The lessons of privately owned mass transit

I have taught my built environment course enough times to identify trends in students’ arguments. One of the more interesting shared assumptions is that General Motors killed public transit in the United States. The theory, popularized by the 1988 move, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, is that General Motors and its corporate allies bought up trolley systems across the United States, and destroyed them so that people would have to use cars and buses, products made by GM.

This is not a defense of GM. What they did was wrong and it did help ruin public transit in the US. Before the 1950s most cities had trolleys. By 1970, public transit was gone in most urban areas in this country.

But the lesson from this is different. The problem was the private ownership of transit. GM did not buy public transit, they bought private transit systems, companies, that provided transit. If these assets had been publicly owned, then they would not have been vulnerable. The lesson? Don’t let private companies own vital public services. Corporate interests are not public interests.

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