The automaker produced an earnest, albeit self-interested, pitch for public transportation.
Here in the U.S., the debate over private cars versus public transportation can sometimes feel like that classic line from old Westerns: “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us.”
But in the 1950s, General Motors actually tried to straddle the two. As the company continued to ramp up its production of private automobiles, they were also were rolling out fleets of buses in major cities such as Detroit. For those dual purposes, the above half-hour film, “Let’s Go To Town,” makes a surprisingly modern case for public transportation in central business districts.
The film begins with someone dressed like Revolutionary War-era George Washington driving a car and petting a horse, pointing to the culprit of congestion.
Things would be a lot different in this country today if someone had only told our forefathers that the automobile was coming. Sure, they loved their horses but when they planned the streets of our cities with nothing but horses in mind, they put our automobile-loving descendants in quite a jam–a traffic jam! Narrow downtown streets originally designed for horses and buggies cannot handle today's volume of vehicles.
So, yes, the film does advocate widening streets whenever possible, and in so doing fails to grapple with the concept of induced demand. But savvy urban design advocates can find comfort in the film’s admission that this is not a complete answer to congestion. (“Fine, let’s move the Empire State building back 10 feet, that’ll give us an extra traffic lane!”) The narrator even bemoans street parking for ”turning America’s busiest streets into stable-yards,” citing English common-law. (“The King’s highway is not to be used as a stable!”)
Just as “city planners and traffic engineers” sitting at the drawing board may begin to despair, the hero of this infomercial, the public bus, arrives. The narrator begins to espouse the old-time religion of public transportation: “Shift the emphasis to moving people instead of vehicles!”
The film even shows the classic “how much space does a commuter need?” transportation comparison, illustrating how much space cars really take up.
General Motors was careful back then not to shift the blame entirely onto cars, naturally. But the film ultimately makes the case that public buses are the least costly, most sensible intervention to traffic congestion.