Unlike some, I’m not a car abolitionist. I think the car is in some ways a wonderful invention that allows millions of people – especially outside of dense urban areas – to get to jobs, see friends and family, and do all kinds of things that they probably couldn’t reliably do otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t many serious problems with the use and overuse of the automobile. From global warming and air pollution caused by the burning of dirty fossil fuels (which is why we need to electrify transportation as we clean up the power grid), to all kinds of social and health issues (people being out of shape because they don’t move enough, deaths and injuries from accidents, wasted time in traffic, etc).
While there are some encouraging signs that we might be living through peak car, other data shows that it might only be a slowdown. If we don’t make big changes to our infrastructure and urban planning, even the millennials who currently care more about smartphones than cars will get older, get jobs, have kids, and may realize that it’s hard to do what they want to do without driving…
Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0
A recent report by the Department of Transportation found that U.S. driving topped 1.54 trillion miles in the first half of 2015, beating the previous record – 1.5 trillion, set in June 2007. “According to FHWA’s Traffic Volume Trends report, the nation’s driving has increased for 16 months in a row,” says the DOT.
The Washington Post also writes:
The United States is choking on its traffic, with the average driver losing 42 hours a year in the bumper-to-bumper grind and a drain on the economy costing $160 billion, according to a new report.
The report to be released Wednesday shows that traffic delays in most parts of the country have bounced back to pre-recession levels. That undermines the hope that three trends — telecommuting, the movement of people back to cities and a decline in millennials seeking driver’s licenses — might provide an antidote to congestion.
And with the U.S. population projected to grow by 70 million in the next three decades, there is little chance that the transportation network can keep pace with that growth or alleviate the current crush. In other words, it’s going to get worse.
This is definitely worrying, and if we don’t want things to get worse we need to accelerate the pace of change. The good news is that more and more cities are starting to get it and build more bike lanes, close certain areas to cars or add traffic-calming measures, new bike shares are popping up and old ones are adding stations and bikes, there are some investments in mass-transit (and efforts at modernization, like smartphone apps with GPS tracking of buses and trains), etc.
NYCDOT/CC BY 2.0
But we need more, faster, and over a broader area. Suburbs and rural areas also need to be made less dependent on the individual car, and that’s a huge challenge.
I think the most realistic scenario is not that everyone, everywhere, including rural Montana, will just bike everywhere in all seasons, but rather that denser urban areas will adopt best practices from cities that have already shown that it can be dome (Copenhagen, Amsterdam). There will be a lot of walkable neighborhoods, biking, and quality mass-transit. Elsewhere, there will still be a lot of cars, so they will have to be electric and powered by clean energy. Studies show that the life-cycle impact of cars comes 80%+ from the fuel that they burn, so if vehicles can be made much more efficient and run on clean energy, this is a dramatic improvement.