Taken for a Ride

For Your Consideration

In 1957, the Automobile Manufacturers Association produced a cartoon, set in the year 2000. People ride in cars that drive themselves.

[Imagine a Los Angeles freeway traffic jam.]

The average Los Angeles commute is four hours a day.

[Picture crowded freeways.]

“This is a story about how things got the way they are—why city and stalled traffic seems perfectly natural, why our public transportation is the worst in the industrialized world, and why super highways cut right through the hearts of our cities. This is a story about how the auto and highway industries reshaped America.”

[Library of Congress.]

Brad Snell is working on a book about General Motors.

“I hate to admit it, but I’ve been working on it for 16 years. GM would be the 6th largest country in the world [in terms of sales] and yet there’s no history.”

GM operates in 104 countries.

Movies of trolleys from the early 20th Century

“Trolleys ran on major avenues every few minutes. Quiet electric motors made the ride smooth and clean and comfortable. The center of the road was reserved for street cars, and the new automobiles had to move out of the way.”

Brad Snell:
“In 1922, only one American in ten owned an automobile.” The others used rail.

Alfred P. Sloan [Jr., GM CEO, 1923-1956] said,

Wait a minute, this is a great minute, this is a great opportunity. We’ve got 90% of the population out there that we can somehow turn into automobile users.”

“They wanted the space that streetcars used for automobiles. They had to find something they could put in place of the streetcar. That meant replacing all the street railways with buses. And ultimately, thinking that nobody would want to ride the buses, and therefore they’d buy General Motors automobiles.”

“[Sloan bought] the largest bus-operating company in the country (Omnibus) and the largest production company (Yellow Coach). Between 1926 and ’36 (GM) methodically destroyed the rails in New York City.”

“In the 1930s, GM worked hard to create the impression of a nationwide trend away from rail. But there was no trend. Buses were a hard sell. They jolted, they smelled, they inched through traffic.”

National City Lines (formed by GM) had no visible ties to GM.

“The director of operations came from a GM subsidiary, Yellow Coach. The members of the board came from Greyhound, which was founded and controlled by General Motors. The money to start this new company also came from Greyhound and Yellow Coach.”

The front man was Roy Fitzgerald, who previously ran a couple of buses in Minnesota.

GM was joined by Standard Petroleum [of California, now ChevronTexaco], Mack Truck, Phillips Petroleum, and Firestone.

The Plot Thickens

Jim Holzer (Los Angeles Railway worker):
“The work goes out: we’re being bought.”

Business Week (20 July 1946):
“Roy Fitzgerald, big name in buses: National City Lines in top place as operator in city route miles.”

The Fitzgeralds (Roy had a couple of brothers who joined the company) “came in here just like in every city they ever went into. They destroyed an established public transit system that had been built to meet the needs of the people.”

Los Angeles residents (Raul Montes and Charlotte Bullock) talk about how pleasant the streetcars were.

The Fitzgeralds started getting rid of the streetcars in “about 90 days.”

Barney Larrick (Fitzgerald’s Operation Manager) is asked, “Weren’t those streetcars making money in Los Angeles?”

“Well, after I got done chopping their heads off they weren’t making money.  Cut the miles down. Sell off their properties. Pull the company down.”

“They don’t take the service out. They’ll just cut it back. And every time you reduce the service, you make it less attractive. And the less attractive, the less [sic] riders. And then they’ll say, ‘Well, see we can’t make any money.’ So they abandon it.”

Interviewer to Larrick:
“You fired everyone off when you went in there.”

“That’s right! Well, if you don’t need the people, what are you gonna do? Keep’em around for flies?  There was [sic] people around there that was [sic] ready for retirement, and you always get rid of the old ones first.”

“We had the finest public transportation system. I think of anywhere in the country. And in ten years that was just history.”

National City Lines grew quickly to over 83 cities in 1946.

“The appearance was always that this was only a company that was owned by the Fitgeralds. But in fact the money was coming from the corporate sponsors.”

In 1946, Commander Edwin Quinby, a “rail buff with a talent for financial sleuthing,” mailed a warning to cities across the country, addressed to mayors and citizens:

You are entitled to this warning. There is a carefully, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your electric railway system. The plan is to deliberately destroy public utilities, which you will find impracticable to replace after you discover your mistake. Who are the corporations behind this? What is more important, why?”

Quinby is attacked in the press as a mysterious troublemaker who might be insane or the agent of some radical political movement. [Amazingly, he is not accused of being a communist by that name, but that is the clear suggestion.]

