THE MASS TRANSIT MURDERS

Kristofer J. Carlson

 

Urban areas have always had a need for mass transit, and competition among different forms of mass transit has been fierce.When horse drawn omnibuses first began to run in London, for example, the government gave preference to the older, established trams and began enforcing a law which forbade the picking up and dropping off of passengers.This forced omnibus drivers to chain themselves to their vehicles to keep the police from arresting them.The pattern of governmental interference and unfair competition has continued throughout the modern era, but early in this century took an ominous turn in the United States, a turn which has had unfortunate consequences that continue through today.

The United States was a leader in mass transit innovation throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century.As a result, the eastern seaboard and most of the major cities throughout the rest of the country had transit systems that were the envy of the world.

To be effective, mass transit depends on large concentrations of people.It should come as no surprise that mass transit has always been important to New York City.During the 1800's, horse drawn omnibuses were widely used, becoming so common they clogged the city streets.At one point an omnibus would pass by city hall, every fifteen seconds.When the horse drawn trains, known as horsecars, began to compete with the omnibuses for passengers and rights of way, they were opposed by means of newspaper editorials and attempted injunctions.Opponents of subways were more sophisticated; William Marcy "Boss" Tweed, a New York State senator who received financial support from the omnibus owners, blocked early attempts at building subways.

While horsecars were very popular they could not be used on much of a grade; hence the cable car.Cable cars are propelled by gripping a continuously moving steel cable, and were developed for use in hilly areas that were not suitable for horse drawn omnibuses.Cable cars have their drawbacks: the gripmen have to be vigilant and strong to keep the trolleys from racing down hills and jumping the tracks, and the cables were subject to breakage.The cable cars enjoyed much success in cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco, but newer and better technology soon superseded them.

THE RIDE OF YOUR LIFE

Inventors soon began experimenting with running trolleys by means of electricity, with the first successful trolley line operating in Baltimore.This new technology began to spread like wildfire and within five years over one hundred fifty electric trolley lines were running all along the eastern seaboard.By 1917, around 80,000 trolley cars were running on 45,000 miles of track all across the country and carrying around 11 billion passengers per year.

About this time, the automobile began to be a serious competitor of the trolley.In 1916, only 3.6 million cars were in use.By 1921, this number had risen to over 9 million, and reached 16 million by 1924.As automobile use increased, municipalities began to grant preferential rights of way to them.This led to disruptions in scheduled trolley service as cars and trolleys competed for the same space.This coupled with competition from buses caused trolley ridership to decline.

Realizing the industry's existence was on the line the trolley owners banded together to develop a standardized trolley for use throughout the country that would meet the challenge to the industry.The result was the PCC car, a quiet and comfortable trolley car that could outperform the new mass transit alternative, the bus.With the success of the PCC car and other similarly advanced vehicles, trolley ridership increased 33 percent.

By this time, no one expected the car to go away, but at the same time, cars were an expensive luxury.Mass transit was an inexpensive alternative for the young and the poor.The only real competition for the trolley system was the bus, but the bus had some real disadvantages.Buses are complex compared to trolleys.An internal combustion engine is made up of hundreds of moving parts with hundreds of points of wear, while the electric traction engine has only ten points of wear.An internal combustion engine develops its maximum torque at a relatively high rpm and thus requires a transmission; an electric motor develops maximum torque at zero rpm so an electric vehicle can be much simpler.Buses cost less initially than trolleys but cost more to maintain."Diesel buses have 28 percent shorter economic lives, 40 percent higher operating costs, and 9 percent lower productivity than electric buses."In the 1920ís, the average economic life of a bus was 5 years while trolleys lasted for 20 years.By 1971, the useful life of buses has risen from 5 to a maximum of 20 years, but the useful life of a trolley has risen from 20 to a maximum of 40 years.

In 1955, the Washington D.C. trolley system made $1,600,000 while the D.C. bus system lost $1,100,000, demonstrating the relative economic viability of the competing systems.A 1936 survey of rider preference showed the trolley was preferable to the bus by a 35 to 1 margin.Unlike trolleys, however, buses require neither tracks nor overhead electric wires, and their routes are easily changed.Since road construction costs were subsidized, the capital costs of starting up a bus franchise were initially much less than that of a trolley system.In addition, buses were newer and had the gleam of progress about them.

None of this should have outweighed the mass of data supporting the trolley.It should have been obvious that trolleys were both economically viable and preferred over buses by huge margins---but they died anyway.The reasons for their demise are sometimes complex and vary from city to city, but much of the mass transit of the United States was intentionally destroyed.

