The dominance of the private car was not a naturally-occurring phenomena. It had to be engineered by those who stood to profit. Meet the corporations and lobbyists who undermined public transit and brought us car culture, suburbs, and sprawl.
Hi there, my name is James Wilt and I’m a Winnipeg-based freelance journalist, graduate student, and author of the recently published book Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk.
I spent the last several years conducting research and interviews with transit experts across North America about the future of public transit: its flaws, competitors and possibilities. In this newsletter course, I will share some of my findings with you about:
- the history of automobile lobbying and influence;
- the relationship between suburban sprawl and car culture;
- the promises and failings of next-generation automobility: electric, ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles; and
- the benefits of forging a future based on genuinely public transit for all.
This newsletter course will serve as a primer to a much larger set of debates and conflicts that are crucial for us to understand if we want to confront the intersecting crises of climate change, inequality, accessibility and more. We will start this by looking at how the auto sector gained so much power over the decades.
The history of automobile lobbying & power
The fallout of COVID-19 is devastating public transit systems across North America, with plummeting ridership resulting in mass layoffs and service cuts by austerity-minded governments.
But transit was hurting well before the pandemic. With a few key exceptions such as Vancouver and Seattle, most transit systems had been grappling with consecutive years of significant ridership losses; between 2016 and 2017, 31 of the 35 largest transit systems in the United States lost ridership. Canada has fared slightly better, yet many cities have also seen reduced ridership, especially from bus service. Even in cities with good transit, such as Toronto and Montreal, just around 25 per cent of commuters rely on buses and trains to get to work.
There are 101 explanations for why public transit is in such bad shape: worsening austerity; poor transit planning; the rise of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
What is often left unaddressed is the sheer power and lobbying influence of the automobile industry — and related industries like fossil fuel extraction and road construction — in producing cultures and geographies that are almost exclusively dependent on the private automobile as the dominant form of personal transportation.
The so-called “love affair with the automobile” didn’t simply emerge as an expression of consumer sovereignty: it was heavily produced and curated by the industrial powers with vested interests in privatizing transportation.
A century-long street fight
Many popular accounts of this history focus on the mid-20th century story of National City Lines, a consortium made up of General Motors, Standard Oil of California and Firestone Tires that bought up streetcar lines in cities across the U.S. and converted most systems to buses. (These companies were convicted of violating antitrust legislation in 1949).
But the lobbying power of the automobile industry long predates the alleged conspiracy. As University of Virginia historian Peter Norton chronicled in his 2011 book Fighting Traffic, the newly emerging industry fought incredibly hard to reconstitute cities as car-dominated geographies. Those efforts included literally inventing the concept of “jaywalking” and organizing opposition against attempts to enforce speed limits.
The automobile industry was intimately involved with the massive postwar expansion of highways and suburban development, a subject that we’ll dive into more in the next newsletter. Throughout this unprecedented social reorganization, these companies continued to do what they do best: attack critics like Ralph Nader; ignore known defects, such as with the Ford Pinto and various Toyota models; evade environmental regulations, like during the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
Lobbying for handouts and exemptions
Fuel economy standards were gutted by the Ronald Reagan administration in the mid-1980s as the result of industry lobbying, with emissions from light trucks — including pick-up trucks and SUVs — carved out with uniquely low requirements. University of Iowa law professor Gregory H. Shill argued in a lengthy paper titled “Should Law Subsidize Driving?” that the two-tiered emissions standards “incentivizes car companies to manufacture large, dirty vehicles.” The share of light truck sales in the U.S. has more than tripled since the mid-1970s.
Automobile manufacturers also benefited massively from billions of dollars loaned in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis. This bailout was slammed by the Canadian auditor general in 2014 for lack of transparency. In March 2018, the federal Liberals quietly forgave an undisclosed amount of money still owed by the auto sector.
Despite their dominance, automobile manufacturers continue to lobby governments at a high rate. The U.S. industry spent almost $70 million to lobby governments in 2017, including $8.6 million by General Motors, $8.1 million by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and $5.8 million by Toyota. Many of these efforts have opposed climate policy. An expert told The Guardian in late 2019: “Through their lobbying, auto companies have delayed the transition of a sector that sucks up a huge proportion of oil demand globally.”
Facing down a new round of automobility
But auto sector power doesn’t always speak with one voice. Newer companies such as Tesla have received massive subsidies and supports through electric vehicle tax credits dispensed at the provincial, state and federal levels. Meanwhile, ride-hailing giants like Uber ,and autonomous vehicle companies like Google’s Waymo, have muscled their way onto public streets through the time-tested method of huge lobbying and marketing pushes.
These companies are selling images of a new, cleaner and safer generation of automobiles, another subject that will be unpacked in a future newsletter. They are using the same tactics the sector has employed for decades. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, as they’re fighting to generate private profits by the entrenchment of automobility for years to come.
Such efforts have had calamitous impacts on public transit usage. Every new vehicle on the road represents an individual or family who is very likely to rely on such a mode for the next 10 to 15 years, at the direct expense of transit usage. Further, the spatial inefficiencies of driving and storing personal vehicles comes at the expense of more efficient transit and denser neighbourhoods.
Bettering public transit — both during the pandemic and beyond — will require a huge increase in funding to improve service, reduce or abolish fares, and increase accessibility for all. It will also require taking on the powerful automobile lobby head-on, which continues to try to force a very distinct and more dangerous path onto our futures.