The automobile changed America and the world. Modern life is unthinkable without the car. But we are approaching a world of too many cars, and we must change our thinking to avoid disaster.
That disaster has already happened in China. Motor vehicles are the major cause of the deadly air pollution in Beijing and other cities. Car sales there have grown 37% over the past three years. That’s just a start, since China’s population is 4 times as large as ours, but only 20% more cars were sold.
We have already faced the threat of automobile air pollution in America. Smog began to plague the Los Angeles basin in the 1940s. The Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act of 1965 set the first federal vehicle emissions standards, which have become steadily more stringent since then.
But transportation still contributes more than half of the pollutants in our air every year, and in many cities, personal cars are the biggest source of pollution. Yet Americans are buying more and more cars, because they remain an efficient response to existing infrastructure. As more cars jam into our growing cities and suburbs, that infrastructure breaks down: parking becomes impossible, roads are clogged for hours, bridges deteriorate.
Even the open road is falling apart. The Government Accounting Office said already in 1981 that the highway system was rapidly crumbling. Now about 20% of major US highways are “in poor or mediocre condition”, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. Deteriorating highways and insufficient funding to fix them create major problems in Wyoming, Maryland, California, and Texas. In its most recent national "report card," the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America's infrastructure a grade of D+.
Across the world, urban travel is already being reinvented. Bike-sharing programs began in Europe in 1965, but did not start in the US until the 1990s. China has the world’s largest systems, 66,000 bikes in Hangzhou and 90,000 in Wuhan. Despite our size, the US ranks eighth in number of bicycles available, behind most of Western Europe. We barely have more bicycles than tiny Belgium or Denmark. These systems work best when integrated into the larger public transport system, allowing people to get on a bike for the “last mile” of a trip.
Some cities are creating car-free zones. Substituting walking or bike-riding for driving can increase a population’s physical health. Pedestrian zones have been developed in many urban areas across the world, but again the US lags far behind. European towns and cities began making part of their centers car-free in the 1960s, while American cities don’t currently go beyond small pedestrian malls.
Change is coming here, though. Seattle is considering creating pedestrian zones in 37 neighborhoods, and Portland has had a pedestrian master plan since 1998.
In Los Angeles, where car culture first became king, planners and politicians are thinking about a different future. Senior city planner Claire Bowin thinks that cities should no longer be designed around cars. She is one of the authors of “Mobility Plan 2035”, which proposes “complete streets” open for walkers, cyclists, and cars, increasing public transportation and reducing harmful emissions. Many urban rail projects are underway, stretching the network into neighboring cities. Soon it will be possible to reach LA airport by train. Streets will be reconfigured to increase bike lanes, while bike-sharing programs make them more accessible for tourists and natives.
A new half-cent sales tax, Measure R, funds LA County’s increasing mass transit. It was advertised to “improve the environment by getting more Angelenos out of their cars and into the region's growing subway, light rail, and bus services.” Over two-thirds of voters approved the idea in 2008. Another proposition, Measure J in 2012, barely failed to reach the two-thirds of votes needed to pass. Downtown LA property owners have agreed to pay part of higher property taxes to fund a new streetcar linking the most popular cultural sites. They foresee increased revenue from easier travel.
What will the future of transportation be life? If actually driving a car becomes obsolete, it is possible that traffic will move much more smoothly, eliminating jams, like the ones caused by rubbernecking at accidents on the other side of the road. There won’t be any more accidents, and the technological minds driving the cars will never be drunk or distracted.
But some experts predict that there will be many fewer personal cars, as their costs rise out of the range of the average consumer. Most people will get from here to there using mega-fleets of public vehicles, while the rich are ferried around by robots.
Movement away from transport by private automobiles, often carrying only a driver, to efficient, non-polluting, affordable public systems serving redesigned, more livable cities means a shift toward public oversight and public financing. That means ideological struggles between left and right, while transport gets increasingly clogged. If we can’t get our leaders to think beyond the next election, our economic future will get stuck in traffic.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 1, 2016