Let Us Roller Skate to the Grocery Store

There occurred a sneaky move in the development of public transportation infrastructure in the United States around 1940–50, one that set us back considerably. But of course, at the time, those involved truly believed they were looking out for American citizens, doing their part to improve our quality of life, and especially theirs. Could you envision a rail-oriented structure in our larger cities? How about a Los Angeles or Detroit that moves more like San Francisco? It is safe to say there was no single cause in US history that manipulated our system to be so auto-dependent; the reasons are varied and numerous. However, there is one event in particular which could be argued to be the catalyst of the automobile trend while helping erase the possibility of public rail transit as a viable form of transportation.

The Great American Streetcar Scandal was executed with such a swift and dexterous hand that even the US Supreme Court eventually noticed. The list of players is impressive: National City Lines, American City Lines, Pacific City Lines, Standard Oil, Federal Engineering Corp, Phillips Petroleum, General Motors, Firestone Tire, and Rubber and Mack Manufacturing. Their ultimate goal, which they accomplished, was to buy out all of the streetcar companies in major US cities and dismantle the infrastructure, clearing the public transportation slate and laying the foundation for a system reliant almost entirely on combustion engine mobility. It was clear they were in cahoots and were all convicted of criminal conspiracy in 1950. Forty-five cities that all had systems comparable to San Francisco were affected, including: Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and Tulsa.

This event precipitated the notorious pattern of development that distinguishes the US from all other developed countries in the world and played a huge part in our resource-consuming lifestyle: sprawling subdivisions, countless miles of impressively engineered freeways, acres of parking lots, and drive-through restaurants; a world molded by the needs of the car. What is important to note is that this occurred so early in our development as a nation (mid 1940s) that we don’t really have a collective memory of an established system existing before the automobile; there is nothing to miss nor any romantic yearning for how things used to be. And the streetcars of San Francisco seem to us a taste of European culture, an exotic novelty that is appreciated, but no doubt out of place in our idea of American culture.

Though this event is, for the most part, lost in our society’s collective memory, there is a classic 1988 movie that cleverly delivers the story: Who Framed Roger Rabbit. For those of you who have seen it, there is no forgetting Judge Doom, the movie’s main antagonist. He plots to destroy Toontown, a cartoon world reminiscent of America’s romanticized “Main Street”, with DIP, a deadly combination of paint thinners. In its place he envisions a freeway, and the parallels between Judge Doom and GM (with Firestone and Standard Oil) are unmistakably clear. Doom says, “… I see a place where people get on and off the freeway. On and off, off and on all day, all night. Soon, where Toontown once stood will be a string of gas stations, inexpensive motels, restaurants that serve rapidly prepared food. Tire salons, automobile dealerships and wonderful billboards reaching as far as the eye can see. My God, it’ll be beautiful!” Eddie, one of the protagonists, is a private investigator hired to find out who killed the owner of Toontown. When he hears of Judge Doom’s plans, he responds, “Nobody’s gonna drive this lousy freeway when they can take the Red Car for a nickel.” The “Red Car” being Los Angeles’ profitable and reliable public rail system before GM gained ownership and dismantled it. By the end of the movie, the good guys prevail, as one would expect in Hollywood; Judge Doom is destroyed, the freeway never gets built, and Toontown and its residents live happily ever after. Unfortunately, in the real world, the bad guys got away with a nominal fee after being convicted of conspiracy and still got to build their freeways.

To all those who make conscious choices to abandon the vehicle when not absolutely necessary, we are unplugging, little by little, from the powerful reign of the auto industry. But the more important message here is that we are plugging back in to the idea of Toontown; of a bustling community where people bump into each other on the street, where strangers share their personal space with the world around them. Instead: carpool, take the bus, take the train, ride your bike, roller skate! When and where possible, remove the barrier that isolates you from your surroundings and be open to meeting a stranger and having a conversation that seems to be just the right exchange at just the right moment.