Thursday, October 5, 2006

Who killed the streetcar?

    Did General Motors kill off America’s city streetcars?  According to PBS’s “History Detectives” episode that was broadcast last night (admittedly not the most scholarly source!), which focused on the demise of Cleveland’s once-extensive trolley lines, GM’s primary effort in the ’40s and ‘50s was in buying up already-troubled private streetcar companies and turning them to buses –- GM buses, of course. 

Streetcar_1

If this is the extent of GM’s role, blame for the demise of urban public transportation should be laid equally in the lap of city governments, which failed at the time to appreciate that more public funding would be needed to support public transportation in the auto age (remember that even New York’s subway lines were originally built and run for decades largely as private ventures).  The PBS show also expressed a bias in favor “clean” streetcars over “smelly" buses.  But wasn’t there a benefit in the mobility and speed of the city bus over the slow and unwieldy streetcar?    

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