Read an Excerpt from “The Great American Transit Disaster” by Nicholas Dagen Bloom
Many a scholar and policy analyst has lamented American dependence on cars and the corresponding lack of federal investment in public transportation throughout the latter decades of the twentieth century. But as Nicholas Dagen Bloom shows in The Great American Transit Disaster, our transit networks are so bad for a very simple reason: we wanted it this way.
Focusing on Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and San Francisco, Bloom provides overwhelming evidence that transit disinvestment was a choice rather than destiny. He pinpoints three major factors that led to the decline of public transit in the United States: municipal austerity policies that denied most transit agencies the funding to sustain high-quality service; the encouragement of auto-centric planning; and white flight from dense city centers to far-flung suburbs—points he develops in this excerpt from the book’s introduction.
Transit riding is a needlessly draining and frustrating experience in most American cities. Even at peak times, buses and trains rarely run when and where everyday riders need to go, including between the suburbs where most Americans now live, work, and shop. When car drivers can otherwise speed to their destinations outside rush hours, transit customers often find themselves stranded with minimal or no service. To make matters worse, travel by transit usually involves time spent in an uncomfortable environment, such as bus stops without shade or rain protection. Transit agencies go through the motions of printing schedules and deploying buses or trains, but their service has become irrelevant to most Americans. Substandard bus and train services help sell cars in the United States, with record car ownership partly driven by the lack of a decent alternative.
The twentieth-century collapse of American mass transit not only makes life miserable for remaining riders but adds to the nation’s severe environmental and social problems. Low or no ridership on transit contributes to automobile-related smog, greenhouse gas emission, and water pollution. The low-density, automobile-based society has spread highways and suburban development across some of the country’s best farmland and fragile natural habitats. Socially, urban highways and roadways reduce the quality of life in many urban, often nonwhite, neighborhoods. The noise, pollution, and speeding traffic contribute to public health problems like asthma and pedestrian death or injury. Transit-dependent residents of both cities and suburbs, disproportionally nonwhite, face mobility hurdles accessing better jobs thanks to limited service. Automobiles offer advantages in terms of speed and convenience, but they come at a high environmental and social price.
Many American academics, planners, and politicians have resigned themselves to the notion that wholesale loss of transit quality in the United States was an inevitable outcome of the rise of cars, highways, and suburbs. Considerable evidence, however, points to policies that could have balanced investments between transit and automobiles. American cities like San Francisco, New York, Boston, Seattle, and Portland (Oregon) have developed and maintained decent bus and rail service within the context of primarily auto-centric regional transportation systems. The view from abroad offers even more compelling counterexamples of equalized transit and automobile development. Just to the north, cities like Toronto and Montreal built successful postwar rapid and bus transit systems despite regional suburbanization. European leaders made even more ambitious transit investments that kept the sector a well-funded, reliable public service even as the number of car owners has increased. London, for instance, had removed all the streetcars from city streets by 1952, but its Underground, commuter rail, and bus systems remained essential for millions of citizens. Modern urban societies, in sum, can have both automobiles and subways, plentiful buses, and electric trams.
Most Americans are all too eager to blame the auto industry for the lopsided mobility options available today. The influential American “streetcar conspiracy” is still widely accepted in planning circles, and the popular press blames an all-powerful automotive industry for transit’s undoing. Like any good conspiracy theory, there is enough truth to make the more extreme claims believable. Companies such as Standard Oil, General Motors (GM), Mack Truck, and Firestone Tire and Rubber bankrolled the transit operator National City Lines (NCL). In the first two postwar decades, the NCL and its subsidiaries (such as American City Lines) oversaw the accelerated replacement of streetcars with buses in about forty-five urban transit systems, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. The automobile companies also ceaselessly advertised their wares and lobbied successfully for highways. However, in his widely cited 1974 Senate report, legislative analyst Bradford Snell turned these facts into a more dramatic story, blaming the automotive sector, NCL, and buses for destroying transit quality nationally. Los Angeles became his prime example of the environmental damage wrought by the conspiracy, claiming that NCL had despoiled a paradise: “the noisy, foul-smelling buses . . . turned earlier patrons of the high-speed rail system away from public transit and, in effect, sold millions of private automobiles.”
