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The Streetcar Conspiracy

June 2024
2min read

I am appalled by Robert C. Post’s grossly inaccurate and inflammatory article “The Myth Behind the Streetcar Revival” in the May/June 1998 issue.

Having been engaged in urban transportation planning for years, I am well aware that despite Mr. Post’s claims to the contrary, there was indeed a conspiracy to destroy the electric railway industry. The existence of this conspiracy was known by people in the transit industry for several decades before Bradford Snell prepared his report and was verified by the Department of Justice when it successfully prosecuted National City Lines for antitrust violations. Unfortunately it was not against the law to destroy the street railway industry. When Snell interviewed the Justice Department officials involved in the case, however, not one of them had a shred of doubt that this was the goal of General Motors et alia because the evidence was overwhelming. The substitution of buses for streetcars accelerated the rate of decline in mass transit riding from the World War II peak, increased traffic congestion on city streets, and accelerated the trend of movement from the city to the suburbs. The damage inflicted on the urban landscape by this conspiracy may take a century to correct.

Mr. Post describes streetcars as uneconomic, but no form of mass transportation could remain economically viable if forced to compete against the massive government investment in road construction. Yet large-capacity streetcars operating at lower average speeds on heavily traveled routes were more economic than the buses that replaced them. In Washington, D.C., for example, streetcars running on just 18 percent of the total route-miles carried 50.5 percent of the passengers at an average speed of 8.5 miles per hour and made a profit. The buses averaged 11 mph but lost money. As soon as the conversion to buses was completed, increased operating losses resulted in fare increases.

Even more outrageous than Mr. Post’s ignorance of the past is his assertion that the revival of surface rail transportation, specifically light rail, is due to “idealized images of the past.” When light rail is chosen for a project, it is because it has been found to be the best choice of the various modes considered, and there are sound reasons why it is gaining momentum in this country.

A certain percentage of the population will not ride on buses in an all-bus system but will ride on light rail and will use feeder bus service to reach the light rail stations. These people have one or more automobiles available for their use and thus choose to use light rail rather than being forced to do so. Also, light rail can save on labor costs, represents a long-term commitment to public transportation, and costs considerably less than heavy-volume mass-transit systems.

Light rail systems are being built because they can reverse the downward trend in transit ridership and strengthen downtown areas economically.

Any public works project can be unnecessarily expensive, and light rail is no exception. When this occurs, it can usually be traced either to gold plating by the consultants to increase their fees or to political considerations’ taking precedence over design and construction at the most reasonable cost.

If light rail has had only a minimal impact on total traffic in urban areas thus far, it is because people change their travel habits slowly. It has taken this country more than sixty years to reach the traffic conditions that we have today. The significant reversal of these conditions will require several decades at a minimum. I am confident that it will happen, as more and more people become fed up with the traffic congestion and the deterioration in the quality of urban life that have been brought about by the autodominant society.

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