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Public Transit Could Transform The Quality Of Life For Workers And The Environment

Having destroyed it once, public transit, like health care and education, is a project that US capitalism is incapable of providing its citizens.
Richard Mellor
AFSCME Local 444 Retired
Oakland CA

Driving through Phoenix Arizona in the fall of 2005 I was struck by the similarity to Los Angeles. Admittedly, I didn't spend any time there, but I got a sense that it was a huge mass of urban sprawl and freeways that connected one housing tract to another. It seemed, as so many urban centers do, such a barren place with no significant public transit. It is not designed for collective living, for collective travel; it is not designed for quality of life. Like LA, in Phoenix, the automobile rules.

Public transportation is atrocious in the US with a few exceptions. But this hasn't always been the case. Most people wouldn't know that Oakland California had one of the best transit systems in the country in the first half of the 20th century; it was called the Key System, a light rail privately owned electric tram system. Oakland was not an exception, in the early 1920's writes Bradford Snell, "90 percent of all trips were by rail, chiefly electric rail; only one in 10 Americans owned an automobile. There were 1,200 separate electric street and interurban railways, a thriving and profitable industry with 44,000 miles of track, 300,000 employees, 15 billion annual passengers, and $1 billion in income. Virtually every city and town in America of more than 2,500 people had its own electric rail system. (1)

These trolley systems by most accounts were quiet, efficient, and not the polluters that today's buses are. "Steel track and quiet electric motors made the ride smooth and clean and comfortable." (2) Some were public agencies like the San Francisco Municipal Railway (MUNI) that is still in operation today, and some were commercial ventures like the Key System. But between 1936 and 1950 National City Lines, a bus company funded by GM, Firestone and Standard Oil of California (SOCAL) bought out more than 100 electric trolley car systems in 45 cities like Oakland, New York, and LA. (3)

Alfred P Sloan, the head of GM in the early 20's was the force behind the plan to destroy an efficient and environmentally friendly public transit in the US. He said at the time, 'Wait a minute, this is a great opportunity. We've got 90 percent of the market out there that we can somehow turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars." (4) As is the case in a capitalist economy, the public welfare and the environment were cast aside in the rapacious scramble for profit. As a French sociologist commented to the Wall Street Journal during the paper's coverage of the French public transit strike in 1995, "The power of the free market has run smack in to the notion of public service."(5)

GM used its economic clout to persuade or bribe the railroad barons, businessmen, bankers, and public officials to switch from the electric trolley to gas powered, polluting buses, or to put pressure on the trolley companies to do so. GM, Firestone, Standard Oil and Rockefeller all stood to make millions with the venture. When this sort of pressure failed or when public officials couldn't be bought or persuaded, National City Lines bought up the trolley systems and shut them down. Some have argued that the proliferation of autos, not a conscious plan, led to the end of the trolley era. But as Snell points out, "The growth of the auto was the result, not the cause of the trolley systems demise." (6)

The following figures confirm the result of the campaign to eliminate the streetcars:

Number of electric streetcars in 1917: 72,911
Number of electric streetcars in 1948: 17,911

The number of riders per year went from almost 16 billion in 1923 to just over 8 billion in 1940. (7)
In 1949 GM and its partners were convicted in US courts of criminal conspiracy and fined $5000. The company's treasurer was fined $1.

Another aspect of this clash between market forces and public services were the billions spent in highway construction to accommodate the new transportation in what Chomsky terms "The Los Angelizing" of the US economy, and what he cites historian Robert Du Boff describing as, " a huge state/corporate campaign to direct consumer preferences to suburban sprawl and individualized transport as opposed to clustered suburbanization compatible with a mix of rail, bus and motor car transport." (8)

"The role of the federal government was to provide funds for complete motorization and the crippling of mass transit'", writes Chomsky, "this was the major thrust of the Federal Highway Acts of 1944, 1956 and 1968, implementing a strategy designed by GM chairman Alfred Sloan. Huge sums were spent on interstate highways without interference as Congress surrendered control to the Bureau of Public Roads; about 1% of the sum was devoted to rail transit." (9)

The capitalist classes, so opposed to "big government" have no problem with big government when it intervenes on their behalf; when it protects and advances their economic interests. But it wouldn't be "their" government if it didn't do that; it's doing what it was set up to do.

Corporate politicians have claimed that Amtrak, the US passenger rail system is too expensive, that it costs too much to fund. But the billions spent on freeways were a gift from the US taxpayer to general Motors, Ford, and the auto industry barons. The rails on which autos run, roads and freeways, were built not at a cost to these millionaire investors (billionaires now) not by the private sector, but by US workers through taxes.

