As its full title somewhat implies, Nicholas Dagen Bloom’s new book, The Great American Transit Disaster: A Century of Austerity, Auto-Centric Planning, and White Flight (University of Chicago Press), tells the whole grisly story of how, in less than a century, the U.S. changed from a rail-connected nation of cities and towns to a sprawling network of increasingly congested roads. A historian and a professor of urban policy and planning at Hunter College, Bloom rejects the sort of conspiracy-driven narratives around transit’s demise and comes to an uneasy conclusion: America essentially chose the car for a variety of reasons, only one of which was automobile company collusion. I talked with Bloom about why transit in the U.S. collapsed, why it turned out differently in European cities, and the hopes for a transit renaissance.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
NDB: Nicholas Dagen Bloom
Your book is comprehensive in the story it tells about the rise and fall of American transit. It’s almost a tragedy. What was the inspiration for it?
When I started it, I was interested in buses, because not a lot had been written about them as mass transit. They always get overlooked. Rail gets so much attention. I was interested in buses from a social equity point of view. As I started the research, it became clear that buses were an important part of the story. But the reason we look at them a certain way has a lot to do with bigger changes in the transportation industry over time. It was impossible to separate those out.
You kept pulling the string back to before the emergence of the car.
The book really begins in the 20s and 30s, when the car is gaining in popularity, becoming a mass-consumption item. It’s important to understand that a lot of what unfolded in postwar transit—the introduction of buses, electric trolley coaches, the impending collapse of the private transit companies—the groundwork for all of that starts before World War II.
The tragic part is, prior to that, virtually every city and even town of any size had public transit infrastructure in it. Why did it get so fully extinguished?
In a lot of ways, Americans had transit by luck, not by choice. We had an enormous amount of land around American cities and limited land regulation. We had the application of technologies—streetcars and, later, buses—that enabled the creation of massive transit networks that the public didn’t have to pay for. But as soon as the public was asked to pay, to support tax relief for the private transit companies or pass bond issues, they usually refused.
And why did New York’s system prevail?
It barely survived. New York City drove the private operators out of business and by 1940 was able to swoop in and buy up the remains. Some of the differences that distinguish cities that maintained transit versus those that lost it more rapidly are geographical. The density of people, the limited land availability, were big factors in New York.
But what we also see, as early as the 1920s, decentralization in most American cities and the rise of the automobile. You had a growing number of influential people in government, but also voters as well, who weren’t on board for the bond issues required to build quality mass transit that could compete with cars. That begins the process of city centers being remade for the car, with parking lots, parking meters, high-speed parkways.
At the same time, you had the introduction of single-family zoning, which from a land use and transportation point of view basically says, “We’re not gonna build dense, ‘crowded’ neighborhoods anymore”—exactly the kinds of neighborhoods that were well served by streetcars and subways. So vast areas were rezoned. There was this enormous annexation in Baltimore, and it was mostly single-family zoning.
That meant that the then-private transit companies weren’t going to get enough density further out that would justify investment in mass transit. Why would you invest in upgrading, or even maintaining lines, when you know the future is low density? And so the companies said, “Well, we have this capital infrastructure, let’s just milk it for as long as we can.” And if you don’t invest in capital improvements, you can still turn a profit for quite a while. There are a lot of ways to make a profit in a declining industry.
Newspapers are a good example of that now—another legacy business. What was the inflection point, the point of no return?
Because the industry was not stabilized between 1945 and 1960, you had a massive loss of permanent transit infrastructure in most American cities. That was one of the first phases, the death of the streetcar. But then you also had the massive loss of the operational infrastructure, which were cuts to the replacement bus systems. And so even people who wanted a transit option over time increasingly didn’t have a good one. That pushed people towards the automobile.
In Atlanta, the private company was bankrupt and taken over by local leaders who’d been involved in transit. Atlanta is one of the super-sad stories, because they’d already replaced most of their streetcars with electric trolley coaches, which were awesome. And then, because they couldn’t get any relief from taxes or get the fare increases they needed, they ripped out the trolley coaches. Atlanta had trolley coach express lanes. Double lanes! Can you imagine?
Very cool, and sad beyond imagination.
We’re going to electric buses now—what, 70, 80 years later? Atlanta had a system, but because the public would not step up to stabilize it, they lost this high-quality service.
