Who killed the electric streetcar?

According to Larry West

Indeed, in the 1920s automaker General Motors (GM) began a covert campaign to undermine the popular rail-based public transit systems that were ubiquitous in and around the country’s bustling urban areas. At the time, only one in 10 Americans owned cars and most people traveled by trolley and streetcar.

Within three decades, GM, with help from Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, Mack Truck and Phillips Petroleum, succeeded in decimating the nation’s trolley systems, while seeing to the creation of the federal highway system and the ensuing dominance of the automobile as America’s preferred mode of transport.

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According to Al Mankoff

The United States still bears untold scars from the American streetcar swindle. The once profitable system of privately-held independent electric-powered urban transit was destroyed, giving cities the choice between government-subsidized transit or no service at all. An economical, efficient, and non-polluting transit system has been replaced with one that is more expensive, less-efficient, and highly polluting. The American taxpayer has paid the price ever since.

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More blog entries about Sustainability.



  1. The trouble with this story is really how easily people assign a complex conspiracy story to what isn’t that stunning or complex. Streetcars, all over the US and in Cities that had NOTHING to do with GM, were on their way out because buses were a more cost effective solution.

    Here are some good links on the subject:


    Here’s one from UC Berkeley

    It does stink that we don’t have good public transit option in the US. However, how do it foster a real discussion if we back our views with false information. That makes it too easy for people to say “you don’t know what you are talking about and here’s the proof!”


  2. According to an anonymous letter to Bartcop

    I know how to save GM. General Motors savior may be in it’s illegal aquisitions from 70 years ago. From the 1920s through the 1950s GM and Firestone bought up all the private commuter rail they could, including subways, cable cars, electric trollies, etc… So that they could crush it forcing people to buy cars
    to get around. The Supreme Court fined them both a whopping $5000 for violating antitrust laws and single handidly destroying the American metropolitan area. Today, much of that old infrastructure still exists, albeit in a dilapidated state, and GM still owns thousands of miles of rail easments in dozens of cities across America.

    Obama put over $8 billion in the stimulus bill for commuter rail, why not give GM a few billion bucks to renovate and reopen the old subways and trollies? Los Angeles used to have one of the largest networks of subways and cummuter rail in the world before GM destroyed it, and most of the old tunnels still exist and only need some renovation to be functional again.

    By doing this we can save GM and it’s vast capital infrastructure, help the environment by removing cars from the road, and force one of the slowest-to-adapt manufacturing giants to finally diversify.


  3. One must ask; just how rational would and electric streetcar system nationwide be? It certainly couldn’t have replaced the interstate system. Even in Dayton, Ohio where the electric streetcar system survived on an admittedly small level it mixes with cars… fair to poorly. In the past couple years I haven’t seen one there when I pass through on a yearly basis, wondering now if it too hasn’t finally been mostly dismantled.

    I have no sympathy for GM execs, and I certainly think making one head of Transportation is beyond “conflict of interest.” But just how rational would this system be now? If we had become a less spread out nation: commuting prone, perhaps more so. But now it’s probably only best as an occasional oddity. I understand the automobile is responsible for that, and auto execs being too much in the pocket of the pols.

    Until we get the influence of industry out of the system and return it to more of an adversarial relationship, we will have more of this. And in some cases it’s a downright homicidal and conman situation. It’s a National Socialistic; Blackwater/KBR political world out there these days in America: thanks in part to execs like those in GM.


  4. This relatively unknown story has many ramifications bearing on the mess we’re in today and my thanks go to Brad Pierce and Larry West for posting this information. The current financial and managerial dilemma facing these corporations represents a kind of corporate Karma, wholly justified–now, after all these years, the Great Wheel is turning and the rebirth of electric rail transit is under way despite these actions of blatant corporate greed so long ago. By all means, follow the trail. . . . ignore the naysayers . . . the records of the trial lie crumbling in a government warehouse in south Chicago . . . this fascinating–and true–story is well worth pursuing . . .


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