Why is America so car-centric?
The United States consists of sprawling interstate highways connecting the cities, towns, and municipalities that comprise the Land of Opportunity. If you want to travel between these areas, you have a couple of options, but only two practical ones. You can hit the interstate and embark on the classic All-American road trip with gas station junk food galore. Or you can cram yourself (and a few hundred others) into a flying cylinder. If you’re not interested in that, your destination might be reachable by Amtrak if you’re lucky. You can also climb aboard a Greyhound bus to your intended destination, but have fun finding a direct route.
The thousands of miles of roads in America reiterate that the car is king in the Land of the Free. Unless traveling hundreds of miles, most Americans opt for the car as the cheapest and most practical mode of transportation. And as someone who doesn’t have a car, I can attest that this can be very restrictive.
Transportation in the United States has a complicated history. There were competing modes during the transportation revolution between 1815 and 1860, and each new mode quickly replaced the previous one. Turnpikes, stagecoaches, and wagon roads gave way to canal boats hauling passengers and freight pulled by mules or horses. Steam-powered riverboats came next and were succeeded by railway locomotives that quickly linked the states in the mid-19th century. By 1857, most travelers could reach Chicago in less than two days, and the city became the railroad hub of the Midwest. This prevalence of railroads in the northern U.S. ultimately helped the Union win the Civil War in 1865.
The advent of the automobile and the internal combustion engine in the late 19th century signaled the end of railroads as the predominant transportation mode for most people, giving way in the 1920s to an early national highway system. During this period, it wasn’t uncommon to see horse trolleys, early automobiles, and streetcars traveling on the same city roads.
The end of the second world war saw an economic boom in the U.S. after more than a decade of depression, although there was a looming housing shortage that some estimates suggest was up to five million homes nationwide. As a result, the federal government – hoping to prevent economic turmoil caused by 15 million veterans returning to the workforce – passed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (commonly known as the GI Bill). The bill included guarantees to unemployment insurance, funds for college education, and veterans’ hospitals. It also allowed veterans to buy houses for no money down.
To finance new low-density housing, the federal government provided critical subsidies for construction, loans, home ownership, and infrastructure such as the interstate highway system. These houses would be detached units miles away from the bustling cities. The new “suburbs” promised a quiet neighborhood, a spacious lot, and a private environment suitable for raising a family. It would be ideal for veterans to settle down after serving overseas.
Private enterprises used this time to apply mass production techniques and technologies tested during the war to ramp up home construction. The result was using assembly lines previously used to churn out an airplane every five minutes during the war to build almost four brand-new cookie-cutter houses per minute.
This construction just barely kept up with demand, though. The low costs and taxes for these new homes (it was cheaper to buy a house in 1950 than to rent one) and GI Bill benefits for veterans led Americans to flock to the suburbs in droves. Population shifting away from metropolitan areas, where jobs and housing were before the war, was unprecedented in American history. Instead, this growth occurred in the areas that ringed the urban core.
But even with this growth, jobs remained in the cities. So In 1947, Congress authorized the construction of a 37,000-mile chain of highways that would connect suburbia to metropolitan areas. Nine years later, the Interstate Highway Act, one of the most extensive civil engineering projects in American history, granted funds to build a 42,500-mile-long interstate highway system across the country.
The interstate system changed the landscape of the U.S. across cities and the countryside alike, allowing urban sprawl and low-density housing to spread farther away from the noisy cities. Suburban shopping malls and supermarkets also drew business away from corner grocery stores, and downtown retail areas declined along with mass transit. A common sight in the early morning was traffic jams on highways entering cities from suburbia.
These long commutes to work from the suburbs every morning all but required every family to have a car. The decline of mass transit due to the construction of highways was an intended side effect of these developments, not a bug. With suburban infrastructure being car-centric, it cut off easy access to the suburbs from the seemingly overcrowded, polluted cities. As a result, about ninety percent of suburban residents owned cars and needed highways to get to the cities. And even though suburbs marketed themselves as open to all who desired a better standard of living, in practice, they tended to be unwelcoming to non-white families.
This period also saw attitudes around transportation shifting too. The automobile was increasingly seen as a symbol of freedom and individualism, while public transportation represented working class or urban lifestyles.
Streetcars and buses held out in urban areas, but the growth of suburbs and increased automobile usage posed an existential threat to the public transportation industry. And increasingly, buses were seen as “getting in the way” of car drivers. To reinforce their interests in this changing market, the automobile industry lobbied for policies that favored the construction of highways and automobile sales over the expansion of mass transit.