Scholars ever since have tried to separate fact from fiction. The cultural and political power of the automotive sector was tremendous but blaming it for all that ails American mobility is nonsense. Urban historian Scott Bottles, in his study of interwar Los Angeles, acknowledged that the private auto “provided the owner with unequaled mobility” compared to streetcar networks. Driving or supporting highways was a rational choice for American urbanites and did not require a corporate conspiracy. Snell also overlooked the inconvenient fact that NCL’s forty-five systems, including major cities like Baltimore and Saint Louis, were a fraction of the 1,200 transit systems nationwide. Yet, almost all non-NCL private and public managers also substituted streetcars with buses, usually with local solid political support. Finally, while streetcars had certain advantages (such as energy efficiency and capacity), Snell and other streetcar fans exaggerated the unsuitability of buses as mass transit options. By 1930, for instance, bus lines had already demonstrated their utility, carrying 2.5 billion passengers, a substantial increase from just 404 million in 1922. Postwar buses, both electric and diesel, were large, comfortable, and dependable. Cities such as San Francisco, Toronto, and London developed and sustained well-planned, comprehensive bus systems in the postwar period. In sum, most dimensions of the streetcar conspiracy fall apart upon close inspection.
If American society is to move beyond a conspiracy-driven transit fatalism and thus reinvest in alternative mobility, a good starting point is getting the national history right. How did a nation that had built its cities around transit technology end up destroying its transit companies and abandoning so many of its transit-oriented neighborhoods? And why did the nation’s metropolitan areas so conspicuously fail, given their overall wealth, to achieve a better balance between private and collective transportation? Reviewing the case studies, readers of this book will see that bus and rail service was not necessarily doomed to occupy the lowest possible level of public service. Instead, city and state leaders, riders, planners, and voters made crucial decisions about the future quality of mass transit.
Elected leaders, including mayors, governors, city councillors, and state representatives across the nation, ignored the need for subsidies and public ownership as transit slid downhill. Politicians frequently championed anti-transit policies such as heedless streetcar removal, regressive transit taxes, and unprecedented highway programs. City planners endorsed auto-based suburbanization, low-density zoning, and destructive center-city redevelopment. Technocratic traffic administrators, who viewed cars and trucks as their primary responsibility, pushed for streetcar track removal, one-way streets, and repaving to speed up city traffic. Multiple generations of private and public transit system executives destroyed their agencies in the name of short-term goals such as profits, economizing, and right-sized service levels. Downtown business elites frequently fomented against public ownership and, at best, promoted prestige high-speed rail lines of marginal utility for everyday riders. Millions of ordinary city and suburban residents said yes to highways and no to transit commutes, transit-rich central neighborhoods, transit subsidies, fair housing, higher-density housing, and robust regional transit agencies.
The following case-study narratives focus on three themes that explain the wide range of anti-transit policy in the United States. The first was the dominance of austerity funding that required private and public transit to be operated for too long on a “pay as you go” basis instead of as a subsidized municipal service. The second, auto-centric planning, was the widespread opinion among the elite, politicians, and the public that the modern city should be redesigned from the ground up to prioritize auto-centric, low-density environments. The third was the white flight from cities, encouraged by multiple public policies, leading to center-city residential and commercial decline that robbed transit companies of riders, fares, and regional political support. These three long-term factors, still dominating American public policy and social conditions, were the driving force behind America’s dramatic, unparalleled, and sustained loss of mass transit mobility.
The Great American Transit Disaster returns to the locus of transit operations—transit agencies, local and state government, planning agencies, and neighborhoods—to reconstruct a composite national perspective on American mass transportation policy. The book draws on a vast store of professional transit industry books and articles, transit agency and city planning reports, census records, extensive newspaper coverage, and published work in urban history. The debates in daily newspapers over the quality and future of transit prominently featured in the following chapters provide overwhelming evidence that transit disinvestment was a widely publicized and debated dimension of city life. Americans worked hard collectively and openly to destroy their transit systems.
