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6 Ways Car Dependency is Hurting Our People, Cities, and Planet

Car dependency is choking American cities, and we’re all feeling the effects of it.

Starting in the 1950s, American city planners and legislatures overhauled the entire nation away from walkability and public transportation to the automobile. Many still praise the car for the freedom it allows the driver, but at what cost? Here are 6 ways that the car is damaging the health of our cities, environment, and even our quality of life.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

17% of all American GHG emissions come from light-duty passenger vehicles, and that’s not even including trucks. The typical car releases 4.6 metric tons of CO2 every year, significantly contributing to climate change. Cars also produce other air pollutants that contribute to smog and poor air quality, which are linked to an array of health issues. 

Decreasing the number of cars on our roads will not only help make the environment cleaner but will also help improve the health of all those living in cities suffering from the resulting air pollution. 

GHG emissions can also be mitigated by switching to electric vehicles. EVs are not the perfect solution though, as the downsides to car dependency go beyond just environmental concerns. 


The Need for Parking


There are an estimated 2 billion parking spots in the United States, 7 for every car, so then why can we never seem to find parking? Cars promise us the freedom of mobility and access to any destination, but this is only true if we can find parking when we get there.

Urban sprawl and poor access to public transportation have made it so cars are the majority of America's primary mode of transportation. When everyone from the suburbs wants to drive downtown for dinner or on the weekends, there is hardly enough street parking to go around. 

Paradoxically, most American cities have minimum parking mandates codified in zoning laws, which in the past have led to the bulldozing of many American downtowns. This forces urban sprawl and makes cities hostile to pedestrians. Parking lots drain our cities of precious space, replacing productive real estate and open green spaces with economically dead swaths of concrete. 


Congestion and Traffic

What’s even worse than looking for parking is being stuck in traffic. The average American spent 99 hours in traffic before the COVID-19 pandemic. Idling in traffic means wasted time and wasted gas, in turn costing the driver and emitting GHGs. Exacerbating this issue is most cars are only being used by one person at a time. 

In 2022, the most delayed cities due to traffic were Chicago (155 hours), Boston (134 hours), and New York (117 hours). All of these hours are wasted because cars are inefficient when used on a mass scale. 

One city bus takes up approximately 360 sq. ft. of road space and can comfortably accommodate 50 passengers. If those 50 passengers were to each commute in their own car they would occupy over 4,500 sq. ft. of the road. Cities could reduce on-road congestion by providing alternatives to cars, getting people out of SOV (single occupancy vehicles), and onto modes with larger capacities like buses and rail.

Comparison showing how many cars are needed to transport the same amount of people as one bus

Noise Pollution

With highways and roads zigzagging through the nation, you can never be too distant from the sounds of loud engines and tires screeching on asphalt. Research has found that 80% of urban noise pollution comes from traffic.  

Sounds over 70 decibels are considered damaging to hearing, and highway traffic measures around 80 db even up to 50 feet away. Besides being generally disruptive by ruining concentration and interrupting conversations, long-term exposure to traffic noise has also been shown to raise stress levels, decrease sleep quality, and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and even type 2 diabetes. 

The majority of vehicular noise pollution is caused by loud combustion engines, with tires only becoming significant sources of noise at high speeds. Although not a perfect solution, EVs’ electric "engines" are, in contrast, almost silent at low speeds like in neighborhoods and downtowns. 

Cost of Ownership

Cars are undeniably expensive. Between applying for loans, down payments, financing costs, maintenance, insurance, and constantly filling up on gas, owning a personal vehicle is often unaffordable. The average cost of ownership has risen to over $1,000 a month, a sharp increase from last year’s $894. 

In the majority of American cities and towns, owning a car is essential for access to employment and education, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle for those unable to afford personal vehicles. 

Unaffordability and systematic discrimination lead to car-ownership inequity. African American households are statistically more likely to not own a car (18%) than their White counterparts (6%) 

The freedom that cars promise is only awarded to those who can afford them, leaving many behind. If a city wants to move everyone, relying on private cars has proven to not be the way.


Transit Deserts

A transit desert is a place where there is a gap between the supply and demand of transportation. This is often the result of suburban sprawl, poor public transportation access, and the increasing costs of car ownership. People in transit deserts find themselves comparatively immobile: with limited access to employment, education, healthcare, and other essential services. 

When cities plan transportation systems around cars and do not provide adequate functional public transportation, those who cannot afford cars are left behind in these transit deserts. Many of these areas are characterized by dangerous pedestrian infrastructure with little to no sidewalks, infrequent and unpredictable bus services, and low rates of car ownership. 

Research has found that people in transit deserts are disproportionately affected by poverty (19%) and are 21% more socially vulnerable than city averages. 

Reducing reliance on SOVs and investing in public transportation services in disadvantaged communities is one-way cities can combat this growing problem. It is the responsibility of cities to provide transportation solutions to their people, ensuring everyone has access to mobility along with the social and economic benefits it provides. 


Now What?

The United States’ dependence on cars might seem bleak, but some cities across the country are already taking measures to decrease car usage and promote other forms of transportation that are better for the environment and people. Advocating in your communities for investing in urbanist policies and public transportation along with limiting your car usage can help make our cities more liveable. Cities should promote people first, not the car. 

At Circuit, we bring 100% electric micro-transit solutions to communities to provide first and last-mile connections, decrease congestion, and improve transportation access in transit deserts. If you’re interested in learning more about creative transportation solutions to improve your community, reach out to the Circuit team today.

Circuit Team

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