"Taken for a Ride"

From Portside:

Taken For A Ride On The Interstate Highway System

Submitted to Portside
by Mike Ferner © 2006

The 50th anniversary of President Eisenhower’s signing
of the Interstate Highway Act is a good time to dust
off this review of the PBS documentary, “Taken for a
Ride” that I wrote 10 years ago when President Clinton
visited my city during the 1996 presidential campaign.

Riding a “Presidential Special” from Columbus to Toledo
on tracks that no longer carry passenger trains,
Clinton crowed, “I’m goin’ to Chicago (for the
Democratic Party convention) and I’m goin’ on a train!”

I wanted to ask him why the rest of us could no longer
travel to our state capital by train; why we are the
only industrialized nation on earth that refuses to
subsidize its passenger rail system? And I asked a
question that makes me sick to my stomach to read 10
years later: “How many more billions of dollars and how
many more lives will we pay for Mideast oil.?”

Of course I never got to ask him those questions in
person, but luckily, two fellow Ohioans, Dayton-area
independent filmmakers, Jim Klein and Martha Olson,
replied with their film, “Taken for a Ride.”

Their documentary tells the dramatic story of how
America’s passenger trains and streetcars were
systematically and deliberately killed by what we now
call the “highway lobby.” What makes their film so
important is that it goes beyond vague conspiracy
theories to name names.

Klein and Olson weave General Motors promotional films,
Congressional archives, interviews with citizen
activists, and Department of Justice memos into a
compelling pattern of events that make it clear: we
didn’t get into the traffic jam we’re in today by

For example, “Ride” explains, the oft-scorned highway
lobby was not born of fuzzy environmentalist folklore.
The “most powerful pressure group in Washington,” began
in June, 1932, when GM President, Alfred P. Sloan,
created the National Highway Users Conference, inviting
oil and rubber firms to help GM bankroll a propaganda
and lobbying effort that continues to this day.

Sloan, unhappy with a transportation system in which
the majority of people rode streetcars and trains, not
automobiles, bought out Omnibus Corp., the nation’s
largest bus operating company, and Yellow Coach, the
largest bus manufacturer. With these, he began a
campaign to “modernize” New York City’s railways with

With New York as an example, GM formed National City
Lines in 1936 and the assault on mass transit across
America began with a vengeance.

Within ten years, NCL controlled transit systems in
over 80 cities. GM denied any control of NCL, but the
bus line’s Director of Operations came from Yellow
Coach, and board members came from Greyhound, a company
founded by GM. Later, Standard Oil of California, Mack
Truck, Phillips Petroleum, and Firestone joined GM’s
support of NCL.

If you’ve inched through traffic on a city bus or
followed one for any distance, you know why people
abandoned NCL’s buses for cars whenever they could. It
doesn’t take a rabid conspiracy nut to see the
subsequent benefit to GM, Firestone, and Standard Oil.

“Ride” is most compelling when it documents how the
U.S. Justice Department prosecuted NCL, General Motors,
and other companies for combining to destroy America’s
transit systems.

Brad Snell, an auto industry historian who spent 16
years researching GM, said that key lawyers involved
with the case told him “there wasn’t a scintilla of
doubt that the defendants had set out to destroy the

For eliminating a system “worth $300 billion today,”
Snell laments, the corporations were eventually found
guilty and fined $5,000. Key individuals, such as the
Treasurer of GM, were fined one dollar.

The post-war boom in housing, suburbs, and freeways is
a familiar story. Not so familiar is the highway
lobby’s high-level efforts to determine our
transportation future.

In 1953, President Eisenhower appointed then-GM
President Charles Wilson as his Secretary of Defense,
who pushed relentlessly for a system of interstate
highways. Francis DuPont, whose family owned the
largest share of GM stock, was appointed chief
administrator of federal highways.

Funding for this largest of all U.S. public works
programs came from the Highway Trust Fund’s tax on
gasoline, to be used only for highways. Its formula
assured that more highways meant more driving, more
money from the gasoline tax, and more highways.

Helping to keep the driving spirit alive, Dow Chemical,
producer of asphalt, entered the PR campaign with a
film featuring a staged testimonial from a grade school
teacher standing up to her anti-highway neighbors with
quiet indignation. “Can’t you see this highway means a
whole new way of life for the children?”

Citizens might agree that highways meant a whole new
way of life, but not necessarily for the better. The
wrecking ball cleared whole neighborhoods for the
interstate highways and public protest grew
accordingly. One Washington, D.C. activist recalls,
“this was a brutal period in our history; a very brutal

The documentary concludes with a peek into the future,
interviewing corporate sponsors of the Intelligent
Vehicle Highway System, a computer-controlled vision of
travel which currently receives the lion’s share of
federal transportation research funding.

“Taken for a Ride” is more timely today than when it
was made a decade ago. Watch it.


Mike Ferner is a Toledo freelance writer.

You can purchase “Taken For a Ride” at:


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