Austerity or “You Get What You Pay For”
This book explores the relationship between public policy and agency finances across multiple cities and decades. Good or better systems were usually subsidized; so-called bad ones were underfunded and forced to subsist on fares in the crucial postwar decades (ca. 1945 to 1970). The three categories identified by this study are unsubsidized private systems like Baltimore or Atlanta; unsubsidized public systems like Chicago and Detroit; and subsidized public systems like those in Boston, New York, and San Francisco. The columns and rows of figures in annual reports summarized regularly in detail in local newspapers spoke directly to the prospects of transit companies and agencies. The public and politicians refused to face facts.
Americans of the late nineteen and early twentieth centuries took for granted the existence of profitable traction companies that offered cheap, citywide, round-the-clock service without tax support. City governments bestowed generous transit franchises that empowered private companies with the right to design, build, and operate transit lines on selected streets and private rights-of-way. City leaders expected that private capital, attracted by the prospect of a captive market on crucial routes, would finance the building of lines in exchange for these rights. Indeed, fares covered the entire cost of operations, modernization, stockholder dividends, and taxes for decades.
The transit companies, starting in the 1830s, first equipped the rails with networks of passenger cars pulled by horses along fixed tracks. Later in the nineteenth century, companies in big cities like Chicago and San Francisco with heavy ridership switched to passenger cars pulled by moving underground cables. After 1890, nearly every transit company in the nation changed its service to faster, more reliable electric streetcars powered by overhead lines. Transit operators carried urbanites far beyond the walking limits that had hemmed in urban growth for centuries.
Access to the countryside for urban masses created opportunities for profit beyond what could be expected in collecting modest fares. Businesspeople in the land development business, often in league with transit companies, bought up land in anticipation of the families arriving on the rails. Transit companies frequently built competing, duplicative tram lines in city centers to whisk their customers to the urban periphery. Some center-city neighborhoods close-in had too many lines, while others further out had very few. With the private sector financing development, low fares, and profit as the driving motivation, few city governments intervened to demand long-term transit planning during the boom years.
Transit owners for decades evaded the trend to municipal ownership. Large-scale public control and investment in water supplies, for instance, grew directly from the manifest failure of private water companies to deliver sufficient clean water to growing cities. Transit companies, in contrast, met the growing customer demand for decades and encouraged urban expansion with impressive technologies like electric streetcars. These wealthy and powerful companies also resisted public purchase with every political and legal tool at their disposal. Transit as a profitable private enterprise distinguished the United States from much of Europe. According to historian Jon Teaford, European riders enjoyed slightly lower fares under municipal ownership, but at the cost of innovation and supply. Europeans mostly walked or rode slow horse-drawn cars. At the same time, their American counterparts—in cities from small to large—increasingly substituted walking for fast rides on privately operated electric streetcar systems operating “on a scale that dwarfed networks in comparable European municipalities.” Total streetcar ridership increased in the United States from 2 to 15.5 billion passengers between 1890 and 1920.
Private transit built American cities and suburbs, but growing rider dissatisfaction led to Progressive-era regulation. Traction monopolists had built a market and a new way of living, but they inflamed customers by failing to replace older equipment, rationalize networks, or invest in faster elevated or subway lines. Newly empowered public service commissions began regulating fares, corporate consolidation, and service levels; city governments frequently taxed transit companies to pay for parks and road repairs. However, regulation remained weak because the wealthy companies had influential supporters in government and commissions. Companies were also entitled to profits through their franchise agreements. A few Progressives and socialists still clamored for outright municipal ownership, but most politicians and voters disagreed.
As complaints about transit service quality mounted before World War II, just a few cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco finally entered the public transit business. Citizens and leaders in most other cities ignored massive ridership losses from automobile competition and auto-centric policies in the crucial period from 1945 to 1970. Voters, mayors, and city councils stubbornly rejected public ownership or tax support for private transit despite obvious signs of systemic collapse. Transit in most American cities thus remained in private hands until the 1960s and 1970s. Private companies, left to their own devices, responded postwar in predictable ways to their declining market share and lack of support: less service and higher fares, substitution of streetcars with buses, and deferred maintenance on remaining legacy rail lines and bus service. Service reduction predictably accelerated ridership loss. Failing private companies refused to extend anything but limited bus service to expanding suburbs, leaving most transit a center-city service.