I would not deny the pleasure of having one's own individual transport. But most of the traveling people do in their automobile is anything but pleasurable and a recent Pew Poll found that urban drivers spent an average of 47 hours stuck in rush hour traffic in 2003, that's 6 days and a threefold increase over 30 years. In the same period, driving in Los Angeles was even worse as the average driver spent almost 100 hours stuck in traffic. From 1991 to 2003, according to the poll, the amount of time per year that the typical American spent stuck in traffic grew by 56%. (10)

The fact is, nothing has changed. When urban centers are designed, they are designed not in order to provide people with the best quality of life, but to fill the pockets of the developers, speculators and investors who control the purse strings and the politicians in Congress and state and local government. Mass transit, which is sorely under funded, is also designed this way. Routes and stops are designed primarily to suite the business community, not the workers who use the system.

There is no doubt that people would use a free, efficient and clean public transit system. During the recent heat wave in the San Francisco Bay Area, the public transit system had a huge increase in rider ship. The reason for the increase was the high number of Spare the Air days, when passengers are offered free rides in order to reduce pollution caused by auto emissions. Free transportation days reached six in the fist half of this year, six times more than the 2005 total.

The local rail system had an increase of between five and ten percent daily on the free days and the ferries that transport commuters and tourists around the San Francisco Bay saw an even greater increase.
The experience has led some local officials to call for free public transit permanently. In Alameda County on the Bay's eastern shore and where much of the area's traffic congestion is the highest, one county supervisor is pushing the idea. "We're not going to be able to pave our way out of the congestion we have today." Scott Haggerty tells the San Francisco Chronicle. "We have to look at expanding ridership on public transit." (11)

It's obvious to anyone that free and easily accessible public transportation would be better for people and the environment. But, as the Chronicle goes on to say, "Revenue to replace fares would have to be found elsewhere." (12) The Chronicle report suggests some ways the money for free transportation could be found. Increases in bridge tolls or vehicle registration fees are a couple of options put forward. Cutting services to reduce costs is another. Like any proposals big business politicians and their supporters in academia put forward for the funding of public services, they will differ on how to collect the money, but will be united on the source; they will all seek to make workers and the middle class pay for it.

The struggle for affordable mass transit that is designed for social need, both urban and rural, should be a major component of any social activists program. Unlike the big business political parties and their politicians whose aim is to increase the plunder of US and global society by the capitalist class, the idea that mass transit cannot be extensive and affordable must be rejected in our own minds. The corporate media propagates the idea that such a project would mean we would all live in abject poverty, the same argument they use to oppose higher wages or the funding of education. Any proposals on any issues that effect society that come from the big business politicians will, in one way or another, divide working class people by offering only one alternative; to make it work they will have to rob Peter to pay Paul, and direct Paul's anger at Peter; the classic divide and rule strategy.

The transportation of goods and services across the US by road, cannot possibly be more efficient socially or environmentally than rail. The hours that workers spend commuting to and from work can be eliminated through an efficient and inclusive mass transit system. But the influence of the auto bosses in politics prevents this. Signing the Transportation Equity Act at a Caterpillar factory in Montgomery Illinois last year, President Bush said "... ..I'm proud to be here to sign this transportation bill, because our economy depends on us having the most efficient, reliable transportation system in the world. If we want people working in America, we've got to make sure our highways and roads are modern. We've got to bring up this transportation system into the 21st century. I mean, you can't expect your farmers to be able to get goods to market if we don't have a good road system. You can't expect to get these Caterpillar products all around the United States if we don't have a good road system." (13) The act will provide more than $286 billion for road, bridges and mass transit. Even this is an insignificant figure in the scheme of things but more importantly it is badly allocated; transportation based on fossil fuels is an inefficient and destructive method of public transportation and of distributing societies goods.

The Federal Transit Administration reports that all levels of government provided $21.0 billion for transit operations and capital improvements in 1998 with the federal government contributing $5.3 billion. The FTA reports that in 2005, federal funding for transit was almost $8 billion, about the cost the US taxpayer is paying for a month in Iraq. In 2006, the corporate politicians were feeling generous and allocated almost $9 billion of our money to transit. "House Approves Record Transit Funding for FY 2007" reported the American Public Transit Association. But we must not be fooled; this is a paltry figure. (14)

There is no doubt that commuters would use an affordable and well-designed transit system. This would mean a system that would not be designed with the interests of investors and developers in mind; "When transit provides reliable rapid door-to-door travel times, many automobile owners will choose transit to avoid the unreliability, stress, and delays of roadway congestion." the FTA contends. (15)

Human society has the ability to end poverty, capitalism, the so-called free market doesn't. In the US, the richest and most technologically advanced country in the world and in history, wage and income disparity is increasing. The promises that were the American dream were never fulfilled for millions of Americans and will certainly be dreams only for the future generations.

