Weird History
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Did General Motors Plot To Undermine Public Transit So People Would Buy Cars?

April 12, 2017 8.6k views13 items

Have you ever wondered what ever happened to street cars? Seriously, they were like everywhere 100 years ago. These days, you're lucky to find one in a city, and even then it is usually just a tourist attraction. Well, part of the reason for this is something called the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy.

What is the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy? It basically refers to a time when General Motors started buying up streetcar companies to create a monopoly on the transportation market. And it involves all kinds of dastardly backdoor deals and disposal methods, including the rumor that there's a trove of streetcars somewhere off the Pacific Coast near Los Angeles, CA. Is it true? Like most other widely believed conspiracy theories, some of it yes, some of it no, but the whole ordeal provides a fascinating look into the history of transportation in the US.

Photo:
  • Photo: Los Angeles Railway / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Streetcar Ridership Was Declining Before The So-Called Conspiracy

    Perhaps the biggest indication that the decline of the streetcar was not primarily caused by GM's actions is that it was already underway long before National City Lines was created in 1936. Streetcar ridership peaked in 1920 at 13.8 billion riders per year. At that point, it started losing a significant market share to buses, with combined bus and streetcar ridership still increasing until 1926, at which point the private automobile's presence started to be felt. The rubber and fuel rationing of WWII saw an increase in both bus and streetcar service, but streetcar ridership still didn't re-reach its 1920 peak.

    By 1937, over 50% of cities in the US operated on buses only. Similar trends existed in other countries, such as the UK. It was only large cities that could maintain the ridership necessary to maintain streetcar lines, and most were augmented by buses (including Los Angeles when National City Lines entered in 1945).

  • Photo: Chicago / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The Jitney Craze Of 1914 Contributed To The Demise Of Streetcars

    In 1914-16, a transportation craze (that in many ways mirrors Uber) acted as a prelude to the demise of the streetcar. Jitneys were privately owned buses and automobiles that provided service along fixed routes (as opposed to more expensive taxis). Jitneys did not always run full routes and sometimes only operated during rush hour.

    The Jitneys substantially cut into the ridership of the trolleys until the government stepped in. Partially due to the urging of streetcar interests, many local governments started placing onerous regulations on the jitneys. These included minimum route lengths and excluded jitneys from high-ridership areas. The most crushing regulation, though, was requiring the jitneys to carry substantial liability bonds.

  • In New Jersey, Buses And Streetcars Came Together

    New Jersey was one place in which the government did not act as aggressively to curb the use of Jitney motor buses. These privately owned buses were allowed to compete with the streetcars and, as a result, New Jersey developed a substantial bus presence much earlier than the rest of the US. In 1922, the state had 27% of the buses in the country despite having only 3% of the population.

    The streetcar company in the state was a public utility called Public Service Railway. By 1923, the streetcars of Public Service Railway were carrying 400 million riders while the Jitneys carried 200 million. At this point, Public Service Railway ended up buying out most of the remaining private Jitney bus operators, creating its own fleet of buses.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Publicly Funded Roads Gave Automobiles An Advantage

    One of the chief disadvantages that streetcars faced when trying to compete with automobiles was that the streetcar companies were required to pay for the infrastructure needed to run them. This included paving streets, a substantial amount of overhead.

    On the other hand, buses were able to utilize the roads being paid for by the public or sometimes even the street car companies themselves. In return for being granted monopoly status as a regulated utility, most municipalities required the streetcar companies to pay for the paving and upkeep of the streets around their lines.