In the 1920s, many American cities and towns were connected by a network of electric railroads and interurban trolleys. Within cities, electric street railways, trolleys, and elevated trains moved large numbers of people easily and cheaply.
But between 1920 and 1955, General Motors bought up more than 100 electric mass transit systems in 45 cities, allowed them to deteriorate, and then replaced them with rubber-tired, diesel-powered buses. Buses are more expensive, less efficient, and much dirtier than electric/rail systems -- and of course automobiles are even less efficient than buses.
In 1949, General Motors was convicted of criminally conspiring to replace electric mass transit with GM-manufactured diesel buses. The court fined GM $5,000 and forced H.C. Crossman, the GM executive responsible for carrying out GM's policy, to pay exactly $1.
Cities where GM managed to eliminate electric/rail systems and replace them with buses and private cars included New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Oakland, Salt Lake City, and Los Angeles. Before GM converted the city to buses and private automobiles, Los Angeles was served by the largest electric/rail mass transit system in the United States.
The systematic sabotage of the U.S. electric/rail mass transit systems by automobile corporations points to a serious problem: the ability of "private" corporations to effect sweeping changes in public life and culture, without public accountability or even debate.
General Motors (GM), the largest automaker in the United States, filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this month, an event caused by years of profit losses and market share declines.GM Conspired to Destroy Electric Mass Transit
Media described the once unthinkable move as “the end of an era” -- and referred to GM as a “fallen icon of American industry.”
GM’s bankruptcy filing is actually the fourth-largest in U.S. history and, according to MSNBC, the largest for an industrial company. GM is expected to close a dozen facilities and cut more than 20,000 jobs.
But before you get too choked up over GM’s struggles, it’s only fair to give both sides of the story … including the fact that GM may not be the gleaming example of American industry you think it is, and may fully deserve every financial hardship it’s now getting.
As Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly reported, back in the 1920s electric railroads and interurban trolleys connected many U.S. cities. Within cities, electric street railways, trolleys, and elevated trains provided an efficient and inexpensive way for people to get around. But while these mass transit systems served the needs of the people well (and did so with only a fraction of the environmental footprint transportation makes today), they did not fulfill the needs of the automobile manufacturers (and their allies in the steel, rubber, glass, concrete, and oil industries).30 Million Tons of Lead Contaminated the U.S. from a PR Stunt?
Their “needs” of course were to make profits, so around the 1920s General Motors invested heavily in mass transit systems. According to the article linked above:
“Between 1920 and 1955, General Motors bought up more than 100 electric mass transit systems in 45 cities, allowed them to deteriorate, and then replaced them with rubber-tired, diesel-powered buses.”In 1949, the company was actually convicted of criminally conspiring to replace electric mass transit with GM-manufactured diesel buses, and received a mere slap on the wrist as penance (a fine of $5,000 for GM and $1 for H.C. Crossman, the GM executive responsible for carrying out GM's policy).
Since then, it seems, GM has done little to clean up their act.
As reported in the excellent article The Doors of Perception: Why Americans Will Believe Almost Anything (a must-read regarding the impact of PR and marketing on your perceptions), in 1922 General Motors discovered that adding lead to gasoline gave cars more horsepower.Did GM Kill Their Own Electric Car?
When there was some concern about safety, GM allegedly paid the Bureau of Mines to do some fake "testing" and publish bogus research that "proved" inhalation of lead was harmless.
Then, Charles Kettering, founder of the world famous Sloan-Kettering Memorial Institute for medical research, who also happened to be an executive with General Motors, entered the picture.
By a strange “coincidence,” the Sloan Kettering Institute began issuing reports stating that lead occurs naturally in your body and that your body has a way of eliminating low-level exposure.
Through its association with The Industrial Hygiene Foundation and PR giant Hill & Knowlton, Sloane Kettering opposed all anti-lead research for years. Without organized scientific opposition, for the next 60 years more and more gasoline became leaded, until by the 1970s, 90 percent of our gasoline was leaded.
Finally it became too obvious to hide the fact that lead was a major carcinogen, and leaded gas was phased out in the late 1980s.
But during those 60 years, it is estimated that some 30 million tons of lead were released in vapor form onto American streets and highways. Thirty million tons!
Adding to GM’s sordid past was their launching of the first commercially available electric car, the EV1, in 1996. The cars, which required no fuel and reportedly drove quietly and incredibly efficiently, never made it into the big-time.How to Help on a Personal Level
Why? That is the question still remaining today, and which is explored in the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?.
By 2002, GM’s electric car was no longer being made due to “insufficient demand.”
But some say GM never really wanted their electric cars to become popular, and even intentionally sabotaged the vehicles’ reputation, because they feared it would take over their existing business. Although GM disputes these claims, I highly recommend you view the documentary and decide for yourself.
GM’s early efforts to secure a market for their automobiles paid off big time; for now, at least, it’s safe to say automobiles are here to stay.
However, you can reduce your environmental impact by carpooling to work and riding your bicycle or taking public transportation as much as possible.
And for the times when you do have to drive, you can actually increase your gas mileage by 37 percent just by braking easier and slowing down.
You may also want to look into the hybrid vehicles already on the market, and keep an eye out for even more sophisticated versions that may be available in the future, such as cars that run on compressed air or hydrogen.