Thursday, February 11, 2010

Los Angeles and the Great Interstate Highway Conspiracy

Why is public transportation such a joke in Los Angeles? As an LA native, it's easy for me to understand why many in the Peak Oil community consider my hometown to be a non-sustainable wasteland as we face the inevitable decline. But this wasn't always the case during the 20th century. There is a visual reminder that I have of this history in a link that my wife recently discovered. It not only shows the way transportation used to be in LA, it explores the changes that irrevocably altered the way people lived downtown:

Angels' Flight

At 3rd and Hill Streets a visitor in the '40s would have encountered another long-time L.A. institution — Angel's Flight incline railway, which charged a nickel fare. The railway was removed from the hill by the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) prior to 1970 so that the entire top of the hill could be lowered to allow construction of a two-level access environment, with plaza and pedways on top and auto roads underneath. The plan reflected the philosophy of the modernist or International Style, which rejected the traditional city street. Angel's Flight was re-installed on the hill about a half block south of the original site, and now unites California Plaza to the more plebeian city below. In the photo below left we see the turn-of-the-century Hillcrest Hotel and Astoria Hotel, on Olive Street, on Bunker Hill. These were residential hotels. The four brick buildings in the view at right are the Ferguson Building — a 7-story office building — the Hulbert Apartment Hotel (at 3rd and Clay Street), a 5-story apartment building at 3rd and Clay, and, next to the Angels Flight station, the 8-story former Elks building at Olive and 3rd, which was an residence hotel by the time of this view. "Apartment hotels" were a type of apartment building in the early 20th century that offered various services such as housecleaning. Note the old-style multi-globe street lights in these photos.
Angel's Flight Ferguson Building
The building at the right, in the photo above left, is the Hotel Belmont, a tourist hotel in the '30s. "You will enjoy a new experience in hotel living, combining the best features of club, social and home life," says a 1930s hotel brochure. The hotel featured a "Spanish patio" which we see in the photo below.
Hotel Belmont Courtyard
The Hotel Belmont was demolished by the CRA as part of the Bunker Hill urban renewal project, along with the four buildings next to Angel's Flight on the south side of 3rd Street. Angelus Plaza — a housing complex for seniors — was built on this site. The photo below shows 3rd Street and Hill today. The re-design of this side of Hill Street includes wide setbacks of buildings from the street, a huge parking garage for Angelus Plaza, and lawns and trees. In essence, this is a re-design that imposes an inappropriate suburban design in what historically had been a dense urban area.
Third and Hill Remake
The photo of Angel's Flight below was taken in 1909, before the construction of the Hulbert Apartment Hotel (souteast corner of Clay and 3rd). This gives a better shot of the two former Elks' Club buildings next to the Flight — a 5 story building fronting on Clay Street and a 7 story building fronting on Olive Street. The 5 story building shown here was a reinforced concrete building erected in 1909. In later years these buildings were operated as a single-room occupancy hotel.
Third and Clay Streets 1909
The photo below of Hill Street, taken from Clay Street in the late '60s, shows the Victorian buildings adjacent to the Grand Central Market. The tall brick building in the center, located at 3rd and Broadway, was built in the teens at a cost of one million dollars and housed the headquarters of the Metropolitan Water District for many years. On the ground floor of that building are the Million Dollar Pharmacy and Million Dollar Theater (built originally for movie entrepreneur Sid Grauman).
Hill Street from Clay Street
Below left we see a duplex on Clay Street with the Million Dollar Building rising in the background. In the photo at right we see the steps alongside the 3rd Street tunnel portal, across 3rd Street from Angel's Flight. These residence hotels around Angel's Flight were the setting for John Fante's early 1930s novel "Ask the Dust".
Duplex on Clay Street
Third Street Steps
Continuing north on Hill Street there are by the '40s numerous breaks in the street frontage for parking lots along the west side of the street. On the east side of the street we encounter the Hotel Astor at 2nd Street, shown at right. The row of 3-story buildings along the north side of 2nd Street in this photo have been demolished for — what else? — a parking lot. The Hotel Astor has been completely rehabbed as the tourist-oriented Kawada Hotel. Hotel Astor at 2nd and Hill

The next photo shows the same view today.
Second Street east from Hill Today
The Astor Hotel is at right in the following photo, circa 1948. The 9 story building on the northeast corner is the Fashion League Building. This was originally the Union League Club. The Union League was the main Republican Party political club in Southern California in the early 1900s. Note the parking lots on the west side of Hill Street.
Fashion League Building