Public buyouts of private companies took place only after decades of devastating losses to service and ridership in cities such as Baltimore (1970), Salt Lake City (1970), Atlanta (1971), Houston (1974), Indianapolis (1975), and many more. The terms of emerging public ownership, moreover, undid many potential benefits to riders. City and state officials mostly refused to create robust new taxes or divert sufficient general revenue to the new public transit agencies. Poorly subsidized public ownership in hundreds of additional cities thus proved insufficient to stabilize service or reach new markets. Government officials also signed off on pay and benefits for public transit workers, thus avoiding damaging strikes, without backing up these deals with public money. Cities and states limited their support despite the poor record of long-term unsubsidized public ownership in cities like Detroit (1922) and Chicago (1947). Transit had gone from one crisis, bankrupt private ownership, to another, underfunded public ownership.
The failure of city and state officials to stabilize transit ridership and transit’s reputation narrowed the dividends of new federal transit funding beginning with the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 (and expanding substantially in 1970 and after). Federal funds helped buy a new generation of buses in most cities, a welcome improvement for long-suffering riders. Cities with legacy transit, like Chicago and New York, devoted their federal funds to rehabilitation of aging rail networks. In many more cities, like Baltimore and Atlanta, civic leaders deployed valuable federal capital funding to building limited and expensive new rail lines that ultimately attracted few riders. Because federal operating funds proved modest and transient (roughly 1974– 80), most transit agencies still pursued austerity management policies thanks to lackluster farebox collection and insufficient local and state subsidies. Mass transit’s poor service, minimum rail network, and limited ridership made deep federal investment risky compared to other national priorities.
Cities like San Francisco, Boston, and New York profited long term because their respective city or state governments became intimately and reputationally involved when most city residents depended upon transit. The development of expensive subways or tunnels, necessitated by overcrowded downtowns or significant geographical barriers in these cities, required greater capital than private operators would provide unaided. By incorporating transit in government operations so early, city leaders put transit on a more level playing field with other city services in legislation, annual budgets, and the minds of voters and elected officials. City leaders diverted tax revenues early to support transit development in Boston, San Francisco, and New York. Public funds allowed for service consistency during decades of ridership losses. New federal capital funding, building on decades of local pro-transit funding choices, could be deployed to sustaining and expanding transit offerings rather than trying to attract hypothetical suburban riders from their cars (as in Baltimore, Atlanta, and many other cities).
San Francisco residents, for instance, have benefited without much interruption from electric streetcars, reliable buses, and electric trolleybuses (buses powered by overhead electric wires) since the 1920s. The region, thanks to subsidies, even built a new rapid rail system (Bay Area Rapid Transit [BART]) in the postwar decades. New York sustained a massive subway system and rescued private commuter rail, despite the 1960s and 1970s urban financial and demographic crisis. Despite regional sprawl and highway development, Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) has sustained comprehensive service—on street cars, buses, trolleybuses, commuter rail, and subways. Quality transit like this can exist alongside an automotive society, but taxpayers must support it. Waiting for an elevated level of federal funding that will single-handedly pay for creating and maintaining high-quality transit in hundreds of cities was a losing strategy for American cities like Baltimore and Detroit.
Auto-Centric City Planning
As early as the 1920s, leaders and an emerging generation of planners and traffic engineers throughout the nation believed that only retrofitting traditional downtowns and neighborhoods for cars would sustain urban health. Officials demanded the removal of streetcar tracks in neighborhoods and downtowns to speed up car and truck traffic, ignored remaining transit rider demands, and mostly succeeded in junking the streetcar lines by the 1960s. Mayors and city councils rejected available opportunities for streetcar modernization and acceleration (i.e., tunnels or separated lines) in all but a few cities. Planning to make buses run rapidly, such as exclusive busways, were often considered but rarely constructed. In many cases, city governments commissioned detailed proposals for rapid transit, but these were usually shelved when the cost estimates came in. City officials, however, found the money for citywide networks of paved streets, boulevards, and parkways and planned for regional-scale highways long before the federal interstate system of the 1950s.
