Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A Streetcar Named Conspiracy

I was talking to a guy at tonight's Providence Geeks dinner who mentioned that he had pitched a project to General Motors a few years back that involved GM getting into the trolley business. The idea was that it would be a way for GM to show how innovative they are and how they can adapt and react to the changing world around them. Needless to say, GM didn't buy into this plan, but the person I was talking to said something that really caught my attention. He said that GM, in conjunction with Firestone and the Greyhound bus company, conspired to dismantle America's system of electric streetcars starting in the 1920s by buying the companies that operated streetcar lines, tearing up the tracks, and replacing them with dirty, unreliable bus service. This sounded a bit conspiracy-theoryish to me, so I did a little research when I got home. There's a fair number of lefty & environmentalists websites promoting this theory. Most of them seem to get their information from a PBS documentary from 1996 entitled Taken for a Ride.

I'd like to watch the documentary, but I'm fairly skeptical about the premise. For starters, streetcars really aren't a particularly great form of intra-city transportation. Boston still has several streetcar lines linked into its public transit system and everyone I've ever met who had to rely on one of those lines to get around town has had nothing but awful things to say about them. A streetcar is little more than a bus with a dedicated lane. There's no doubt that the arrival of affordable, mass-produced automobiles decreased American's desires to use public transit. We can debate whether or not that's a good thing, but it hardly represents a conspiracy. The most damning evidence I was able to find to counter this thesis comes from Cecil Adams.

While doing my crack online research, I also learned that the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit draws on this conspiracy theory. I saw the movie when it came out 20 years ago, but I had forgotten that part of the the story involved an unscrupulous highway company buying out a streetcar operator. I'm not surprised that I didn't pick up on this subplot as an 11 year old. Perhaps I should watch the movie again and see if there's anything else I missed.

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