The idea that society cannot fund mass transit or education, housing or health care, is corporate propaganda. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Charles Murray of the billionaire's think tank, the Heritage Foundation, writes, "This country is awash with money. America is so wealthy that enabling everyone to have a decent standard of living is easy.", and "Giving everyone access to a comfortable retirement income is easy for a country as rich as the US... ". (16)

While Murray's solution leaves little to be desired, the point is that the ruling class itself recognizes that society has the material resources to provide a decent life for all people on the entire planet. US corporations and the few thousand people that run them, have made billions in profit just in the second quarter of this year alone. More than 60% of U.S. corporations didn't pay any federal taxes for 1996 through 2000 and, in the US, the richest 10 percent of families own about 85 percent of all outstanding stocks. They own about 85 percent of all financial securities, 90 percent of all business assets. These financial assets and business equity are even more concentrated than total wealth.

According to the respected British paper, the Observer, The world's richest individuals have placed $11.5 trillion of assets in offshore havens, mainly as a tax avoidance measure. This figure is 10 times Britain's
GDP and doesn't include the trillions hidden in offshore accounts by corporations. (17)

The so-called free market will never solve these issues, it does just the opposite, it exacerbates them; more accurately, it is the cause of them. Capitalism places profit above all things. Above food, shelter and life itself, not just individual life, but life on the planet as we know it.

The same Wall Street Journal piece on the French public sector strike in 1995 made many references to the nature of that strike, that it was a struggle over ideology. It was indeed. One railroad worker the journal interviewed made it perfectly clear, "We are not a company; we're a public service. The idea that this is a company that must make profits doesn't even occur to us. Sure we lose money, but that doesn't bother me, Does the army make money?" (18)

It is this thinking that riles US capitalism and why they vilify the French in their media; they don't want it spreading across the Atlantic and contaminating workers at home. It is this thinking, this ideology that forced the French government to back down in its efforts to make it easier for employers to fire younger workers. It is thinking like this that has all sorts of unpleasant consequences for the profiteers, but it is to this thinking that we must turn.

The solution to the crisis of transportation, which is inevitably linked to the environment and housing, is the same solution I raised in the commentary I wrote on the deaths during the heat wave here in California; It is an ideological struggle against big business. It is a fight that is part of a wider struggle for working people to take control of the resources of society and the planet, of what we call the means of production, the farms, the factories, the building of houses and communities, the education of our children, and the private banks and financial institutions where the resource we call capital is stored. It is a struggle to take these resources and collectively decide where and how we use them based on human need and not profit and we plan how we use them in a collective and rational way. This is the only solution.

(1) Bradford Snell: The Street Car Conspiracy

(2) Taken For A Ride: A film by Jim Klein and Martha Olsen  http://www.culturechange.org/issue10/taken-for-a-ride.htm Taken for a Ride," a 55-minute film was shown on PBS in August 1996 and is available (rent: $55; sale: $90) from New Day Films, 314 Dayton St. #207, Yellow Springs, OH 45387; (513) 767-9357.

(3) Noam Chomsky: Year 501, Chap 9

(4) Taken For A Ride

(5) The Strikes In France: Wall Street Journal: 12-22-95

(6) Street Car Conspiracy

(7) Chomsky: Year 501

(8) ibid

(9) ibid

(10) Americans and Their Cars: Is the Romance on the Skids? Pew Research Center:  http://pewresearch.org/social/pack.php?PackID=16

(11) Calls Raised For Free Transit All Of The Time: Rachael Gordon, San Francisco Chronicle 7-26-06

(12) ibid

(13)  http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/08/20050810-1.htmlHome

(14) APTA legislative update:  http://www.apta.com/government_affairs/washrep/2006june30.cfm

(15) FTA , Public Transit in the United States:  http://www.fta.dot.gov/16600_ENG_HTML.htm

(16) A Plan To Replace The Welfare State Wall Street Journal 3-22-06

(17) Nick Mathiason: Super-rich hide trillions offshore The Observer, 3-27-2005

(18) The Strikes In France: Wall Street Journal: 12-22-95

homepage: homepage: http://www.laborsmilitantvoice.com

right there with ya 05.Aug.2006 21:52

Exile portlander_in_exile@yahoo.com

if you search Portland indymedia for my email address, you understand where I'm coming from.

The fight for return of trolley's in OKC 16.Jul.2007 19:59

O. Gail Poole ogaps35@gmail.com

You wouldn't believe the fight we're having in Oklahoma City trying to keep ODOT and OKC from paving over the rail yard at Union Station at a time when we are in desperate need of a dependable and clean mass transit rail system. Unbelievable that such ignorance and greed ignore the needs of the City's citizens.

PO box 1045, Norman, ok - 73070