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The Great American Transit Disaster

A Century of Austerity, Auto-Centric Planning, and White Flight

A potent re-examination of America’s history of public disinvestment in mass transit.
Many a scholar and policy analyst has lamented American dependence on cars and the corresponding lack of federal investment in public transportation throughout the latter decades of the twentieth century. But as Nicholas Dagen Bloom shows in The Great American Transit Disaster, our transit networks are so bad for a very simple reason: we wanted it this way.
Focusing on Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and San Francisco, Bloom provides overwhelming evidence that transit disinvestment was a choice rather than destiny. He pinpoints three major factors that led to the decline of public transit in the United States: municipal austerity policies that denied most transit agencies the funding to sustain high-quality service; the encouragement of auto-centric planning; and white flight from dense city centers to far-flung suburbs. As Bloom makes clear, these local public policy decisions were not the product of a nefarious auto industry or any other grand conspiracy—all were widely supported by voters, who effectively shut out options for transit-friendly futures. With this book, Bloom seeks not only to dispel our accepted transit myths but hopefully to lay new tracks for today’s conversations about public transportation funding.

368 pages | 39 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

Historical Studies of Urban America

History: American History, Urban History

Transportation: General


“In this excellent socioeconomic history, Bloom offers a comprehensive and thought-provoking account of the rise and fall of US mass transit, skillfully assessing successes and stumbles so that we may learn from them and correct course.”


The Great American Transit Disaster presents a thoughtful and thorough history of public transit development in a number of major American cities. As in his previous books, Bloom makes a significant contribution to the history of twentieth-century urban America.”

Jon C. Teaford, author of The American Suburb: The Basics

“Bloom is a distinguished and prolific scholar of American urban politics. In this cogent and deeply researched book, he seeks to explain why leaders in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, and Chicago chose to invest in highways and airways rather than mass transit. Bloom, wisely and perceptively, avoids discredited anti-bus and anti-streetcar ideas, focusing instead on pay-as-you-go transit, auto-centric planning, and white flight. Nick Bloom, as always, is readable, assignable, and compelling.”

Mark H. Rose, coauthor of A Good Place to Do Business: The Politics of Downtown Renewal since 1945

Table of Contents


Pre–World War II

Part 1 Urban Transit Rise and Decline
Chapter 1 Baltimore: City Leaders versus Private Transit
Chapter 2 Chicago: A Limited Public Commitment to Transit
Chapter 3 Boston: Reverse Engineering Public Transit

The Postwar Transit Disaster, 1945 to 1980

Part 2 Unsubsidized Private Transit
Chapter 4 Baltimore: Urban Crisis, Race, and Private Transit Collapse
Chapter 5 Atlanta: Race, Transit, and the Sunbelt Boom

Part 3 “Pay as You Go” Public Transit
Chapters 6 Chicago: The Failure of “Pay as You Go” Public Transit
Chapter 7 Detroit: Racism and America’s Worst Big-City Transit

Part 4: Public Transit That Worked Better
Chapter 8 Boston Pioneers Public Regional Transit
Chapter 9 San Francisco: Deeply Subsidized Public Transit
Conclusion Beyond Transit Fatalism

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