As the demand for electric cars—such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf—accelerates, and with social and political pressures around fuel economy and carbon emissions, it’s time to glance back upon the vast electric infrastructure America once had.
After World War I and before the boom of the auto industry, America had a powerful and broad electric streetcar public transportation system—the fifth-largest industry in the country at the time—that employed over 100,000 workers and operated in just about every major city in America.
These rail-based trolleys were fully electric, and power was supplied to them via a suspended cable. They produced zero emissions, other than the emissions created in producing the electricity at the power plant.
But due to a real-life industrial conspiracy, these rail lines were systematically dissolved by corporate giants in order to fuel consumer demand for autos.
In the early 1920s, approximately 9 out of 10 trips were made via electric streetcar. Back then, automobiles were a luxury—more of a Sunday drive recreation than a travel necessity. Auto giant General Motors (GM) needed to somehow make cars more attractive to the average citizen, and after several years of losing money, they came up with an idea.
By the ‘30s, several industrial giants together bought up all the smaller railcar companies in America’s small cities and towns and dismantled the infrastructure, forcing Americans into the auto industry, according to “When Smoke Ran Like Water” by Devra Davis. After the smaller cities were taken care of, they had plans to expand into larger cities like Los Angeles.
In 1922, Alfred P. Sloan Jr. of GM was given the special task of supplanting the country’s streetcars and other electric rail transportation systems. In his 1974 report to the U.S. Senate, he stated that in the ‘30s, GM—together with Goodyear Tires, Firestone Tire and Rubber, Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Mack Trucks, and others—formed false rail companies, bought the real ones, and eliminated the competition.
In 1947, the Truman Administration filed a charge of conspiracy to violate the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890—the first act of Congress to ban abusive monopolies—and the corporations were indicted by a California grand jury. In 1949, GM and nine other corporate defendants were fined $5,000.
By the ‘50s, most of America’s electric rail infrastructure had been destroyed. Between 1950 and 1970, the amount of vehicles in Southern California had tripled, while the population doubled and the miles of road built increased by 50 percent, according to Davis. Such statistics were typical throughout the United States.
Despite today’s infrastructure and demand for low-emissions vehicles, the electric trolley car may be an alternative that never gets back on track.