Cars Are The Cancer of America

It’s time for America to fix the loud and dirty mistakes of its past and invest in cities, with national infrastructure as its priority, not cars.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Emily Young-Squire

Cars are dirty. And loud. Like really dirty and loud. From noise pollution to the emission of greenhouse gasses to the destruction of our cities, cars are major contributors to many of the problems that America faces. Yet year after year,  cities build more car-dependent infrastructure, exacerbating existing issues. It’s time for America to fix the loud and dirty mistakes of its past and invest in cities with national infrastructure as its priority, not cars.

We all learn that cars emit carbon dioxide, yet they also emit a plethora of other lesser-known pollutants. High-temperature combustion within the engine of an automobile emits nitrous oxides and particulate matter. The seas of asphalt called parking lots sit empty for significant portions of time and are often overbuilt, while asphalt production emits large quantities of greenhouse gasses. Nitrous oxide often forms photochemical smog, which irritates the eyes and lungs. But if you live in a car-infected urban sprawl wasteland known as Los Angeles, you already know that. Likewise, cars create significant noise pollution. When you walk outside in any city, especially in America, one of the few things one can hear is the overpowering noise from cars. Long-term exposure to loud urban environments created by cars contributes to higher stress levels in hundreds of millions of people and contributes to higher risks of heart disease. Many people seek vacations in nature for an escape from city life, but what they’re really seeking is an escape from the landscape of loud, polluting automobiles taking over the urban landscape.

During the 1940s and 1950s, America became addicted to the automobile. Between million-dollar exhibits at the World’s fair to daily newspaper advertisements, the American dream shifted towards single-family detached houses and a new Cadillac in every driveway. Public transport went from being central to every neighborhood to being underfunded and, at best, an afterthought. The government began to create laws that promoted car dependency, such as criminalizing jaywalking. Our streets used to look far different, void of zebra crossings and with people crossing the street anywhere and at any time they pleased. However, those same automotive groups lobbied and bribed state legislatures into making jaywalking illegal, which was one of the first steps in the promotion of car dependency. The criminalization of simply walking is a clear representation of the systemic movement toward a car-dependent America.

Another part of the move to car dependency was the construction of mass highway projects at the expense of underprivileged communities. During and after the Jim Crow era, racist politicians pushed for highway projects to cut straight through black and impoverished neighborhoods. For example, the Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95) once had thousands of homes in its path, and when the people in these homes protested its imminent construction, those critics were effectively silenced, and their homes were bulldozed and displaced. Not only did these projects destroy communities, but highways have also been proven to significantly increase the risk of asthma for the communities that live around and even under the highway, further demonstrating the negative impact cars have had on America’s underprivileged communities.

Many of today’s social issues are caused by car dependency. Living anywhere outside of the few places in America with (mediocre) transit, one must spend at least $5000 a year on a car. For most households, this totals about 10 grand a year. Personally, I would prefer to not spend a significant portion of my income on a two-ton machine just to worry about the price of gas and give little children asthma when I travel to the grocery store. The vast majority of neighborhoods in the U.S. are rural or suburban and thus do not allow choices for mobility besides cars. We promote infrastructure that limits our transportation options and cuts out a significant portion of our paychecks, which is against the original American values and freedoms we try to preserve.

Compared to the rest of the world, American cities are laughing-stocks. A major issue with fixing our cities are zoning laws. Much of our land is “zoned” for bland single-family housing or low-rise development, which are not dense or commercially productive. When there is significant demand for mixed-use development, it’s illegal to build anything else. Our terrible zoning laws are accompanied with huge parking lot minimums. In Los Angeles and other car-dependent cities, parking occupies more land than housing itself, making it no wonder we have a housing crisis. While it’s common to see parking maximums in other parts of the world, like Europe and Asia, common North American guidelines end up forcing buildings to allocate land for parking lots of three to four times the size of the building itself. Generally, the working class of America wants more efficient land use and mixed-use development, which should ease up the deadly grasp of our self-imposed housing crisis spurred by the addiction to the automobile.

While cars are currently the vehicle of choice in our status quo, the lack of effective public transport only worsens this problem. Most American cities have little to no rapid transit. For example, Arlington, Texas, a sprawling suburban city with a population of over 400,000 people, doesn’t have any transit at all. In more developed countries, there are cities with 200,000 people that have full tram networks. Many of the counties that do have some transit often have poorly run bus services with infrequent service (usually 30-minute headways), underreaching routes, and a terrible rider experience. The terrible experience of riding the little transit that America does have only perpetuates this problem further. Instead of mediocre bus networks, expensive underutilized subway projects, or nothing at all, America could have cities with less traffic and pollution, quicker commute times, and more economically productive neighborhoods.

We have a long journey (not road) ahead to make our cities desirable, healthy, and more connected. The United States and all of North America need to enact significant changes to our transportation network and ways of life. Public transport, when built properly, is not only much cheaper than building endless sprawl of infrastructure, but also it is orders of magnitude superior, both in terms of moving capacity and sustainability. Urgent investment and repair are needed for our current public transportation, including the expansion and creation of new networks that are effective at moving people to destinations they actually want to go. Improving and developing public transportation to the level of Europe and Asia (or beyond) will see the end of our lives being filled with: driving, greenhouse gas emissions, noise pollution, dangerous commuting, sitting in traffic for hours, forcibly spending our money, and wasting our land by paving it with endless seas of asphalt. Cars are a dirty, loud mistake of our past, but it’s time for us to be loud and reverse car dependency.