While waging war on downtown streetcars, planners, real-estate interests, and city leaders endorsed zoning rules that dispensed with the existing laissez-faire transit-oriented growth regime. As documented in the enduring classic Streetcar Suburbs, the Gilded Age was America’s last transit golden age thanks to the freedom given to property owners to determine the type and density of development near rail. But the rise of carefully planned lower-density suburbs created an alluring model of living in the first half of the twentieth century. Real-estate and city leaders made low-density residential development the central pillar of citywide zoning regulation widely adopted at the time: “By 1926 the 426 zoned municipalities had a total of more than 27 million inhabitants, over half the total urban population of the United States.” Zoning prevented the development of sufficient density on the urban fringe and in the suburbs to support transit service on a “pay as you go” model. The economic logic of city and suburban transport, including commuter rail, interurbans, and streetcar lines, collapsed.
Transit companies from the 1920s onward were now looking at a maximum number of riders throughout their service areas, mostly at rush hours, no matt er how rapid or frequent the service. Only a few big cities, with a tradition of dense urban development, took an alternative approach. New York, Chicago, Boston, and San Francisco made more generous provisions for citywide multifamily housing, commerce, or industry, with long-term benefits for transit. But even where center-city zoning was friendlier to transit, as in Chicago, the more rapidly growing suburbs tightly locked down future development. The strict regulations sent a solid message to transit operators that future investment was futile. Redlining compounded transit disinvestment by encouraging long-term population and commercial abandonment of many neighborhoods best served by transit.
Postwar local policies of car-friendly urban renewal further damaged the viability of mass transit. Local officials worked closely with state and federal officials to clear neighborhoods to make way for wide arterials and urban interstate networks. The Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, encouraging slum clearance and redevelopment, built on long-standing civic priorities to rebuild downtowns and clear poor and Black families from desirable central locations. Large-scale redevelopment that moved ahead intentionally reduced the density of more impoverished, transit-riding populations living near convenient transit nodes and central business districts (CBDs). Replacement by low-density housing projects (public and private), shopping centers, or new college or hospital campuses usually included ample parking space and easy access to highways. After World War II, the clearance projects sometimes forced transit route changes or elimination to make way for wider streets, forbidding superblocks, and elevated or depressed roadway sections.
The massive citizen pressure from freeway revolts and anti–urban renewal opinion finally forced politicians to reconsider their auto-centric policies and reliance on federal highway programs. The federal government in 1974 helped the emergent pro-transit movement when it permitted diversion of highway funds to transit. A few cities grudgingly scaled back urban renewal policies or highways. City leaders in New York, Boston, and San Francisco—under enormous public pressure—aided transit by canceling more center-city expressways than was typical nationally. If done early enough and on a large scale, actions like these were effective in preserving density and urban vitality. These cities are also notable for housing stabilization and affordable housing programs that stabilized neighborhoods near transit. Researchers Erick Guerra and Robert Cervero highlighted in a national study that “higher densities tend to improve transit’s cost-effectiveness, in spite of higher capital costs.” Densely populated central city neighborhoods that evaded the postwar wrecking ball remain the core of transit ridership today.
However, a transit renaissance was usually too late for a genuine revival in most cities as the mainstream transit habit was lost, and minimal bus service remained. When the federal government in the 1960s and 1970s began covering a higher percentage of capital costs per project, federal capital grants paid for new buses in most cities and helped stabilize legacy transit in cities such as Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. Elsewhere, however, civic leaders often prioritized federal grants for new rapid or light-rail systems that consultants believed would attract higher-income suburban riders back to transit and city centers. Yet the capital grants that flowed to cities like Baltimore and Atlanta built only one or two rail lines rather than comprehensive, citywide systems of value to city residents. Rail made a modest comeback nationally thanks to federal investment, but insufficient attention to planning, density, and zoning usually led to mediocre ridership on the new rail systems.
White Flight from Transit
Race and the white preference for highly segregated public spaces were crucial factors in the American transit disaster. Racial conflict became an underlying, if rarely acknowledged, factor in transit disinvestment as cities changed over the century. For decades, annual reports of transit companies and most transit coverage avoided discussing the racialized dimension of transit. In the official story, ridership losses resulted from automobile ownership, rising fares, less service, population decline, and mismanagement rather than racism. Aligning transit decline with neighborhood census patterns and other sources tells another story.
