Mark H. Rose, Bruce E. Seely, Paul F. Barrett. The Best Transportation System in the World: Railroads, Trucks, Airlines, and American Public Policy in the Twentieth Century. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006. xxvi + 318 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-1036-9.
Reviewed by Christopher Wells (Department of Environmental Studies, Macalester College)
Published on H-Urban (April, 2007)
Public Policy and the Evolution of American Transportation Industries
Drawing on a wealth of archival research, The Best Transportation System in the World delves into the formation of American transportation policy from roughly 1920 through the mid-1990s. The authors advance the convincing argument, well supported by the evidence, that public policy has directly determined the basic contours of the U.S. rail, truck, and airline industries--first during an elaborate, multi-decade-long regulatory regime, and again during the more recent era of deregulation. For most of this time, the authors argue, the nation's leaders never managed to craft a single overarching transportation policy. Instead, policymakers treated each mode of transportation independently, erecting stringent rules that barred companies from acting as multi-modal transportation companies. One could operate a railroad, a trucking company, or an airline--but not in combination with either of the others.
As a result, the authors demonstrate, American policy created three distinct and unequally regulated transportation markets along modal lines that lobbyists and litigators worked zealously to shape to their best advantage. Railroads, whose Populist-era reputation as an exploitive monopoly lingered throughout the twentieth century, faced stringent regulations that gave railroad executives limited latitude to act, barring them from making such basic decisions as setting rates or discontinuing unprofitable lines. Airlines, by contrast, received large government subsidies, while truckers benefited from regulations that drastically limited competition and protected the markets of licensed haulers. The book's title comes from a favorite saying of mid-century trucking-industry lobbyists, who routinely reminded lawmakers that the nation had "the best transportation system in the world"--particularly whenever reform proposals were on the table that sought to alter regulations benefiting truckers.
More often than not, the politicians who were most interested in reforming American transportation policy occupied the Oval Office. As early as the 1920s, when reformers first began pushing the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to allow railroads, trucks, and airplanes to coordinate their activities into a unified transportation services industry, American presidents began to see transportation policy as a potentially powerful tool to shape the American economy. First as commerce secretary under presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and then as president himself, Herbert Hoover was the first to see transportation policy in this light. Despite Hoover's general reliance on cooperation from industry to address the economic problems of the Great Depression, for example, one of his more significant interventions into the national economy was to push Congress to establish the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), in large part so that federal assistance would be available to railroads facing imminent collapse.
After Hoover, the authors show, American presidents became much more directly involved in the formation of American transportation policy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example, exerted significant influence on the final shape and details of the Transportation Act of 1940, which rejected coordinated transportation planning in favor of regulations that treated each major mode of transportation as a distinct industry. It was this legislation that established the basic regulatory framework for the next several decades--a framework that subsequent presidents, beginning with Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman, pushed hard to dismantle. Although they approached policy changes with divergent goals, American presidents from Truman onward nevertheless held two important characteristics in common. First, they shared the conviction that controlling the transportation industry would give them a powerful tool to shape the nation's economy, which they increasingly saw as one of the key roles and responsibilities of an American president. And second, although they put significant weight behind the push for deregulation, politics prevented American presidents before Jimmy Carter from enacting most of the reforms they wished, denying them the economic tool that they desired.
When the long battle for transportation deregulation finally did come to fruition during Carter's administration, it set the stage for a very different American transportation policy. Surveying the key changes after 1980, the authors point out that deregulation should not be confused for de-politicization; instead, they argue, "the much-celebrated market restoration of the 1980s in transportation was in reality another creature of federal policy" (pp. 210-211). Especially after 1991, when federal incentives began to encourage transportation companies to create cooperative, inter-modal linkages among rail, truck, and air operations, federal policy played a determinative role in fixing the basic contours of the country's transportation industries.
These three authors make an exemplary team of collaborators, and the book bears the clear imprint of the contributions that each has already made to transportation history: Mark Rose's piercing institutional analysis of evolving transportation policy, as evident in his Interstate; Bruce Seely's deft navigation of the complex organizational structures and practices of vast government bureaucracies, as evident in his Building the American Highway System; and the late Paul Barret's insight into the far-reaching implications of separate regulatory regimes for different modes of transportation, as evident in his The Automobile and Urban Transit. As the first comprehensive analysis of twentieth-century American transportation policy that cuts across the rail, truck, and airline industries, this book reflects all of these strengths.
Readers of H-Urban should know that The Best Transportation System in the World focuses exclusively on the creation and modification of federal policies regulating the rail, truck, and airline industries, and as a result does not engage many of the issues that urban historians might expect in a book on transportation. (Most notably, subjects such as rising automobile use and federal highway policy fall outside its scope.) Nevertheless, this book fills a major hole in the transportation literature, and elucidates the role that federal policy played in shaping these three major American transportation industries. As such it provides context that many urban historians will find valuable.
. Mark Rose, Interstate: Express Highway Politics, 1939-1989, rev. ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990); Bruce Seely, Building the American Highway System: Engineers as Policy Makers (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987); and Paul Barrett, The Automobile and Urban Transit: The Formation of Public Policy in Chicago, 1900-1930 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1983).
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Christopher Wells. Review of Rose, Mark H.; Seely, Bruce E.; Barrett, Paul F., The Best Transportation System in the World: Railroads, Trucks, Airlines, and American Public Policy in the Twentieth Century.
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