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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Public Transportation: Paranoia Is a Point of View

Air Date: Week of

This week, public television airs a P.O.V. (Point Of View) series documentary titled "Taken For A Ride." Author and commentator Bill McKibben reflects on the theme of the television program which is the dismantling of public trolleys by the auto manufacturer General Motors.


CURWOOD: Transportation researches have calculated that the Los Angeles freeway system averages 85 million vehicle miles every day. It's difficult, if not impossible, to say how many car trips could be saved if LA had an extensive mass transit network. Earlier this century, the City of Angels had the beginnings of just such a system. Its demise is chronicled in a new PBS Point of View documentary. Writer and Living on Earth commentator Bill McKibben reviews the program called "Taken For a Ride."

McKIBBEN: For years, rumors have circulated that the big car companies have conspired against us, bought up the patents for solar cars and hidden them away in vaults, joined with the oil barons to block the 100-mile-per-gallon car. Paranoid fantasies? Perhaps. But as everyone knows, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. As a documentary to be broadcast soon on PBS's Point of View series makes clear, the infrastructure of our entire nation really has been the victim of fast-talking car salesmen.

In the early 1920s, only one American in 10 owned a car. Most of the rest got around on the trolley lines that stretched through every metropolis. GM didn't care for those trolleys, crowded with potential car buyers. So what did they do? They slowly and systematically bought up those trolley companies, tearing up their tracks, replacing them with heavily polluting GM diesel buses, which eventually gave way to cars. Los Angeles ran on yellow trolleys, until GM, Standard Oil, and Firestone got through with it.

The analysts' promotion of the automobile chronicled in "Taken For a Ride" is more than ancient history. This year alone, the highway lobby has won funding for 160,000 more miles of pavement, spending dollars that won't go for high-speed trains or nimble light rail. And around the world, especially in Asia, GM and its brother carmakers are pushing hard to hook everybody else on the almighty auto. This time, if they succeed, it'll mean more than grim urban congestion and sprawling suburban development. It'll also derail the fight to stop global warming.

In 1993 Frank Adams and Richard Grossman co-authored a pamphlet explaining that most American corporations were chartered to work for the common good. When they didn't, the pamphlet suggested, their charter should be revoked. They must have had GM in mind. In retrospect, it's clear that the auto makers pulled off the environmental crime of the century in this country, one we'll be paying for well into the next millennium. It's salutary for us to hear this history, but the statute of limitations has expired here. This is one film that most needs to be shown in Beijing, Jakarta, and New Delhi. For Living on Earth, I'm Bill McKibben.

CURWOOD: Bill McKibben lives in upstate New York. His most recent book is Hope, Human and Wild.



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