A Future without Cars
Every day, scores of American teens celebrate their 16th birthdays, and, like clockwork, head off to the DMV in hopes of passing their driver’s test and getting their driver’s license. It’s a tradition as American as baseball and apple pie. After all, owning a car is all but necessary for life in America — it’s nearly impossible for many of us to even imagine how we would go about our day-to-day lives without access to one. But their ubiquity obscures the damage cars do to our planet’s environment — US highway vehicles release more than 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year, and, for most of us, the greenhouse gases emitted while driving comprises the single largest portion of our household’s carbon footprint.
Many people (including myself) want to drive less. Personally, I feel guilty about the carbon emissions I know that I’m emitting when on the road, but others are fed up with the high costs associated with owning a car, bothered by the inconvenience of traffic, or just feel that driving is an unpleasant experience in general. For most people, however, significantly reducing their time behind the wheel is simply impossible. Here in San Diego, to travel from the UCSD campus to my house about 15 miles away, I have to navigate at least 3 bus lines, a shuttle route, then finally walk a mile to arrive at my doorstep. This is, of course, not feasible.
San Diego is far from the only example of cities where driving is the only option — American urban planning has made it so driving is often the only way to get around town. US cities rank “low on walkability indicators,” according to a recent report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. In many cases, the US falls behind cities from countries with far fewer resources, like Bogotá, Colombia. American urban planners’ obsession with cars has led to devastating effects too numerous to list in this article, but the most harmful of them all has been the impact on our climate. As American suburban sprawl spread, so did the reliance on cars, which is one reason why residents of the suburbs emit up to two times more carbon than those who live in large, dense inner cities located just a few miles away. This trend can be seen in the maps of San Diego and New York City below.
In these representations, the red areas — which are invariably car-dominated suburbs — have high carbon outputs, while the blue city centers produce relatively low amounts of carbon per household. Unfortunately, over half of the United States lives in a neighborhood described as suburban, meaning that those red areas on the map make up a massive proportion of the US population. Every gallon of gas emits about 24 pounds of greenhouse gases, and large cars — which are popular in the suburbs — release orders of magnitude more. These greenhouse gases contribute to trapping heat within the Earth’s atmosphere, leading to a continuous feedback loop that results in the rapid warming of the Earth. Extreme weather, mass extinctions, wildfires, and food shortages are all problems associated with this process.
Cars, then, are clearly harmful to the environment. However, this is not the only way in which our over-reliance on cars harms American communities. The same noxious particles that contribute to the greenhouse effect are also poisoning our inner-city neighborhoods. According to one study in 2005, the particles, known as PM2.5, lead to more than 50,000 early deaths annually. These deaths are concentrated particularly among black and Hispanic residents, who were segregated into hotter, more polluted areas of cities. In many cases, American urban planners have simply demolished entire ethnic neighborhoods to furnish the construction of new highways. The Cross-Bronx Expressway, according to architect Robert Shiffman, “ripped through the heart of the Bronx,” likely contributing to thousands of deaths from increased environmental pollution.
Car-free cities, while hard to imagine for us, are also simply more pleasant than those crammed with thousands upon thousands of cars. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo has made reducing the presence of cars in the city her top priority in office; cars are now banned from major downtown thoroughfares, which have quickly become popular among pedestrians, bikers, and families. A lack of cars makes our streets safer and quieter — because of them, over 100 pedestrians die and thousands are injured each year in New York City alone. During the COVID-19 pandemic, large parts of city streets were wrested away from automobiles and turned into spaces for restaurants to host outside dining. Cars do, according to the New York Times, “have a way of gobbling up urban space.”
By this point, you may be wondering how it is possible to carry out this type of urban transformation here in the United States, and whether it’s truly feasible to expect people (even you!) to give up their cars. This is a perfectly reasonable concern, and I have wondered this myself. The answer is that yes: a better, more environmentally friendly world is possible — but it won’t be easy to achieve. To accomplish this, we have to re-examine the way we think about transportation. The United States has to stop the unending expansion of suburban sprawl, and instead invest resources into building up cities, which are far more environmentally friendly than suburbs. People are also rightfully concerned about how public transportation can replace cars — to do this, we must make massive investments into public transportation, which has been chronically underfunded since President Reagan restricted its funding in the 1980s. Only if this is done can public transportation finally be a true alternative to cars, but for the sake of the Earth, these changes are necessary.