I’ll bet you thought, as I did, that electric streetcars disappeared across America because people stopped using them. That they were an antiquated thing of the past, with their overhead wires and single cars, going down the middle of streets in almost every city with a population over 2,500. The small town where I grew up still had the remnants of streetcar tracks down Main Street before they repaved it. In fact, the streetcar business was thriving in the 1920s and was the most popular mode of transportation.
There were over 1,200 separate electric streetcar systems, with 44,000 miles of track and 300,000 employees. They served 15 billion annual passengers and posted income over $1 billion. Pretty staggering numbers for the 1920’s.
In 1921 General Motors lost $65 million. At that same time 90 percent of all travel was by rail, predominantly electric rail, as only 10 percent of the population owned cars. If you were going to work in the morning, you walked to the corner and got on the streetcar to go downtown. So it might not surprise you that GM hatched a “marketing” campaign to hit streetcars and hit them hard. The idea was to get more people to buy cars, GM cars. And they did this by buying up successful municipal streetcar systems, closing them down and replacing them with unreliable, smelly buses. Standard Oil, Firestone and several other companies joined in to form a company that bought up the lines, dismantled them and replaced them with GM buses, with Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil fuel.
I didn’t believe it either, thought it was maybe ONE of the reasons streetcars dissappeared. But in April 1949, GM, Standard Oil and Firestone were convicted by a Chicago federal jury of CRIMINALLY conspiring to replace electric streetcars with buses and monopolizing the sale of buses. They were fined a whopping $5,000.
And why I bring this up is because of the number of cities that are now spending MILLIONS to bring electric rail systems back to their cities. Here’s a few: Tampa, Charlotte, Dallas, Minneapolis/St. Paul, San Diego, Columbus OH, Huntington WV and Portland OR (above). And that is just scratching the surface. A method of mass transit so profitable, efficient and good for the environment that it is seeing a resurgence in many US metropolitan areas for those very reasons. But damn, we had the whole thing in place a hundred years ago. WTF
(Photo credits: Top: DavidArthur “Wikimedia Commons”. Bottom: Cacophony “Wikimedia Commons”)