The American Car Problem
A freeway interchange in Phoenix, Arizona
When I lived in China, especially around the more prominent cities, you could do fine entirely without a car. You did not need to own one to get around; the plethora of taxis, buses, and subway stations allowed you to practically go anywhere you wanted with public transportation. Contrast that to most American cities, whose public transit systems are severely lacking, and the American suburbs, where it is almost non-existent. This makes it so that if you want to live in the United States, you really can’t go anywhere without a car; it is a necessity of life due to the lack of public transportation infrastructure. And when everyone owns a car, your greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions per capita increases. The transportation sector makes up around a third of the total CO2 emissions annually in the United States according to the EPA, and contrary to popular belief, electric cars are not the way to solve this issue, especially in the US. We have a car problem: one of zoning, culture, and infrastructure.
One of the big reasons why owning a car is so essential to life in the United States is the existence of the American Suburbs. According to the Pew Research Center, around 175 million people live in the suburbs: that is around half of the population in the United States. And the suburbs are growing much more rapidly than urban areas. This was caused historically, and is still today, by zoning laws — specifically, thanks to a little zoning restriction called single family zoning. This zoning law makes it so that land developers can only build single family houses in much of the developable land the United States, leaving only small pieces of land in cities for high density housing and multistoried apartment buildings. And because of the limited areas where single family zoning does not apply, developers often fight over these lands, making them expensive The result is that only the bigger developers are able to build the things they desire. Because of this single family zoning, our housing has expanded outwards instead of upwards, causing us to destroy more natural ecosystems and emit more CO2 emissions. When we expand upwards, we build stairs and we build elevators; however when we expand outwards we need to build roads and more stores and other essential services. Building more roads means more carbon emissions from concrete; and more roads, coupled with a lack of public transportation, means more cars. With the suburbs expected to grow rapidly in population, it is clear how this becomes an issue. Yet that is not all, this reliance on cars manifests into another issue regarding transportation.
Because most American households own a car, most people prefer to travel by car than public transport, leading to a lackluster public transportation sector in many parts of the US, especially the suburbs. This leads inevitably to a positive feedback loop where the lack of public transportation fuels car consumption, which in turn fuels the lack of public transportation. Public transit is an important topic when it comes to reducing emissions and transitioning from a fossil fuel economy. As a paper by the US Department of Transportation outlines, the carbon emissions per person from a personal vehicle like a car is more than double the amount per person from the average public transportation carbon footprint. According to the American Public Transport Association, 45% of Americans do not have access to public transportation, and even those that do have access may not have the most efficient or extensive public transportation network. Public transportation in the United States mostly serves to take people from the suburbs to the cities, so it is not as practical when traveling from suburbs to suburbs. Furthermore, because of the large scale of American suburbs and the lack of high density housing units, public transportation is less efficient. More than a practical method of commute, cars have a different advantage that many Americans may prefer. Because with a car you can decide where to go and whenever you want, it is often tied to the ideas of personal freedom in the United States. These factors all contribute to a lackadaisical attitude towards public transportation and causes cars to be almost as essential as a house to American households.
Not all is lost however in solving America’s car issue; many states like California and Oregon have already banned single family zoning, and many more states and cities are now talking about killing this outdated and harmful zoning law. It is ironic: you would think that in the “Land of the Free,” we would be able to develop land however we want, yet we cannot. Improving public transportation and building more high density housing units could just help change the car culture in the United States and make places more accessible to everyone, whether they own or do not own a car. Solving America’s car problem will not only benefit people, but the environment as well. It would make housing more affordable, commuting easier, and decrease CO2 production from the transportation sector. It may take time for the people and the nation to transition away from this established culture and system, but if we fight hard enough for it, and make our voices and needs of more accessible and convenient life heard, the next “new deal” may just shape the future of American life.