Why is it that when Japan, Europe, and other developed parts of the world were continuing to use, expand upon, and rebuild their public transit systems, the U.S. instead dismantled theirs in favor of highways and freeway systems, busses, and automobiles; crowded, bumper-to-bumper streets, stalling, inching forward at a snail's pace; dirtying the air with copious amounts of exhaust and clogging the horizon with visible smog?
In just under an hour, the documentary gives the details to piece together a large, complex web of industries tirelessly lobbying for the inefficient system we now have—the worst public transit system of the developed world. It's somewhat dated because it's 1996, and already a lot of things have changed, but it's a very worthwhile look at a great shaping force of the U.S.
There's of course nothing wrong with having cars, but, as one of the commentators in the film said, it's best for cars, busses, etc. to supplement public transit, otherwise vast tracts roads crisscross, growing by the day, a new lane one year, another the next, cutting through the hearts of the cities, the entire country itself, like clogged arteries.
With the rail system, the trolleys (or streetcars; trams in Europe) had their own dedicated rail and they sped by quickly, and the pollution was significantly cut because they used electricity instead of gas like the automobiles. Early on, most people couldn't afford a car, and busses weren't a popular alternative.
The earliest point covered was 1922, when, according to the documentary, only 1 in 10 Americans drove or owned an automobile.
General Motors' (GM) Alfred P. Sloan saw an opportunity to expand the auto industry and amass a fortune. His goal was to motorize the entire country. By forcing the bus to become more prevalent than the streetcar, the assumption was the consumers would save up to buy a car in lieu of lagging around in filthy busses, which were slow and malodorous.
GM purchased Omnibus and Yellow Coach, the largest bus operating company and bus production company, respectively.
They started with Manhattan, dismantling the rail system in the span of a decade (1926-1936).
Their success in New York set a sort of perceived standard, and they pressured the entire country with a vigorous ad campaign, suggesting moving away from rail in favor of busses was preferable. In truth, the rail system was popular and the busing system was not.
But what the people prefer is rarely upheld for long. The most powerful and monied corporations conspire and lobby and deceive the public.
In 1936, National City Lines (NCL) was founded. They would dominate city transportation, and while they had no apparent connection to GM, their director of operations came from Yellow Coach, and members of the board came from Greyhound (founded and controlled by GM). Roy Fitzgerald, who came from a humble background, became the face of NCL.
Standard Oil, Mack Truck, Phillips Petroleum, and Firestone Tires would back GM in this endeavor.
So NCL reduced the amount of miles and service offered by streetcars and sold off integral properties. Once it becomes less available, it becomes less convenient, and commuters turn to other transportation, even if they're not the most savory choices.
The DOJ opened up anti-trust investigations, but these did little to curb the growth and influence of GM and its associated industries, even though they were found guilty.
Because bussing became more ubiquitous every year, more people bought cars. Furthermore, the postwar economy was in good shape and returning soldiers had extra money, so many of them bought a car. As time went on, fewer people could afford to live without a car because of suburbanization and the decline of public transit, and cars became more affordable because of the large supply, further incentivizing their purchase.
Suburbanization is in many ways connected to the quality of public transit. Once the city became flooded with cars, greater pollution and noise, etc, cities became less desirable and those with greater income would often move to the suburbs. Of course being outside of the city resulted in more gas being used, more pollution, often long commutes, where it seems one might spend a sizable chunk of his day in traffic. Undoubtedly those who developed the suburbs were likely in bed with GM and its associates, for it seems a favorable and lucrative pairing.
At this point in time, the trolley system was in need of repair. While Europe and Japan rebuilt, GM used the Highway Lobby, an umbrella of organizations associated with motorization. Millions were spent in their advocacy of highways.
But their influence only grew as Eisenhower appointed Charles Wilson, the GM president of the time, as the Secretary of Defense. Francis Dupont, a key figure in the construction of the interstate system, became head of the Federal Highway Administration. Both had influence over the president and were given approval for what led to the Interstate Highway System.
Eisenhower is most famously associated with his warning about the military-industrial complex (MIC), but he did a great deal to maintain and solidify what he cautioned against. The pitch for freeways was partially to bolster national security, and ever since then, the position of the automobile industry within the MIC was stronger than ever. Seeing as it was the cold war era and the time of the second Red Scare, a vast system of freeways and highways connecting all the cities and states was probably an easy sell. This is not to say that it necessarily was anything more than a corporate interest however—but it's usefulness to national security was at least part of the pitch.
As they aptly state (paraphrased): "To pay for the interstate, congress created the Highway Trust Fund with money from the gasoline tax. This fund could only be used to build more highways. More highways meant more driving. More driving meant more taxes. And the taxes would go toward more roads."
But no matter how preferable or efficient the rail system (or the updated light rail system or other systems) might be in comparison, it is difficult and in many ways inefficient to strip down the system that is in place, and the Highway Lobby is still strong. Perhaps we will eventually incorporate more public transit to offset pollution and provide a steady and reliable alternative to automobiles and a greater balance, but the system we have been forced into will flourish for a long time to come.