Starting in the 1920's, General Motors started buying up trolley companies in US cities, including Tulsa. Other companies related to the automobile, like oil companies and Firestone, joined in the takeover. What better way to improve car sales than to put cheap public transportation out of business? That's exactly what these companies did, and once GM and others completed the buyout, they could soon replace trolleys with GM-manufactured bus lines, which were later phased out so that cars would become the norm. What's scary is the advertising campaign that the companies launched in order to discourage trolley use. Makes me wonder what ad campaigns are going on right now that we don't even realize.
The automobile manufacturers had it good, considering the federal government financed and built our interstate highway system for the manufacturers. Looking at the history of relationships between the government and companies like GM, it seems that there were many conflicts of interest. Eisenhower's Secretary of Defense, Charles Wilson, was the former president of GM. Wilson's motto: What's good for our country is good for General Motors and vice versa.
But highways are nice, right? I mean, our nation's leaders during the '50's were thinking of the common good of our country; one of the driving forces behind building interstates was that, if communists (think 1950's) were to attack the US, we would need an infrastructure that could transport people and goods quickly and efficiently. I certainly benefit from the interstate system. The trip by car from my school to my hometown that would take days instead takes 13 hours, thanks to the efficient highway system.
There are definitely harmful things that came from interstates, though. At about the same time as the inception of the highway system, the GI Bill and subsidized low-cost housing came into effect. Property values and loan-eligibility, however, were tied to race, and many nonwhites were kept from owning homes. So, homogeneous communities sprang up along the interstates, leaving the cities boarded up and urban communities without leaders.
What Schlosser dubs "car culture" started to develop. Motels and drive-in fast-food restaurants dotted the interstates, and people felt more independent and less restricted. People thought they were spending less money. According to Schlosser, "driving seemed to cost less than using public transport--an illusion created by the fact that the price of a new car did not include the price of building new roads." The success of fast-food companies depends on the automobile; the two are inextricably linked. Schlosser notes that during 1973's Arab oil embargo, "America's car culture was endangered," which "gave the fast food industry a bad scare."
I first heard about this part of our history in a session about shalom, where we learned that shalom is not just "peace" (or our limited definition of peace), but it is wholeness, the way things are supposed to be. I've never realized how biblical is the issue of economic development and I've never noticed what's behind the golden arches and our freeways. Convenience, efficiency, and "independence" come at a high price. We know that our car culture has produced environmental and health destruction, yet what about community destruction? What about wholeness and the way things are supposed to be? I know a lot more in the church are taking notice now, but I hope that we can continue to remember the effects of things like development and gentrification, and stand on behalf of the "least of these."