Nicholas Bloom begins The Great American Transit Disaster by debunking the popular historical conspiracy that big auto and tire manufacturers destroyed a robust urban streetcar system in the United States. But if it wasn’t an elaborate and nefarious plot on the part of the automobile industry to destroy a dense network of public urban transportation, what did? Or, as Bloom puts it, “If American society is to move beyond a conspiracy-driven transit fatalism and thus reinvest in alternative mobility, a good starting point is getting the national history right. How did a nation that had built its cities around transit technology end up destroying its transit companies and abandoning so many of its transit-oriented neighborhoods?” (p 3). This question sits at the center of Bloom’s extensively researched and expertly argued exploration of the demise of urban public transit in the United States. And, as in the best historical research and writing, his answer is layered and multifaceted.

Using Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Detroit, and San Francisco as case studies, Bloom argues that three historical trends across the twentieth century help to answer this question. First, a deep reluctance on the part of American voters to support public transportation through robust public subsidies led to what he terms “austerity funding” for public mass transit in urban America. Second, political and economic elites, elected officials, and the public prioritized auto-centric planning as the governing principal for redesigning American cities as early as the 1920s. Third, and deeply connected to the first two trends, white flight undermined voter support for public transit, gutted public funding sources, and caused a steady decline in ridership. Of course, while national, these trends also unfolded in varied ways in different urban centers. Subsidized public systems such as those in Boston, New York, and San Francisco fared the best. In contrast, unsubsidized private systems such as those in Baltimore and Atlanta, and unsubsidized public systems such as those in Chicago and Detroit, struggled to avoid bankruptcy and maintain service for their increasingly diverse ridership.

The Great American Transit Disaster unfolds chronologically and compares and contrasts transit choices and trends in different cities. The first section of the book turns to the pre-WWII period and traces how Baltimore, Chicago, and Boston pursued varying public transit strategies, setting the stage for the fate of public transportation through the dramatic shifts of the postwar era. In Baltimore, a starkly segregated region, the city early abandoned its public transit in favor of highways and the demands of its white, suburban, and auto-centric residents. In Chicago, another racially segregated city, elected officials refused to support mass rail but left the streetcar system intact and limping into the postwar era. In contrast, Boston, a more racially homogenous city, chose to incorporate its initially private streetcar system more deeply into its civic structure through substantial public subsidies, even during a period of declining ridership.

Parts II, III, and IV shift to the fate of public transit between 1945 and 1980. Bloom compares and contrasts the histories of cities that continued unsubsidized private transit systems (Baltimore and Atlanta); cities with unsubsidized public systems (Chicago and Detroit); and cities that “worked better” by providing early and substantial public subsidies for mass transit (Boston, New York, San Francisco). In Baltimore, the combination of austerity budgets, auto-centric planning, and racism proved near-fatal for public transit. In Atlanta, a burgeoning Sunbelt city, planners and voters consistently prioritized auto transit and white racial resentment, effectively “kneecapping” mass transit during a period of rapid urban growth. In Chicago and Detroit, private-sector transit bankruptcies led to increased public control, but city governments refused to offer significant public subsidies. Instead, they expected transit agencies to survive on fares or a “pay as you go” system. As Bloom argues, “unsubsidized public transit was particularly vulnerable to declining urban conditions and regional inequality.” Subsidies poured into highway projects designed to benefit white suburbanites and at the expense of residents of color locked out of the suburbs by redlining and deindustrialization. The problem was particularly acute in Detroit, where Bloom argues that racism combined with low density and auto-centric planning to result in “America’s worst big-city transit.”

In contrast, a few cities—Boston, New York, and San Francisco—improved and expanded mass transit in the postwar period. Bloom attributes this to earlier interventions and subsidies on the part of the public sector; public support for those subsidies; continued urban density even in the face of suburbanization; and the integration of public transit into white and elite neighborhoods resulting in ridership and vocal political support for urban rail systems.

Ultimately, perhaps the most important part of Bloom’s book is his insistence throughout that twenty-first century cities, facing the crises of economic inequality and climate catastrophe, can and must learn from a century of anti-transit decisions. Rather than succumbing to “transit fatalism,” Bloom offers his study as a testament to the power of the public sector and robust public funding, particularly at the local and state levels, in creating robust mass transit systems. He leaves his readers with this: “Better funded, planned, and operating transit has the potential to address a persistent defect in the American urban scene: the lack of excellent quality transit for those that need it most. Transit alone cannot alone undo decades of discrimination, but it is unrealistic to imagine rapid social progress where automobiles are a prerequisite for a decent quality of life…multiple examples from the historical case studies show that well-conceived, sustained transit service pays social equity dividends” (p. 291).

Jessica Kim
California State University, Northridge