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Technology and Culture 41.1 (2000) 51-79

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"The Bus Is Young and Honest": Transportation Politics, Technical Choice, and the Motorization of Manhattan Surface Transit, 1919-1936

Zachary M. Schrag


In 1979, the New York City Planning Commission proposed a new vision for mass transit on the streets of Manhattan. The commission proposed to replace sixty-eight crosstown buses on Forty-second Street with twelve electric streetcars, which, asserted the commission, would run twice as fast with lower operating costs, and without noxious exhaust fumes. 1 Ironically, streetcars had in fact rolled along Forty-second Street until 1946, and city officials had hailed as progress the replacement of Manhattan's trolleys with diesel or gasoline buses. Moreover, the 1979 commission proposed to replace the buses of the New York City Transit Authority with a light rail system operated by a private company, whereas several New York City administrations in the 1920s and 1930s had worked to substitute municipally operated for privately owned transit.

It is no coincidence that vehicle type and operating authority were debated simultaneously in both cases. A fight over vehicle type often represents just the top layer of a deep conflict over who is to provide urban transit under what terms. Though transit executives, politicians, and other players boasted of the technical advantages of bus or streetcar, many cared more about regulation, taxation, and ownership than the merits of rubber tires [End Page 51] or steel rails. Their decisions to abandon streetcars, in New York and in other cities throughout the United States, cannot be explained either by inherent technical advantages of buses or the conspiracies of bus manufacturers. Rather, the bitter antagonism between transit companies and local politicians moved both the companies and the politicians toward support of the bus as a means to rewrite old rules. They understood that the eight decades of tradition, custom, and regulation fettering the street railway had not yet gripped the new machine. As one upstart bus company put it, "the bus is young and honest." 2

The current historical debate over the motorization of mass transit in the United States began in earnest in 1974 with the publication and presentation to the United States Senate of American Ground Transport by Bradford Snell. 3 Snell charged that General Motors had destroyed mass transit in the United States by purchasing controlling shares of electric railways and converting them to diesel bus operation, not only to sell more GM buses but to weaken mass transit, forcing Americans into GM cars. In his report, Snell disparages the bus. "Due to their high cost of operation and slow speed on congested streets . . . these buses ultimately contributed to the collapse of several hundred public transit systems and to the diversion of hundreds of thousands of patrons to automobiles." 4

Snell's thesis remains alive both in scholarly literature and in popular culture. Many books and journal articles uncritically cite American Ground Transport. 5 David St. Clair's Motorization of American Cities fills in Snell's [End Page 52] sketchy arguments with additional evidence. 6 Using aggregated data for the years 1935-50, St. Clair compares streetcars, trolley coaches (rubber-tired buses powered by electricity drawn from overhead wires), and motor buses and finds "the streetcar was more economical than the motor bus, at least on the more heavily patronized lines," and that only an intent to weaken public transit can explain motorization. 7

Snell has his critics. General Motors defended itself in 1974 by noting that the decision to abandon streetcars preceded GM's investment in transit companies and citing early movement toward buses in both Los Angeles and New York. Historian Sy Adler bluntly complains that "everything Bradford Snell wrote in American Ground Transport about transit in Los Angeles is wrong," attributing the abandonment of passenger interurbans there to a desire to use their rails for freight service. In their studies of Los Angeles and Chicago, respectively, Scott Bottles and Paul Barrett blame a transit industry characterized in 1900 by monopolistic practices...


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