Car-centric America, Why?

“Considering the constant fatalities, rampant pollution, and exorbitant costs of ownership, there is no better word to characterize the car’s dominance than insane.” Edward Humes

America’s infatuation with driving may be a lust for speed, or we just developed and continue to maintain a dependency born out of convenience!  Europe and the US differ greatly in their approach to transportation. For awhile, from the 20’s to the 50’s, Europe tried out some of the infrastructure changes the US invested widely. That changed in the 60’s. Europe went a different direction and now we are seeking to emulate the European models.

Americans drive over 1.2 TRILLION trips per year. Over 690 BILLION of those trips are two miles or less. 28% of those are one mile or less. Americans drive over 85% of their trips by car (versus transit , walking, or bicycling). Europeans do about 50-65%.

America’s infatuation with the car started with both the desire for speed and the mechanization of the assembly line. In the late 1800’s the League of American Wheelmen lobbied for the first roads. Cyclists were at odds with horses, wagons, and pedestrians as roads were mud baths, and out in the country they often encountered farm vehicles. As the assembly pumped out cars, America started building roads. Our current transportation principals primarily still follow many tenets that were developed as the need for roads increased after WWII. The VA provided loans for vets to build, but the caveat was they had to be outside of city limits.

Transit, with streetcars and trolleys helped provide much of the transportation in early 20th century America. That fell away by the 1950s. Then came government subsidies for both transit and roads. Taxes on autos for both licensing and road use is much higher in Europe. The price of gas has curbed the European diet for driving. While in America we rely on much lower vehicle use requirements when it comes to taxes. Gas taxes are half of what they might be in places in Europe.  Transportation funds get almost no competition from other government entities. In other words, the budget has been separated from the general fund. These dollars should compete with general fund budgets. We would see a different tune to road construction. According to an article by Ralph Bueler,  “Over the last 40 years, gas taxes, tolls, and registration fees have covered only about 60 or 70 percent of roadway expenditures across all levels of U.S. government. The remainder has been paid using property, income, and other taxes not related to transportation. These subsidies for driving reduce its cost and increase driving demand in the United States. In European countries, meanwhile, drivers typically pay more in taxes and fees than governments spend on roadways.

Convenience provides people with the reason to love their cars. The car gives immediate gratification for wants. With a bus, train, or even a taxi, the delay is real.

Another reason for car-centricity stems from unbridled resources available. The USA maintains a wealth of resources, some of which are finite. If our resource base differed we might be riding transit more such as Europeans do. Layton Hill made this statement- “…..some blame individual metropolis’ large size for auto-orientation. This is also wrong because it gets the initial causal chain backward. Cities are able to be larger, land-wise, in the US precisely because of the automobile. The other answers summed up by, “I live 6 miles from the nearest grocery store” would simply not be the case if cars were less convenient or affordable- grocery stores would be smaller and closer to people.” Three out of four jobs are located more than three miles from downtown. One in four homes are in an urban setting.

While the results of our car centric society keep mounting, telling us its killing us in so many ways, we still put huge investments into sedentary practices that keep us sitting and inactive.  The real story will be how we get on a car-diet! If you’d like to learn more about ditching the car for more economical travel, read