Does anyone ever feel like a salmon swimming upstream against the swift current of the automobile? I know I do, and I have a feeling that I am not the only one. In the United States, our transportation system has left those of us that want more options beyond the automobile high and dry. It has been more than 100 years since the first cars were sold in the US, and the automobile is still king.
Despite the dominance of the automobile, alternatives and multimodal infrastructure have gained some ground in certain cities and areas. For example, many cities are adopting complete streets policies; cities like Portland have allocated substantial expenditure to improve bicycle infrastructure and safety; and cities like Phoenix, Charlotte, and Denver have implemented light rail systems to ease congestion and improve connectivity. But while these efforts are a step in the right direction, they are a band-aid for the bullet wound that is our transportation system.
The fundamental problem that must be addressed is our approach and ethos about our transportation system and the automobile. Policymakers, and many in the general public, have trouble envisioning a system in which the automobile is not the overwhelming and dominant mode of transportation. It is true that, for better or for worse, the automobile is probably here to stay, at least for a while, and because of this it is vital that we identify ways to make it more environmentally benign. But just because the car is here to stay, does not mean that it should receive the supreme and preferential treatment that is the status quo.
Recently there was an insightful article in the New York Times about the difference in transportation planning and approach between Europe and the United States. The article highlighted that Europeans have taken the approach of making car use less convenient and more difficult in order to discourage driving and, as a result, curb vehicle miles traveled and congestion. This approach illustrates the transportation dichotomy between the US and Europe – the first wants to make driving easier and more convenient while reducing its negative impacts, while the second wants to make it irritating and inconvenient with the goal of, in many cases, making the car a secondary mode of transportation.
Europeans understand and acknowledge that road space is a limited good and that to achieve economic efficiency, levels of road “consumption,” especially during peak periods, must be limited. They also seem to better understand the negative externalities or social costs that driving produces; and so they recognize that by getting in one’s car, an individual is not just affecting themselves but affecting society as a whole by their contributions to pollution, congestion, increased traffic accidents, et cetera. This understanding is not widely present in the US, nor popular.
In the United States, driving is seen as a right that individuals should be able to exercise whenever they choose; the effects of this personal choice on others are generally unrecognized. Now, this sentiment in itself is fine, but what should be acknowledged is that those individuals that choose to drive their cars, especially during peak hours, need to pay for the limited resource that is road space and absorb some of the costs that society presently bears from their driving.
Superficial and false solutions, such flex fuel vehicles or more highway capacity, will not adequately address our transportation problems like pollution, congestion, accident rates, lost time, et cetera. Until the United States undergoes a serious paradigm shift and begins holding automobiles more accountable for their actions, we will continue to have a transportation system that is environmentally destructive, damaging to public health, inefficient, and exclusionary. Ultimately, we need to make the automobile work for us not the other way around, and we would be wise to heed the example that Europe provides.
The Sierra Club’s State Transportation Committee continues to look for committee members. If interested, please contact Ben Wickizer — email@example.com or 614-461-0734 ext.316