david pritchard. bibliography.

Notes on Goddard, Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century [1]

When the ICC issued its findings in 1928, its decision was pragmatic but myopic. Undoubtedly, the commission found, truckers had sharply curtailed rail freight tonnage. However, the rails gained business in shipping truck tires, bodies, and truck and auto parts. No harm, no foul. The long-term implications of its decision—that the railroads' new business consisted of carrying the coffin to their own funerals—seemed lost on the commissioners. [p. 101]

MacDonald adopted a mantra for his campaign: use of public roads is an inalienable human right, as opposed to use of the private rails, which is a privilege based on a fare. The principle that access to public roads ought to be open was old, but not universally accepted. Since the Middle Ages in Britain, for example, town fathers had maintained the roads that ran through their towns. American county governments continued the practice. But this largely involved filling in ruts in dirt roads and keeping them free of debris. When governments began building sophisticated turnpikes with hard-packed surfaces and drainage, they commonly charged tolls to their users. Yet throughout his career, MacDonald steadfastly opposed charging tolls, even when in the 1930s it would mean going head to head with the president of the United States.

In 1923, when radio broadcasting was in its infancy, MacDonald took to the airwaves to address the nation on the similarity of roads and radio. Listening through the crackling reception of radio's early days, Americans heard MacDonald intone: "Radio is free as air; and the open road is symbolic of freedom." At a time when countless Americans felt used and abused by the private railroads and trolleys, MacDonald did not hesitate to note that "no corporation controls them [roads] and the only restrictions on their use are those imposed for the public good." [pp. 109-110]

Some sections of the country have developed almost without railroads and others will develop that way. Whole sections of the globe will skip the railroad age, such as Russia and China. There the future transportation will flow along the highways and in the air, exactly as it will with us. [Quoting Henry Ford from a 1931 New York Times column.] [p. 143]

In 1939, MacDonald sought to bury the toll-highway idea in a report the size of a small book, arguing that tolls would cover only 40 percent of the total cost. [...] Yet what the BPR [Bureau of Public Roads] measured was the volume and nature of trips cars and trucks made on existing roads. Significantly, what BPR's surveys did not calculate was how people's habits would change if they had a high-speed, limited-access toll road to drive on. [p. 161]

The American Municipal Association (AMA) climbed on the urban [interstate] bandwagon as well and sough to present a united front to Congress. [...] Attacking gridlock effectively had now taken a back seat to slum clearance at city halls, which "exulted" that Washington would pick up 90 percent of the tab for highways that bulldozed through unsightly slums at the same time. [p. 191]

Congress insured that a war-conditioned generation would embrace the interstate program by naming it "the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways." Yet as an indication of the true role defense played, one critic reports that the interstate builders never consulted the Pentagon about what specifications military transport would require. By the time the Defense Department advised the highwaymen in 1960 that such equipment as Atlas missiles called for a sixteen-foot underpass clearance, 2,200 bridges and other roadway structures had already been built to a fourteen-foot standard.

After the interstate-building program was well under way, the president also awoke to unexpected realities of the plan he had pushed. On a summer day in 1959, Eisenhower's limousine was on its way to Camp David, Maryland, when the president noticed a huge earthen gash extending through the northwest section of the city. Asking the reason for this massive intrusion of bulldozers, he learned from an aide that this was his interstate highway system. Eisenhower recoiled in horror. His interstate concept, borrowed from the German model, had been to go around cities, not through them. Amazingly, he had been unaware during the lengthy congressional donnybrook that the only way the interstates could become a reality in this increasingly urban nation was to promise cities enough money to eviscerate themselves. [p. 194]

A half-century after the demise of the trolley industry, its autopsy continues. Transportation pathologists disagree strongly about why a mode that seems so cost-effective today failed to survive. Little questions exist that the industry had serious problems well before General Motors (GM) and the bus-line pioneer Roy Fitzgerald took an interest. Yet few deny that GM and its affiliates conspired to monopolize the urban market for buses, tires, and petroleum products, if not to monopolize the urban lines themselves. "So what?" ask some experts, who maintain that factors other than the conspiracy did the industry in—that people simply made a free market choice for motor travel.

That argument begs to be examined. The highwaymen worked hard to influence Americans' choice of travel. Early automobile ads chipped away at a breadwinner's psychological freedom to choose by invoking moral terms: that riding the trolleys was "wrong" or "not fair to your children." But more influential were the policy choices that made railways build and pay taxes on their own pathways while sparing the rails' competitors from such burdens. Traveling by road seemed cheaper than using the rails, with good reason.

And the "free choice" argument presumes that people would opt for motor over rail travel for all their needs—commuting, shopping, business travel, recreation. In fact, people often mix modes, commuting to work by public transit while shopping for groceries and going to the beach by car. Monolithic decisions about using road or rail are likely only when just one practical option exists. By removing electric streetcars from city streets and contracting to forbid their return, those who freely admit they were trying to reshape urban life insured that cityfolk would have only one real alternative. [p. 248]


Stephen B. Goddard.
Getting There: The Epic Struggle between Road and Rail in the American Century.
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, USA, 1994.

David Pritchard 2007-12-10