The decline of public transit in the US seems to reflect the rise in a kind of cultural misanthropy in America. An increasing fear, annoyance, and even disgust with other people that has reached extremes in the present. And this, in turn, reflects a rise in anonymity in society as traditional extended families and local communities were systematically destroyed as a threat to loyalty to state and company and the total reliance on the market economy for meeting one’s needs.
As automobile adoption expanded, drawing the middle-class and wealthy out of cities, cars represented a suburban lifestyle and middle-class identity, with public transit being associated with the poor left behind. This was reinforced by the willful mismanagement of cities and their infrastructures leading to their terrible deterioration in the 1970s. A common blunder of public transit management during the fiscal crisis of the era --and every economic downturn since-- was to reduce the level of service --number of stations and vehicles, deferring maintenance leading to a worse riding experience and frequent breakdowns, and cutting security leading to increased crime-- in order to reduce costs. But this only led to a death-spiral of declining ridership and income as the systems became functionally useless. Thus a general cultural image of public transit emerged that depicted it as dirty, crowded, ugly, dysfunctional, dangerous, and used only by the lowest of society. Indeed, this was long the image of cities in general.
Hell is other people. This sentiment is everywhere today, and especially online. Our culture is cultivating sociopathy because it has destroyed the skills and venues of socialization and the mechanisms of trust while reinforcing anonymity, even with the design of the habitat. Traditional communities commonly built trust through shared activity, functional and ritualistic. That’s the basic way trust works --it’s a confidence in the behavior of others built through mutual experience. And so in Europe you still see a vast assortment of seasonal ritual activities; festivals, parades, ceremonies, quirky public events of all sorts… Remnants of the social activities that were once critical to the cohesion of communities. Founded by the chronically anal retentive Protestants and Puritans, the US never really cultivated that kind of community activity --dancing, feasting, and music being considered sinful. We reinvented such things as ‘national holidays’, which were more about allegiance to the state and excuses for consumerism. So, even early on, we were pretty poor at community and it’s only gotten worse as we imposed very inorganic, militarized, urban development schemes, built ever-taller, more isolating, buildings, ever-more-isolated homes, ever-more elaborate technological buffers between us and any contact with other people.
So even though we had the necessary technology to automate transportation very early on (as demonstrated by many concepts for Personal Rapid Transit), in the context of public transit it had no hope of gaining traction culturally. We had to go to the ridiculous lengths of inventing a robot car to do it in a way that fully avoided that horrific possibility of human interaction. Indeed, electric vehicles tell the same story. We electrified public transportation in the early 20th century. But the virtues of that were overshadowed by the stigma of public transit and we literally had to wait until someone could make an electric car with the same range as a gasoline vehicle --thus likewise facilitating our misanthropic inclinations and the lifestyles built around them-- before it could be taken seriously.