If you want a specific individual to blame, Gottleib Daimler, who invented the automobile in 1889, might be at the top of the list. For decades there have been persistent rumors of a corporate conspiracy, usually involving General Motors and Standard Oil, to shut down Los Angeles’s much-admired streetcar system in the 1940s. In reality there was no such conspiracy. The conspiracy theory got a boom in the 1970s when a government attorney named Bradford Snell testified before Congress that the companies had done so, and were convicted in a 1949 antitrust case–which is misleading because they were acquitted on the monopoly charges–and again in 1988 when a version of the theory became a plot point in the popular movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In reality, the L.A. transit system was becoming outmoded and inefficient by 1939, in fact turning a profit in only 8 of the 42 years of its existence. As more and more people in Southern California bought cars, a trend that had been going on since the 1910s, the trolleys moved more and more slowly because most of them ran down crowded downtown streets. By the 1940s many trolley lines were already changing over to buses. Modern transportation experts agree that L.A. simply isn’t compact enough and doesn’t have the population density typically necessary to support large-scale rail transit. Despite these facts, the conspiracy theory that “General Motors killed the L.A. streetcar” persists.
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