There are plenty of reasons that America fell in love (and further colonized itself) with automobiles. To name a few: speed, independence, power, and teenagers making out in the back seat. And in less than the cosmic blink of an eye, we had exported this speedy mass-produced way of life to the rest of the world.
The technology developed rapidly, and there grew a need for a highway and interstate network to expand the reach of the metro-centers. The 1950's to 1970's saw concrete mazes of Futurama rise in to the sky, sorting commuters and travelers faster and farther than ever before.
Along with commuter train lines, the automobile also enabled "white flight" from urban centers to the suburbs. White residents moving wouldn't have been such a catastrophe if it hadn't also stripped local governments of their tax base and enabled eminent domain / "urban renewal."
In West Oakland (once known as the "Harlem of the West") the 7th Street corridor and other areas of black neighborhoods were partially demolished and replaced by the Cypress Freeway (the one that collapsed in the 1989 earthquake) and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train system.
In Chicago it was actually removing the elevated train lines that sealed the fate of black clubs in the Southside neighborhoods of Hyde Park and Kenwood (and thanks in part to the NIMBYism of the University of Chicago).
Remnants of the 'L'
Bay Area trains
But in the SF Bay Area there was a rail system here before all this traffic. Actually there were a number of competing rail companies.
So what happened?
There's the old conspiracy that the auto and gas companies bought them out (and the Who Framed Roger Rabbit version of that story).
But the locals didn't need much of a push. Trains are loud, and they bring anyone who can afford a ticket. Passenger railway lines have often caused increased friction along their tracks, especially between newcomers and established property owners. The major metropolitan train systems in the United States have largely been limited (or reduced) to suburban commuter routes (except for New York City and its two different sized subway cars).
Imagine if we had continued investing in better rail systems, rather than allowing every freeway artery to clog as traffic jams.
Maybe self-driving electric cars will ease city traffic and our technocrats will make everything into rainbows and unicorns. Maybe it will looks something like Minority Report (2054 is right around the corner).
In any case it is going to be massive and centrally managed governmental (or corporate?) bodies that control how it all works. I suppose I'm fine with that as long as everyone really does have access. I don't have a clear nostalgic-future-sci-fi vision to offer of light rail systems everywhere, just another set of what ifs...
What if we believed in each other enough to substantively invest in each other? What if we planned (and worked) for a more equitable future? What if we dared to imagine a world of access and abundance?
Well, I suppose 'There's no time like the present.'
P.S. If you find yourself in the SF Bay Area and are tickled by history/art: Erstwhile Philatelic Society has a train-ing mission 'walkabout' that may interest you.
Images from David Rumsey Collection and Wikimedia, unless otherwise noted.