One of the central beliefs in the heart of many U.S. railfans is that the golden age of streetcars was cruelly crushed by a 1940’s conspiracy led by General Motors and petroleum and tire companies in an illegal scheme to sell buses. The agent was a company called National City Lines.
There’s no question that National City Lines bought up dozens of privately owned transit operations around the U.S., including the Key System here in the Bay Area, and largely succeeded in converting streetcars to buses. But an excellent article in Vox by Joseph Stromberg argues persuasively that the conspirators were vultures picking at the carcass of a mode of transit that was already dead or dying in most American cities (San Francisco being, as in many things, something of an exception).
(Note to those already blowing steam out of their ears and raring to rant: no comments will be accepted on this post unless you can demonstrate in your remarks that you actually read the linked article.)
We hear the mantra of evil GM et al repeated all the time. It’s really a religion among some. But as Stromberg points out,
“The real reasons for the streetcar’s demise are much less nefarious than a GM-driven conspiracy — they include gridlock and city rules that kept fares artificially low — but they’re fascinating in their own right, and if you’re a transit fan, they’re even more frustrating.”
Every early “public” transit system was actually privately owned, and operated to make a profit. San Francisco’s experience was typical. Many pioneering rail transit lines (initially pulled by horses, then cables, then powered by overhead wires) were started by entrepreneurs. Soon, though, they were consolidated by bigger players — in San Francisco’s case, initially by the owners of the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad.
These rail transit lines operated under franchises from the cities that hosted them. In getting the rights to put tracks into public streets and a monopoly on operating routes, they agreed to maintain the street areas around the tracks and have fares regulated. In practicality, city after city forced private operators to keep the fare at five cents for decades, regardless of inflation.
Stromberg’s analysis doesn’t mention it, but the unchanging nickel fare forced private operators to keep cutting maintenance, which meant the streetcars, track, and overhead got increasingly decrepit. Many streetcar companies went bankrupt well before National City Lines came on the scene. Others got a boost in revenue during World War II when rationing forced automobile drivers back to transit, but this only prolonged those streetcars’ life, rather than curing the underlying ills.
Oh, those automobiles. What most conspiracy theorists choose to ignore is that the rise of the middle class and the power of mass production made automobiles affordable to more families every year. Many began to choose their cars instead of streetcars for many trips, eroding transit company revenues and increasing congestion on the streets the streetcars used. Later, many moved to new suburbs beyond the streetcar’s reach and drove their cars to work, again dueling with streetcars for street space. (We document this in our current exhibit, “Cars vs. Cars”, at our San Francisco Railway Museum.
Stromberg also gives too little attention to the real issue of labor costs. Most cities had increasingly powerful transit unions, which resisted reducing streetcar crews from two operators to one. This limited the spread of the comfortable, modern PCC streetcar, which industry leaders designed in the 1930s with the intent that it would be a single operator car. Transit companies that couldn’t win government approval to reduce crew size had no incentive to buy PCCs. Indeed, our namesake, Muni’s private competitor Market Street Railway Company won the right to run single-operator streetcars in the 1930s and drew up plans for PCC-line streamliners, but had the courts reverse that right and abandoned their streamliner dreams. (Muni PCC No. 1011 is painted in tribute to what might have been, if…)
Even America’s first urban transit system that was government-owned — Muni — felt the mix of economic pressures Stromberg describes. After acquiring the assets of the old Market Street Railway in 1944, Muni proceeded to do just what National City Lines did: convert most of its streetcar lines to buses, as quickly as they could. Equipment and track was worn out, increased automobile traffic was slowing streetcar service, and voters wouldn’t approve single-operator streetcars.
This isn’t news. We wrote about this at length in our member newsletter, Inside Track, in 2002 and later, posted the piece here, so no need to plow all that ground again. But because the over-simplified conspiracy trope keeps popping up, we think it’s important to remind people that it took more than a few corporations to almost kill the streetcar.
Speaking of reminders, we depend on YOU to help us keep today’s historic streetcar and cable car operations alive and vibrant through our advocacy and support programs. Please consider joining or contributing to Market Street Railway. Thanks.