If there isa streetcarconspiracy, itis of politiciansand contractorsseeking tospend taxpayerdollars buildingfrivolous andobsolete streetcarlines in today’scities.
In 1974 a Senate staffer named BradfordSnell invented the myth of the “Great GeneralMotors Streetcar Conspiracy.” According toSnell, GM, Firestone Tire, Phillips Petroleum,and Standard Oil of California conspiredto “destroy public transit . . . by eliminatingstreetcars.” This would supposedly force peo-ple to buy cars that used gasoline and rubbertires.
Academic and other experts have repeat-edly debunked Snell’s claims.
Even James Graebner, who chairs the Amer-ican Public Transit Association’s streetcar com-mittee, calls the General Motors conspiracy “a rather satisfying urban legend,” but notes that,“in fact, when presented with the choice of ei-ther maintaining the street railway infrastruc-ture . . . or operating buses on publicly fundedroads,” replacing streetcars with buses “was aneasy choice for the private sector.”
Yet transitadvocates continue to raise Snell’s claims to justify federal funding for rail transit.The truth is that in 1948, GM and theother companies were held liable in a civil suitof conspiring to monopolize the sale of GMbuses, along with Firestone tires and Phillipsand Chevron fuel for those buses. They didso by investing in National City Lines, whichowned transit companies in about 60 cities,starting in 1936. They sold that company in1949 after losing the antitrust case. They werefound innocent of any attempt to monopo-lize public transit, nor did they try to destroy streetcar lines, but merely recognized that thetransit industry was rapidly replacing street-cars with buses and tried to take advantage of that trend.
During the years GM and the other com-panies had an interest in National City, morethan 300 streetcar systems converted to buses,but fewer than 30 of those systems were ownedby National City.
Many other transit systemsowned by National City still had streetcarswhen the “conspirators” divested themselvesof National City in 1949. When National City bought the St. Louis transit system in 1939,for example, it purchased more modern street-cars for the system and continued to operatestreetcars until 1963, when it sold the systemto a public agency—which quickly convertedall streetcars to buses.
Transportation experts agreed that buseswere superior to streetcars. In 1947 a New York City transit expert named John Bauer tes-tified before the Portland, Oregon, city coun-cil that he was “absolutely opposed” to citiesmaintaining their streetcar lines. Streetcars,he told the council, are slow, noisy, and tie uptraffic. The limitations of tracks also preventexpress services that are possible with buses.“Streetcars maintain an average speed of only eight miles per hour,” he testified, “whereas[trackless] trolleys and gasoline buses average12 miles per hour. The most modern streetcarequipment could make only about 10 milesper hour.”
Replacing streetcars with buses was a ra-tional decision then for all the same reasonsthat building streetcar lines is irrational today.Whereas buses share the cost of roads withautos and trucks, streetcars require their owndedicated infrastructure. This makes the costof operating and maintaining streetcars fargreater than that of buses. Buses can safely operate more frequently than streetcars, and if one bus breaks down or is in an accident, theentire line does not become disabled, as is thecase with streetcars.
The Modern StreetcarConspiracy
If there ever was a streetcar conspiracy, it istoday’s conspiracy of politicians, engineeringfirms, contractors, railcar manufacturers, andtransit agencies trying to persuade city govern-ments and taxpayers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on frivolous and obsoletetransportation systems such as the so-calledmodern streetcar. That conspiracy aims todeceive taxpayers and appropriators into be-lieving that, all by themselves, streetcars canmagically revitalize blighted neighborhoods,produce jobs, and generate billions of dollarsof economic development.Spurred by the promise of federal funding,