So as people were transitioning to cars, the business model for transit collapsed and couldn’t survive without public subsidies?
Exactly. The key is that most American cities during that period of transition could have found enough money. They could have directed a small percentage of the property tax to supporting public transit agencies. We know this from different examples of cities that actually did it.
Why, for the most part, did European cities have a different outcome?
Well, there are similarities. London ripped out all of its streetcars by the early 1950s. But the big difference is, there was more public ownership of transit in European cities much earlier in the 20th century. There was a willingness to subsidize public services to a greater extent. The nature of European urbanism is a bit different. You had larger historical cores, which were traditionally served by transit. You had a greater scarcity of land and more regulation, which led to higher-density development.
Which gets us to a crucial point: policy. Policies are public and political choices. And, clearly, when it comes to transit, we choose differently.
There are a lot of moments that I highlight in the book in different cities, where mayors and city councils had opportunities to secure a future for transit. Because they didn’t want to bail out private companies, they stood around and waited for them to collapse. But that was a risky strategy. By the time most American cities swooped in the late ’60s, there wasn’t a lot of transit left. The systems had lost so many riders and so much infrastructure.
There were also opportunities to offer tax relief to these companies, which would’ve enabled them to maintain more operations. Various public-service commissions and city governments could have helped make the industry more competitive. In many cases, the regulators drove out a lot of the companies and discouraged others from investing, because they were so highly regulated in ways that made it almost impossible to make a profit.
The other big piece is, there were many examples of bond issues, offered to the public and supported by some politicians, in cities like Detroit and elsewhere, designed to build a higher standard of transit that would be competitive with the automobile. Voters rejected these again and again. Even in places like New York it was very hard to get transit bonds approved. Once the majority of voters became drivers, they weren’t big supporters of transit. That’s just a hard reality.
Then, obviously, there were increasingly powerful automobile companies pushing for an end to transit.
No question. There’s the famous example of the National City Lines, which had as its investors a lot of the automobile and auto-related industries. They bought up failing transit companies in the 1940s and definitely pushed acceleration of the switch to buses. But they operated in a limited number of cities, about 40. What was far more important was, the automobile industry outcompeted the transit industry over time. They were laser-focused on getting federal, state, and local subsidies for an extraordinarily high quality highway and road network. They didn’t have to kill transit directly. They were very successful at the national and state level, and of course they had the wealth and power to do that.
And that highway spending dwarfed anything spent on public transit.
There’s no question that in the same years when they’re pulling out transit, all the signals are being sent to everybody in those cities of what the priority is: building highways. Chicago is the only example of where you have significant transit line extensions with highways, but in most cities, it’s clear that the future was not the transit network, but the highway network. And the message was: act accordingly. The auto industry was also adept at marketing and able to put cars in the hands of a wide range of families who would otherwise, in many parts of the world, be reliant on transit.
Where are we now, from a transit perspective? We’d seen halting progress, but I think the pandemic set a lot of that back.
The pandemic was disastrous for transit. There were already signs of weakness, with the rise of Lyft and Uber. The low-cost auto loan industry was taking a lot of potential passengers. So transit was hurting, and then Covid really undermined it. We have to look multiple decades down the road. It took decades to totally destroy transit. How American cities are built in the future will be the biggest factor in a potential transit renaissance, because the American city as it’s currently developed, with a few exceptions, is designed for the car right now.
I was reading your interview with Peter Calthorpe about rezoning the commercial corridors in California. That was awesome. If these rezonings go forward, if single-parking minimums go away, then you’ve got enough density to support transit. And then there’s the aggravation factor. Right now, in most American cities, it’s not aggravating enough to drive. Most people commute from suburb to suburb. They have relatively fast commutes. But if there’s a denser future American city, if we run out of easily developable land and infill continues, then driving becomes a different experience. Obviously, if we build a lot of four-over-ones that include parking, then we’re not gonna get there very fast.
That’s called Austin.
But Austin has this big plan for light rail, and it’s a clear example that aggregation with mounting traffic is growing, so there’s an opportunity. Again, we’re not talking about next year. This is a longer time frame. It’s why I dealt a lot in the book with zoning and changing land use. We built so much parking in city centers and so much in suburbs, and then we connected them so well that to undo it will take decades.
Featured image: The glamorous buses of the Boston Elevated in the 1940s. All images courtesy of University of Chicago Press.