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Car dependency halts potential progress for cities

Car dependency halts potential progress for cities

Car dependency halts potential progress for cities
December 10
13:00 2022

If you live in a United States city, you likely use cars more than any other mode of transit — and why wouldn’t you? Outside built-up cities like New York, cars are generally the only viable way to get from place to place.

This phenomenon is known as car dependency, and our cities are suffocating because of it. As said by independent journalist Edward Humes, “in almost every way imaginable, the car, as it is deployed and used today, is insane.” Much of that insanity stems from two sources: cars themselves and the urban design that supports them.

Perhaps the most widely recognized issue with cars is their emissions. Personal vehicles are huge contributors to climate change, and a 2013 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study estimated that air pollution from motor vehicles caused 53,000 premature deaths in the U.S. alone.

Pollution isn’t the only way cars kill. In 2020, despite decreased traffic due to COVID-19, over 42,000 Americans died in car crashes, with another 4.8 million seriously injured. The Department of Transportation estimated the costs of car crashes as $277 billion annually.

To be fair, these issues could be solved with technology. Electric vehicles and self-driving cars in particular have gained widespread attention, and successful versions of each would boost cars’ environmental and safety records.

However, while both technologies face numerous technical hurdles, there’s a more fundamental issue that neither can solve: cars are inherently inefficient. They waste most of the energy stored in their fuels, have a low capacity for their size and spend 95 percent of their lives parked.

The effects of this limited potential can most clearly be seen with the physical footprint of car infrastructure. In Los Angeles, for example, 101 square miles, an area larger than Seattle, is devoted solely to parking. This land could host businesses or provide housing to over a million residents, but instead it’s paved over with asphalt.

Inefficiency also contributes to the high financial costs of car ownership. Maintenance, fuel, insurance and car payments add up to $10,728 annually for an average American car owner. Furthermore, that figure would be even higher if governments didn’t pour billions of dollars into subsidies for fuel and road maintenance.

However, cars alone can’t account for all the issues with car dependency. To discuss the rest, we need to look at urban design.

Residents of metros like Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles should recognize what this looks like: massive stretches of haphazard, low-density suburbs and urban sprawl radiating out from the city center and broken up by huge networks of roads and highways. Public transit ranges from inadequate to nonexistent and the low density of people and structures makes walking next to impossible, so residents are effectively forced to drive.

This urban design also has plenty of issues itself. The massive footprints of these neighborhoods contribute to the destruction of farmland and wildlife habitats. Depending on the location, this development can also worsen natural disasters, as demonstrated by Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

Finally, by making everything physically far apart, urban sprawl increases energy usage, commute times, transportation costs and social isolation. All in all, transport expert Todd Litman estimated the total economic burden of urban sprawl in America at over $1 trillion annually.

Yet, despite their devotion, car-dependent cities still face nearly constant issues with traffic. This is because of a phenomenon called induced demand. Essentially, when existing roads become congested, city planners invest in bigger and better car infrastructure.

This temporarily reduces traffic, but it also encourages increased car usage and more urban sprawl. As a result, congestion returns, more car infrastructure is built in response, and the cycle repeats. For a notable example, Houston’s Katy Freeway was widened to a massive 23 lanes and traffic worsened.

Combined with the expenses of car ownership, this negligent urban design also fuels cycles of poverty. Numerous studies, most notably one from Harvard, show that commute times and access to transportation are the greatest factors for social mobility, even more so than crime rates or education. Therefore, those that can’t afford cars are trapped by car-dependent cities both physically and economically. 

To end car dependency, we need our cities to empathize with people instead of cars. This includes expanding access to public transit, which is typically safer, cleaner, cheaper and more energy and space efficient. Canadian citiees like Vancouver show that even low-density suburbs built for cars can accommodate public transit, and network expansions in cities like Phoenix and Houston have yielded promising results. Furthermore, cities can counteract urban sprawl by loosening zoning laws and setting boundaries on urban growth, as Portland, Oregon has done since 1979.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean cars should be completely banned. Their ability to travel point-to-point relatively fast means they still have a role in our cities.

However, this role can be maintained without prioritizing cars over everything else. The constant suffocation of our cities will only cease when we finally stop the insanity of car dependency.

Featured Illustration by Erika Sevilla

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Ian Cropper

Ian Cropper

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