THE POLITICS OF PROGRESS

In the 1920ís, city officials began to grant what had been previously uncontested rights of way to automobiles.This effectively ended reliably scheduled service.In addition, fares were fixed at the old horsecar rate of 5 cents while expenses kept climbing.Later, in a series of moves that can only be described as political, city by city began to restrict or eliminate trolley service.In Salt Lake City the owners of the trolley franchise were forced as terms of their franchise to help pay for paving streets.This added enormously to operating costs and subsidized their competition.In Pittsburgh, street repair programs were used as an excuse to tear up the tracks and convert to bus service.Over the vocal protests of his constituents, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia ordered the Third Avenue Railroad Company to eliminate its trolleys in favor of buses or lose its franchise.In Washington D.C. after years of financial shenanigans on the part of the franchisee, Capitol Lines, Congress stripped them of the franchise and designed a new franchise with a provision that it be an all bus system.San Diego, which once ran a mix of bus and trolley service, converted totally to bus service and began to hemorrhage money.Cities justified all this based on "progress."Buses, being newer, must therefore be better.

THE PLOT TO DESTROY THE TROLLEY SYSTEM

In 1932 General Motors organized the United Cities Motor Transit (UCMT) company to buy trolley systems, convert them to shiny new GM buses and sell the franchises on the provision that the purchaser by replacements only from GM.UCMT converted three cities to buses by 1935 at which time the American Transit Association censured GM.In 1936, General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, B. F. Phillips Petroleum, and Mack Manufacturing, maker of Mack trucks organized and financed National City Lines, a holding company.At this time, the United States still had 40,000 operating trolleys.National City Lines and its subsidiaries began to operate in the same fashion as UMCT: buying up trolley lines, pulling the cars out of service, tearing up the tracks, and converting to General Motors buses.Once the conversion was complete, the franchise holder would sell out with a provision precluding the return to electric transportation, and the process would begin again somewhere else.In this manner, National City Lines eventually eliminated forty-six systems in forty-five cities.

THE CALIFORNIA EXPERIENCE

Perhaps nowhere else was this as blatant and well documented as in California.Los Angeles has one of the worst traffic problems in the United States; this is not surprising considering the number of people who live there.What is more surprising is the extent of what once was the Los Angeles mass transit system.Los Angeles really had two systems: the Big Red Cars and the Yellow Cars.Together they totaled 3,000 cars with 1,160 miles of track radiating out to fifty cities.The subtext of the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" was the destruction of this once great mass transit system.

In 1938, National City Lines organized Pacific City Lines to eliminate the electric transportation system.In 1940, the process began with the acquisition and destruction of portions of the Pacific Electric System.In 1944 of National City Lines assigned American City Lines, (another affiliate,) the job of converting Los Angeles to buses.They purchased the downtown system, pulled cars out of service, disrupted the trolley scheduling, tore down the power transmission lines, tore up the tracks, and put GM buses into service.

No story of the Los Angeles trolley system would be complete without mentioning Harry Chandler.Mr. Chandler was the owner of the Los Angeles Times; he was also in the board of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company and had additional interests in road construction companies, rock and gravel companies, and several oil companies.Mr. Chandler was also a director of the California Automobile Club, a post he held for some 30 years.The editorial policy of the Los Angeles Times reflected Mr. Chandler's many interests with its support for the motorization of Los Angeles.Those who opposed "progress" were labeled as communists.It is ironic that when American City Lines pulled the last of the Red Cars out of service in 1963, the Los Angeles Times had begun to editorialize against air pollution.

The San Francisco experience differed only in degree.San Francisco was a city without much surplus land to use for roads and depended on its cablecars and its Key system, a system operating 230 electric trolleys and trains.Immediately after acquiring controlling interest in the parent company of the Key system, National City Lines announced its plans to replace the entire system with a fleet of---you guessed it---General Motorís buses.The Key system owned rights of way across the Golden Gate Bridge; these rights of way were paved over to make way for cars and buses.San Francisco's recently developed light rail system, (the Bay Area Rapid Transit system, generally known as BART,) had no right of way across the Bay Bridge and was forced to tunnel under the bay at a cost of $180 million.

