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Liberal Toronto has elected a fiscally conservative mayor who made the war on cars a central theme in his campaign. What's it all about?

A lot of the installments in this series have been about how the people who hate cars are trying to make life harder for motorists. The anti-car forces -- and they are exactly that -- have had their successes, it's true. Still, I'd hate for the good guys in this war to just give up and retreat to their garages, put their heads under the hoods of their favorite rides and pretend that it's still 1957.

Private transportation and those who enjoy automobiles are under attack from many directions and it's easy to despair as CAFE standards are raised to unattainable levels, cops and politicians use motorists as a revenue stream, and environmentalists divert highway funds to wasteful taxpayer subsidized transit programs.

But do not despair my gearhead friends. After making ending the "war on cars" a talking point of his campaign to become mayor of one of North America's largest cities, fiscal conservative Rob Ford won in a landslide in liberal Toronto.

Before I go further, let me make a disclaimer and an apology. I'm not a Toronto resident, nor even a Canadian citizen. True, Windsor is just across the river from the Detroit area where I live, and at one time I could even score a curling game, but no matter how many times I've watched Hockey Night In Canada, there are obviously limits to my ability to discuss Canadian politics. This subject, though, transcends regions and even international borders. The urban planning clash in Toronto is mirrored in places like Seattle, San Francisco, and even LA.

So Rob Ford won and it's not just significant that he's on our side in the war on the car, he won after making the war on the car a rallying cry for his campaign. It's too early to claim the ultimate victory, but at least in Toronto the anti-car forces have been dealt a setback.

His plan? Phasing out clunky streetcars, canceling new light rail lines in favor of fewer (but more effective) subways, ripping out neighborhood speed bumps, saving the city's Gardiner elevated expressway, and putting bike lanes on side streets instead of main thoroughfares.

The Backstory

Toronto has terrible traffic, particularly getting people east and west. There's no debate about that. The question is what to do about it.

The other side wants to shift funding from road building and maintenance, to facilitating public transit. The want to take away traffic lanes from cars and give them to bicycles and light rail. Ideologically, many anti-car folks want us all to live in densely populated urban areas, no more than a 30 walk from a transit line. They say they hate congestion but they want us to have more congestion, so we'll get out of our cars.

Now the anti-car forces have their own preferences and moral hierarchies. Buses are better than cars, trains are better than buses, and it seems that best of all are streetcars. Why is that? It can't be because of energy use. In terms of energy, trains win hands down. Yet in the essays and books laying out the strategies of taking space away from drivers by reducing land used for roads and parking, one often finds a romantic attachment to streetcars.

Why streetcars?

Well, like other "solutions" from the anti-car forces, they make things difficult for motorists, taking up roadway space, creating chances for collisions when they come out of nowhere and can't turn out of the way. Mostly though, I think it's religious. If you look at environmentalism, they often act as followers of a religion. It's easy to see how they are seeking Eden before the fall, and if not that, at least some kind of redemption.

How better to achieve redemption than bring back the streetcars?

Religions have foundational myths. One of the foundational myths of the anti-car movement is that back in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, General Motors conspired to put streetcars out of business, not just to make money selling the buses that replaced them but also because buses are crowded, smelly and noisy (compared to electric traction streetcars, supposedly) this would encourage people to buy personal automobiles.

Like a lot of myths, there's a grain of truth to it. Guy Span probably has the most balanced view of the subject. Companies controlled by GM, along with tire and oil companies, bought up private streetcar and electric transit companies, and obviously, pressured them to take the electric traction vehicles out of service and replace them with buses. So there was a bit of a conspiracy. Also, in the 1930s, eager to break up the power of utility companies, the Roosevelt administration pushed through legislation that forced utility companies to divest holdings like streetcar lines. Most streetcar lines were owned by electric companies, who sold them electricity and wrote off their losses. Cut loose from their patrons, many, perhaps most streetcar and electric rail companies could only be profitable on busy lines. Streetcar lines started going out of business or being put up for sale. GM may have had a role in lobbying for that law's passage. Still, GM and its partners never controlled more than a small fraction of the transit lines in the US. Span makes the point that even though GM pushed its weight around to benefit bus sales, it was far from the only reason why streetcars disappeared. The disappearance of 90% of America's streetcars had nothing to do with GM and their conspiracy. (Here's another look at the "conspiracy," focusing on Los Angeles' streetcars.)

GM and its partners in the transit scheme were convicted of anti-trust violations, forcing companies they controlled to buy their products. Was it an illegal conspiracy to destroy streetcars? No, they were acquitted on those charges.

So why do people believe the conspiracy? Bradford Snell. Snell is one of those guys who's made a career out of one hobby horse. Snell is like those authors who write books about how this or that technology gives us cancer, often attacking true scientists as being bought off by industry, all the while pocketing book royalties and speaking fees. Snell has so assiduously spread the word of GM's dastardly actions to deprive America of all those charming old streetcars with their flying sparks, that when you use Google, you only have to get as far as typing "General Motors Str" before the search engine will start autosuggesting General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy.

Since presenting a document outlining the conspiracy to Congress in 1974, a document which Span, no fan of GM, describes pretty much as insane, Snell has promoted the idea so widely that it's taken as an article of the anti-car faith. In late 1986 Snell popped up on CBS' 60 Minutes, then a decade later he was the driving force behind a PBS documentary Taken For A Ride. The conspiracy theory is so well entrenched in the public mind that it was used as a plot device in the popular animated film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

You can even find videos titled Who Killed The Electric Streetcar? on YouTube. This meme rings all of the anti-car folks' favorite chimes.

The problem is, as Guy Stan and others point out, Snell is a crackpot of Larouchian magnitude. I'm hardly a person who plays the Godwin card, but when a guy says that part of the conspiracy to end streetcars involves GM being in bed with the Nazis (real 1930s and 1940s era German Nazis, the genuine article), as far as I'm concerned he's pegged the nutcase meter.

Unfortunately, nutcase or not, Snell's conspiracy theory has some currency and it feeds the religious fervor of the anti-car forces. Besides inconveniencing drivers, bringing back the streetcar evokes a feeling of redemption for anti-car people, as if they have defeated the evil car company and the personal car. With a streetcar they will foil GM's evil conspiracy.

Ostensibly to help Toronto's traffic problems, the previous Toronto administration was going to use C$3.7 billion in provincial transportation funds to expand the streetcar system that's been a pet project of the Toronto Transit Commission. During the campaign, Rob Ford explicitly called for an "end to the war on the car," and vowed that he'd tear up and bury the streetcar lines and use the money more effectively.

Advocates of streetcars, who see them as a sign of their own moral superiority, treated Ford's calls to phase out the streetcars as though he had slighted Toronto's character. Ford's five-year $4 billion plan would move that $3.7 billion from streetcars to "clean" buses and east-end subways. Ford claimed that money spent on streetcars would do nothing to alleviate gridlock, while the same money spent on a subway line will move "10 times as many people, three times faster."

Despite what the credentialed elites thought about streetcars and Toronto's character, it looks like the city's voters agree with Mayor-elect Ford. Toronto is one of the places on the front lines of the war on the car and until now, anti-car forces have pretty much had their way there. I don't want to get all Churchillian or anything, but perhaps Rob Ford's victory is a genuine turning point.

Photo Credit: dexxus on Flickr.