Saturday, January 12, 2013

Railroad Conspiracy Theories

There are many stories of how passenger rail operations in this country were killed by American automobile interests. One of my favorites is the biggest one about General Motors and the Los Angeles streetcar system that has its own Wikipedia entry, and has been retold in various formats, including at the Huffington Post. The original story comes from Bradley Snell, who has devoted many years to researching GM and its history. this week, a noted design blog, 99% Invisible suggests that this story is not true, but rather that it was the Southern Pacific railway that was responsible.

A two and a half minute snippet that sets out the conspiracy theory for those in a hurry, with a full-length feature below for those that are really interested.

"Taken for a Ride" is a full-length feature that was produced by PBS several years ago where a case is made for the theory that the dismantling of mass transit was spearheaded by General Motors:

Whether or not either theory is true, it sure seems plausible, and the extension and ramifications of just the possibility that it is true makes for interesting conjecturing on how things happen in this country.

Further reading
  • Bradford C. Snell, American Ground Transport: A Proposal for Restructuring the Automobile, Truck, Bus and Rail Industries. Report presented to the Committee of the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Antitrust and Monopoly, United States Senate, February 26, 1974, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1974, pp. 16-24. 
  • Cliff Slater, 'General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars' published in Transportation Quarterly vol 51, 1997 (Eno Transportation Foundation) puts forth the argument that the streetcar was eliminated by the market.


  1. Thanks for posting the youtube links to these videos. One other reference that you might find interesting that touches on this subject is a book called Straphanger by Taras Grescoe, published last year by HarperCollins.

  2. Great suggestion - I found it at my local public library.

    From the publisher's description: "I am proud to call myself a straphanger," writes Taras Grescoe. The perception of public transportation in America is often unflattering—a squalid last resort for those with one too many drunk-driving charges, too poor to afford insurance, or too decrepit to get behind the wheel of a car. Indeed, a century of auto-centric culture and city planning has left most of the country with public transportation that is underfunded, ill maintained, and ill conceived. But as the demand for petroleum is fast outpacing the world's supply, a revolution in transportation is under way.

    Grescoe explores the ascendance of the straphangers—the growing number of people who rely on public transportation to go about the business of their daily lives. On a journey that takes him around the world—from New York to Moscow, Paris, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Bogotá, Phoenix, Portland, Vancouver, and Philadelphia—Grescoe profiles public transportation here and abroad, highlighting the people and ideas that may help undo the damage that car-centric planning has done to our cities and create convenient, affordable, and sustainable urban transportation—and better city living—for all.