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Discussion & Study Guide

Taken for a Ride

by Jim Klein

This is a study guide for the film Taken for a Ride, a documentary by Jim Klein and Martha Olson. The film looks at the role of the auto and highway industries (and General Motors in particular) in shaping how Americans travel through and inside this country's urban environment. It also tells the story of at least one significant force in the development of suburban American life after World War II, a story that continues to the present day.

This guide is primarily aimed at classroom teachers, to help in generating discussion and detailing resources available for use as study materials. But it will also be of value to viewers whose interest in the subject has been whetted, and desire more information.


THEMES OF TAKEN FOR A RIDE

Taken for a Ride is organized as a history, beginning in the early 20th century and continuing up to the present. Through this history, many themes emerge.


EARLY HISTORY

In the early part of Taken for a Ride, we see American cities from the turn of the century through the 1920's. How do these cities look different from our cities today?

How were eighteenth century walking cities changed by the introduction of horse drawn streetcars, and later by electric streetcars? Elliot Sclar's Access For All, Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier, and Sam Bass Warner's Streetcar Suburbs describe cities growing outward as transit provided access from the new suburbs to work.

As pedestrians increasingly shared street space with transit vehicles, and later automobiles, how did the experience of city life change? Paul Barrett's Mass Transit, The Automobile and Public Policy in Chicago, 1900-1930 looks at traffic regulation and its affect on transit and pedestrians.

Look at how many people are in the streets. Why are there so many pedestrians? Would this change the nature of city life? What would be some positive differences? Some negative differences? Urban planners will tell you that transportation determines the very shape of cities. Why might this be true? Many historians believe that before the auto, the streets were more thought of as common space, with pedestrians having as much right to them as any vehicle. How would this change the nature of a city?


GENERAL MOTOR'S PLANS

Alfred Sloan became president of General Motors in 1925. Through the early 1920's, Ford Motor Company had been the leading automobile manufacturer. This was because of Ford's development of mass production techniques and the ability to manufacturer an affordable car. By the 1930's GM would not only become the largest car manufacturer, but the largest corporation in the country and the world. How did this come about?

Most historians agree that Sloan's genius was not automotive, but in corporate and financial organization. During Sloan's stewardship, GM would purchase dozens of car companies, bus manufacturers and operators, parts suppliers and producers of raw materials. For the first time, an industry would be integrated from raw material, all the way through financing the final product. In some ways, Sloan's approach to business is similar to the merger and acquisition explosion going on in America today. Discuss what would be advantageous about this approach for the company, and whether this is a good or bad thing for the society. Jim Brock and Walter Adams book, The Bigness Complex discusses the question of whether big is better for American business, with interesting insights and detailed examples.

Sloan's plan to first buy up streetcar companies through GM's own subsidiaries and later, through National City Lines (a company founded through General Motor's efforts,) raises interesting questions about the relationship between company goals and the public good. Many economists argue that the only responsibility of a corporation is to maximize profits for its shareholders. By buying up its competition (streetcars), GM guaranteed an ever increasing market for its cars and buses. Some would argue this is simply good business. Ultimately, the strong will drive out the weak and the best will survive, making the whole society stronger. Looking at GM's plan, and the result of their success, discuss whether this argument is valid. Do corporations have a responsibility beyond their shareholders? Is there a problem allowing companies to take actions that may damage a society? What dangers might government regulation bring? What role does the size of businesses have in determining whether allowing a completely free market makes sense or damages the society?


POST WORLD WAR II UNITED STATES

Changes in U.S. society after World War II dramatically shaped the country for the next 50 years. TAKEN FOR A RIDE only begins to look at the impact of post war decisions. In every field, from civil rights to the development of the mass produced hamburger, American life changed irrevocably during this period. It would be very interesting for a class to detail these changes. With a dramatic increase in the birth rate after the war, and pent up demand for just about everything left over from 15 years of depression, and then war, the U.S. was in for dramatic change. But did the new society have to look like the U.S. does today Were choices made that shaped the country. From super highways, to Federal subsidies for housing, sewers and water systems, suburbia took hold. Compare European development afterthe war with the U.S. How much of the differences are based on the destruction of Europe during the war. How much is based on different sensibilities towards land use, public responsibility and transportation?

