Comments

"I've been advertising it widely ... I'm distributing Xerox copies to anyone who'll read it." Melvin Webber, Professor Emeritus of Planning, University of California, Berkeley.

"I have long felt the need for such a paper." Professor John Kain, Chairman of the Economics Department at Harvard University.

"Congratulations. It belongs on the syllabi of urban transportation courses," Professor Peter Gordon, School of Urban Planning, USC.

"Thoroughly researched and superbly written," Professor Louis Rose, Department of Economics, University of Hawaii.

"We owe you a great deal for carefully documenting the real history of these events." Dr. Alan E. Pisarski, author of "Commuting in America."

“… an excellent retrospective evaluation of the misrepresentations in the Snell Report … a sound historical perspective on the decline of the streetcar …” Dr. George W. Hilton, Professor Emeritus of Economics, UCLA.

"Slater has debunked at least one article of faith by demonstrating that the streetcar, like the horse car it replaced, was a victim of progress and not of corporate greed," Wendell Cox, Wendell Cox Consultancy, international transportation consultant.

"I've assigned it for student reading." Martin Wachs, Chair, School of Urban and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley

“… a superb piece on the decline of the trolleys.” Peter Samuel, Editor, Tollroads magazine.

General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars    

When Transportation Quarterly (TQ) published my article General Motors and the Demise of Streetcars in 1997, to my great surprise it created quite a stir among urban transportation professionals. Some idea of it may be gleaned from the comments in the adjacent column.

I had not realized that one of the foundations of the "success" of the Rail Renaissance was the erroneous belief that streetcars, now repositioned as "light rail," had been illegally replaced by buses even though light rail was more efficient than buses. Of course, streetcars were not more efficient and I believe my article shows that.

The subsequent edition of TQ carried a short overview of the subject by TQ editors, a rebuttal by Christopher Zearfoss and comments by Brian Cudahy and Peter Cole.

The lengthy Rebuttal by Christopher Zearfoss, a Philadelphia public transit official, is rather strange; here’s an excerpt,

“While it may be true that General Motors (GM) was not involved directly in streetcar phaseouts of the most U.S. transit systems….There is little question that in most small cities–under 100,000–low ridership densities favored conversion to buses as soon as a practicable transit bus became available after the mid-1920s. It may also be true that the percentage of cities relying solely on streetcars for local surface transit dropped from almost 100% in 1914 to 4% in 1937, and that by 1937, 50% of cities were served only by buses.”

He was agreeing with the main positions that I took but was only arguing about details. For example, when I wrote that Honolulu in 1941 became an all-bus city, he disagreed, “… in fact, trolley coaches served the most important routes in Honolulu until 1957.” However, the usual term for trolley coaches is “trolley buses” and they do not have the major disadvantages of streetcars, e.g they load/unload their passengers at the curb rather than in the middle of the street..

Brian Cudahy, is a leading transportation historian who started life as a Professor of Philosophy at Boston College and then, after some years, found employment in the transportation industry he loved writing about. He finished his career as an official at the Federal Transit Administration. Among his many fine books are “Under the sidewalks of New York,” about the NYC subway system, and “Cash, Tokens, and Transfers,” a history of urban transportation. In his comments in the same Transportation Quarterly, he demolished Zearfoss’ Rebuttal. One passage I particularly enjoyed was:

“I remember when 30-year-old trolley cars with straight-back wooden benches were replaced by brand new motor buses with nicely upholstered seats. I remember, too, when you no longer had to take your life in your hands to walk through lanes of moving traffic to board a streetcar, but could actually stand on the curb and wait for the bus to come to you. These are but two characteristics of the motor buses that replaced streetcars whose inherent superiority as a mode urban transport conspiracy theorists regard as totally self-evident.”

Peter Cole, an Australian doctoral candidate at that time, also commented on the article.

In the Summer 1998 Transportation Quarterly, Professor George W. Hilton commented on the article. He was professor emeritus of economics at UCLA, former chair of the president’s task force on transportation policy, and former curator of rail transportation at the Smithsonian Institution. A highly regarded economist and historian specializing in transportation issues, his publications were so numerous that we provide a link to his Wikipedia entry.

Subsequently the GM article was included with others on the subject in Alfred P. Sloan: Critical Evaluations in Business and Management. Wood, John C. & Michael C. Routledge, London. 2003.

In addition, Omics International has taken advantage of the digital age and established a web page that links to every possible web site that may even tangentially impact the study of the events preceding and subsequent to the “demise of streetcars.”

Pro-rail propaganda movies mentioned in General Motors are the PBS Frontline program Taken for a Ride (part I and part II) and Who framed Roger Rabbit (a Disney movie not available online. I was not aware at the time of the 1993 movie Who killed the Electric Streetcar? But I have included it as pertinent.