Is a post-car future actually possible? Experts say yes — here’s how we could get there

If you live in the United States and commute to your job, there is a 91% chance that you do so via a personal vehicle — meaning, a car. While that is certainly an extreme level of car dependency, Americans are hardly alone in their affliction. In Cyprus, 85% are dependent on cars as their main transport mode, although the European Union as a whole has an average of 47%.

Reasons for high car dependency range from poor infrastructure planning to policies that deliberately favor roads. Yet the United States is particularly notorious for its over-reliance on cars, a trend that can be traced back to America’s central role in introducing those machines to the world and its own government’s pro-car policies — particularly, creating the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s.

There is a price for all of this car usage, of course. For one thing, roughly 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from automobiles alone. And building road infrastructure means felling trees and destroying wild areas. Asphalt, with which most roads are paved, generates its own organic aerosol pollution, according to a Harvard study; the same asphalt then keeps cities hot at night in the summer, raising air conditioning costs in places like Phoenix. Worse, some American cities’ land use consists of as much as 14% asphalt, thanks to poor planning and low density. 

If we want to live on a habitable planet in a hundred years, humanity cannot keep building cars and roads at the same pace that we have been. Environmentalists have been advocating for a shift to public transit and walking- or bicycle-oriented city planning for decades; and yet, in the United States, the necessary social and infrastructural paradigm shift clearly isn’t happening, as evidenced by how car-dependent we remain. Is a post-car future actually realistic, or a mere pipe dream? 

Surprisingly, experts with whom Salon spoke say that it isn’t a utopian fantasy. There are clear ways we could transition humanity to a car-free — or at least, car-lite — existence without compromising on other quality-of-life facets.

While Americans overwhelmingly rely on cars to get around, Europeans have an infrastructure that mixes cars more robustly with alternatives like buses, trains, bicycling and even walking.

The most obvious path to a post-car future is investing in energy-efficient mass transit. Of course, that has already happened in cities like New York, where a minority of residents drive cars to work. Public transit requires “much less energy than driving around in our cars, but still requires substantial energy,” Dr. Kenneth Gillingham, a professor of economics at the Yale University School of the Environment, told Salon.

The trick to lowering carbon emissions, of course, is making sure that most of the energy used to power transit comes from green energy. While most energy generation in the United States comes from fossil fuels, that is slowly changing. 

Should the energy for public transit “come from fossil fuels, which at least some of it would, then there would be some increases in emissions that would offset the emission reductions,” Gillingham added as a caveat.

Yet experts say it would not be impossible to create energy efficient mass transit system that — by not significantly adding to greenhouse gas emissions on their own — would reduce climate change as it replaces widespread automobile use. Dr. Lewis Fulton, Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California Davis, pointed to Europe as an example of how this might work — with qualifications.

“If there was efficient mass transit so that everyone can sort of theoretically get around, I would say [that] is pretty close to what is in place in Europe,” Fulton told Salon, where Europeans have managed to maintain a functioning society despite using cars far less often than Americans.

Yet Europe is still an imperfect example because even there, automobiles are so ubiquitous that they still consume a large chunk of transportation time. The key difference is that while Americans overwhelmingly rely on cars to get around, Europeans have an infrastructure that mixes cars more robustly with alternatives like buses, trains, bicycling and even walking. As such Fulton noted that the environmental situation in Europe is better than that in America because Europeans rely less on cars, which suggests that there are lessons from their experience.

“As long as we clean up our power grids, which is critical for everything we’re thinking of doing anyway to deal with climate change, transit will take a big bite” out of the problem, Fulton told Salon.

While ameliorating climate change is a big advantage of getting rid of cars, it is hardly the only reason to do so. Dr. John Renne, a professor of urban and regional planning at Florida Atlantic University, told Salon that his own research has found that car ownership creates a number of class and even racial barriers to social mobility. Indeed, Renne’s study, which was published last month in the journal Transportation Research Part D, found that “the poorest are cut off from job opportunities, schools, and other services especially in places where transit service quality is poor and walking and bicycling are unsafe,” Renne explained.

While it is impossible to know for sure whether class issues would be more or less severe in a hypothetical world without cars, “mobility that allows all classes to access jobs and services should create more economic opportunities for those with the least amount of money.” Renne said that a robust transit system dominated by “non-automobile” modes “should have benefits across the board to minority groups who may be currently excluded to accessing jobs and services due to a lack of access to a car.”

Beyond the class issues surrounding car-centric transit, building cities around cars cuts off access to many of those who are disabled. Indeed, cars are often onerous for disabled people; for instance, I cannot drive a car

There is also a racial component to our dependence on cars.

“The status quo of a free urban highway system subsidizes people with means, allowing households with enough money to own and maintain a vehicle to use valuable urban land for free — expelling harmful externalities to nearby neighborhoods,” Dr. William H. Dietz of George Washington University’s School of Public Health told Salon by email, citing a recent paper. “Historical race-based practices and policies, including zoning, redlining, and siting, have placed lower income, marginalized, and minoritized communities in closer proximity to roadways and their many harms,” he added. “Poor people and people of color in these areas pay the hidden price for others’ road use in the form of traffic injuries, pollution-driven chronic illness and death.” Indeed, many studies attest to this.

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The implication of this is that people with less money will always be at a massive transportation disadvantage in societies that rely on automotive mobility. At the same time, any mass transit system created as a substitute for car reliance would have to account for other groups of poor people to make sure burdens aren’t unfairly shifted.

“Mobility that allows all classes to access jobs and services should create more economic opportunities for those with the least amount of money.”

“If everyone switched from driving to efficient public transit, this would mostly have rural/urban effects,” Gillingham told Salon. “Cars are tougher to replace in rural areas, so rural areas would be affected more (even if the public transit is efficient… you would still have to wait some amount of time for buses or trains).”

Facts like these underscore how the existing American transportation system is “inherently inequitable,” as Dietz put it.

“Economic mobility, opportunities for social and economic success, and health itself can be dependent on transportation access,” Dietz noted. Indeed, a 2015 Harvard study found that access to opportunities, measured as commuting time, was the strongest factor in determining whether someone can escape poverty. 

“Poor access to public transportation is linked to decreased income and higher unemployment.”

Even if we can never entirely get rid of automotive vehicles, analyzing our species’ growing reliance on them illustrates some of the fundamental problems with how society is conducting itself.

“We need to constantly think about and question how we can do better for people and for the environment which supports life,” Renne told Salon. 

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