Shifting Gears


It’s no secret that we Americans have spent the past half-century building our communities and our lives around the car, which gives us the freedom to go anywhere we want, whenever we want. Cars give us other things too: the safety and room to spread out in the suburbs; the social status signaled by the kind of car, truck, or SUV we drive. These advantages and aspirations have given rise to the car-dominated American landscape we see around us today.

It’s also no secret that this new landscape comes with significant costs. Growing traffic jams, pollution, the loss of prime farmland and open space to sprawl, weaker social ties, tacky strip-malls and endless big-box stores, the decline and isolation of the nation’s urban cores, the social marginalization of those who don’t drive—in particular, the very poor and the old.

As these costs have grown, so too has an awareness that our current car-centered habits are neither desirable nor sustainable, and that the time has come for a real shift in priorities. New political and economic circumstances make such a shift possible. Dramatic swings in gas prices over the past year and the probability of rising prices in the long-term future, an unprecedented crisis in the American automobile industry, and the prospect of massive infrastructure spending as part of government stimulus efforts—together these things provide an opportunity for fundamental changes in how we build, and move around in, our communities.

Our dependence on cars is not just an economic problem; it is also a moral problem. Transportation or zoning policies are not usually considered “values” issues, but they are. The values underlying our society’s addiction to the car should trouble anyone who believes in strong, vibrant, and inclusive communities, in care for the most vulnerable members of society, and in environmental stewardship. The culture of the car and the landscape it fosters promote the private realm of cocooned comfort—the personal automobile, the large suburban home, the fenced back yard, the gated development. It neglects and debases the public realm, turning it over to highways, parking lots, and endless stores whose monotonous drabness is covered by garish signs or fake façades.

Some insist that transportation is simply a matter of individual choices: if people drive a lot, that’s because they prefer to drive. And, of course, there is some truth to this. The attraction of suburban living and the convenience and flexibility of cars is undeniable, which is why suburbs and cars are not about to disappear. What this explanation misses, however, is the way our individual choices depend on the range of options we face and the incentives or disincentives attached to those options. The context in which we make choices is strongly shaped by public policies. The rise of the car and patterns of residential development were and continue to be driven by state, local, and federal policies that intentionally promoted driving and the kind of suburbs that driving makes possible. Such policies were not inevitable, and they are not irreversible. Different policies could still restore what has been damaged or lost.

Cars are by far the most subsidized form of transportation in the country. In addition to the public resources we devote to securing a fuel supply and to registering, licensing, and policing, cars aren’t usable without an enormous infrastructure of government-built roads and government-mandated parking. If most roads and parking seem “free” to drivers, it is only because public policy makes sure they will be there at enormous public expense. In the United States cars are a “sunk cost.”

Once we buy a car, the cost of each use is relatively small. And public policy has insured that the alternatives remain expensive, unattractive, or unavailable. Zoning requirements that separate and spread out most of the places we want to go make walking (the oldest, cheapest, and most reliable form of transportation) unrealistic. Same goes for biking. Except for a few notable exceptions, public transportation has been neglected or abandoned. By the 1950s, an alliance of car, oil, and tire companies had successfully (and illegally) bought and closed most of the nation’s trolley lines. Since then, political influence has insured that government support for cars massively exceeds that for trains, light rail, and bus lines. This has left public transportation far less convenient and reliable than it is in many other countries. And yet those who do use public transportation must pay more per ride than most drivers pay for each use of their cars.

It is time to move toward a much more mixed transportation infrastructure, one where the car plays an important but much smaller role. This means shifting subsidies away from roads and parking, and adopting policies that make drivers pay a higher percentage of the actual cost of driving. Such measures might include higher gasoline taxes, tying automobile registration rates to annual odometer readings, reducing the number and raising the cost for parking spaces, and charging fees for driving in certain urban zones, as London now does—and as the mayor of New York City recently tried to do. As the price people pay to drive comes closer to the true cost of driving, more people will turn to public transportation, which must, in turn, receive greater public support. Many countries around the world, as well as some communities in the United States such as Portland, Oregon, have developed well-integrated public transportation systems, combining bike and walking paths, trains, light rail, and buses. New initiatives such as dedicated bus and bike lanes, fare-free zones, and shared city-bike programs deserve much more support across the country.

For such shifts in transportation policy to work most effectively, we also need to reconsider the physical layout of our communities. In many parts of the country, zoning laws still mandate sprawl. They require new construction to be separated by function (homes and apartment complexes here, commercial strips over there) and linked by feeder roads. Because of such arrangements, populations are too dispersed to support effective mass transit. More traditional forms of city planning wove homes, rental units, shops, parks, restaurants, churches, schools, and civic buildings into an integrated fabric, on a scale suitable for walking or busing. Such planning usually paid as much attention to shared spaces—the design and layout of streets, plazas, and prominent public structures—as to the inside of buildings. This is how the most attractive and humane towns and cities in the country were built, in stark contrast to the suburban sprawl and monotony that have characterized the last half-century.

As the problems of sprawl-style zoning have become more apparent, architects and planners have begun turning back to older patterns for inspiration. Public policies have begun shifting as well, but not quickly enough. A return to mixed-use and higher-density zoning is urgent. Of course, many towns, city neighborhoods, and inner-ring suburbs survive as models of this kind of zoning. This is why planning should favor the protection and rehabilitation of existing infrastructures. As for new construction, developers should be encouraged to fill in the empty spots downtown before they build on the periphery of cities. And while outward growth is inevitable in many places, it too can aim for walkable mixed-use neighborhoods close to public-transportation corridors.

The car is not about to go away. Neither will the need to account for its use when we plan new construction. But making the car such a dominant part of our lives and our landscapes has done much harm to both. The time has come for a change in cultural priorities and public policies. As a country we are currently facing other very difficult political challenges. But some of these—notably in the interrelated areas of economic stimulus, infrastructure, transportation, energy, and environmental protection—present new opportunities. They give us a chance to develop much more sensible long-term approaches to city planning and public transportation. Together, old environmental concerns and new economic conditions may finally break our addiction to cars.

Published in the 2009-03-13 issue: 

David Carroll Cochran is Professor of Politics at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. His most recent books are Catholic Realism and the Abolition of War (Orbis) and The Catholic Church in Ireland Today (Rowman & Littlefield).

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