Monday, March 10, 2014

Taken for a ride - how Americans ruined their public transportation

This is a story from the beginning of the XX century. A story about the American cities, where driving was a privilege and cars were rarely seen on streets. Highways did not exist and most people were using electric streetcars, running on rails, as their main way of moving around the city. In 1920, 90% of all trips were via rail and only one in 10 Americans owned an automobile.

This is a story from the late 30's. A story when large corporations such as General Motors, met with political power with a goal to sell more cars to Americans. To make this successful, American cities had to be transformed and people had to be convinced that rail transport is the way of the past and cars are the future. The rail companies started to vanish and with them, the streetcars and rails. Buses and cars took over the streets and American cities became noisier and more polluted.

This is a story from the 50's and 60's. A story about the vast network of freeways that started to cut through the American landscape and surround largest cities like giant spider webs. The freeways cut through the neighborhoods, separating people and transformed massive amount of space within the cities. The I-93 highway in Boston required resettlement of 4000 people and relocation of part of the Mystic River. Many cities followed this example.

This is a story from the 70's. A story when people started to realize that urban sprawl and car dependence is not the answer but a problem. The cities were not designed to accommodate a quickly increasing number of vehicles and mile-long backups on highways were an integral part of each day in America. An alternative would be a welcomed option but it was already too late - the damage was done. Streetcars were gone and busses had to share the same roads with cars, making this public transport lacking and inefficient. 

The story continues. Today, America is as car-dependent as it was back in the 70's. The old problem is not solved but more and more people seem to notice the issue. Can America recover from the damage done over the decades? It will take time.


I have to admit that until I found this movie, I haven't thought about this at all. Cars are so well incorporated into American culture that I assumed this was always the case. But the truth is so different. America had an efficient and effective public transportation. A system that was completely dismantled with a decade and replaced with a nightmare we have to deal with until this day. Only a fraction of the old streetcar system survived in some cities and whether GM is to blame or not, Americans ruined their public transportation and what we have left is this:
Streetcar/subway rail system in Boston.

instead of something like this:
Streetcar/subway rail system in Berlin.

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