Americans used to ride cheap trolleys. Then we burned them

One of the many fascinating storylines in the documentary PUMP (which is now available for download on iTunes) is the yarn about how several companies got together to take on a common enemy: popular, affordable electric trains and trolleys that criss-crossed the nation early in the 20th century. That’s a very different country than we live in today, when the automobile is as ingrained in our culture and economy as ever. As former Shell Oil president John Hofmeister puts it in the film:

“We live in a society in which we rely on personal mobility as the primary means of transportation. And there’s no public transportation system to rely upon in the United States of America as an alternative to high prices or shortages.”

Narrator Jason Bateman follows up:

“America wasn’t always without transportation choices. Once upon a time, we had the best and cheapest public transportation in the world.”

Bateman then gives way to an expert on this subject, Edwin Black, whose book Internal Combustion details the effort to target the trolleys. Black explains in PUMP:

“People loved the trolleys. They could hop off, they could hop on … all the trolleys ran on electricity. It was said that you could go from San Diego to New York City on a trolley just by transferring, transferring and transferring.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, five companies — Standard Oil, Mack Truck, Firestone, Phillips and General Motors — colluded to create a secret company that bought up all the trolley lines and passenger cars.

“… the rails were pulled up, the trolley cars themselves were burned in public bonfires [as seen in the photo above], and they replaced them with smelly, oil-consuming motor buses. Eventually, the federal government discovered that this was a conspiracy to subvert mass transit. All five corporations were indicted, they were tried, they were found guilty. A corporate conspiracy was responsible for destroying the trolleys in America.”

The reckoning was a little late, however. Back to Bateman:

“With cheap public electric transportation eliminated by oil and car companies, the vision of America’s future switched from rails to roads.”

That led to the interstate highway system, which only intensified our love affair with the automobile. A relationship that relies, essentially, on just one fuel type: gasoline. Of course, many of today’s municipal bus fleets run on compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied natural gas (LNG). And rail projects are often on the minds of planners. But getting away from gas-burning transport has been a difficult road, as anyone following the fight over California’s $68 billion high-speed rail project knows. To get a sense of how the story of oil’s dominance came to, and to see what you can do to end our addiction to it, watch PUMP. (Photo credit: Submarine Deluxe)

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