American mass transit’s so-called golden age was a comparatively socially homogeneous one characterized primarily by tightly packed cars of native whites and new immigrants primarily from Europe. When American cities were majority white in the early twentieth century, transit riders filled the booming streetcars and rapid lines. The growing African American populations in southern and northern cities in the industrial era also took advantage of these systems at their height. Still, their presence disrupted the social homogeneity preferred by many white riders. The responses to integrated ridership were different in the North and South, but the outcome was much the same. Transit became a second-tier public service in the United States disproportionately utilized by poor, nonwhite riders.
In the early twentieth century, southern cities, comparatively small but growing fast, developed with streetcar infrastructure. The Jim Crow laws that mandated extreme segregation on public transit harshly maintained dividing lines as the Black population increased. Pioneering activists began targeting transit because of these seating rules, making transit an essential battleground for civil rights batt les of the postwar period. Boycotts and legal challenges in cities like Montgomery and Atlanta eventually led to judicial decisions mandating the end of Jim Crow policies. The right to travel on mass transit in dignity in the South understandably took precedence over concerns about dramatic losses to the quality of service, encouraged by white local officials, taking place simultaneously as civil rights battles. Sadly, by the time Jim Crow was gone, so was much of the better-quality transit system that whites had once enjoyed.
Southern whites chose to address mandated integration by doubling down on transit disinvestment, urban renewal, automobiles, and suburbia. The southern transit strategy, much like that in the North, relied on mass migration to restricted suburbia and limiting remnant transit. Glitzy projects like Atlanta’s Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) focused on attracting whites back to separate, higher-speed rail lines even though many white suburbs in Atlanta refused to participate in developing the new system. The legacy of southern disinvestment in transit is evident in the minor role of mass transit across almost all southern states today. The Atlanta story, told here, illustrates the racial divisions over transit in the South and the failure of transit development to keep pace with blistering economic growth in the Sunbelt. Very few urban travelers, of any race, use transit anywhere in the Sunbelt.
The conditions in northern and mid-Atlantic cities were no less fraught, and the outcome of failing to deal with racial hatred was quite similar to the South. At the turn of the century, the small minority ridership in northern cities benefited from extensive, low-cost transit systems. Racial tension, however, increased on transit in the North with the Great Migration. Whites attacked Black riders who had to cross color lines to travel from overcrowded ghetto districts to work and play. The infamous postwar race riots in Chicago, for instance, prompted the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune in 1919 to flirt with calls for northern legal “segregation.” The editorial board believed that “if a colored person cannot enter a streetcar without this being the signal for shooting and furor, how long will it be before public policy and the protection of life and property makes necessary another system of transportation.”
The North demurred from implementing Jim Crow, but the prediction of the need for “another system of transportation” was prescient. White leaders in the North left transit a low priority as neighborhoods, and transit patronage changed, and most whites found the social distance they wanted in their cars. Indeed, as white families in the North moved rapidly to new car-based subdivisions, both within city limits and in independent suburbs in the early twentieth century, they took with them both their fares and their political pressure for transit improvements and subsidies. White families also added new pressure for costly city expenditures on new parkways, highways, and roads. They ably resisted the rising calls for regional transit and taxation when asked at the ballot box.
At first, private and public transit companies operating on typical “pay as you go” models cut service faster in whiter semi-suburban areas rather than closer-in areas with growing Black populations. Black riders paid the bills. But companies could not sustain such a targeted strategy after cutting the least-patronized service. As whites stopped riding—and as white majorities rejected bonds, general fund subsidies, or taxes for transit—managers made deeper cuts. The white mayors elected everywhere until the late 1960s always placed transit at a low priority. Almost all transit systems eventually cut to the bone comprehensive, expensive-to-operate streetcar and trolleybus options. Bus systems often debuted at a high-quality level, with new buses and lots of them, but managers eventually cut back bus service to match declining profits and ridership.
