Changing Car Culture Can Benefit Our Health and Our Planet

Changing Car Culture Can Benefit Our Health and Our Planet

We need to rethink the American love affair with the automobile and redesign cities to reduce car pollution

Illustration of two people walking in front of a car.

Anthropologist Daniel Miller has observed that an alien visiting Earth might well suppose that four-wheeled creatures run the planet. These rulers, he notes, are “served by a host of slaves who walk on legs and spend their whole lives serving them.” He meant this as a joke, but the punch line comes at the expense of American car culture. In the U.S., the costs of car dependency keep growing, far above the $12,000-per-year average expense of owning a new one.

Coast-to-coast, the cars and trucks we drive cause about 16 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. They cause significant air pollution, worsening asthma and heart disease rates, and contribute to a nationwide epidemic of obesity. About 69 percent of car trips in the U.S. are two miles or less. Motor vehicle collisions are a leading cause of death in people ages one to 44, the most bitter part of the mayhem accompanying some six million reported accidents per year. Since 2010 the number of pedestrians killed by cars has increased 77 percent, to about 7,500 a year, a growing fraction of all traffic deaths.

America’s car culture—glamorized in advertisements, enforced by zoning laws and enabled by taxpayer subsidies—is a choice that now comes at too high a cost, both for ourselves and for the environment. After a century of its central place in our lives, we need to rethink our world into one not hitched to the automobile.

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Automobile-first ideals dominate in the U.S. Our countryside is carved up by superhighways connecting bedroom suburbs with sprawling cities, with too many nowherevilles surrounded by parking lots and strip malls and ringed with sound barrier walls—all built to serve the sacred automobile. Atop former towns and neighborhoods, broad avenues are lined with drive-through hamburger stands and banks.

Across the country, the car is the only way to get around and not only in rural places. This reliance spawns an ever more disconnected nation of drivers suffering an epidemic of road rage. As Lancaster University sociologist John Urry wrote, “the car is immensely flexible and wholly coercive,” promising freedom but trapping drivers into inhabiting their cars.

During the height of the pandemic, when office commutes and rush-hour traffic suddenly vanished, younger people turned to Uber for their transportation, and “peak car” seemed to apply. A glimpse of a life not spent in worship of the automotive golden calf comes with New York City unveiling congestion pricing starting at $15 (also on tap in other cities). Cleveland is reviving its Public Square by turning empty office space into apartments and suburbs retrofitting themselves for walking. This trend accompanies moves across the country to build more bike lanes.

The turn toward online shopping and home delivery has lessened the need for a second car, double garages and massive parking lots. The cell phone has begun replacing the driver’s license as de rigueur identification in the 21st century, hastening cutting the car cord.

As with so many of our problems today, solutions are obvious and right in front of us, ranging from sidewalks to subways. But they face inevitable obstruction by an obstreperous highway fund lobby, as well as politicians and talking heads spouting nonsense about better lives somehow being un-American. Voters outnumber these voices, however, and tell us they want less car-dependent lives.

We can start by reforming zoning laws to eliminate low-density and single-family residential home restrictions in new developments and to add flexibility for stores and enough homes to support them. Sidewalks and bike trails should receive the same priority as roads in our cities and close-in suburbs, instead of being afterthoughts. Unreasonable demands by mayors and employers that the masses get back behind the wheel and return to offices (where we are, in fact, less productive) need to stop. The average American commute is nearly 28 minutes of uncompensated labor each way. Let’s make our cities less car-dependent instead.

Thinking more ambitiously, we can provide discounts to bicyclists who take the train, free taxis to twice-a-week commuters, incentives for e-bikes and other financial breaks to eschew second cars and the congestion they cause. (While we’re at it, the EPA should end its designation of SUVs, minivans and vans as trucks that can be less fuel-efficient. We see this as a frankly cynical result of auto industry lobbying that crowds more efficient cars out of dealerships.) Behind plans like New York’s congestion pricing is another reality—car parking is too cheap across much of the country, where variable on-street parking pricing can reset plans from hopping in the car during peak periods to taking the subway or the bus instead.

Like with any bad romance, none of these ideas will help end “America’s supposed love affair with the automobile” without addressing the underlying psychology of dependence that makes reaching for the keys second nature. “As industry considers itself dependent on continued car sales, initiatives to reduce car attachment will be increasingly targeted by industry and its lobbying organizations, as well as politicians representing automotive interests,” writes transportation analyst Stefan Gössling in The Psychology of the Car, warning that “powerful campaigns already seek to strengthen bonds with the private car.”

Gaslit by car ads blaring outdoor scenes available in real life only to plutocrats with a ranch in Montana, we idle alone in traffic instead of living our off-road fantasies, lulled by heated seats, dashcams and surround sound, while we pollute the air.

In America, where advertising matters, public service announcements should make the case for ditching the car keys with positive messages. “No ridiculous car trips,” exhorted one ad campaign in Sweden, appealing to common sense and community spirit (bicycles were awarded to people with the most ridiculously short car commutes) to try pedaling to work. Commercials should extol biking short distances and note the time saved on public transport spent reading or answering e-mails, instead of time spent clutching the wheel worrying a fender bender will bump up our insurance premiums.

We need a call nationwide to end our car-centric lifestyle and stand on our own two feet or, better, two pedals. Otherwise, those aliens will have made the right call on who serves who, the cars—or the people.

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