One of the most interesting myths that Mees spends time debunking in this chapter is actually not that auto dominance was inevitable (since I didn’t believe that to begin with) but the idea that American public transit declined and died because of a conspiracy by the auto industry. His analysis is that the tram industry had serious problems at the time that it was purchased, converted to buses, and then dismantled by GM. There’s no disagreement on the latter points, but earlier reports from the government and other sources show that the tram companies had been privately run with an eye to the short-term profits of their owners, and were in dire financial straits by the time the takeovers occurred. In Los Angeles:
By the 1920s, it was clear that the Pacific Electric system would need substantial investment to modernize equipment, segregate servies from traffic congestion, improve level crossing safety, and duplicate single track sections. Cross-suburban routes to complement the mainly radial network, and extensions to new growth areas, would also be needed to compete with the car. But Pacific Electric lost money in all but one of the years from 1912 to 1941.
A report by engineering consultants suggested the implementation of a multi-modal system, with exclusive-ROW rapid transit supplemented by interurban trams and suburban buses. But it would have meant pumping money into the unpopular and fiscally unsound private railway companies, and was eventually abandoned in favor of an entirely public-section solution of building radial freeways, on the grounds that Los Angeles’s dispersed development pattern was more suitable for the automobile — even though that pattern was largely created by the tram network.
People disliked the railway companies because they had been providing increasingly poorer service for years and trying to raise prices as well. That doesn’t bode well for today’s transit agencies trying to get money to provide better service — but at least they don’t have the image of greedy private companies!
As a contrast to the perfect storm of economic and political factors in LA, and a supporting piece of evidence that auto dominance wasn’t inevitable, Mees also tells the story of a decline which was a conspiracy, that of Auckland public transit. It was a conspiracy not of the auto industry (there is none in New Zealand), but of government officials and planners: the Auckland City Engineer, the national Transport Minister, and a professor of Geography at Auckland University, who with other road supporters, created a stacked committee, referred an earlier rail and public transport plan to the committee, and declared Auckland unsuitable for public transit, despite the fact that at the time it had the majority share of travel into the city centre (58%). Again the justification was the dispersed nature of the Auckland area. They cited Ernest Fooks’ figures giving Auckland a density of only 4 people per acre, below even LA.
The only problem is that Fooks, in his book X-Ray the City, provided these figures exactly to demonstrate the fallacy of calculating density based on urban boundaries, which are arbitrary and don’t represent an entire built-up area. Portlanders know that our city includes Forest Park, which is entirely uninhabited by humans. LA and Auckland suffer from the same effect in the calculation of average density: large undeveloped areas. As the same committee had only four years earlier calculated the actual urbanized area of Auckland, it’s difficult to write this off as an innocent error.
The use of density is revealed once again as a convenient story. It’s a classic case of the fallacy of assuming that because A is correlated with B, A must cause B, and completely ignores other potential relationships and confounding effects, such as different policies and political environments that played a large role in transit investment and operation.