Court Hill

In the photo above you can see tunnels in the distance. Those tunnels ran through a hill called Court Hill. Both Hill Street and Broadway had tunnels through Court Hill. In the photo below we're looking southwest towards First and Hill. First Street comes in behind the streetcar. At this point First Street is in a valley between Bunker Hill and Court Hill. The apartment houses in the center are on Bunker Hill. The hill at right is Court Hill. The streetcar in this 1949 shot is running inbound on the Hollywood Boulevard streetcar line, which runs through Court Hill in a tunnel.
First and Hill
If we were to walk through the Hill Street auto tunnel and turn around and look to the south, we'd see the scene shown in the next photo. Here we see a Pacific Electric outbound Hollywood Boulevard streetcar stopped at Temple Street. The 1940s noir movie Criss Cross with Burt Lancaster begins with an opening shot of Lancaster getting off a PE streetcar at exactly this location, and he then climbs the staircase up the hill behind the streetcar. Court Hill was leveled in the '50s to make way for the Civic Center...built in the monuments-in-a-park style favored by planners in the early 20th century.
Court Hill
If we were to turn around at this location and look north, we'd seen the scene brought to us by the next photo.
Temple and Hill 1946
In this shot, circa 1946, a Los Angeles Railway A line streetcar is turning off Temple Street to enter the tunnel under Court Hill. The streetcar at right is running outbound on the Hollywood Boulevard streetcar line. It will cross Temple Street and then run through another tunnel...shown below.
Fort Moore Hill Tunnel
This tunnel runs under Fort Moore Hill. The mouth of that tunnel is at the approximate location of the present-day Santa Ana Freeway cut through downtown Los Angeles. The north portal of this tunnel was at Sunset Boulevard. The alley at left ran up to California Street, which ran over the top of the tunnel. California Street no longer exists...replaced by the freeway cut.
Angels Flight wasn't the only funicular in downtown Los Angeles. If you were to walk north along Broadway from 1st Street you would encounter Court Flight which ran up the east face of Court Hill. The next image shows Court Flight next door to the Hotel Broadway (from a postcard mailed in 1916). Just north of this spot, Broadway entered a tunnel through a part of Court Hill.
Hotel Broadway circa 1916

Bunker Hill

At the top of Angel's Flight was an area that had become a working class lodging house district by the '20s. Old Victorian houses were cut up into small units to increase rental revenue for abstentee landlords. Once-fashionable apartment buildings were no longer able to attract higher-income residents.
The commercial center of the hill was the block of 3rd Street at the top of Angel's Flight. We see this block in the photo below, by William Reagh, looking east towards the Angel's Flight station at Olive Street. The building across Grand at the left is the Lovejoy Apartments and the building at the extreme left is the Grand Hotel — a residential hotel. The Angel's Flight pharmacy is on the corner at the right. A dry cleaners is located further down the block. This piece of terrain was cleansed of its working class residents to provide space for the financial industry towers, cultural monuments, and upscale condo towers that currently occupy the hill.
Third Street on the Hill
A famous location on the hill was the Melrose Hotel (below), on Grand Avenue south of 2nd Street. In the 1920s famous Socialist Party mayoral candidate and labor lawyer Job Harriman and his wife moved into the Melrose Hotel.

A narrow street, usually free of autos (90% of the residents of Bunker Hill did not own automobiles), between Olive and Hill was Clay Street, lined with numerous Victorian era buildings. The following photo looks up Clay Street from 4th Street. The Subway Terminal Building was behind the back of the photographer, on the other side of 4th St.
Clay Street from 4th
The following photo shows the same view today.
Site of Clay Street
In the photo at right, by Donald Duke, the area along Clay Street at 3rd, crossed by Angel's Flight, provides an almost European flavor. Angel's Flight Crosses Clay Street
The Bunker Hill project was the first redevelopment project in L.A. The initial plan for Bunker Hill was developed under the mayoral administration of Fletcher Bowron in the early '50s. The first CRA under Bowron planned to remove all the old buildings on the hill, in the slash-and-burn style of urban redevelopment of that era. The Bowron CRA also came up with a plan for the top of the hill that was similar to what was actually done on Bunker Hill in being in the International Style, derived from Le Corbusier's "towers-in-a-park" concepts of the '30s. The consultants hired by the Bowron CRA did a study of the housing needs and preferences of downtown workers, and came up with a plan for limit-height (13-story) apartment highrises on the hill that would have rents affordable to downtown workers. The 1951 CRA model for the hill is shown below.
Worker housing for Bunker Hill
But Bowron was run out of office by the downtown elite in 1953, in a nasty campaign orchestrated by the L.A. Times, and Bunker Hill was a major issue in the campaign. Then how did Bowron's plan differ from the subsequent plan worked out under the various developer-friendly administrations in later years? The key question was: Whose turf was this going to be? The Bowron CRA proposed a commercial high rise apartment development that would be oriented to providing housing for downtown workers. What the downtown elite wanted was for the working class to be moved off the hill, and the terrain dedicated to financial district expansion, elite housing, and cultural monuments favored by the elite classes.
About 90 percent of the residents of the old Bunker Hill didn't own a motor vehicle. But the new Bunker Hill is highly auto-oriented by design. The top of the hill was chopped off so as to rebuild Grand Avenue as a two-level street, with lower level access for deliveries and for access to parking. The photo below looks north up the lower level of Grand Avenue from 4th Street.

