Ford! You 'ol scoundrel!
May 23, 2007 1:14 PM   Subscribe

I have heard that during the 20's when capitalism was hot shit, many municipalities decided to privatize their public transit systems. The legend goes that Ford bought up a bunch and promptly shut them down. True or false? Couldn't find anything on google or snopes.
posted by nihlton to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I believe it was GM (wiki), also Straight Dope.
posted by SteveInMaine at 1:20 PM on May 23, 2007

This is, incidentally, the basis for Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
posted by mkultra at 1:24 PM on May 23, 2007

What do you mean, "was?"
posted by rush at 2:07 PM on May 23, 2007

Response by poster: rush - I mean that while capitalism is (rightly) recognized as the best economic system, there was a time when enthusiasm for it wasn't tempered with common sense and even some normally clever people advocated the dominance of the free market in arenas which clearly belong to the government.

Can you imagine the cluster fuck that private police forces would create? yetch.
posted by nihlton at 2:41 PM on May 23, 2007

don't have time to look up a link, but here's a reference from a class I had last semester:

Kwitny, Jonathan, 1981. The Great Transportation Conspiracy: How GM and its Allies Dismantled America's Mass Transit. Harper's, 262:1569, February, pp. 14-21.
posted by desjardins at 3:20 PM on May 23, 2007

See, now, desjardins - I was going to offer up the GM stuff, too. And there you have it. I think this case is pretty much settled...
posted by valentinepig at 3:24 PM on May 23, 2007

Still doing this only more sneaky-like.
posted by Freedomboy at 4:16 PM on May 23, 2007

Wikipedia goes in to detail on the subject matter:

There are other factors. In some cases, like LA, the trolly systems were built in part to sell land - once the land was sold, they had little use to speculators.

GM may have conspired, but Americans liked the convenience and independence that cars gave them.
posted by DudeAsInCool at 4:29 PM on May 23, 2007

There is also a great book on this - Geography of Nowhere.
posted by k8t at 4:31 PM on May 23, 2007

History Detectives did a story about this; I believe the conclusion was that amazingly there is some truth to this urban myth.
posted by nax at 7:26 PM on May 23, 2007

Minneapolis in the 50s. Sold their transit system to GM who promptly dismantled it and then sold the city several dozen of their buses.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 8:04 PM on May 23, 2007

edited to say that Minneapolis sold their fine streetcar system to GM.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 8:04 PM on May 23, 2007

There's some truth to this in that certainly GM promoted buses (directly) and autos (indirectly) as replacements for streetcar lines.

I think the nostalgia for streetcars, and antipathy toward cars, that developed much later has strongly influenced the interpretation of this as something that was done under the table, Roger Rabbit style. But streetcars weren't perfect, and as businesses they had many problems. A very, very significant one was that they couldn't go anywhere they didn't have rails. They could only go someplace where they made a significant capital investment to take their trains. Buses, on the other hand, could go anywhere there was a street. Thus it was much easier for a transit system to choose a cost structure that only involved rolling stock costs and not right of way construction and maintenance.

In retrospect we lost a great deal and there were permanent changes to American society because of this overall transformation, and I think this provides a potted analogy for all of that, one critics can focus on. But except for scale, I don't think it's any more mercenary than a property developer buying up a block of vintage brownstones and putting a Miesian office box in its place. Yes, there's self-interest involved, spadeloads of it. But there's also a market to consider.

One of the hardest parts of the tale to prove would be whether GM did this to make the transit systems objectively worse so that people would buy cars instead. I don't think there's anything remotely approaching evidence for that interpretation. They probably just wanted to make money for the bus division.

Anyone could probably list a number of other reasons that buses were objectively better for a transit system. They didn't require specialized maintenance knowledge or custom parts or operators. (By the same token, the personnel were less likely to unionize.) A rail mishap could shut down an entire line for repairs; a bus could just be replaced with another bus. A traffic spike could be handled by moving buses around through city streets; a streetcar would have to be brought along operating lines, interfering with traffic just to help handle it.

A more subjective aspect, but one I suspect had some bearing, was that streetcars were tired and buses were wired. A streetcar's service life would me measured in decades. They just look older at any given time compared with the latest bus design. (This is one area where streetcars might actually have it all over buses in terms of capital costs per rider or year. But that's harder to quantify than this year's or next year's costs.)

In general, streetcars were as much a victim of suburbanization as they had been a part of its creation in the 19th century. More dispersal of population just makes urban transit less cost-effective. The end of intercity passenger train service eliminated many central urban nodes that streetcars could economically serve. People moving into houses versus tenements blew the whole cost structure of transit out of whack.

In short I think there's a lot of hindsight-is-20/20 gloss on this story.
posted by dhartung at 9:47 PM on May 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


There's a lot of truth to that, and the streetcars were widely hated at the time due to service issues and rate hikes borne out of being monopolies.

But today, in cities with mixed streetcar and bus service, there's no question that the streetcars are more pleasant to use. Buses carry a stigma of being "for the poor," they are more susceptible to traffic delays, and they carry far fewer passengers per hour than multi-car trolleys or above-ground subways.

There was a huge outcry in Boston when the promised "Silver Line" service was announced to be buses rather than light rail. The fact that wealthy or mostly-white neighborhoods are well-served by light rail, streetcars or subway -- versus the Silver Line bus through Roxbury -- indicates that this isn't just nostalgia.
posted by nev at 9:23 AM on May 24, 2007

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