If you live in an area without any form of public transport, riding another vehicle to get to your destination can feel like a novelty, a vestige of the time before cars took over. Riding a train, a ferry, a bike, a trolley, comes off more like a cultural experience rather than a sensible mode of transit, as if they’re only there because they didn’t manage to put up a bridge or a highway somewhere. But when cars slip into their usual disappointments like traffic jams or noise pollution, we’re quick to offer up more space for them, rather then questioning why we adopted them in the first place.
What other options do we have? The whole country is hooked on cars, it’s part of the world that we’re born into. If you ask a child to draw a city, chances are they’ll start out with some sort of street grid pattern. Teenagers idolize reaching driving age, as they finally have the freedom to travel wherever they please. We naturally place value on cars because normally they’re the only option we’re given for transportation. This is a direct result from the longtime advances the auto industry has made to promote their products, resulting in 92% of Americans own cars, more than any other country.
But these advancements aren’t just issues of the past, and in fact, are still gaining new ground every day. I’d like to take a dive into the state of American transportation, how we got to this point, and why it’s a problem. Through spacing apart our buildings and aggressive lobbying tactics, the automotive industry has essentially created their own monopoly on transportation.
To better understand how cars have a monopoly on transportation, we have to look at how cars came to congest our cities. It’s become common knowledge that before cars, streets were shared between carriages and walkers. This changed after Queens’ World’s Fair in 1939, where GM showcased a mockup “future city” plan comprised of highways and skyscrapers at the popular planning convention. What the public didn’t know when they were viewing the model, was the auto industry had been lobbying to cut federal funding from public transit systems, and had bought up and dismantled many trolley lines. The New Yorkers weren’t viewing a proposal on an improvement they could decide on, they were viewing the fate of many great American neighborhoods.
Environmentalist Spencer R. Scott explains this in his Medium article, “A Grand Theft: Auto Industry Stole Our Streets and Our Future.” He quotes Peter Norton’s book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. “When there were no more streetcars to ride and cities were replanned around motor transportation, city people rode buses or bought cars. Mass preferences were relatively unimportant.” Norton’s claim denounces the narrative that citizens came to a consensus on allowing car infrastructure to burrow around their homes. This makes sense considering some of the devastating effects the auto industry has had on peoples livelihoods. One horrifying example of this comes from the 1949 Highway Plan, where neighborhoods inhabited mainly by racial minorities were demolished to make room for highways without their consent.
Thanks to the automotive industry’s past pressures on the local and federal government has, we are feeling their inefficiency every day we spend stuck in traffic. Nowadays, the governments general response to traffic seems to be widening lanes, under the false pretense that it will reduce congestion. However, it is becoming more apparent that over time, our roads are staying clogged up. New York Times author Eden Weingart explains this in her article, “Widening Highways Doesn’t Fix Traffic. So Why Do We Keep Doing It?” by breaking down an NBER study on traffic: “In a metropolitan area, when road capacity increases by 1 percent, the number of cars on the road after a few years also increases by 1 percent.” While it’s proven that widening highways can lead to short term drops in congestion, in the long run it becomes a cluttered mess again after people learn they can save time. These expansion projects are often marketed as an economic investment, which will bring prosperity to an area. However the only thing these projects ensure is a continued state of building and repairing.
As infrastructure grows exponentially, maintenance quickly grows faster. More areas need to be repaired more frequently, which is financed by constructing new highways. Similar to congestion, the economic motives behind constructing new highways provide short-term benefits, before quickly returning to the dangerous, chaotic state it was before. This leads to an industry focused on constantly growing and expanding, neglecting any need to challenge cars by reconfiguring any of our transport systems.
Limiting the expansion of our roads is a serious issue, as it leads to unnatural flooding, degradation in our water and soil. Paved roads water-resistant properties make them great for quickly drying after a storm. Their lack of permeability comes at a cost however, they prevent water from being absorbed into the soil. We should look at waters relationship with the Earth similar to how we look at our respiratory relationship with trees. Rainwater deposits chemicals in the soil, cleaning the water and feeding the soil. Roads prevent this from occurring, as well as contributing their own eroded asphalt, motor oil, or anything else that falls off cars to the soil and out waterways, causing many indirect impacts on human health.
Remember the neighborhoods from earlier that were destroyed for highway development? Well the neighborhoods that were spared from mass eviction were left with highways surrounding their homes, leading to asthma and lung cancer development for future generations, and has been criticized for environmental racism due to disproportionate health effects people of color feel to this day.
Despite these injustices towards human health and the environment, the American auto industry has managed to dodge paying reparations for those affected. Their political power in our government cannot be overlooked, as they have both physically and metaphorically burrowed into our nations functionality by ridding themselves of the responsibility decades in the past.
While it may seem like the auto industry has sealed out fate by taking control of our transportation, there are ways we can fight it. Some proposed solutions to fighting development, such as seeking federal funding for public transport, encouraging mixed-used development to make cities more walkable, or flexible bus routes. California recently canceled the expansion of Route 710, and are considering transitioning some of their freight lines to passenger rail. While cars will always be hanging around, are dependance on them doesn’t have to be.