What caused the decline of the downtown?

After the '60s, there was an exodus of corporate- and finance-related offices from downtown L.A., with major new office construction scattered along the Wilshire corridor. The largest of these new office centers is Century City, with 9 million square feet of office space, developed in the late '60s on a 20th Century Fox studio site. Today, the various office concentrations from Wilshire Center and downtown Hollywood west to the Wilshire and Olympic corridors in Santa Monica jointly contain more than 45 million square feet of office space, about equal to all the office space in downtown San Francisco. By comparison, there is only 32 million square feet of office space in downtown L.A. today. A significant part of the employment in downtown L.A. in recent years has been industrial in nature — jewelry making, garment manufacturing and distribution, and the like. This makes downtown L.A. one of the most industrial downtowns in the USA.
Mike Davis suggests that the collapse of downtown as an office and retail center was an effect of the Watts riots. This may have contributed to the desire of the corporate executives to relocate but I don't think this was the most important influence. For one thing, the riots were largely confined to South L.A. in 1965. In the '60s the white working class, not people of color, were the majority on the streets in the downtown. There are three more important reasons:
  • The decline of the population within walking distance of downtown stores.
  • Lack of accessibility compared to newer outlying office and retail centers.
  • Development of newer retail centers with lots of free parking and easier accessibility.
The Bunker Hill redevelopment project contributed to downtown's decline in two ways. There were 21,400 residents on Bunker Hill, Court Hill and Fort Moore Hill (that is, 5th Street to Sunset Blvd) in 1940. These people were forced out by the Bunker Hill project, the removal of Court Hill for the Civic Center, and the removal of Fort Moore Hill for the Santa Ana Freeway cut.
The reduction in the population living in and around downtown eliminated a part of the market for downtown stores. These were people who were more likely to be out and about on downtown streets in the evening or on weekends. With their departure, theaters lost patronage and stores had fewer customers.
The population living within one mile of 7th and Broadway (center of the downtown for decades) was 105,800 in 1940. About half this population lived in the older lodging houses or residential hotels...or on Bunker Hill, Court Hill and Fort Moore Hill. The other half lived in neighborhoods on the frindge of downtown to the south, south-west, west, and north. These people living in the downtown, on Bunker Hill or in the neighborhoods on the edge of the downtown, were typically working class people who worked in downtown stores or offices, warehouses, or factories on the edge of downtown (such as garment factories).
By 2000 the population in this area had been reduced to only 45 percent of the level of 1940.
But I think the most important factor in downtown's decline was the failure to build a rapid transit system feeding into downtown in the first half of the 20th century. Central Los Angeles was still heavily dependent on public transit as late as the 1940s, and there were numerous plans for rapid transit proposed between 1906 and 1948. (emphasis added)
The lack of accessibility became increasingly a problem after the '60s due to rising traffic congestion. Downtown Los Angeles was competing with newer office and retail centers...centers that were designed with auto accessibility in mind.
The downtown had been created by market forces in the early 1900s. The most importance force concentrating jobs and offices and stores downtown was its location at the center of the Los Angeles transit system in an era when few people had their own private vehicles. This made the small amount of land at the center highly valuable. This tended to push out residential uses...especially individual houses...and create an area built out wall-to-wall with commercial buildings. As this advantage was lost in later years, the older retail buildings with marginal ability to extract rents were knocked down for parking lots.
After 1946, and especially after 1960, the city of Los Angeles carried out a highly destructive zoning policy of requiring high amounts of off-street parking for new construction. As the amount of the downtown taken up by parking lots and parking structures expanded, much of the street frontage became barren and boring for people on foot. The various remaining buildings then become more dispersed in various clusters rather than forming a continuous wall-to-wall area of streetscape that can provide potential destinations or sites for people walking through the downtown.
The huge outflow of corporate, law and financial offices to the Westside caused a collapse in demand for downtown office space. This contributed to the virtual disappearance of the old financial district on Spring Street, with the remaining office uses mainly concentrated in the "new" financial district that runs from Bunker Hill south...or the massive concentration of government buildings in the Civic Center. Collapse in demand for office space led to the upper floors in many buildings being rented out for telecommunications switching gear.
The collapse of downtown L.A. as an office and retail center led to major declines in real estate values and a widespread shift in ownership, with speculators moving in to capture bargains. The current loft boom enables many of the new owners to capture profits from the higher market values of their properties when they are converted to market-rate housing for the professional/managerial class.