Some say the current electronic and communications technologies are bringing a degree of change to U.S. society that approaches the Post War period. If so, how will this affect the structure of our cities, neighborhoods, our work life? Can we envision the extent of this change and its social implications?


THE CAMPAIGN FOR FREEWAYS

Taken for a Ride details the ability of business - through lobbying, public relations campaigns and direct access to seats of power - to shape public policy decisions. The film's point of view is that without such influence, there were other choices (public support of mass transportation, more limited freeway construction, etc.) that could have led to a more diversified transportation approach.

This is a question of particular importance today, as most major areas of American life (healthcare, communications, the information superhighway, education) face public debate over what role government should play in shaping direction, and what role should be played by the market economy. Some argue that with such strong consolidation taking place in most major industries, a few companies will be able to make the critical decisions affecting all aspects of American life. Others feel big government itself is a dangerous problem. What can be done to assure a vital and creative marketplace, without allowing public policy to be shaped by the interests of a few conglomerates.

The filmmakers see Taken for a Ride as a cautionary tale, relevant to decisions being made today in many arenas. Is this true, or is the film simply a history of the past - a story of people now dead, and a society now fundamentally different?

Taken for a Ride points out that the period of greatest urban freeway construction coincided with gasoline shortages and deteriorating air quality in U.S. cities. How did the freeway oppositions of the 60's and 70's fit in with the growing environmental movement?

U.S. transportation legislation took a new turn with passage of the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA). This legislation responded to a growing emphasis on local involvement in transportation planning, as well as a growing environmental awareness of problems of private auto travel, such as air and water quality, land use and social equity. See Steephen Goddard, Getting There - The Epic Struggle Between Road and Rail in the American Century, Alan Durning, The Car and the City and Dwight Young, ed. Alternatives to Sprawl.Quotes From the Film Issues they Raise and Available Resources This second section of the guide takes significant quotes from the film, discusses their importance, and points to written materials that go into depth on the subject. These make for a useful starting point for students developing outside projects, based on the film.

Bradford Snell:
"In 1922 only one American in ten owned an auto-mobile. Everyone except for the one in ten who owned an automobile used rail."

Two generations have passed since public transit was the primary transportation mode in most American cities. Few city dwellers experience streets where priority is given to transit and pedestrians. Fewer still know where transit is the connecting link between housing, schools, shopping and work. Several historical studies look at the role of public transit in the growth and livability of early American cities:

National City Lines activities were first written about by Bradford Snell in American Ground Transport, published by the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Anti Trust and Monopoly, 1974. The connection between the National City Lines motorization and automobile company influence on highway policy was developed in:

The late 60's and early 70's was the time when most urban freeways were constructed. During that time a number of books came out about highways in our cities:

A number of books look at the way automobile and oil companies have influenced American transportation choices:

A voice for the inevitability of suburban development:

Finally, there are a number of recent books that look at the impact of changing transportation, on the future form of our society.


Some Groups Involved in the Transportation Issue

Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP)
1400 16th Street NW #300
Washington, D.C. 20036
Ph: (202) 939-3470
Email: stpp@transact.org

STPP is a coalition of roughly 175 organizations devoted to ensuring that transportation policy and investments help conserve energy, protect environmental quality, promote social equity and make communities more livable.

Sierra Club National Office
Washington D,C,
Ph: (202) 547-1141

The Sierra Club's transportation work centers on promoting fuel economy and awareness of global warming issues.

National Association of Railroad Passengers
900 2nd St. NE #308
Washington, D.C. 20002
Ph: (202) 408-8362
Email: narp@ww.net

An advocacy organization for intercity passenger trains as well as all types of rail transit. Particularly attentive to federal rail transportation policy.

Congress for New Urbanism
706 Sacramento Street, Box 148
San Francisco, CA 94108
Ph: (415) 291-8116

The Congress for New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of paceless sprawl, environmental deterioration and the erosion of society's built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.

 

© 1997 Jim Klein and Martha Olson


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