Travelers to Europe come back to the United States wondering why we can’t have longer vacations and better public transportation. Why can you get just about anywhere in Germany on clean, frequent transit, whereas in most of the United States you are condemned to either owning a car or using dirty, unreliable and poorly-spaced buses and trains?
In “The Great American Transit Disaster,” Hunter College urban policy and planning professor Nicholas Dagen Bloom argues that the transit deserts in much of the United States were not inevitable—but caused by a lack of funding to sustain high-quality service, the encouragement of auto-centric planning, and white flight from dense city centers to far-flung suburbs. Bloom has seen the enemy and it is us—voters and city and state leaders who effectively shut down options for transit-friendly futures.
Bloom makes a compelling case that Americans did this to themselves by demanding better streets for cars at the expense of transit, and favoring low-density, suburban living that makes cars indispensable and transit hard to justify. He argues that blaming the auto industry for all that ails American mobility is “nonsense” and rejects the much-discussed “streetcar conspiracy” as a major factor in transit’s decline. This refers to the alleged scheme by General Motors and others to dismantle streetcar systems and monopolize surface transportation—a story fictionalized in the movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Bloom points out that while it is true that National City Lines (bankrolled by GM and others) oversaw the accelerated placement of streetcars with buses in forty-five urban transit systems, this represented only a fraction of systems nationwide. All over the country, non-NCL systems were doing the same thing. Besides, Bloom says, the problem wasn’t that buses are worse than streetcars, but that cities were not supporting any kind of transit to the extent needed for good service.
To illustrate its points, his book takes an exhaustive look at the transit histories of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Atlanta, Boston and San Francisco—with the latter two cities seen as more successful examples. Chicago’s system was hurt by its late adoption of public subsidies after the government took over private companies to form the CTA in 1947. Baltimore made a bad bet by spending big money on rapid transit in areas with declining population. Bloom also tells the sad tale of Detroit’s costly, underused People Mover.
Unfortunately, “exhaustive” often means “exhausting.” I’m a transit geek—having covered transportation for years at both the Tribune and the Sun-Times—and I’m up for a lot of detail, but I could barely get through this book. One struggles from page to page looking for drops of moisture in the text—humor, anecdotes and adverbs. The dryness is a fault in that this well-researched book likely won’t get much readership outside of transit professionals, advocates and academics.
Another fault is that Bloom does not look at the effects of the pandemic. People choosing to work from home and problems with both petty and serious crime on underused systems like the CTA have dealt a new and serious blow to transit. The book’s already out of date.
The book’s greatest strength is its hard look at how racism helped ruin U.S. transit. Bloom lays out how transit became a “second-tier public service in the United States disproportionately utilized by poor, nonwhite riders.” He notes that Southern whites addressed mandated integration by doubling down on transit disinvestment and promoting suburbia. Similar patterns were seen in Northern cities, where white leaders left transit a low priority as neighborhoods changed. Racism is the country’s original sin and has tainted multiple American institutions—from criminal justice to labor unions to education. Bloom makes the case that transit is no exception.
“The Great American Transit Disaster: A Century of Austerity, Auto-Centric Planning, and White Flight”
By Nicholas Dagen Bloom
University of Chicago Press, $35, 349 pages
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and author of “Algren: A Life.”