I think Tom Wetzel deserves credit for doing an excellent job compiling this historical examination. But I think there's another factor that deserves further examination regarding why there was a "failure to build a rapid transit system feeding into downtown in the first half of the 20th century". This would be the Great American streetcar scandal. Wikipedia provides a good summary:

Great American streetcar scandal

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Great American streetcar scandal (also known as the General Motors streetcar conspiracy and the National City Lines conspiracy) is a conspiracy[1][2] theory in which streetcar systems throughout the United States were dismantled and replaced with buses in the mid-20th century as a result of alleged illegal actions by a number of prominent companies, acting through National City Lines (NCL), Pacific City Lines (on the West Coast, starting in 1938), and American City Lines (in large cities, starting in 1943).
National, which had been in operation since 1920, was organized into a holding company, and General Motors, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, Mack, and the Federal Engineering Corporation made investments in the City Lines companies in return for exclusive supply contracts.[3] Between 1936 and 1950, National City Lines bought out more than 100 electric surface-traction systems in 45 cities,[4] including Detroit, Cleveland, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Tulsa, Baltimore, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, and replaced them with GM buses. American City Lines merged with National in 1946.[3]


In the 19th century, city transit systems were rail-based, first with horse-drawn cars and later with cable cars. Around 1890, streetcars began to be powered by electricity, and streetcar companies built large generating facilities to produce the needed electricity. They began to sell their surplus electricity to consumers and, in time, their electric businesses outgrew their transit businesses.
Expansion of cities, increasing competition from automobiles, difficult labor relations, and tight regulation of fares, routes, and schedules took their toll on city streetcar systems in the first third of the 20th century. By 1916, street railroads nationwide were wearing out their equipment faster than they were replacing it. While operating expenses were generally recovered, money for long-term investment was generally diverted elsewhere.[5] This included consumer electric distribution systems.
Because streetcar companies were often the biggest single customers of electric utilities, they were often owned partially or wholly by the utilities themselves, which then supplied them with electricity at substantially discounted rates.[6] [7] In some cases, the origin of the situation was reversed; the streetcar company began providing its own electricity, and then later branched out into supplying electricity for other businesses and homes.[6] The Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, an antitrust law, prohibited regulated electric utilities from operating unregulated businesses, which included most streetcar lines, and also restricted the ability of companies to operate across state lines. Many holding companies operated both streetcars and electric utilities across several states; those that owned both types of businesses were forced to sell one.[6][7] The choice was obvious: the declining streetcar business was far less valuable than the growing consumer electric business, and many streetcar systems were put up for sale.[8]
National City Lines began to buy streetcar systems. Even when the sale of a transit system was not forced, declining revenue – particularly in the Great Depression – left many streetcar systems short of funds for maintenance and capital improvements, and available for purchase. The newly independent lines, no longer associated with an electric utility holding company, had to purchase electricity at full price from their former parents, further shaving their already thin margins.[9]

