Taken for a RideJohn Anderson
Streetcars Undesired TV Filmmakers make a case: GM took us for a Ride Let's propose a truly far-fetched scenario: You've just driven home from work and you're hot not just because it's summer, but because you've been trapped like a rat on one of our gloriously car-clogged highways, pounding the dashboard, threatening the entirety of public planning with unspeakable acts and wondering how you ever ended up in this hellish mess. Relax. Take a breath. Recite your mantra. But if the aforementioned is anything close to your personal reality, you'd better consult a physician before turning on the documentary series P.O.V. tonight . What you see and hear might be enough to crack your psychic engine block. Taken for a Ride whose "point of view" is perfectly clear is a scenic tour of how General Motors, beginning in 1922, dismantled urban mass transit across the United States and made mobility contingent upon the gas engine. By buying up trolley systems through its shadow subsidiary, National City Lines GM systematically gutted those streetcar companies and made efficient, reliable, clean transportation a endangered species. Directed by Jim Klein and Marcy Olson, Taken for a Ride tells a story that's been told before. But their use of archival footage, GM's own film propaganda and interviews with the people who ran the assassinated rail-car systems makes the film a potent piece of environmental and political activism. "Growing up on Long Island really had a lot to do with my interest in the subject," said Klein, who was reared in Lynbrook, now lives in Ohio and teaches film when he's not directing one. "I had a five-minute walk to the Long Island Railroad and easy access to the city, which opened up an entire world to me." His 17-year-old daughter, on the other hand, just got her license. And had to. "She doesn't have the same sense of transportation I had," Klein said. But few in the country do. The New York area, Klein said, is one of the few that has a decent transportation system. "It's not as good as it should be," he says, "but the rest of the country is really pathetic. Taken for a Ride is really about theft. "It's about how behind-the-scenes elements affect public policy," said Olson, a San Francisco-based film researcher. "We think of something like the infrastructure as kind of invisible; it's just there. It's not thought about generally as something we can change. But we can. It responds to a politician will." And to money: GM-backed National City Lines replaced what had been privately owned trolley lines with buses, tore up tracks and scrapped old cars, making the cost of reinstituting trolleys prohibitive (although, as the film points out, cities such as Baltimore are now experimenting with new light-rail systems). Through the highway lobby which included not just GM but tire manufacturers, construction concerns and gasoline interests roads, not rails, became a national obsession (helped by the fact that GM president Charles Wilson became secretary of defense and Frances DuPont became the federal highway administrator). "A number of rail systems became municipalized after World War Two," Olson said, "and those were the ones that largely survived. If National City Lines hadn't been walking around with all that GM cash, a lot of cities would have had to bite the bullet and say, 'This is something we need, and we're going to have to pay for it.'" As it runs out, the highway lobby managed to use what Olson admits was an American "love of technology" to paint rail cars as inefficient and gas engines as the wave of the future. Some of the archival testimony included in Taken for a Ride appointed or elected officials testifying about the harmlessness of bus fumes, or the moral fiber of GM is both hilarious and deeply sad. Part of Taken for a Ride
Dallas Morning News
Showing How America Lost Its Fare Deal You wouldn't know it from today's clogged highways and anemic public transportation, but getting around in American cities was once as easy as dropping a dime or a quarter into a fare box. Folks could climb aboard a streetcar and ride off to work or school, to the market, the library, the museum, to almost anywhere they wanted to go. What happened to that system is the subject of Taken for a Ride, the latest documentary on public television's provocative P.O.V. series. It airs on KERA-TV (Channel 13) just in time for four suburbs' DART referendums. P.O.V. calls itself "Television with a Point of View," and this show certainly has plenty of that. Taken for a Ride sets out to prove that the abandonment of dozens of city streetcar systems between 1926 and 1946 was nothing less than an act of public vandalism. The program points fingers and names names. Conventional wisdom has always been that the automobile killed the streetcar. Americans just stopped riding trolleys everywhere and starting driving private cars. Conventional wisdom has it wrong, according to Taken for a Ride. The program presents evidence that he culprit was not the automobile itself, but automobile maker General Motors. In 1922, GM chairman Alfred P. Sloan Jr. in effect declared war on the streetcar. In league with Standard Oil, Mack Trucks, Firestone Tires and later Phillips Petroleum and Greyhound, GM set out to destroy the nation's streetcar lines by systematically buying up system after system and replacing the streetcars with buses manufactured by GM, of course, all with the ultimate aim of getting people to buy cars also manufactured by GM. That General Motors succeeded goes without saying. What Taken for a Ride documents is the terrible price that has been paid. As trolley lines were abandoned, service was cut and fares increased. Particularly heartbreaking was the dismemberment of Los Angeles' 1,000 mile Pacific Electric system, described by one former employee as the "Rolls-Royce" of transit systems in one poignant segment. PE's new bus-oriented owners put a whole scrap yard of streetcars to the torch in a giant auto-da-fe. Retired transit workers, urban activists, harried automobile commuters, even former San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto are brought forward to lay out the case for the streetcar and against the auto. What GM started was finished off by the highway lobby, which saw to it that public funds were funneled into roads and freeways. The final blow was delivered by construction of the interstate highway system, proposed in the 1950s by Secretary of Defense and former GM chairman Charles E. Wilson. After that, public transportation systems, both streetcar and bus, entered a deadly cycle of reduced services and higher fares. And GM? By 1946, the U.S. Justice Department had begun an investigation that led to indictments of GM and its partners for criminal antitrust violations, and ultimately to convictions. The punishment? Each company had to pay a $5,000 fine. One executive was fined a dollar. Taken for a Ride is fleshed out with marvelous vintage footage of streetcars and with clips from automobile company propaganda films depicting the glorious new world of freeways. Produced and directed by the independent filmmaking team of Jim Klein and Martha Olson (Growing up Female, Seeing Red), Taken for a Ride makes no pretense at balance or "fairness." Mr. Klein makes his sympathies clear when he tells viewers that he grew up in New York City riding the subway and Long Island Railroad. "I had the world at my doorstep," he says. GM is never brought on camera to tell its side of the story. In short, Taken for a ride is advocacy journalism pure and simple. It is fascinating, irreverent, frequently hilarious, and depending upon your point of view outrageous, or great fun. As Dallas and a dozen other major cities begin to lay tracks again, hoping to reinvent the streetcar under the name of light rail, Taken for a Ride is timely viewing indeed. It asks a lot of awkward questions and offers provocative answers. But after all these years, can Americans be induced to step out of their cherished automobiles and climb aboard the streetcars again? That is a question not even Taken for a Ride attempts to answer.
Professor Richard Schott LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas
James Kunstler Author, The Geography of Nowhere
Caryn James New York Times
Howard Zinn, Author, A People's History of the U.S.
Anthony Perl Public Policy Studies University of Calgary
Dr. John Holtzclaw Chair, Transportation Committee, Sierra Club
J. Allen Williams Director of Environmental Studies University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Jeff Soule Director of Policy American Planning Association
Tony Turrittin Professor of Sociology York University