About.com does a great job of answering part of the question in the must-read article The Great American Streetcar Scandal. It’s a great primer on how General Motors, with the help of corporate giants Standard Oil, Firestone Tire, Mack Truck, and Phillips Petroleum were instrumental in dismantling the nation’s elaborate streetcar system and building up the nation’s highway infrastructure.
GM first replaced trolleys with free-roaming buses, eliminating the need for tracks embedded in the street and clearing the way for cars. As dramatized in a 1996 PBS docudrama, Taken for a Ride, Alfred P. Sloan, GM’s president at the time, said, “We’ve got 90 percent of the market out there that we can…turn into automobile users. If we can eliminate the rail alternatives, we will create a new market for our cars.” And they did just that, with the help of GM subsidiaries Yellow Coach and Greyhound Bus. Sloan predicted that the jolting rides of buses would soon lead people to not want them and to buy GM’s cars instead.
Sounds a lot like GM’s behind the scenes work to bury the electric car – a tale revealed to great effect by the recent documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?
But Public Transportation ridership is on the upswing. Fed up with traffic, pollution, and hassle, public transportation use in the U.S. has risen 21% since 1995 according to the Public Transportation Partnership for Tomorrow.