Quinby didn’t stop NCL. But in 1946 the Justice Department started an investigation into GM and the other investors in NCL.

The key lawyers in the case “told me there was not a scintilla of doubt [that] General Motors and the others had set out to destroy the streetcar system.” The Justice Department lawyers went after the corporations for criminal anti-trust violations.

The companies and executives were found guilty.

The companies were fined $5,000.

The executives were fined $1.

The Justice Department pursued the case against GM for 25 years, and then abandoned it.

[That means the case was pursued into the Nixon administration, which must have stopped the investigation.  It is surprising that the film does not mention this point.]

Turning Point

A 1946 newsreel shows new cars coming out, with military service men rushing to claim them, but also telling potential buyers not to be too hasty since the cars might not be available for awhile.

[Newsreels also describe and encourage the exodus to the suburbs.]

Renee Montagne:
“And, of course, every new home needed a brand new automobile.

“But the cities were at a crossroads. During the war, despite the efforts of National City Lines, streetcar ridership reached an all-time high. It was a moment of choice: rebuild the trolley lines, or watch them die.

“Europe and Japan rebuilt. But America’s privately owned transit companies resisted such a costly investment.

“There was public pressure for cities to take over and bring the rail systems up to date. But by now National City Lines was a model for a cheap and easy way out.”

Red Cars in Los Angeles

Roger Arnebergh (former Los Angeles Assistant City Attorney):
“I rode [the Red Car] every morning. They were fast. I certainly preferred them to the bus.”

In 1949, Los Angeles residents were 88% behind maintaining the Red Cars.

But Arthur Jenkins, a civil engineer working for the city, did not.

He had previously supported improving the rail lines.

But in 1946 he began working for the Fitzgerald Brothers.

In old footage [undated], Arnebergh asks Jenkins, “To what extent did you consider the noxious fumes that would result by the substitution of motor coaches?”

“I gave a good deal of consideration to that. Actually, there is no harmful effect of the fumes. Numerous tests have been made on that account.”

The Big Red Cars were phased out very soon after that.

End of the Line

Joe Alfonsi (Philadelphia Transit Company worker):
Every major street in Philadelphia had a trolley line.

Jack Boorse (son of a Philadelphia transit worker):
“There was a concerted effort to maximize the use of the bus.”

In 1955, “Philadelphia was the last big city to face National City Lines.”

GM was forced to sell its stock in NCL, but it continued to sell its buses to NCL.

[A GMC Truck & Coach Division advertisement, “Diesels and Dollars,” brags about the sale of 1,000 buses to Philadelphia.]

“As the new buses came in, another trolley line went.”

“A superintendent was told to fire 35 managers. He did that in a day.  He then went to the vice president to report that he had done it. The VP said, “Good. Now, you’re fired.”

Alfonsi: “NCL’s idea was to scrap the trolleys.”

“I don’t want to work for an organization that I don’t believe in or can’t support.”

“Before the big change, all but six of the city’s 30 main downtown arteries were handicapped with streetcar operations. By the end of December 1957, three streetcar service lines were all that remained in the downtown area, and only 14 in the entire city.”

Picture burning streetcars in Philadelphia

“I could see what was happening. They did it in Baltimore, they did it in Philadelphia, they did it in Los Angeles. They came in to do a job. And five gallons of kerosene went with every trolley car. Put a torch to it, and that’s the way it went. Once they sell you buses, it’ll perpetuate itself.”

Road to Nowhere

GM Advertisement:
“Don’t honk your horn. Ask for better highways and more parking space. It’s your country. Give yourself the green light.”

How did General Motors influence highway lobbying in Washington?

Brad Snell:
“They originated it. In 1932, Sloan created something called the “National Highway Users Conference.” He brought together the oil companies, the tire companies.”

The “highway lobby” pushed building highways.

Film clip of Sloan speaking before a large unidentified audience, probably a NHUC convention.

Sloan headed the NHUC for 20 years. When he retired, the new CEO of GM took over.

Ford Motor Company film, “Freedom of the American Road”:

A pompous narrator (pictured) says:

Freedom to travel safely and quickly and comfortably on our highways is not a little freedom, but a big one.”

[This clip slips into one by Dow Chemical Company, called “Highway Hearing.”]

Dow produced asphalt products.

An actress posing as a 4th grade teacher says, “Your children will have a better country to live in because of those new roads. Can’t you see that this highway means a whole new way of life for the children?

Charles Wilson (president of GM) is appointed Secretary of Defense by Eisenhower. Wilson pushed for freeways (the Interstate Highway system) as a vital part of national defense.

