Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Key System and the Great American Streetcar Conspiracy, Part 2

Map of Key Route lines
The high point for the Key System was the 1940s, when the company was maintaining 66 miles of inter-urban rail, a fleet of buses, and had commuter service that extended from Richmond to San Leandro and over the Bay Bridge into San Francisco.  The turning point for the Key System, and the beginning of its decline, was in 1946 when a majority of the company's stock was purchased by the National City Lines company.  The history of National City Lines is controversial because it addresses, in a fairly bald and straight forward fashion, corporate corruption in city planning and laisez-faire economics gone horribly wrong.  National City Lines was a very small transit company that began in Minnesota in 1920.  Initially only running two bus lines, the company was nationalized after General Motors, Firestone Tires, Standard Oil, and Phillips Petroleum invested heavily in its growth and development.  Beginning in 1937, National City Lines used a subsidiary company, Pacific City Lines, to purchase and then close down rail and inter-urban transit companies in the western united states.  This practice would eventually lead to the company being indicted by the federal court system in 1947 for conspiracy to control inter-urban transit and monopolize the sale of buses and motor coaches.  The companies would eventually be convicted of unethical business practices in regards to the transit lines in forty four cities in sixteen states and be fined a whopping $5,000 with key executives paying a token $1 fine apiece.  In truth, the company was responsible for the closing of more than 100 trolley and rail lines in the United States.
An old Key Route station
National City Lines, proud new owners of numerous rail and trolley lines, decommissioned those same services and found itself in need of shiny new buses to replace them.  Who better to turn to for those buses than their parent companies, the same people who were in an amazing position to both provide and profit from a monopoly over the manufacture of buses (General Motors), tires for buses (Firestone), and the gas they needed (Standard Oil and Phillips Petroleum).  The long and short of it is that the so-called "Golden Era" of inter-urban transit in the U.S. was brought to a screeching halt by companies that had it in their interest to promote individual car ownership, the construction of multi-lane freeways, and the consumption of gasoline, tires, and related automotive products.  In a bizarre tangential side note, you may have heard of this if you've ever seen the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  The shutting down of the Los Angeles trolley system, and the accompanying creation of a system of freeways, is a key plot device in that film.

A Key Route train running through Oakland
The local fallout for the Bay Area was that, by 1948, the Key System had been severely reduced, with local rail transit being discontinued that year and rail transit across the Bay Bridge only hanging on until 1958.  The Key System was acquired by a new bus line, AC Transit, and bus service took over where rail transit had once been the norm. 

The Key System is one of those things that, in all honesty, I might rose-tint just a little.  Maybe it's because it's dead and gone, maybe it's because the current transit systems are just so flipping bad, that I can't help and look at the old maps and photos and think that the Bay Area had something that was so right, and well thought out, and well designed, and the community just allowed it to be thrown away.  Truth be told, no one knew what was going to happen to public transit in the East Bay during the '50s and '60s, and no one could have seen how the rise of car culture would blow apart once-cohesive neighborhoods and communities by pushing highways and overpasses through residential areas, or how the new freeways would turn thriving commercial districts into total backwaters, deprived of traffic and shoppers with most people being routed out of the neighborhoods onto the newly bustling highways of California.
The old Piedmont Key Route station
Getting There By Bike...
If you ride a bike in the East Bay, you have ridden where the Key System used to provide rail service.  Telegraph Ave., Broadway, San Pablo, College, Lakeshore, Trestle Glen, and Grand all had regular rail service.  The Key System had car barns on the east end of Lake Merritt near 3rd Ave, at 51st and Telegraph in Temescal, in the Elmhurst neighborhood in East Oakland, and in Richmond.  Many of the streets in Alameda are as wide as they are because they initially included railroad tracks running down the center of the street.  There aren't many visible signs of the Key System left, but it did shape the direction and form of many of the central streets in the East Bay.


  1. stupid column, factually inaccurate.
    " Initially only running two bus lines, the company was nationalized .."is totally false.

  2. Anonymous said...
    stupid column, factually inaccurate.
    " Initially only running two bus lines, the company was nationalized .."is totally false.