Most people alive today don’t realize that in the past almost EVERY city in the USA did have mass electric powered public transit, that was clean, relatively inexpensive and highly effective. However, the big question people should really be asking is why and how did it vanish?
Part of the answer is the “Great American Streetcar Scandal”, which is a classic tale about the typical results when businesses are allowed to pursue profit over the common good of society and the people/government allow them to make extreme changes, that are difficult if not near impossible to correct later.
Too bad the Occupy Wall Street Protesters were kicked out of their hometown parks since they had good reason to protest bad corporate business practices and their influence in government that related to the latest bank bailouts. However, that’s just one of the latest and greatest infamous examples of problems that need fixing and/or is worthy of protesting to become part of current political discourse. Other examples include corporate lobbying, advertising and media control by dominant corporate entities that wish to continue the use of carbon based fuels. Also corporate pro-profit efforts to stop the proliferation of decentralize individual power generation and ownership (solar, and wind alternative energy etc.), switching to increased use of public transportation and using more electric vehicles.
Perhaps even the most important topic that needs addressed is taking action on climate change/global warming. Too bad the Occupy Movement didn’t exist during the “Great American streetcar scandal”, aka “General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy” or “The National City Lines Conspiracy”.
Once upon a time in the USA by 1900 almost every city that had a population of 2,500+ had at least one electric streetcar company. Those streetcar companies by and large were 90%+ privately owned and powered by electricity generation stations owned by the same streetcar companies or they were the largest customers of the electric company.
In some places the streetcar companies started selling their extra capacity electricity to consumers and businesses as well. The electric supply business eventually proved to be the larger and a more profitable market. By the mid 1930’s the federal government had to step and impose an antitrust law (The Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935) that prohibited the newly regulated electric utilities from operating unregulated businesses (such as streetcars) and from operating across state lines, because they were behaving badly. As many of those holding companies/corporations did both they decided to sell the streetcar portion of their business.
The government then allowed National City Lines (NCL), which had been in operation since 1920 to be purchased and eventually controlled by another corporation/holding company comprised of: General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, and others.
During the next 15 years 1936-1950 National City Lines bought out more than a hundred electric street car lines and replaced them by exclusive contracts with GM made busses.
The corporations involved (General Motors, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum and Firestone Tire) were charged of conspiring to monopolize transportation services, and conspiring to monopolize the provision of parts and supplies to their subsidiary companies. Eventually the corporations were found guilty of some of the charges, but were acquitted of the major ones and were fined $5,000, and the directors were each fined one dollar. If that is the worse punishment corporations get why would they change the way they do business?
Electric city transport still flourishes in Europe and Asia. More importantly the actions of NCL and inaction of city governments left most cities in the US to be nearly 100% reliant on fossil fuel transportation.
A shocking truth: Oil refineries are now the largest commercial users of electricity today in some states such as California, which is electric energy that could be used more directly and efficiently by electric vehicles. Even more interesting is that in some cases the fuel used to power the electric companies is supplied by some of the same oil companies. Often those types of codependent situations breeds corruption and/or at the very least mergers and centralized power leading to the establishment of an oligopoly or monopoly.
A video collection about why electric transit systems are so bad in the USA and Canada.
Who Killed The Electric Street Car?
Full length version of the 1996 documentary film “Taken for a Ride” (56 minutes).
Bottom Line: The Great US Streetcar Conspiracy is another historical example why resisting corporate influence in government is still needed for the public good.
EV of the Year Judge, independent green journalist, photographer, author and sustainability activist that has published over 1000 articles. Mr Burridge’s travels have taken him to over 30 countries and 300+ major cities. He is originally from the USA, but has been residing in Australia for the last seven years. Connect to Ken Burridge on: Twitter, facebook, Google+, Linked in or website