Between 1938 and 1950, a General Motors-controlled entity called National City Lines bought municipal trolley systems across the country, paved over the rails, and replaced them with GM-powered buses, leaving millions of Americans without efficient transit options and significantly damaging the public transportation industry. The company’s intentions have been hotly debated, with many viewing this as the automotive industry attempting to sabotage public transit, while transit historians believe the decision was made because bus lines were cheaper to operate than trolleys.
In 1970, 77 million Americans commuted to work daily, and 9% used public transit. In 2019, that share had declined to 5%. Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, says this is the result of a fundamental lack of integration between federal transportation and state land-use authorities in the U.S. In several other countries, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development are one entity.
The result is a misalignment of housing and mobility needs. Higher-density housing areas tend to be disconnected from rail transit systems, where they are often needed. Instead, many proposed routes want to extend into low-density suburban areas because there are more unused right-of-ways to land and fewer property owners to object. Highway investments are usually no better prioritized and typically focus on suburban and exurban areas, leaving downtown express lanes still heavily congested.
This is how we ended up with our present-day transportation mess. In much of the U.S., the car is king because there are no other practical options for people outside urban centers. Most money for public transit comes from state and local governments, and since poorer regions that might need these services may not have the money to invest, funding dries up. A lack of funding leads to a lack of services, causing even fewer investments as people deem public transit useless. “It’s a negative spiral, a vicious cycle,” said Freemark.
Suburbs have continued to grow as large cities have become unaffordable for many people. Some cities, though, have resisted passing the burden of transportation entirely onto cars. Public transit in these areas has been indispensable to avoid the heavy congestion that hinders economic growth and depresses real estate prices.
The biggest gainers of transit commuters between 1970 and 2015-19 were New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles. More than any other large region, Seattle attracted a growing share of transit users over the past 50 years and has invested heavily in upgrading its bus services. San Francisco, meanwhile, offers reduced fares to low-income individuals. Salt Lake City has prioritized housing growth in neighborhoods around public transit. And Portland’s urban growth boundary surrounding its perimeter has effectively limited car-centric sprawl.
But public transit as a whole took a major hit with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In March of 2020, public transit ridership plummeted by around 80% and still hasn’t recovered. As funding dried up, Congress, hoping to avoid another collapse of public transit as seen during the era of suburbanization, threw transit agencies a lifeline with several COVID relief packages totaling $69 billion.
Most Americans still live in car-centric suburbs, but recently, fewer people have been commuting due to the rise of remote work, and transit agencies are suffering from the lack of fare revenue. Cities like Boston now have ridership that is barely half its pre-pandemic level. The transit system of Washington, D.C. is projected to have a deficit of over half a billion dollars by the 2025 fiscal year. So even though fewer people are going back to the office, a lack of transit investment and ridership means some routes will be cut, ultimately meaning more cars on the road.
Our reliance on cars – and the subsequent cultural obsession with them that emerged from this reliance – is environmentally and socially unsustainable. The most problematic element is their fuel source. Most vehicles on the road in 2021 were combustion-engine vehicles that use carbon-emitting fossil fuels.
This energy consumption begins even before they make it to the roads. Automobile production leaves a massive carbon footprint because critical materials like steel, rubber, glass, plastics, paints, and many others must be manufactured first. Plastics, toxic battery acids, and many other products also stay in the environment long after a car’s usable life. Although about three-quarters of modern cars can be recycled, including the bulk of their steel frames, meaning today’s junkyard waste piles are smaller than those of the past.
Petroleum products, the fuel source for internal combustion engines, have a significant environmental impact even before being burned. Extracting them from deposits deep within the Earth is an intensive and damaging process. Shipping this fuel consumes a lot of energy and risks environmental disasters like oil spills. The growing demand for petroleum has led to more unconventional fuel source extraction projects, such as oil sands, that have more drastic ecological impacts.
When gasoline or diesel is burned to power an engine, it creates byproducts like carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, benzene, and formaldehyde, among others. An excess of carbon dioxide traps the sun’s heat within the atmosphere, causing the Earth to warm. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that emissions from transportation account for about 27% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the nation’s most polluting sector.
Additionally, cars are dangerous when operated incorrectly. Most traffic accidents and fatalities result from driver errors involving distracted or reckless driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that 31,785 people died in traffic accidents in the first nine months of 2022. While the Department of Transportation reports that newer cars are safer than previous models due to advancements in car safety technology, traffic deaths are still high. The report from the NHTSA said that while fatalities overall declined in 2022 compared to previous years, fatalities among cyclists and pedestrians continued to rise.
There are a few options to address this overreliance. Expanding public transportation routes can reduce the number of cars on the road, which would be environmentally beneficial and reduce congestion on major roadways. Some cities have attempted to raise the use of public transit with no-fare days. Denver’s Regional Transportation District (RTD rolled out a free-fare month in August of 2022 to reduce ground-level ozone during its peak summer month.
