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The Streetcar Conspiracy

December 2023
1min read

Robert C. Post replies: I received numerous letters taking issue with my article; Mr. Lietwiler’s was more thoughtful and substantial than most. He provides a neat summary of Bradford Snell’s accusations but renders them no more credible. Yes, National City Lines conspired to monopolize the sale of buses, tires, and petroleum products, and it was convicted of antitrust violations. It was never convicted of conspiring “to destroy the street railway industry,” which was already adept at self-destruction.

When Lietwiler notes that streetcars in Washington, D.C., were 25 percent slower than buses but treats this as an indication that streetcars were superior, I assume this to be a comparison that might appeal to a transit planner for some reason. It’s not likely that patrons would have felt the same way. And most important, after all, is what all this means to the people who ride transit. Money put into rail lines is, to a certain extent, money withheld from bus systems. Patrons of bus systems are typically poor and disenfranchised, and that is one reason why “a certain percentage of the population,” as Lietwiler puts it, “will not ride on buses in an all-bus system.” So, is it worth spending enormous sums to provide these people with a more glamorous form of transit? Perhaps, but one must at least be frank about who those people are: largely middleclass, largely white—people who tend to feel uncomfortable on buses.

And is it worthwhile to use railborne transit in order to “strengthen downtown areas economically"? Perhaps, but again one should be frank about how this serves certain political interests while working to the disadvantage of others. Who needs to commute not downtown but from one peripheral area to another? Let’s start with women who work as domestics. It’s not likely they will ever get to commute via light rail. Who are light rail’s most powerful partisans? The list would have to include huge consulting and engineering firms like Bechtel and archconservatives like Paul Weyrich. When choices are made about urban transportation technologies, what is always foremost is “political considerations.”

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