[edit] Los Angeles

Los Angeles had two separate trolley systems, commonly known as the Pacific Electric "Red Cars" and the Los Angeles Railway "Yellow Cars." National City Lines owned only the Yellow Cars, yet both ended up being dismantled. The two systems were often used in conjunction by travelers, and cutting service on one line made the other less convenient (as compared to automobiles). During this period, automobile ownership was rising everywhere in the United States, in cities where GM had purchased the local streetcar systems and in cities where it had not.
On April 9, 1947, nine corporations and seven individuals (constituting officers and directors of certain of the corporate defendants) were indicted in the United States District Court for the Southern District of California on two counts under the U.S. Sherman Antitrust Act. The charges, in summary, were conspiracy to acquire control of a number of transit companies to form a transportation monopoly, and conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies to companies owned by the City Lines.[10]
The proceedings were against Firestone, Standard Oil of California, Phillips, General Motors, Federal Engineering, and Mack (the suppliers), and their subsidiary companies: National City Lines, Pacific City Lines, and American City Lines (the City Lines).
The Seventh Circuit Court summarized the history of the arrangement this way:[3]
"On April 9, 1947, nine corporations and seven individuals, constituting officers and directors of certain of the corporate defendants, were indicted on two counts, the second of which charged them with conspiring to monopolize certain portions of interstate commerce, in violation of Section 2 of the Anti-trust Act, 15 U.S.C.A. § 2. The American City Lines having been dismissed, the remaining corporate and individual defendants were found guilty upon this count."[3]
"National City Lines, organized in 1936, as a holding company to acquire and operate local transit companies, had brought, up to the time when the contracts were executed, its necessary equipment and fuel products from different suppliers, with no long-term contract with any of them. Pacific City Lines was organized for the purpose of acquiring local transit companies on the Pacific Coast and commenced doing business in January 1938. American was organized to acquire local transportation systems in the larger metropolitan areas in various parts of the country in 1943. It merged with National in 1946."[3]
"(9) Additional facts, while not largely in dispute, are partially controverted, at least in so far as inferences are concerned; however, we think the evidence adequately justified the jury in finding affirmatively that they existed. In 1938, National conceived the idea of purchasing transportation systems in cities where street cars were no longer practicable and supplanting the latter with passenger busses. Its capital was limited and its earlier experience in public financing convinced it that it could not successfully finance the purchase of an increasing number of operating companies in various parts of the United States by such means. Accordingly it devised the plan of procuring funds from manufacturing companies whose products its operating companies were using constantly in their business. National approached General Motors, which manufactures busses and delivers them to the various sections of the United States. It approached Firestone, whose business of manufacturing and supplying tires extends likewise throughout the nation. In the middle west, where a large part of its operating subsidiaries were to be located, it solicited investment of funds from Phillips, which operates throughout that section but not on the east or west coast. Pacific undertook the procurement of funds from General Motors and Firestone and also from Standard Oil of California, which operates on the Pacific coast. Mack Truck Company was also solicited. Eventually each of the suppliers entered into a contract with City Lines defendants of the character we have described whereby City Lines companies agreed that they would buy their exclusive requirements from the contracting supplier and from no one else. We think the evidence is clear that when any one of these suppliers was approached, its attitude was that it would be interested in helping finance City Lines, provided it should receive a contract for the exclusive use of its products in all of the operating companies of the City Lines, so far as busses and tires were concerned, and, as to the oil companies, in the territory served by the respective petroleum companies. It may be of little importance, but it seems to be the fact, at least we think the jury was justified in inferring it to be the fact, that the proposal for financing came from City Lines but that proposal of exclusive contracts came from the suppliers. At any rate, it is clear that eventually each supplier entered into a written contract of long duration whereby City Lines, in consideration of suppliers' help in financing City Lines, agreed that all of their operating subsidiaries should use only the suppliers' products. These were not joint contracts; each supplier entered into a separate agreement. Whether the action of the suppliers in this connection was so concerted as to justify the jury in finding that defendants conspired to monopolize that segment of interstate commerce reflected by the purchase and shipment in commerce of busses, tires and petroleum products to the operating companies, we shall discuss more fully later. The facts related present only a sketchy outline of the setup as it was presented to the jury."[3]
The court went on to detail how the various City Lines companies approached Firestone, Standard, Phillips, General Motors and Mack, offering exclusive supplier contracts in return for capital investment.
"Although defendants insist that each supplier merely obtained business from the City Lines defendants through separate negotiations, the documentary evidence referred to above and other circumstances in evidence seem to us clearly sufficient to justify the jury in finding that the contrary was true. It is clear that representatives of two or more supplier defendants were in attendance in Chicago and New York at meetings and conferences, out of which grew the investment and requirements contracts. And the fact that copies of a memorandum of discussions held between one of the supplier defendants and one of the City Lines defendants, as well as copies of many of the letters which passed between the contracting parties prior to the execution of the contracts, were sent to representatives of other supplier defendants, coupled with the fact that the latter corresponded with one another relative to the provisions of the contracts, is hardly reconcilable with defendants' contention that their several contracts were negotiated independently of one another but is, rather, convincing that each of the contracts was regarded by the parties as but a part of a 'larger deal' or 'proposition', to use the words of certain of the defendants, in which all of the supplier defendants were involved."[3]
In 1948, the United States Supreme Court (in United States v. National City Lines Inc.[11]) reversed lower court rulings and permitted a change in venue from the Federal District Court of Southern California to the Federal District Court in Northern Illinois.
In 1949, the defendants were acquitted on the first count of conspiring to monopolize transportation services, but were found guilty on the second count of conspiring to monopolize the provision of parts and supplies to their subsidiary companies. The companies were each fined $5,000, and the directors were each fined one dollar. The verdicts were upheld on appeal in 1951.[3]
In 1970, Robert Eldridge Hicks, a Harvard Law student working on the Ralph Nader Study Group Report on Land Use in California, compiled and correlated these earlier events to expose the conspiracy. It was first reported publicly in Politics of Land, published in 1973.
In 1974, Bradford Snell, a U.S. government attorney, gave testimony before a United States Senate inquiry into the causes of the decline of the transit car systems in the U.S. that pointed to the effect of the NCL acquisitions as the primary cause.[12] This theory was then popularized in U.S. popular culture in books such as Fast Food Nation and the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, in which the scandal is masked and set in Los Angeles.[13]
Another element of this theory is the effect of the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which began its initial construction in California after the large-scale dismantling of that state's trolley network.[14]

