Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Holy Shit, Streetcars!

Defunct Streetcars

If you're roughly my age and you have similar taste, it's possible that you grew up loving the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In it, hard-boiled, noir-style private investigator Eddie Valiant gets caught up in a conspiracy by the evil Judge Doom and his associates to buy up all the public transportation of Los Angeles and demolish Toon Town to make way for interstate highways and create a massive demand for cars. Also, there's a cartoon rabbit.

Funny thing is, that actually happened. In real life.
Eddie and Roger Rabbit
Not this part. The conspiracy part.
From the late 1930s into the '50s, several companies with a vested interest in the rise of automobiles, led by General Motors, started buying up streetcar companies in major cities across America. Once acquired, the streetcars were systematically dismantled and then either replaced with good old combustible engine buses or left to languish, leaving locals in dire need of a new means of transportation.
Old car
Pictured: A new means of transportation
After public transportation languished, cars took off and the conspiring companies made a mint. Before we all grab our pitchforks, though, there are a couple of important caveats. Most importantly: most streetcar systems were dying already. The Great Depression, poor labor relations, urban sprawl, and poor planning were already taking their toll on the industry. When the conspirators swept in to deliver the killing blow, it was almost a coup de grĂ¢ce. Almost.

Second, several companies and individuals were actually convicted and fined for their roles in the scandal. Justice was done. Partially. Kind of. In fact, they were convicted on about half of the charges. And one of the chief conspirators, H.C. Grossman, treasurer of GM, was fined a grand total of one goddamn dollar. So maybe justice was done in a sort of "playfully shoving your buddy a little" kind of way.
Judge Doom
I choose to believe this is how Grossman celebrated his good fortune.

Despite those caveats, the fact remains that an honest-to-god conspiracy of nefarious capitalists bought out a popular service and, despite being in a position to rescue it, decided instead to drive it into the ground in favor of a less-environmentally friendly, more expensive (to consumers), and more profitable (for them) route.

Today, public transportation in America is about as popular and widespread as the Charleston is in modern night clubs. That's largely thanks to the exact conspiracy that drives the plot of 1980s children's movie.

Holy shit.

No comments:

Post a Comment