The Fight to Save the Streetcars and Electric Trains

The City Councils of Oakland and Berkeley repeatedly tried to prevent destruction of the streetcar system. The fight lasted through 1948 before the Public Utilities Commission. The City Councils' position is summarized by the headline "Oakland, Berkeley Blast Key System Bus Move" [original article].

GM put great pressure on government officials to allow it to destroy streetcars: "Conversion of four streetcar lines to busses, opposed by both the Oakland and Berkeley City Councils, was declared to be 'absolutely imperative' today [by the Key System vice-president] if the Key System is to be kept solvent and prevent high fare increases" [Oakland Tribune, 4/30/48]. Translation: unless the officials allow the major fare increases (several since 1946) to be used to purchase new GM buses (at "above market prices," according to the Bay Area Transportation League), and destroy the streetcars (which had lower operating cost), it will suspend all transit service or raise fares. One month later, a headline states "Motor Coaches Or a Fare Increase" as GM continued its threats. Another headline states "City Asks Right to Veto Key Bus Plan in State Hearing."

GM placed further pressure with large newspaper ads [at right from Oakland Tribune, 1/23/48] [enlarge] stating "motorization" would provide quiet, cleanliness, efficiency, safety through maintenance."

Nowhere in the ad did they even hint at the fact the Key System was under new ownership. What they actually gave the public was diesel roar, diesel fumes and pollution, energy inefficient engines, fuel cargo hazard, high maintenance requirements, high fares, service cutbacks, an uncomfortable ride (transmission jerk, engine vibration, swaying into bus stops), and less power (longer time to accelerate and go up hills). In short, buses have absolutely no advantage over streetcars and trains from the customer's viewpoint. "Motorization" was a tool for discouraging people from using transit.

The "motorization" of electric trains (in 1946, 1950 and remainder in 1958) had a further advantage for GM: Trains usually had exclusive rights of way that bypassed automobile congestion. "Motorization" guaranteed that taking transit would take longer than taking a car.

The cities tried using their power of licensing to stop the destructions. After all, they owned the city streets which GM planned to run buses on. However, on 11/4/48, the Public Utilities Commission [PUC] sided with GM, at the same time granting a huge fare increase. The threat to raise fares if destructions were disallowed was just a gimmick, since GM went ahead and raised fares anyway. Another gimmick, claiming buses are cheaper to operate, was contradicted by the Key System's own accounting.

In a last ditch effort to save the streetcars by the City of Oakland, "The Key System was offered a non-exclusive 15 year franchise. Contract also provides that any abandonment, modification of routes, or substitution or change in types of equipment be made only by consent of the [City] Council. [Oakland Tribune 11/17/48]. GM simply ignored this franchise offer, and went ahead with destroying the streetcars.


The same article states that "The commission [PUC] yesterday denied the petition of the Bay Area Transportation League for rehearing on the decision approving the discontinuance of rail lines for motor coaches." One wonders what interests the Commissioners really represented.

The PUC did have a change in position from earlier in the year. The PUC had granted a large fare increase for Jan. 1, 1948 for "service improvements." After the fares were raised, GM stated its "motorization" plan was the "service improvement."

An Oakland Tribune article [2/11/48] states that "Key System plans for service improvements 'are not satisfactory' and 'do not conform with standards of service' anticipated when rate increases were granted recently, the Public Utilities Commission declared today." The PUC "rejected as an improvement the proposal to replace East Bay streetcars with buses." This is quite a change in the PUC's position from later in the year, where they approved "motorization" and another large fare increase to pay for new GM buses, rail removal and street repaving.

"Motorization" causes 40,000 passenger loss, daily

The "motorization" of streetcars (in Nov., Dec. of 1948) resulted in an immediate drop in patronage of 40,000 passengers daily, a 15% drop. [Original PUC document]


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