[Wilson’s middle initial was E. Journalists at the time regularly referred to him, with both positive and negative connotations, as Charles “Engine” Wilson. He is also the man who spoke the immortal words, mentioned but disputed in this film, “What’s good for General Motors is good for America.” I don’t know why that connection was not made in the film.]

Eisenhower also appointed Francis Dupont, a principal stockholder in GM, chief administrator of federal highways.

Interviewer’s question to Frank Turner, former Federal Highways Administrator:

“Did Francis Dupont play a key role in the construction of the interstate highway system?”

“He was the key to actually getting it moving.”

Renee Montagne:
“In 1956, after years of promotional films, industry lobbying, and inside influence, Congress passed the largest public works project in history—the interstate highway system.”

“To pay for the interstates, Congress created the Highway Trust Fund with money from the gasoline tax. This money could only be used to build more highways.”

“Oh, almighty God, who has given us this Earth and has appointed man to have dominion over it, who has commanded us to make straight the highways, to lift up the valleys, and to make the mountains low, we ask thy blessing. Bless these, the nation’s road builders, and their friends.”

[This is accompanied by pictures of bulldozers and explosions in the process of building highways.]

Trouble in Paradise

Building Interstate 93 [near Washington, DC] required the relocation of 4,000 people, 26 businesses, and part of the Mystic River. And it doesn’t work.

Joseph Alioto (mayor of San Francisco, 1958-76) stopped an interstate construction along the waterfront.

Ben Kelley (Federal Highway Administration, 1967-69):
“For the two years that I was at the FHA, it was a drumbeat of citizen unhappiness with urban highway plans.”

Angela Rooney (Community Activist, Washington, DC):
“I-95 was going to barrel right through the community I lived in. It actually ended up being almost 26 lanes. It would take schools from people, churches from people, universities from people.”

Johnie D. Wilson (Community Activist):
“Black people would be uprooted so people from out of town could drive right through.”

“Tell people to slow up and enjoy this beautiful city, that highway crowd would put a freeway right through the Vatican if they figured that they would save a little space or save a little mileage.”

Angela Rooney:
“We heard from New York West Side Highway, New Orleans, Nashville, Atlanta, Newport, California, Phoenix. And at one point we were putting up people from Wheeling, West Virginia, and while they were in Washington and we were helping them go downtown and plead their case in Congress, their homes were bulldozed—that very day. This was a brutal period in our history—a very brutal period.”

Pictures of neighborhoods being destroyed in order to build highways

“Citizens worked together to stop 17 urban freeways across the country.  But most of the highways were built as planned.”

[Pictures of major urban interstate highways interchanges.]

Community Activist from NYC:
“Sooner or later, the collective mind is going to put this together, and then there is going to be a collective political will, and then it is going to change, and they’re going to say we are not going to fund this foolishness anymore.”

[1950s cars rush along freeways.]

Lewis Mumford (in a 1960 film produced by the National Film Board, “The City: Cars or People”):
“The motorcar shapes and forms—mutilates and deforms might be better words.  We are exchanging the meaningful and varied life of the city for an increasingly monotonous life on wheels.”

[As Mumford says this, the film shows cars stuck in traffic, barely moving, behind a sign saying, “Maximum Speed 60.”]

Mumford (pictured, with caption “New Yorker Urban Critic”):
“The choice is clear and urgent. Does the city exist for people or for motorcars?”

“By the mid-60s the answer was motorcars.”

Public transit routes were cut, ridership fell.

Local governments bought what was left—15 years too late.

[An Auto show with beautiful women models [by 1960s standards] displays the latest car models. An advertisement for Chevrolet puts the car in the ocean.]

CBS Reports, 1965: “The Great American Love Affair.” [The narrator is not identified, but I think it is Charles Cherault.] “One thing you notice about car commercials, the car is always in a field, or by a lake, or on an open road with no other car for miles around. It’s never caught in a traffic jam.”

[A helicopter reporter in Santa Monica reports on traffic conditions over a massive interchange.]

Terry Drinkwater (CBS News, 1973):
“The worst smog of the season: heavy, oppressive, dirty air hung over the city [Los Angeles] this 4th of July week.  It’s particularly difficult for the very old and the young.”

[A mother describes the inability of her children to play outside for more than 10 minutes before becoming exhausted.]

Two men talk about the necessity of having a car because, as one of them says, “There’s not enough public transportation to get you around.”

Harry Reasoner (ABC News, 19 April 1973):
“By a vote of 215 to 190, the House today rejected a proposal that would allow cities to spend their shares of the Highway Trust Fund on buses, subways, and trains instead of on highways.”