Redlining discouraged investment and renovation in older city neighborhoods with legacy transit and growing Black populations. Property owners took advantage of widespread housing discrimination by charging Black families higher rents than was justified for substandard accommodation. When the buildings finally wore out, many owners just abandoned their properties. City officials, meanwhile, stood by while owners discriminated based on race and egregiously violated building codes. City leaders focused on clearing and rebuilding Black neighborhoods, usually near the CBD. In the wake of clearance were empty lots and lower-density housing, industrial, or commercial projects. Small and large stores along transit lines that had successfully served straphangers lost clientele. As stores closed, opportunities in entry-level retail employment also evaporated, erasing what was once a fixture of working-class social stability. Long-term unemployment reduced the number of daily riders who once traveled by tram to factories, warehouses, and downtowns.
The combination of these factors was dreadful for transit in the 1960s and 1970s. The declining population density was evident in neighborhoods in Rustbelt cities like Baltimore, Cleveland, and Philadelphia and Sunbelt cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta. These broader trends in Black areas directly impacted transit service because these were often the neighborhoods with the most remaining lines and riders. Only in cities where a small white elite still rode legacy rail systems (New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco) was saving and subsidizing transit a pressing issue.
The urban disorder that accompanied disinvestment was another strike against transit. The riots of the 1960s in American cities dealt a death blow to many struggling neighborhoods reliant upon transit and scared off many residual white riders. Rising crime on transit vehicles further hurt transit’s reputation and competitiveness. Transit managers responded by creating transit police forces and exact change requirements that protected drivers from stickups. But the damage to transit’s reputation was done. Transit experts dreamed up a horrible name for the remaining transit consumers in most cities: “captive” riders. By this, they meant those who could not drive a car because of being too old, too young, too poor, or having a disability.
Racial fractures along regional lines impacted all transit service. The dying private transit companies and most newly created public agencies extended few lines anywhere postwar. The potential links to prospering suburban offices, factories, malls, and light industrial parks were usually absent, cut, or limited given the limited density and potential ridership. Suburbanites actively resisted regional cooperation to improve transit, even if white people might also have benefited from a transit option. Declining connectivity robbed African American newcomers of affordable, dependable, and extensive mass transit systems that had once well served poor and working-class white families as steppingstones to the American dream. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 believed that “if transportation in American cities could be laid out so as to provide an opportunity for poor people to get to meaningful employment, then they could begin to move into the mainstream of American life.” Transit collapse was a significant source of the “spatial mismatch hypothesis” (1968) that identified the distance between poor urban neighborhoods and booming suburban employers as essential in growing urban poverty.
When African Americans finally achieved electoral success in the 1960s and 1970s, mayors overseeing urban decline had limited resources to deal with the issue. Moreover, only a few transit agencies benefited significantly from regional and state taxation. White suburban and rural voters refused to endow almost all regional transit agencies with the subsidies, taxing power, or land-use controls that could have enabled successful operation. Many middle-class Black families had also turned to cars and stopped riding as service declined by the 1970s and 1980s; more prosperous Black neighborhoods, often suburban in style, almost always had high car usage. Integrating transit agency workforces and leadership was sometimes as important politically as bus service quality. For mayors, it was often best to keep a transit authority at arm’s length, push for hiring of Black citizens, or make requests for additional state or federal aid.
The racial dimension became even more pronounced with the arrival of federal capital funds in the 1960s and 1970s. White elites, who had mostly ignored the decline of streetcar and bus systems, often invested the new capital funds in expensive rapid transit systems designed to link cities and suburbs. Reverend King highlighted the racial issue in Atlanta, observing that “the rapid-transit system has been laid out for the convenience of the white upper-middle-class suburbanites who commute to their jobs downtown. The system has virtually no consideration for connecting the poor people with their jobs. There is only one possible explanation for this situation, and that is the racist blindness of city planners.” Yet African American mayors like Maynard Jackson in Atlanta, Coleman Young in Detroit, and Tom Bradley in Los Angeles ultimately promoted the same downtown-suburban linked rail systems favored by the white business community.
Adapted and excerpted from The Great American Transit Disaster by Nicholas Dagen Bloom, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2023 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Nicholas Dagen Bloom is professor of urban policy and planning, and director of the Master of Urban Planning Program, at Hunter College. He is the author of numerous books, including How States Shaped Postwar America, also published by the University of Chicago Press.