Urban transportation and competing technologies


General Motors Aerotrain, a combination of GM’s Electro Motive Division (locomotive) and bus division (carbodies)

John Rennie Short recently asked, “Why is the U.S. unwilling to pay for good public transportation?” It’s a classic question, and he has four good answers.

  1. Americans’ “early and continuing embrace of the private car as a form of urban transport.”
  2. Adoption of the automobile led to the decline of privately-owned public transportation systems in the 1940s and 1950s.
  3. Many urban residents still needed and wanted public transportation so state and local governments took over these systems in the 1960s and 1970s. However, given the variety of competing demands on government coffers these entities spent too little on maintenance thus allowed subways, bus lines, and urban railway to deteriorate since the 1970s.
  4. A more ephemeral “The decline of our cities’ infrastructure is one expression of loss of faith in the public realm as a place of beauty and efficiency and an embodiment of what one journalist refers to as ‘our anger and our pessimism.’”

I agree with Short on all of these points, but why did the US adopt the automobile so rapidly and completely?  An important element that he doesn’t mention is that, from the early 20th century, motor vehicles were part of a two-pronged strategy to break the power of railroads in transportation.

Direct railroad regulation was the first tine.  The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 gave the Interstate Commerce Commission power to regulate interstate railroad rates.  Further, the Northern Securities case of 1904 case made it clear that that the Justice Department would act to keep railroads from combining to form larger, more powerful entities.

Regulation could contain the railroads, but government went further and set about backing a competing transportation technology: privately-owned motor vehicles traveling on state-provided roadways.  This is the story told by Stephen B. Goddard in Getting There: The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century.  He summarizes the situation this way:

In 1917, American road and rail entered the modern era. Railroads by then had existed for nearly a century, motor vehicles for barely two decades. The railways considered cooperation with government beneath them, akin to socialism, and policymakers returned their contempt. The motor industry and government, by contrast, reached out to each other eagerly and created an enduring, symbiotic partnership (p. 5).

Thus, it wasn’t simply that households and businesses preferred cars and trucks to urban public transportation and long-distance railroads, or that motor vehicles were a superior technology to trains.  Rather, governments purposefully made motor vehicles an economically attractive alternative to privately-owned streetcar systems and rail lines in order to restrict their economic and political power.

Government backing of roads instead of rails continued even after railroads and streetcar systems started to fail in the 1920s and 1930s. The end of private ownership of urban transportation would probably have come sooner than the 1960s except for World War II.  The need to ration gasoline for the war effort meant that far more people used public transportation to get to work, and it was more efficient to use railroads than trucks to transport men and materiel within the US.

The capital stocks of streetcars, trolley lines, and passenger railroads were completely run down between 1940 and 1945, leading to massive investment starting in 1944 just to replace worn out equipment.  This led to a brief rail renaissance in the late 1940s and 1950s, and leaves the misleading impression that bus companies such as General Motors conspired to destroy streetcars and railroads.  GM bought up railing urban transport systems and replaced them with buses, but it was also the largest provider of railroad locomotives through its Electro Motive Division.  GM won regardless of whether Americans rode trains or drove cars.

Americans didn’t simply choose cars and trucks over streetcars, subways, and passenger trains. Government policy explicitly promoted motor vehicles and highways as an alternative technology, and government could do the same thing now. Federal, state, and local governments can encourage commuter rail, improved passenger railways, and a variety of alternatives to internal combustion engines riding on rubber tires driving on paved roads.

We need to keep this in mind as we move forward on future transportation planning. The state of US transportation is the result of policy choices, not a naturally occurring phenomenon.