff Slater in a 1997 issue of Transportation Quarterly [PDF].

Slater's history explains that streetcar ridership was vulnerable to motor buses even before the start of World War I. While buses (then called jitneys) didn't establish themselves at this time for a variety of regulatory reasons, they soon improved enough in safety, speed, and comfort to compete with streetcars within the city. In 1920, streetcar ridership began to decline, and by the end of that decade about 20 percent of cities relied entirely on bus transit.

The situation, according to Slater, was largely the result of simple economics. Streetcars were cheaper to operate than buses in 1915, but after World War I that was not always the case. Streetcars were burdened with the capital costs of maintaining electrical lines and tracks while buses benefited from an increased concern for public road maintenance. Meanwhile the growing demand for personal cars rendered public transit of all sorts less attractive.

Eventually, argues Slater, the operating costs could not be ignored. Just before World War II the operating costs for buses were 20 percent less per seat than for streetcars. After the war even a trolley-friendly city like San Francisco found buses cost 37 percent less to operate per hour. This wasn't just the case in the land where General Motors was king; in England, too, passenger costs had leveled out or started to favor buses by the 1930s.

"GM simply took advantage of an economic trend that was already well along in the process — one that was going to continue with or without GM's help," concludes Slater.

A case study can be made of Los Angeles, where Snell focused a good deal of his attack. But contemporary accounts suggest that a transformation from streetcars to buses was underway long before GM and its affiliates entered the scene circa 1940. As early as 1923, the Pacific Electric rail line was buying buses to replace some of its routes. The city's board of public utilities encouraged this trend — calling the use of motor buses "a foregone conclusion" — and by 1930 the city's big bus conglomerate carried 29 million riders a year.

The scholar Sy Adler once wrote, plain and simple, that everything Snell suggested about transit in Los Angeles "was wrong."

The finer details of the so-called Great American Streetcar Scandal probably deserve their own book. Suffice it to say that the most charitable conclusion one can draw, even from this brief review, is that the situation was far too complicated to reduce to a conspiracy. That's not to say various auto interests and public policies didn't influence the trajectory of streetcar travel or cheer the mode's demise. They certainly did. But the idea that a single company coerced the entire conversion spoils a potentially enlightening discussion with simplicity.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion