Index | Homepage | Good Links | Bad Links | Search | Guestbook/Forum

Consumerism | Railways | Fares Fair | NCL | GM | JD Rockefeller

The oil industry and destruction of public transport

National City Lines; the big guys close down public transport in the USA

Extract: 'Year 501' by Noam Chomsky

Tony's US abandonment notes

The Burden of Responsibility (chapter 9)

from: Year 501, 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.

Laboratory Animals

The concept "testing area" merits particular notice. Similarly, "American strategists have described the civil war in El Salvador as the `ideal testing ground' for implementing low-intensity conflict doctrine" (a.k.a. international terrorism), a DOD-sponsored RAND Corporation report on the experiment concludes. In earlier days, Vietnam was described as "a going laboratory where we see subversive insurgency...being applied in all its forms" (Maxwell Taylor), providing opportunities for "experiments with population and resource control methods" and "nation building." The Marine occupation of Haiti was described in similar terms, as we have seen. The technical posturing appears to sustain the self-image, at least(7).

One finds no intimation that the experimental subjects might have the right to sign consent forms, or even to know what is happening to them. On the contrary, they scarcely have the rights of laboratory animals. We will determine what is best for them, as we always have; another hallmark of the 500 years.

The wise among us just know, for example, that maximizing consumption is a core human value: "If we weren't influencing the world" in this direction, "it would be someone else because what we are seeing everywhere is an expression of the basic human desire to consume," Boston University professor of management Lawrence Wortzel explains. US entrepreneurs are fortunate indeed to be so in tune with human nature. True, slow learners sometimes have to be helped to understand their true nature. The advertising industry devotes billions of dollars to stimulating this self-awareness, and in the early days of the industrial revolution, it was no small problem to bring independent farmers to realize that they wished to be tools of production so as to be able to gratify their "basic human desire to consume."

The very "visible hand" of government has also helped. As radio was becoming a major medium, the Federal Radio Commission "equated capitalist broadcasting with `general public service' broadcasting" since it would provide whatever "the market desired," Robert McChesney writes, while attempts by labor, other popular sectors, or educational programming were deemed "propaganda." It was therefore necessary "to favor the capitalist broadcasters" with access to channels and other assistance(8).

Apart from the regular bombardment of the senses through advertising and media portrayal of life-as-it-should-be-lived, corporate-government initiatives are undertaken on an enormous scale to shape consumer tastes. One dramatic example is the "Los Angelizing" of the US economy, a huge state-corporate campaign to direct consumer preferences to "suburban sprawl and individualized transport -- as opposed to clustered suburbanization compatible with a mix of rail, bus, and motor car transport," Richard Du Boff observes in his economic history of the United States, a policy that involved "massive destruction of central city capital stock" and "relocating rather than augmenting the supply of housing, commercial structures, and public infrastructure." The role of the federal government was to provide funds for "complete motorization and the crippling of surface mass transit"; this was the major thrust of the Federal Highway Acts of 1944, 1956, and 1968, implementing a strategy designed by GM chairman Alfred Sloan. Huge sums were spent on interstate highways without interference, as Congress surrendered control to the Bureau of Public Roads; about 1 percent of the sum was devoted to rail transit. The Federal Highway Administration estimated total expenditures at $80 billion by 1981, with another $40 billion planned for the next decade. State and local governments managed the process on the scene.

The private sector operated in parallel: "Between 1936 and 1950, National City Lines, a holding company sponsored and funded by GM, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California, bought out more than 100 electric surface-traction systems in 45 cities (including New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, and Los Angeles) to be dismantled and replaced with GM buses... In 1949 GM and its partners were convicted in U.S.district court in Chicago of criminal conspiracy in this matter and fined $5,000."

By the mid-1960s, one out of six business enterprises was directly dependent on the motor vehicle industry. The federal spending helped keep the economy afloat. Eisenhower's fears of "another Depression setting in after the Korean War" were allayed, a US Transportation Department official reported.

A congressional architect of the highway program, John Blatnik of Minnesota, observed that "It put a nice solid floor across the whole economy in times of recession." These government programs supplemented the huge subsidy to high technology industry through the military system, which provided the primary stimulus and support needed to sustain the moribund system of private enterprise that had collapsed in the 1930s(9).

The general impact on culture and society was immense, apart from the economy itself. Democratic decision-making played little role in this massive project of redesigning the contemporary world, and only in marginal respects was it a reflection of consumer choice. Consumers made choices no doubt, as voters do, within a narrowly determined framework of options designed by those who own the society and manage it with their own interests in mind. The real world bears little resemblance to the dreamy fantasies now fashionable about History converging to an ideal of liberal democracy that is the ultimate realization of Freedom.

(7) Schwarz, American Counterinsurgency Doctrine. FRS, 246; APNM, ch. 1.

(8) David Holstrom, CSM, April 30, 1992. McChesney, Labor.

(9) Du Boff, Accumulation, 101-3.


Los Angeles Railway - LARY

Modern Transit Society based in San Francisco and Sacramento, California. Details of how GM destroyed the Key System streetcars, trains (San Francisco Bay Area, CA, USA) with original documents are at:

Notes on the deliberate destruction of public transport in the USA¹

Number of electric streetcars in 1917: 72,911
Number of electric streetcars in 1948: 17,911

Streetcar rides per annum in 1923: 15.7bn
Streetcar rides per annum in 1929: 14.4bn
Streetcar rides per annum in 1940: 8.3bn


¹Jackson, Kenneth T, Crabgrass Frontier, ISBN 0 19 504 987 7

Snell, Bradford C, American Ground Transport, presented to the subcommittee on Antitrust and monopoly, of the Judiciary, US Senate, 26 Feb 1974. see pp. 27-34


Mallach, Stanley, The Origins Of The Decline Of Urban Mass Transportation In The U.S. 1890-1930 (Urbanism Past And Present, VIII Summer 1979)

Foster, Mark, City Planners And Urban Transportation: The American Response 1900-1940 (Journal Of Urban History V, May 1979)

The site index