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The Highway Lobby

by Ralph Nader

Ever since the first public transit — a ferryboat near Boston in 1630 — got underway, a Broad variety of carriers have emerged — buses, trolleybuses, vanpools, jitneys, heavy and light rail, cable cars, monorails, tramways and automated guideway transit. Rarely did these transports ever attract private investment — that was reserved for The Car on publicly funded and maintained highways.

In the year 2000 Americans took 9.4 billion trips on public transportation, an increase of 3.5% from 1999. But in 1946 Americans recorded 23.4 billion trips which is still unsurpassed even though the population was only half of what it is today. What happened to account for the decline of public transit, which is safer, more efficient, less polluting, and reduces highway congestion, while stimulating nearby economic development?

The major answer to this question is the long-standing opposition of The Highway Lobby — the auto, oil, tire and cement industries. You don’t hear much these days about “The Highway Lobby” as such. The reason is that it has done its destructive job which is to make America an occasion for ribbons of crowded highways carrying millions of motor vehicles as the only “practical and direct” way to get around on the ground.

At times the lobby has to resort to crime to achieve its assaults on public transit, while at other periods, it just used its money, muscle and propaganda with state and Washington lawmakers. Twenty eight crimes were committed by General Motors and its oil and tire company co-conspirators in the Thirties and Forties leading to their convictions in federal district court in Chicago during the late Forties. The U.S. Justice Department’s charge, upheld in court, was that these large companies, in order to eliminate their major rivals — the trolley industry — bought up these firms, tore up the tracks in and around 28 major cities in the U.S., including the biggest one in Los Angeles, and lobbied legislators to build more and more highways to sell more and more vehicles, gasoline and tires. Earlier, GM tried to pressure banks to reduce credit to these trolley companies and when that did not succeed sufficiently, the conspiracy to buy out their competitors and shut them down was hatched.

This is more than corporate crime history. Everyday, today, tomorrow and the next day, millions of Americans find themselves on clogged, bumper to bumper commutes because there is no convenient mass transit or no mass transit at all where they live and work.

Lots of people have little or no idea of all the flexible and super-modern modes of public transit that reach all the way toward something called “personal public transit” which would allow you and fellow passengers to call up a monorail car to take you to your destination in some future resurgence of public transit technology.

First, change must replace the dominant highway lobby imagery with sleek public transit imagery. For example, have you ever seen a television advertisement for a new car stuck in congested traffic? By contrast, have you ever seen an ad for public transit showing people zooming to work in a modern transit train, while they were snoozing, chatting or reading the newspaper, and racing ahead of a parallel highway clogged with trucks, vans and cars moving in slow motion? Fifty years of this bias and it is not surprising how low are the public’s expectations.

Second, the bias has translated into the reality of residential, shopping and other developments geared to the car and inimical to public transit in a vicious circle of reinforcement for the highway lobby’s designs for America.

Still, there are the public transit optimists. Every other month Ireceive and read a magazine called Transit California, published by the California Transit Association.

The current issue is full of news regarding innovative advances and expansions in public transit from Santa Monica to Santa Clarity Valley to Contra Costa County and all the stages before various kinds of public transportation delivered to residents.

The Association will be having its 37th annual fall conference in Ontario, California ( and would be pleased to hear from interested communities writing to the CTA, 1414 K Street, Suite 320, Sacramento, CA 95814


Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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