Living here in Los Angeles, it’s hard to not encounter the old Urban Legend about how a conspiracy of General Motors, Standard Oil, Firestone Tires, and others destroyed a thriving rail mass-transit system here, forcing people to buy cars and commute on freeways. Something about this story always smelled wrong to me, and I’ve made a minor hobby of debunking it.
I have a page on my web site about this. It’s a short writeup about the sory and why it’s a myth, along with links to longer articles which give more detail about it.
Recently, I got an email from a fellow named Edwin Black, who is an investigative reporter. He wanted to talk to me about this, as he was researching information about General Motors. I sent him my phone number and told him when was a good time to call so we could talk.
When he called, he immediately started into an extended harangue about why I was wrong, and there really was a conspiracy. I’ve heard this harangue before, and I’ve still not seen any actual evidence that the conspiracy story is right. But I talked to him for a while, just to hear what he had to say.
He said a number of rather improbable things. He claimed that the fact that cars today are powered by gasoline rather than electricity was the result of a conspiracy. I’d always thought that it had more to do with the fact that batteries for electric cars just didn’t have the same range as a tank of gas. But he launched into another harangue about how most car trips are short, which is true. But still, human nature being what it is, most people will prefer a car that can go 300 miles between fill-ups, even if most of their trips are much shorter than that. He also claimed that electricity is a ‘clean’ form of energy when compared to internal combustion engines. This may be true at the point of use, but the electricity has to come from somewhere, and the majority of electricity is made by burning coal, which is not exactly a clean thing. Lastly, he claimed that people actually prefer mass transit to commuting by automobile. This doesn’t ring true. While it’s true that commuting by car in Los Angeles often is a slow and frustrating experience, most people are in fact able to use alternatives if they wanted to. But they don’t. Taking the bus or the train is almost always slower and less convenient, so human nature is to take the path of least resistance. To top it off, he claimed that all human use of energy has been the product of conspiracy ’since the time of the Pharoahs’. That’s a pretty sweeping statement, and it seemed to me that he was perhaps someone who is predisposed to seeing conspiracy in any project that’s larger than any one person can do individually.
Another thing he said that sounded fishy to me was that “all the academics who have written about this are wrong”. I contacted one of the professors he mentioned. The professor reported having spoken with him, and said that he was ‘insistent and rude’, as well as someone who does not consider the larger context of the subject.
Hmm. It seems that my initial impression wasn’t that far off.
Now, it’s possible that GM, et al may well have intended to conspire to force people in Los Angeles to give up mass transit and buy cars, but that’s like conspiring to get dogs to eat meat. The simple fact is that the personal automobile is the killer app of modern civilization. People like it. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t use it. It’s just human nature.
Just for the record, I do own a car, which I’ve used six times so far this year. I ride my bicycle to work. I don’t take mass transit because the bike is faster and more convenient than either the bus or the car. I like trains, and I use the trains here in L.A. whenever I can. Anyway, since Mr. Black said he was going to write about me in his book, I thought I’d return the favor here. Even if my soapbox isn’t as big as his.