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Friday, March 31, 2006


Political Economy

I have been intrigued by the notion that there are some that blame National City Lines owned by GM, Standard Oil, and Firestone for destroying light rail trantsit in the early 20th century. I read an opinion article in the Courant newspaper dated, March 5, 2006 by a Tom Sevigny

http://www.courant.com/news/opinion/commentary/hc-plcsevigny10305.artmar05,0,7131096.story?coll=hc-headlines-commentary .

In the article he contends that Urban Sprawl happened because of a conspiracy by National City Lines (NCL) to systematically destroy light rail transit by buying them up, trashing them and ultimately being able to solidify monopolistic power by getting Americans to buy automobiles.

After further research into this subject, I have come to realize that sprawl was probably going to happen anyway. In the interest of profits this company could probably see the "writing on the wall" so to speak and got in on the action a bit early.

Light rail transit had actually been declining in the previous ten years to NCL buying up all the light rail lines and since it was in a position to do so it did. It then converted what wasn't already converted into bus lines, since bus lines aren't constrained to a certain track like light rail is. Making it more efficient to have bus lines. This also consequently cause a fundamental shift in the preferences of consumers for cars.

I think on a basic level we might all have an innate desire to be more spread out instead of packed into densely populated areas. Since the advent of the automobile this has allowed us to travel further out in our quest to be more "spread out". Obviously, Mr. Sevigny has a slanted view of what caused sprawl but his own conspiracy argument works against him. If it hadn't been GM it could very well have been, Ford or Dodge. The fact remains, "sprawl" was already starting to take hold when the light rail lines of the early twentieth century were in decline.

I wonder, What caused what?

You might consider another possibility, not just the what caused what.

If you neglect sprawl and locational choice for a moment, just consider the choice of how to get from here to there. With the technology that creates the personal automobile, and with the technology that creates a relatively cheap means of powering the personal automobile, how many people would choose to own a personal automobile rather than travel from here to there by transit? I think it makes some sense to expect travel by mass transit and by auto to be substitute goods.

Is it possible that travel by auto is relatively cheap and relatively more convenient than travel by mass transit? Is so, then perhaps the creation of the personal automobile led, over time, to consumers switching away from transit for their travel. As such, it may not have been sprawl that led to the demise of transit. In addition, over time, with more auto travel and greater freedom to get around, could it be that the demand for larger lots (with lower per unit land costs outside the city center) increased, and therefore the location of economic activities spread more widely and in less concentrated fashion.
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