Wikipedia is more than generous referring to this scandal as a conspiracy "theory"; those court records quoted seem pretty clear that what transpired was hardly theoretical. But a 1997 article from provides more detail to the connection between GM and the construction of the Interstate Highway System:

The oil industry and destruction of public transport

What's Good for General Motors...

By Jim Motavalli

General Motors' investment of vast amounts of capital and energy in manipulating public opinion and state law may seem unprecedented, but this is, after all, a company's whose executives could proudly proclaim, "What's good for General Motors is good for America." Indeed, GM's campaign against electric cars has an eerily similar precedent.
In 1922, when only one in 10 Americans owned a car, GM launched an undercover campaign to destroy the then-dominant public transportation system. The campaign, which took 30 years to fully implement, focused on the country's clean (powered by electricity) and safe (accidents were infrequent) streetcar system.
GM, in partnership with Standard Oil of California and Firestone, began by buying the largest busmaker in the U.S. It then secretly funded a company called National City Lines, which by 1946 controlled streetcar operations in 80 cities.

Despite public opinion polls that, in Los Angeles for instance, showed 88 percent of the public favoring expansion of the rail lines after World War II, NCL systematically closed its streetcar systems down until, by 1955, only a few remained.
A federal antitrust investigation resulted in both indictment and conspiracy convictions for GM executives, but destroying a public transportation network that would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to reproduce today cost the company only $5,000 in fines.
Destroying the rail lines and replacing them with buses was only the first step. If private cars were going to dominate American transportation, they needed new roads to run on. GM also stands behind creation of the National Highway Users Conference, otherwise known as the highway lobby, which became the most powerful pressure group in Washington. GM promotional films from the immediate postwar years proclaim interstate highways to be the realization of "the American dream of freedom on wheels."
GM President Charles Wilson, who became Secretary of Defense in 1953, used his position to proclaim that a new road system was vital to U.S. security needs. He was assisted by newly appointed Federal Highway Administrator Francis DuPont, whose family was then the largest GM shareholder. Acting on a bill introduced by Senator Albert Gore, Sr. (the current vice president's father), Congress approved the $25 billion Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. "The greatest public works program in the history of the world," as Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks called it, contained the seeds of our current gridlock.
Visionaries of 1939 might have envisioned that by 1960 there'd be a 14-lane superhighway crisscrossing the nation at 100 miles per hour (with car spacing controlled by "radio beams"), but bumper-to-bumper brake checks are more familiar to the modern driver.
1997, Earth Action Network

I'm not sure if it's too late to fix this problem. As the above article says, reproducing a public transportation rail network would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Wait, how many billions have we spent fighting what Dick Cheney called "The War That Will Not End In Our Lifetimes"???



Tanya @ TeenAutism said...

Fascinating post. As another native Los Angelean, I really enjoyed seeing the photos and reading about the public transportation history. But the big picture results - disturbing. How much better off we all would have been had public transportation not been wiped out and replaced by a personal car society.

Robert Paulsen said...

Thanks Tanya! I love that phrase "personal car society". It illustrates that car ownership is an integral part of the operative paradigm that we call American Culture. If society is going to evolve and grow up to become more responsible about how we use the natural resources this planet provides, we will need to re-prioritize what it is about American Culture that we truly value.