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The General Motors streetcar conspiracy (also known as the National City Lines conspiracy) refers to allegations and convictions in relation to a program by General Motors (GM) and a number of other companies to purchase and dismantle streetcars (trams/trolleys) and electric trains in many cities across the United States and replace them with bus services. The lack of clear information about exactly what occurred has led to intrigue, inaccuracy and conspiracy theories with some citing it as the primary reason for the virtual elimination of effective public transport in many American cities by the 1970s. The story has been explored several times in print, film and other media, notably in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Taken for a Ride and The End of Suburbia.
During the period from 1936 to 1950, National City Lines and Pacific City Lines—with investment from GM, Firestone Tire, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Trucks, and the Federal Engineering Corporation—bought over 100 electric surface-traction systems in 45 cities including Baltimore, Newark, Los Angeles, New York City, Oakland and San Diego and converted them into bus operation.
In 1946, Edwin J. Quinby, a retired naval lieutenant commander, alerted transportation officials across the country to what he called “a careful, deliberately planned campaign to swindle you out of your most important and valuable public utilities—your Electric Railway System”. GM and other companies were subsequently convicted in 1949 of conspiring to monopolize the sale of buses and related products via a complex network of linked holding companies including National City Lines and Pacific City Lines. They were also indicted, but acquitted of conspiring to monopolize the ownership of these companies.
By the time of the 1973 oil crisis, controversial new testimony was presented to a United States Senate inquiry into the causes of the decline of streetcar systems in the U.S. This alleged that there was a wider conspiracy—by GM in particular—to destroy effective public transport systems in order to increase sales of automobiles and that this was implemented with great effect to the detriment of many cities.
Only a small handful of U.S. cities have surviving effective rail-based urban transport systems based on streetcar or trams, including Newark, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Boston. There is now general agreement that GM and other companies were indeed actively involved in a largely unpublicized program to purchase many streetcar systems and convert them to buses, which they supplied. There is also acknowledgment that the Great Depression, the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935, labor unrest, market forces, rapidly increasing traffic congestion, taxation policies that favored private vehicle ownership, urban sprawl, and general enthusiasm for the automobile played a role. One author recently summed the situation up stating “Clearly, GM waged a war on electric traction. It was indeed an all out assault, but by no means the single reason for the failure of rapid transit. Also, it is just as clear that actions and inactions by government contributed significantly to the elimination of electric traction.”
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