is owned and operated by the Economic History Association
with the support of other sponsoring organizations.

Mass Motorization and Mass Transit: An American History and Policy Analysis

Author(s):Jones, David W.
Reviewer(s):Dunn Jr., James A.

Published by EH.NET (December 2008)

David W. Jones, Mass Motorization and Mass Transit: An American History and Policy Analysis. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008. xiii + 269 pp. $40 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-253-35152-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by James A. Dunn, Jr., Department of Political Science, Rutgers University ? Camden.

David Jones, a historian who served as research manager at the University of California?s Institute for Transportation Studies, critically examines the key policy junctures in the intertwined paths of the mass transit sector and the automobile/highway system in America. He draws on a wealth of historical data, market trends, private decisions and public policies that shaped urban mobility from the 1880s to the 2000s. He highlights America?s ?exceptionalism? with instructive comparisons to other nations? experience.

American has been ?uniquely proficient in the commercialization of new transportation technologies.? The U.S. led the world into the electric transit era. In 1890, New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia each had two to three times more per capita transit trips than London. Then speculative overinvestment damaged the industry?s credit. When this combined with souring relations with local governments and labor union troubles, the industry?s financial position became one of steady capital disinvestment ? even before the First World War. Peacetime transit ridership peaked in 1926, as prosperity and motorization took off. Again the U.S. led the world, this time into the automotive era. In 1925 the U.S. motorization rate was 172 motor vehicles per 1,000 population. Britain and France had only 20 and 18 motor vehicles per 1,000 people, respectively. Despite the Depression and the total cessation of automobile production during World War II, the American motorization rate doubled by 1950.

The transit industry, despite heavy ridership during the Second World War, could not attract new capital or hold onto its riders after 1945. As he did in his excellent 1985 book, Urban Transit Policy: An Economic and Political History, Jones here points out that the transit industry?s labor-management rigidities, organizational weaknesses and the unsuitability of its radial networks to post industrial, decentralized metropolitan regions were holdovers from its glory years of 1890-1910, when it had a virtual monopoly on motorized mobility. He correctly has no time for conspiracy theories about auto, oil and tire interests forcing the abandonment of streetcars. He even argues that the 1956 Interstate Highway Bill can not be blamed for transit?s problems in the 1950s and 1960s. Motorization and suburbanization would have proceeded almost as fast without the Interstate, as states would have upgraded four lane highways and authorized toll roads.

When the Congress decided to rescue transit in the 1960s, it paid too much attention to big city mayors, downtown businesses, and commuter railroads. It focused federal subsidies too narrowly on expensive new rail systems. In hindsight, Jones argues, it would have been better to have dangled federal subsidies to entice transit unions and local bus operators to abolish outdated labor contracts and adopt new work rules to permit part time labor and contracting out of some service to owner operators of taxi-vans. This is what Las Vegas and its union finally did in 1993. Since then Las Vegas? transit trips have grown from 15 million to 50 million and transit?s share of commute trips has risen by 128 percent. Nationwide, however, the hundreds of billions in public investment in the transit sector over the last four decades have stabilized ridership per capita, but at a level very close to its historic low. Thus transit can play only a limited role in reducing the externalities of our mass motorization, particularly the balance of payments burden of imported oil, growing CO2 emissions, and the cost of military intervention in the Middle East.

Jones? final five chapters focus on the problem of making our ?pervasively? motorized society more sustainable. A large part of the problem is the U.S. auto industry itself. In his ominously prescient words: ?in 2004-2007, the American automobile industry has experienced financial difficulties strikingly similar to those experienced by street railways following World War I … recent revenues have been insufficient to support the cost structures created during the golden days when they dominated the U.S. market.? (p. 189) With almost all their profits coming from the ?light truck? segment of the market, American auto makers are vulnerable to gasoline price spikes as well as to political pressure to improve fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions. They will have to make a ?transformational change in the technology of the automobile,? and they will need a great deal of financial and regulatory support from public policy to pull it off. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles seem to be Jones? candidate for the transformational change. He identifies five preconditions that have to be met before hydrogen fuel cell vehicles can be widely diffused: cost competiveness with conventional vehicles, creation of a fueling infrastructure, decentralized reformation of natural gas into hydrogen at fueling stations, sequestration of the CO2 emissions associated with reformation, and acceptance of hydrogen?s safety by the public. He admits that the best estimates of the time frame for this extend from 15 to 40 years in the future. Curiously, he gives almost no attention to electric vehicles, whether all-electric or plug-in hybrids. Electric power faces far fewer infrastructure and CO2 sequestration issues than hydrogen. And even GM?s California-mandated EV1 from the 1990s seemed popular with its ?owners? who did not want to give it up at the end of their leases.

Finally, given how low American motor fuel taxes are compared to other highly motorized countries, Jones makes the case that a fuel surtax is the single best step we could take now. A 50 cent per gallon surcharge would barely bring U.S. gas taxes up to Canada?s level. But it would trigger a ?cascade? of incremental, positive adjustments: people would buy more fuel efficient cars, manufacturers would produce more of them; more expensive gas would encourage more people to ride transit, and also provide more money to make transit more attractive. Jones admits that the surtax is ?not an easy sale,? which is putting it mildly.

Jones has given us an excellent and insightful guide to the achievements and mistakes of twentieth century mobility policy. Looking forward, he is both appropriately modest in recognizing that historians can not predict the future and appropriately urgent in pointing out the serious policy problems we must solve to preserve the American system of mass motorization.

James A. Dunn, Jr. is Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University ? Camden. He is the author of Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies, and the Politics of Mobility (Brookings Institution Press, 1998), and co-author, with Anthony Perl, of ?Reframing Automobile Fuel Economy Policy in North America: The Politics of Punctuating a Policy Equilibrium? Transport Reviews 27, no.1 (January 2007), 1-35. His email address is

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII