The Snell Report

The Snell Report

In 1974, Bradford Snell, a legislative assistant to Senator Hart of Michigan, and Judiciary Committee staff attorney, delivered an historic report on the partnership between two great American industrial powers, the General Motors Company and the Standard Oil Company (Firestone was the junior partner), which resulted in the dismemberment of our entire rail system, all in a bid to increase their profits. The report was distributed by the Government Printing Office, until GM demanded, successfully, that it be withdrawn. In subsequent years some of its observations have been challenged but the central theses are undeniably truthful and shocking in their conclusions. Here is a link to the original testimony that gave birth to the report.

This amalgamation between the largest elements of the manufacturing sector and the mining sector, to some extent as the representatives of those elements of the economy, was begun in the 1930s. Their express purpose was the destruction of the rail infrastructure of the United States of America, their home country. Many would regard this as an unmeasurably immense act of domestic terrorism. This was, without question, an assault upon our common interests, one that would be expected to be perpetrated by a sworn enemy, intent upon weakening our economy and demolishing the prospects for our future prosperity. In fact, Mr. Snell’s report also details some of the ways in which these same corporations, during WW II, also maneuvered to maintain and preserve their relations with the Axis powers, even after the war had been declared.

This was a deliberate, and ultimately successful effort, to expand the market for their products, by means of demolishing the quality and availability of their competitors’. Some are familiar, through the “Roger Rabbit” movie and other sources, with the destruction of large parts of the California traction system. Less well understood, is, that this was a nationwide, three-pronged program, which targeted Inter-urban Rail, Trolleys and Rail Freight at the same time. This campaign worked so well, that these modes of transportation are virtually gone and have been replaced by cars, trucks, and buses, vastly inferior economically and environmentally. The conversion of major streets into highways and raceways also had the collateral effect of making them unusable by bicycles and other slower and more vulnerable populations.

Over the years Mr. snell has promised to put together the complete story of General Motors and its efforts to make money and influence policy. Since the company has gone through such massive contortions over the past decades it is a seemingly unending tale, which he will no doubt, one day, finish telling. Just today, it was announced that the Federal government will sell off its remaining shares in the company and sustain only a merciful $10 billion loss, a pittance compared with the potential loss to the taxpayers and employees at the time. As an additional benefit, some pressure has been applied to encourage the development of cleaner and safer and more efficient models, but, sadly, the nature of “cars” as we know them, and the industries that supply them, remains largely the same.

There are two questions that must be answered to understand the nature of this massive re-direction of resources: How could this happen in a democracy, where the interests of the many are supposed to hold sway over the preferences of any privileged minority? Also, does the convenience, comfort, and ubiquity of these new ways to get around make them vastly superior to their rail-bound predecessors? The answers to these questions are vital to those now in the process of attempting to once again bring about structural change to these areas of our lives. The expansion of human-scale transportation like electric-assist bikes, new power sources for electric cars, buses and trucks, and the land-use and other associated issues related to these developments will define our future, in some key ways, and need to be addressed in their fullness.

Next week, some more information, such as the complete “American Ground Transport” report, will be linked up to this site. This week, two events took place in the electric-assist bicycle universe here, one welcome and the other tragic:

Bert Cebular, the founder and operator of NYCEWheels, the city and country’s leading purveyor of electric bikes, died in a para-glider accident. Practicing sensitive “touch and go” procedures, he is the person who would probably have used his skills in the rescue work of the future. He was a highly admired, respected and liked person and a pioneer for ten years in raising the profile of the activity. He made sure that his staff worked, maintained a real service and tech department, was a master woodworker, web designer, mechanic and creative vehicle maker, a rare polymath and forward thinker who caught the wrong gust of wind and will be sorely missed. There is a memorial ride this morning through the snow.

The other development was a demonstration, organized by the Urban Justice Center, of over 100 restaurant deliverers, mostly Asian, who are being swept up in the city’s recent campaign to “ban” electric-assist bikes here. It is a welcome step that these hard-working people, using environmentally-optimized transport, having been demonized by the auto-advertising addled press as a hazard to navigation, are fighting back. They will have the opportunity to establish the benefits of what they do and how they do it. Some contributions to improving the current situation will need to come from the restaurant industry itself, such as a campaign to eliminate any sidewalk riding, by deliverers as well as others. A new Mayor and City Council, perhaps somewhat more sensitive to the conditions under which hard-working people must maintain themselves, should improve prospects here. Political figures at both the State and City level, and the media, will need to be educated, given rides and helped to understand the issue better, apart from the overblown rhetoric which has been defining it in the public’s mind for too long. The health value of this new transport modality to the older population and others will be brought forward and its real nature made plain. It’s about time.