However, while RTD’s ridership increased by 22% between July and August of that year, there is no evidence to suggest free-fare days will reduce driving overall, thereby helping to mitigate climate change, because riders with access to a car care more about the duration of the trip rather than the expenses involved. This will continue to be the preference unless new mass transit investments occur in high-traffic areas and prove to the general public that it can not provide easy access to destinations but can even yield shorter commute times.
Electric vehicles have also emerged as an environmentally friendly option to combustion engine vehicles. These use zero-emission electric engines rather than burning fuel. They can even use existing highway infrastructure. Allowing drivers to get around without worrying about their vehicle’s carbon footprint per mile looks good on paper, but this approach is still problematic in practice.
Even though they are zero-emission vehicles, their batteries charge with electricity typically generated from fossil-fueled power plants. In some cases when power demand from coal-fired power plants is high, air quality can be made worse than with combustion engine vehicles since coal is far less efficient and clean-burning than gasoline.
The extraction of lithium, cobalt, and other rare earth elements needed for their batteries is also problematic. Lithium mining usually requires fossil-fueled equipment, and the mining process produces hazardous tailings that can leach into the environment. Extracting lithium from its ore involves smelting, which can emit sulfur oxide and other harmful air pollutants. Much of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in which artisanal workers – including many children – mine the materials from the work using just hand tools at great risk to their health.
In January, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board, Jennifer Homendy, expressed concern about the safety risks electric vehicles would pose if they collided with lighter vehicles. To achieve a 300+ mile range on a single charge, as many consumers demand, batteries have to weigh thousands of pounds, making EVs significantly heavier than their combustion engine counterparts. Michael Brooks, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, also voiced his concerns. “These bigger, heavier batteries are going to cause more damage… it’s a simple matter of mass and speed,” he said.
New urban planning centered around making cities walkable is another way to reduce car dependence. Connecting walkable routes and destinations in communities would take cars off the road and encourage more active lifestyles. A Centers for Disease Control study on the efficacy of walkable cities concluded that “more people bike and walk in communities where improvements have been made, such as adding safer sidewalks, pedestrian crossings, and protected bike lanes.” However, many American cities were designed with the automobile at the center, and building new infrastructure for walking can be costly.
Our country’s overreliance on personal vehicles tends to go unnoticed when you have your own. It may only come to mind while sitting in traffic. But when you don’t have one, getting around is far more challenging. You can carpool with friends or family members, but they may not always be available. You can use ride-sharing services like Uber or Lyft, but that can quickly get expensive. If you’re lucky, your starting point and destination may have bus stops nearby, although they usually aren’t connected by the same route. You can walk, but that takes time and may even be unsafe if you’re walking near a major road. Biking is an option if you want a workout during your commute, but the terrain can be unpredictable, and your destination may not have a bike rack to lock it up.
I find myself in this predicament often. Even though I live close enough to TJ to walk, my job at a kosher food catering company sometimes requires me to go to different synagogues throughout the week. Temple Emanuel, the furthest in northern Glendale, is a 15 – 20 minute drive from my house. Usually, I’ll carpool or use Lyft. Walking and biking are out of the question because I have to wear all-black waiter attire on those days. I could take RTD’s route 40 or 65 via Colorado Boulevard or Monaco Parkway, respectively, but either stop drops me off a 20-minute walk away. If I took route 65, the Hilltop neighborhood I’d have to walk through has made it very clear that pedestrians are not welcome through their omission of sidewalks, forcing me to walk on the street or in the runoff gutter that doubles as parking space.
Yet as much as I detest this infrastructure, I, like many others, cannot abstain from it because there are few practical options for transportation. Outside of downtown centers, every destination is designed with a car in mind. I’ll still get my driver’s license this summer because I need to get to work. I have a friend living in Castle Rock, which opted out of all RTD services in 2005. Eventually, I’ll probably commute to my chosen college of CU: Boulder after my sophomore year to avoid the absurd costs of dorm living.
My experience isn’t an anomaly. Most families have to commute to school to drop kids off, go to work, and run errands. Many other non-drivers are forced between a rock and a hard place because their destination often requires a car to get there.
The best way to reduce car reliance in the U.S. is to demonstrate that other forms of transportation can be easy to use and yield faster arrival times than cars. This would likely mean a fundamental change in how most of us get around and significant investments in non-car travel. But we will likely move towards transportation electrification first. While this will be environmentally beneficial and reduce emissions from the transportation sector, it won’t address our overreliance on vehicles. Until investments in non-car travel occur, we will continue to be stuck with asinine public transit that is slow, unreliable, and struggles to get you to your destination.