A century has passed since the automobile became the most used mode of transportation in the U.S. Now, in the crazy year of 2020, it’s time to rethink the importance we place on this mode of transport and how it will affect the future of transport As we look at this unique window of opportunity to reduce traffic, it’s time to examine the role of cars in the coming years.
The evolution of transportation peaked at the end of the 19th century with the design and production of the first automobile in Germany. The U.S. quickly followed and began opening automotive factories, with General Motors and Ford in Michigan quickly becoming household names. In just a few decades, the vehicle became so popular in the U.S. that the country achieved the status of global leader in automotive manufacturing. In fact, from 1900 to 1915, the number of automobiles in the U.S. increased by 198% as the total went from about 8,000 to roughly 2 million. The next major chapter saw the government’s increased investment in road infrastructure, supporting the growth of new streets and highway systems, indirectly supporting car use. With road infrastructure taking the lion’s share of the transportation budgets, less funding was going into the public transit system, unintentionally discouraging its use and driving an increase towards road congestion. Because of this, driving gradually became the most comfortable way of commuting and things are not much different today. It’s scary to think that one-third of all the land in the city of Los Angeles is now paved for automobile traffic. Today, driving is considered an essential part of the everyday commute. Research shows that 86 percent of Americans use their personal vehicle for their commute, a number that has remained virtually unchanged since 2006, which only confirms the automobile’s strong position in modern society. What did change, however, is the recent use of public transit (from 5 percent in 2016 to 10 percent in 2019) and bicycles (from under 1 percent in 2016 to 5 percent in 2019).
But what goes up must come down, we are now experiencing another pivotal moment for cars. The current rate of use is not sustainable for our infrastructure, or our planet, and the pandemic has only been a catalyst for the shift it has produced in everyday life, which has led to a major change in the way we see driving. Since commuting still lags behind pre-pandemic levels, it’s hard to tell how things actually stand, but many predictions are being made. One of the predictions that comes up most often is that traffic in major cities is about to get worse, highlighted by mobility expert David Zipper, people are (and will continue to be) afraid to use public transport because of possible contamination. In exchange, they will turn to cars yet again to get to work, take the kids to school and reduce their exposure.
Work-from-home policies also produced shifts in the way people think of cars. If workers don’t have to go to the office (regularly) anymore, they don’t need to live in the city. Not even in the suburbs. This is how Xoom towns became a reality. In these areas, government funding for public transit is deficient or absent and so is the focus or interest of mobility start-ups in providing alternatives here. People living further from a major urban core will most likely use the car whenever they want to go shopping or dine out at a hip place because they lack other options. However, this might not be such a powerful trend if we look at things from a long-term perspective. Urbanists and architects have already started planning urban core-type of developments in suburban environments, away from the bustling city life, responding to the needs of those who have decided to move in order to enjoy more comfort. We are even seeing neighborhoods crop up where car ownership is discouraged altogether such as Culdesac Tempe, being built in Tempe, Ariz. Placemaking has been a trend for a while now and it ensures urban-type facilities close to suburban homes. This reduces the need to drive to the city.
The Health Factor
It’s glaringly obvious that car use is bad for the planet and gas emissions being a significant source of pollution, but what about the health issues it can cause us as passengers.. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. To put that in perspective, a mature tree can only process 48 pounds a year, that’s 220 trees to process the carbon emission produced by just one car. Considering there are roughly 274 million vehicles in the U.S., according to Statista, the numbers are staggering. In addition to carbon dioxide, traffic is also responsible for the release of methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere, which affect air quality more than carbon dioxide.
The effects of traffic congestion on human health stretch far beyond lung issues and breathing problems. It seems that dealing with heavy traffic on a daily basis impacts an individual’s mental health, as one would expect, with commuting adding an additional hour or two onto either side of the work day. A 2004 analysis shows that the unpredictability of traffic and the feeling of helplessness participants get because of it cause more symptoms of depression. A more recent study revealed that “traffic triggered stress and anxiety, reduced people’s tolerance thresholds, triggered family squabbles, and increased annoyance and boredom.”
However, personal vehicles are now regarded as a way to stay safe and healthy by avoiding human interaction in public transport modes. We see a similar pattern here. It’s a matter of short-term benefits versus the broader perspective—it might be easier to get to work by car, but how will this impact the environment and public health in the long run? Similar behaviors were seen after 9/11, when people chose driving instead of flying, and during World War II when the rationing of gasoline determined people to choose public transport or carpooling instead of their personal automobile, as Zipper points out.
The Future Is Now
The rise of micromobility apps and increased access to bicycles, scooters or even good old walking instead of driving is a major catalyst for change. Even though it will be hard to convince all 86 percent of commuters who choose driving that the alternative ways to get around are better for their physical and mental health as well as the planet, it is definitely worth trying. In fact, making these (right) choices is a major step in making sure we have a future after all (Hi there, global warming!). Keeping the bigger picture in mind when making these decisions is essential even during these trying times. Using new and developing technology to help make choices is the advantage of living in a digital world. By using applications, such as Float, will provide data that will help cities build the necessary infrastructure to encourage environmentally friendly transport methods. Better sidewalks, bike lanes and clear regulation on riding scooters will all increase the popularity of greener alternatives.
So, is it time to topple the car monopoly? The answer is “yes.” There is no better time than now, even if the pandemic might make this seem counter intuitive. Future traffic congestions, expected to be worse than those we are familiar with, might lead to a gradual but faster pickup in public transportation ridership. Paired with public and individual efforts making green ways of getting around more desirable and easier to use, this just might be the best time to abandon cars. Or at least the best shot we’ve got to try.