HIGHWAY LOBBERY

In 1916, some 3.6 million cars were on the road at a time when most of the countryís roads were unpaved.The fact that cars were all the rage did not escape lawmakers, so in that same year the first federal highway program was funded.Between 1904 and 1940, the percentage of paved streets rose from around 9% to 47% of total mileage.This gave drivers somewhere to go and the automotive population ballooned to 16 million by 1924.In 1923 the National Highway User's Conference, (now the Highway User's Federation for Safety and Mobility, or HUFSAM, was formed by the president of General Motors to lobby for increased highway construction and the exclusive use of highway tax revenues for highway uses.†† For whatever reason the State of California was especially vulnerable to this sort of manipulation.In 1938, the California amended its state constitution to create the Highway Trust Fund, a fund designed to set aside tax revenues for the exclusive use of the highway system.The results of this lobbying are clear.Between 1921 and 1971, (two years before the first energy crisis,) the annual per capita highway expenditure increased from $13 to $109.Accounting for the rise in the population during those fifty years yields an even more pronounced spending increase.Another telling phenomenon is that between the years of 1945 and 1970 only 16 miles of subway was constructed in the entire United States.

Contrary to popular opinion, building more highways does nothing to relieve traffic congestion.New highways initially ease traffic congestion, but the rapid increase in highway use creates worse congestion than before.When the Interstate Highway system was proposed, one of the reasons it was routed through the urban centers was as a means of relieving urban congestion.This failed to anticipate---by either ignorance or design---this automotive subsidy would actually increase traffic.Once the highways were built the wealthy and the merely well off abandoned the urban centers for the suburbs, leaving behind a blighted urban core.The interstate highway system provided the initial impetus for the growth of the suburbs, the death of the inner cities, and the development of urban sprawl.This change in mobility allowed the development of collections of suburbs like Los Angeles.The development of the highway system served to increase the profits of the industrial giants at the expense of the cities.

Today HUFSAM has over 2800 different lobbying organizations around the country whose function is to prevent the use of highway uses for any use other than highway maintenance and construction.They outspend proponents of mass transit by 1000%.The effect of this has been to force mass transit to compete with general revenue for priority.Local and state politicians have to balance the need for mass transit against the other social programs that have proponents that are more vocal.As an example, California's Highway Trust Fund did not pay a penny of the $792 million cost of the BART system.The taxpayers paid for BART through bonds and property taxes.The Southern California Rapid Transit District provides another example; Los Angeles County was to have paid the $5 billion dollar cost with a hike in the sales tax.

GOING FORWARD BY LOOKING BACKWARDS

As the nation's highways are clogged with cars, as the nation's airways are choked by pollution, as the country's lakes and forests are poisoned by acid rain, and as the inner cities are decaying, it behooves us to look into possible solutions.Solutions will not come quickly.This problem has been in the making for nearly seventy years and it would be naive to think it will disappear overnight.

Once we had a mass transit system, a system that was the envy of the world.This system was almost entirely a private enterprise.What began the demise of mass transit was the loss of rights of way.When trolleys are forced to compete with the more mobile cars and trucks for space, the trolley loses time.This reduces the number of passengers per mile a trolley can carry.It plays havoc with the transit schedule.It also means that it can be quicker to get somewhere using your own car than taking a trolley.

We need to provide some incentives for private initiative.Cities should declare their intent to sell rights of way for the purpose of constructing some form of mass transit.These enterprises should be described in terms of function rather than design.In other words, they should describe what the cities want them to do and not prescribe how to do it.These enterprises should be regulated as little as possible.Some federal involvement will be necessary as some of the best routes will likely be over federal roads.Federal funds should also be diverted away from the construction of new highways and into the maintenance of the existing roadways.This will initially increase rather than decrease traffic congestion, causing no little political turmoil.However, some discomfort will be required if we are to ever wean the cities away from cars.When the systems are constructed, it will be quicker to get to where you are going via mass transit and the use of autos in urban areas will decline.

One of the keys to making mass transit work is reducing the hidden subsidies of automobiles.Road construction, road maintenance, traffic signals, traffic signs, traffic patrol, radar guns, speed traps and entire highway bureaucracies: all these are in place to fund and regulate your right to drive your car.The problem with reducing these subsidies is the vocal nature and deep pockets of mass transit's opponents.We must force mass transit and the automobile to compete for funding with each other.We must replace the highway trust fund with a general transportation fund.If anything, we must tilt the balance toward mass transit, because the cost of replacing the missing transit architecture will be significant.We should not force mass transit to compete with hospitals, welfare programs and public housing for funds.Instead, place mass transit in direct competition for highway revenues.This removes other social pressures militating against mass transit.This eliminates the false choice of building light rail systems or housing the homeless.

I have no doubt that HUFSAM and its 2800 state and local level lobbying organizations will oppose any attempts at rebuilding the mass transit infrastructure.I have no doubt that local politicians will feel the heat from constituents who are put out by all this.But the effort will be worth it, even if many of us never see the results, for the results will be a cleaner environment, a revitalized inner city, more opportunity for those who have no transportation, and reduced traffic congestion.