The General Motors Conspiracy to Destroy Public Transportation in the US

Taken for a Ride

Directed by Jim Klein (2014)

Film Review

Taken for a Ride is about a conspiracy initiated by General Motors to destroy America’s public transit system. At a time when only one out of ten Americans owned an automobile, the first president of General Motors Alfred P Sloan started National City Lines (NCL), with the explicit goal of shutting down the country’s popular, world class electric trolley lines.

With the financial support of Standard Oil, Phillips Petroleum, Firestone and Mack Truck, NCL bought up every trolley company in the US s systematically shut them down. This was despite widespread public opposition – the NCL buses that replaced the trolleys were far slower and more polluting than the trolleys.

Once they had a monopoly on city transit, NCL gradually raised fares and cut services until city buses were so unprofitable they had to be taken over by city government.

In 1946, after intensive investigation, the Justice Department filed suit against GM for conspiracy to monopolize public transportation. After finding them guilty, the court fined them a mere $5,000.

GM Also Behind Interstate Construction Conspiracy

In 1932, Sloan also founded the National Highway Users Conference, a consortium of oil and auto companies that would ultimately become the Highway Lobby – for decades the most powerful lobby in Washington. When Eisenhower was elected in 1952, GM president Erwin Wilson became his Secretary of Defense (and convinced of the need for superhighways – to move tanks as Hitler had done in Germany) and Francis DuPont (DuPont was the largest GM shareholder) as the Commissioner of Public Roads. Under Eisenhower, Congress enacted a federal gas tax to pay for the massive federal Interstate highway system his administration created.

There was strong public opposition in many cities to Interstate construction that threatened to displace entire neighborhoods and close down businesses, schools and churches. A national coalition – blocking urban Interstate extensions in 50 cities – but most went ahead as planned.

Sam Alito Exposes GM Conspiracy

In the 1970s, a strong grassroots environmental movement formed to address the growing problem with superhighway gridlock* and auto-related air pollution. A high point of this film is footage of a 1974 Senate Antitrust Committee hearing in which Los Angeles mayor Sam Alito reminds senators of the GM conspiracy to shut down LA’s public transit system.

Following the hearing, Congress relented and allowed cities to use federal gasoline taxes to rebuild their public transport networks. This would enable Washington and San Francisco to build subway systems and Baltimore, Portland, Seattle and other cities to begin plans for light rail (the modern term for electric trolleys) systems.

When this documentary was made in 2014, public transportation was in major crisis in most cities, due to budget cuts stemming from the 2008 global economic crash. At the time, Congress had just passed a bill to build a new national highway network four times the size of the current Interstate system.

Fortunately this plan has been shelved due to federal budgetary problems and the wholesale rejection of the private automobile by the millennial generation.

*Did you ever notice that TV ads never depict their cars stuck in highway gridlock – but on lonely stretches of country road?