Howard K. Smith (ABC, 23 April 1973):
“The House, defying reason, voted to block funds for mass transit, and pour billions more into highways that only the highway lobby wants.” [Howard K. Smith was a very conservative announcer and commentator for many years.]

More pictures of interchanges

Renee Montagne:
“In 1974, the Senate Anti-trust Committee held hearings about the roots of the transportation crisis. Brad Snell, then just 25, was hired to organize the sessions.

Joseph Alioto (mayor of San Francisco):
The auto industry has changed our lives, “not on the basis of serving the public, but on the basis of serving corporate interests.”

Sen. Roman Hruska (R-Neb) asks whether GM really wrecked the streetcar system in America.

Alioto says it did. GM bought up trolley systems and tore out the tracks.”

Hruska responds:
General Motors came “into a situation where streetcars were inordinately inefficient, they were not flexible.”

“I am not an anti-auto nut. I am suggesting they [cars] must be supplemented by rapid transit systems.”

General Motors responds to Alioto’s claim that it bought up and tore out the tracks of trolley systems:

Wholly unfounded accusations have been widely publicized to the damage of General Motors. Street railways failed for economic and demographic reasons, which have nothing to do with any plot. The fact that GM provided a modest amount of financial assistance to National City Lines did not have any affect on National City Lines’ decision to convert from streetcars to buses.”

Renee Montagne:
“Hruska presses his point.”

Alioto responds:
“What’s good for General Motors is not necessarily good for the country.  And in the field of transportation, what has been good for General Motors has in fact been very, very bad for the country.”

Back to the Future

Renee Montagne:
“After the 1974 Senate hearings, public transportation staged a partial comeback. Congress allowed highway trust funds to be used for transit improvements. San Francisco and Washington DC put money into transit projects (Bay Area Rapid Transit [BART] and the Metro).

In Baltimore, Jack Boorse is now a transit engineer.

He helped to revise light rail in Baltimore.

An PR announcement for the National Highway Users Federation (“Mobility: the Fifth Freedom”): “America is one of the few countries in the world whose people have always been free to come and go as they please. Now that freedom is being threatened. But what can frustrated drivers do about it?”

[The idea is that only more roads will preserve this freedom to come and go.]

The highway lobby has passed a new highway program through Congress with four times the miles of the Interstate system.

In 1989, the Highway Users Federation formed the Intelligent Vehicle Highway Society. The idea was to automate cars and highways.

Salesmen dressed as scientists hawk complicated devices for the “navigation” of cars.

90% of federal funding for transportation research now goes to “intelligent vehicle” projects. If the scheme “becomes reality it will cost some $200 billion.”

[The scheme, I believe, has been dropped.]”

Paying the Piper

Los Angeles

Robin Cannon:
“90% of the ridership on the buses are low-income residents. The job centers get further and further away from where we live.”

Philadelphia: a public hearing on transit

Louis Gambaccini, Executive Director of SEPTA (Philadelphia):
“The public transportation budget has been cut. We have no options. I think it’s a terrible mistake, and I think we’ll pay a very dear price for it.”

Renee Montagne:
“Philadelphia has worked hard to hold onto the trolleys left by NCL, but it probably won’t be able to do so.”

Scene of trolleys parked in a huge terminal

[Bob Hughes (Maintenance Manager) walks through the trolley garage.]

Bob Hughes:
“They give us two weeks to actually shut the place down.”

Renee Montagne:
“He is still doing inspections of streetcars [circa 1995].”

“They’re saying that in three years they’re going to put [streetcars] back on the track.”

“Well, if you believe that, then you believe Chrysler’s going to bring back the DeSoto. And I don’t think they are.”

Sharon Banks (General Manager, A.C. Transit, Oakland):
“It’s called a spiral unto death. You cut back service, you lose passengers, you lose revenue, you lose the confidence of your ridership. This is happening all over the country.”

Elliot Sclar (Urban Economist):
“I’d like to give people a choice. I’d like people to be able to have their automobiles and the use of transit. And they don’t have that choice right now.”

Mayor Alioto:
When all you have is “stop and crawl,” you lose the advantages “that make a city what it is.” Mass transit “has to be improved and expanded. It’s vital!”

Sharon Banks:
“This is a critical moment. I would say, the next five years will determine whether there will be a viable transit system in over half of the areas of this country.”


New Day Films, 1996
James Klein, Director and Editor
Martha Olson, Researcher and Archivist
Delfeayo Marsalis, Music
Renee Montagne, Narrator