116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
There is a famous quote attributable to Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia from 1998 to 2001 and 2016 to 2019 and a noted advocate for expanding bicycling and bus routes during his tenure as mayor: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transit.” But what does that actually mean? After all, cars are a status symbol, and vehicle ownership is negatively associated with poverty. Indeed, the freedom of movement provided by access to a car has been shown to drastically increase economic opportunity, to the point where household ownership of even just one car has been associated with a tripling of income. So what gives?
One place to begin looking in comparing cars to transit is to view both as wider systems, rather than solely as individual choices — transit as the network of routes and how integrated that is with the homes and commerce people go to and from, and cars not only as individual vehicles, but also the garages and highways and parking lots that are necessary for those vehicles to move around in.
The post-1945 suburban sprawl that folks in Eastern Iowa are well familiar with is expensive. A Canadian study has found that due to lessened efficiencies and greater distances for services such as emergency services, water pipes, roads, and waste removal, the cost per household in a suburban area is significantly more ($3,462) compared to an urban one ($1,416). Multiplied by thousands of households, plus faster growth on the outskirts of town rather than historic cores, one begins to wonder what spending for sprawl could have been allocated to if development was more compact. Perhaps toward parks, educational facilities, or repairing existing roads rather than constantly building out new ones? And yes, perhaps part of that surplus could be allocated toward a better regional public transit system as well; one that runs frequently at all hours of the day, in urban and rural areas alike.
Even with supports like a relatively low price of gasoline, the amount of driving Americans are required to do imposes a significant cost — even with average gasoline prices exceeding $6 per gallon in Sweden, the proportion annual income spent on gasoline in Sweden is about half (1.23%) compared to the U.S. (2.16%). The culprit for this phenomenon is threefold: with much less movement in the U.S. done by bicycling or transit, Americans simply drive so much that the advantage of cheaper gasoline is more than canceled out by sheer rate of consumption. The U.S. is also much more densely populated than Sweden, at 91 people per square mile on average compared to 60.
Add in factors such as insurance, licensing, parking, and maintenance, and at minimum the costs of car ownership over one’s lifetime has been estimated at around $400,000 for a moderately used compact car, along with $246,000 in estimated subsidies, including from those who do not drive. Again, the question must be raised if those funds could be better used elsewhere, and if funds allocated toward cars rather than other purposes has in effect denied us goods and services which would have better improved quality of life.
Car dependency in the United States also robs people of life entirely. Fatalities from traffic collisions have been significantly higher in the U.S. compared to Canada, the UK, Japan, and European Union since the 1990s, with the largest increase in recorded history happening this past year — up 10.5 percent to 42,915 in 2021. Traffic fatalities and health impacts from sedentary lifestyles, directly a result of our car-dependent transportation system, have been frequently identified as a significant component in excess mortality in the U.S., which can be seen in lower and declining life expectancies compared to comparably developed countries.
From this perspective, structuring life around catering to the car begins to look a lot less like “every man a king” and more so like a dystopia where the collective need for transportation has been abandoned by organizations with the scale of taking on such issues, such as the government. It leaves out everyone who cannot drive on their own, including those from more comfortable means — children, people with disabilities, the elderly, and more.
If it was commonplace in the U.S. for governments to invest in and build up alternatives to driving — such as public transit — to the point where it is more practical and convenient to walk, bike, or ride rather than drive, we would almost certainly be better off as a society. Rates of illness, injury, and death from traffic collisions and vehicle emissions would decrease. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation would also go down, especially of note given transportation’s position as the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.
It is true that a vast sum of resources is required to maintain a system where everyone can, or has to drive. But material abundance alone is not the only measure of development. By looking at metrics such as health, safety, accessibility, and the marginal benefit of each dollar spent, it becomes increasingly clear that a more developed society is one where the reign of the car is not absolute.
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