Return to the Overcoming Consumerism Index
BY EDWARD W. MILLER
...Few Americans understand why those quiet, non-polluting electric rail system (trolleys) which once served all our major cities suddenly disappeared like the dinosaurs, and most accept the automobile as the evolutionary replacement. However, no asteroid from outer space wiped out America's trolleys. It was General Motors.
In 1922 only one American family in 10 owned an auto. Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., GM's president, decided to change this. With friends at Firestone Rubber, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum and Mack Truck, Sloan began secretly, first to buy up and then destroy the rail systems in America's cities. To hide his campaign from the public eye, he hired an unknown, E. Roy Fitzgerald, as a figurehead, advertising him as an entrepreneur from the sticks. They formed a company, National City Lines, and quickly purchased Yellow Bus, America's largest diesel bus builder, and Omnibus, a bus-operating company.
National City Lines, headed by Fitzgerald, but privately funded by a consortium organized by Sloan and friends began buying up the rail systems in America's cities, one by one. Their approach was simple: using political know-how and money to influence city councils, while they paid Madison Avenue to tell the country "the trend was away from rail," they systematically destroyed America's clean, electric rail systems, replacing them with their polluting diesel buses. By 1941, National City Lines owned the transportation system in over 83 American cities across the country.
The day National City Lines signed a purchase agreement, their staff took over. Rail management was fired, and the process of piecemeal destruction set in motion: Fares were increased, routes cancelled and trolleys were taken out of service, schedules were reduced, salaries of workers cut, maintenance neglected. As rail systems thus self-destructed, a nationwide media campaign offered "modern, non-polluting diesels." Eventually, the last trolley disappeared, along with the tracks. An independent observer, Commander Edwin Quinby, caught onto GM's plot and took it upon himself to warn the city fathers across the country. At his own expense, he mailed out a 31-page brochure, outlining the takeover plan. GM hoisted an expensive public-relations campaign to discredit Quinby. Some readers, however, got the news, and a grassroots protest finally brought an investigation by the Justice Department.
In 1936, National City Lines, along with General Motors, was found guilty. The two were fined $5,000 apiece, while their management staff were fined $1 each. Later Justice Department investigations got nowhere, because by 1932 GM had created the National Highway Users Conference, a powerful Washington lobby to push for more freeways and silence discussion of diesel or gasoline pollution. Alfred P. Sloan headed the conference for 30 years until another GM man took over.
With the post-WWII boom in home construction, President Eisenhower, in 1953, appointed the then-president of General Motors, Charles Wilson, as Secretary of Defense and DuPont's chief, Secretary of Transportation (DuPont was GM's biggest investor). These two set out to pave over America for the auto. DuPont got Eisenhower to set up the Highway Trust Fund which funnelled gasoline tax money into highway construction. Two thirds of these funds went to build inner-city freeways. Meanwhile, GM, recognizing the limits of bus sales as contrasted with automobiles, changed its tactics, and in 1972, convinced the House of Representatives to deny all funding for public transportation, hoping to reduce bus service. The money was diverted to freeways. By the 1950's buses were disappearing and everyone wanted a car. Thus while post-war Europe and Japan were rebuilding their rail transit, America was destroying hers.
Though the House of Representatives in 1972 blocked monies for rapid transit, public pressure was making itself heard. San Francisco's Mayor Alioto, in the 1974 Senate hearings, publicly questioned whether what was good for General Motors was good for the country. By 1992, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) allowed local input into transit decisions, and by 1991, 25 cities across the country were experimenting with light rail systems....