American Experience: The Race Underground

Suggested by Brad Nelson • In the late 19th century, as America’s teeming cities grew increasingly congested, the time had come to replace the nostalgic horse-drawn trolleys with a faster, cleaner, safer, and more efficient form of transportation.
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7 Responses to American Experience: The Race Underground

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    This is, as of this, writing streaming on Netflix. Also note that you can now stream it from the PBS page.

    This is a well-done documentary showing the social and technical components regarding new and electrified forms of mass transit. Frank J. Sprague is the forgotten Tesla-like hero who, for a time, comes out from under the shadow of Thomas Edison to invent an electric motor and system for driving rail trolley buses. This leads to the first underground system in Boston.

    Although the series is somewhat light on the technical aspects and we get much more pompous opinions from the expert talking heads regarding the social aspects, this is a series that is fairly concise, entertaining, and — at the end of the day — one can say “I learned something.”

    This is necessarily a government-friendly documentary to some extent. PBS’s own page for the show says: “it was Boston — a city of so many firsts — that overcame a litany of engineering challenges, the greed-driven interests of businessmen.”

    This is a completely dishonest description of the actual documentary. At one point, some rich guy comes in (with the blessing of Boston and other government officials) and consolidates the myriad of above-ground horse-drawn trolley buses into one system. It’s recognized that it’s impracticable to have a dozen or more companies competing.

    Interestingly, when this rich businessman eventually electrifies this above-ground system (replacing horses with motors), the congestion in Boston is even worse because of the popularity of the electric cars.

    When later studies suggest the answer to congestion (and all the noise and danger from the electric trolley busses) might be to build a subway system, this particular rich guy balks, for he (like many people of the day) see such a system as highly impractical, and certainly not a system one could make money from.

    So this makes him a “greedy” businessman. The actual documentary is not particularly political. We do see how some projects are probably far bigger and riskier than any one business could undertake and thus are good prospects for a city, county, or state to undertake. And the subway system in Boston was one of those undertakings.

    But only after the “greedy” capitalist Frank Sprague had invented a viable electric engine (and the entire system to go with it, including a powerhouse).

    The documentary is based on a book by Doug Most: The Race Underground.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Hmm. I’ve read elsewhere that New York’s subway system was built and initially run by private business. At some point the city government took over — and what do you know? The prices began to rise without any rise in quality. Some things can’t be done privately (the judicial system is one, though one could say that bribery makes it sort of a market system). But most of the time, it’s best to go as private as possible, even if it needs government oversight (as a truly private post office certainly would).

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Advancements in transportation technology came in all sorts of shapes and forms. This one was revolutionary in Asia.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        I think I’ve seen a couple of the cycle rickshaws in Bond films, as well as the manual ones. What an interesting Asian (presumably Japanese) invention. Much like the Venetian gondola (which certainly still has practical value in a city full of canals), there must be a fleet of them still if only to satisfy the tourists.

        At that time man-power was much cheaper than horse-power; horses were generally only used by the military.

        If you live in a fairly flat city (and I suppose sections of Tokyo must be), I can see where you could bypass a lot of hassles and expenses that you would have with a horse.

        Cities tended to be steeped in horse droppings. When Boston was considering an elevated train system to ease the congestion, a major factor was the cinder and dirt that generally rained down onto the streets below from the elevated trains.

        • Timothy Lane says:

          I hadn’t realized rickshaws were so recent. Of course, today Tokyo has outside heavily polluted with carbon monoxide. Maybe cycle rickshaws could still be useful there.

        • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

          When I first arrived in Asia, back in 1979, bicycle rickshaws were still common in much of Asia.

          I used them a couple of times in Bangladesh as serious transport. I rode them in Singapore as a mixture of fun and transport. They were good when one was out drinking in the evening. The same went for Penang, and Jakarta. I pitied those poor drivers as it was hot and sweaty work, but they was very happy to rip off the dumb foreigners.

          In Hong Kong, next to the Star Ferry Terminal on the island side, there used to be a few red (as I recall) two wheeled rickshaws like the original type invented in Japan. These were pulled by Chinese coolie types who looked like they were opium smokers, i.e. they didn’t look too healthy. I could never bring myself to ride in one of these.

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