Can Americans Break Their Dependency on Cars?

In two readings and discussion, students think critically about the connection between cars and climate change, and compare U.S. transportation systems with those of Europe, where people rely less on cars.  

To The Teacher:
Arguably, no nation on Earth is as car-crazed and car-dependent as the United States. Over the past century, the concept of the "private car" has been deeply woven into the economic and social fabric of American life. Our country's cities and suburbs developed in conjunction with widespread personal car use—often at the expense of other, more environmentally sustainable modes of transportation. 
In light of the global challenge of climate change, many have suggested that by reducing their dependency on private automobiles, Americans could decrease carbon emissions and minimize their environmental footprint.
This lesson consists of two readings, each designed to help students think critically about the connection between transportation and environmental sustainability. The first reading considers transportation and urban infrastructure as environmental issues. The second reading puts U.S. car ownership in the United States into a comparative global context: What can we learn from Europe, where people are less reliant on cars in their day-to-day lives? Can the U.S.  catch up? 
Questions for discussion follow each reading.

Reading 1: 

Transportation as an Environmental Issue

Arguably, no nation on Earth is as car-crazed and car-dependent as the United States. 
In light of the global challenge of climate change, many have suggested that by reducing their dependency on private automobiles, Americans could decrease carbon emissions and minimize their environmental footprint.
In the U.S. we own about one car for every two people. That means that the U.S. ranks 25th in car-ownership among the world’s 195 nations.  However, the U.S. ranks number one in gasoline consumption in the world.  We have bigger, less fuel efficient cars (and trucks) than other nations, and we drive more miles.  According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international organization that includes most of the world's advanced industrial nations, the average American car travels more miles every year and gets fewer miles per gallon than cars in any other country of the 30 nations that belong to the OECD. 
In the past two decades, major strides have been made in reducing the environmental impact of automobiles. Nevertheless, when it comes to emissions, cars remain a relatively "dirty" mode of transportation. As a statement by the Union of Concerned Scientists notes, a large portion of the United States' greenhouse gas emissions come from burning gasoline for transportation: 
Global warming endangers our health, jeopardizes our national security, and threatens other  basic human needs. Some impacts—such as record high temperatures, rising seas, and severe  flooding and droughts—are already increasingly common.
Our personal vehicles are a major cause of global warming. Collectively, cars and trucks  account for nearly one-fifth of all U.S. emissions, emitting around 24 pounds of carbon dioxide  and other global-warming gases for every gallon of gas. About 5 pounds comes from the  extraction, production, and delivery of the fuel, while the great bulk of heat-trapping emissions —more than 19 pounds per gallon—comes right out of a car’s tailpipe.
In total, the U.S. transportation sector—which includes planes, trains, ships, and freight— produces around thirty percent of all U.S. global warming emissions. That’s an order of  magnitude more than most countries.
As oil becomes more difficult to extract, burning gasoline will only become dirtier. Using less  oil is the real solution. 
Over the past century, the concept of the "private car" has been deeply woven into the economic and social fabric of American life. Our cities and suburbs were developed in conjunction with widespread personal car use—often at the expense of other, more environmentally sustainable modes of transportation. In a 2013 paper, University of California Berkeley Urban Planning professor Robert Cervero argued that we need to develop infrastructure that better accommodates greener modes of transportation if we’re going to reduce our fossil fuel dependency. He wrote:
The post-oil city of tomorrow will need to be one that allows people to easily get around  by foot, two-wheelers, buses, and trains. It is also recognized that  urban transportation systems  needs to be inclusive, providing mobility opportunities for all. In a car-dependent city, those  without access to a private vehicle - often the poor, physically disabled, youth, elderly, or those  forsaking car ownership out of choice - are unable to access opportunities and services. 
Many American cities are already making progress in providing and encouraging alternatives to private car ownership.
For Discussion: 
1.  How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
2.  Why do you think Americans drive so much?  Is this entirely a personal choice? Or are U.S. policies partly responsible? How?
3.  Why do you think Americans own less fuel efficient vehicles than people in other countries? Again, is this entirely personal choice, or are there also policies that help explain our gas guzzling cars?  
4.  Do you or your family rely on a car for your day-to-day transportation? What are some other modes of transportation you use frequently? Estimate what percentage of your weekly travel is done by each of these modes of transportation. 
5.  What do you think are the relative environmental impacts of each of the modes of transportation you use most frequently? 
6.  Would you be more likely to use greener modes of transportation if other alternatives were more available and affordable?  What might those alternatives be, and what would it take to make them attractive enough to use?

Reading 2: 

Can the United States Wean Itself From Cars? A Comparative Perspective

Europeans are much less reliant on cars for day-to-day transportation than are Americans. People there have a range of efficient and convenient alternatives. Political, economic, and social factors have all combined to produce the vastly divergent ways in which Americans and Europeans move from place to place. 
What can we learn from Europe? Is there anything we might do to catch up?  
America's transportation infrastructure lags severely behind that of Europe as a whole. Our rail system is an excellent example. An April 28, 2011 article in The Economist describes some of the problems with our rail system, based on a typical train trip from Washington, DC to Raleigh, North Carolina: 
Trains creep out of Washington's Union Station and pause at intervals, inexplicably, as they  travel through the northern Virginia suburbs. In the summer, high temperatures threaten to kink  the steel tracks, forcing trains to slow down even more. Riders may find themselves inching  along behind a lumbering freight train for miles at a time, until the route reaches a side track on  which the Amtrak train can pass. The trip takes six hours, well over twice as long as the  London-Paris journey, if there are no delays. And there often are.
America, despite its wealth and strength, often seems to be falling apart. American cities have  suffered a rash of recent infrastructure calamities, from the failure of the New Orleans levees to  the collapse of a highway bridge in Minneapolis, to a fatal crash on Washington, DC's  (generally impressive) metro system. But just as striking are the common shortcomings.  America's civil engineers routinely give its transport structures poor marks, rating roads, rails  and bridges as deficient or functionally obsolete. And according to a World Economic Forum  study America's infrastructure has got worse, by comparison with other countries, over the past  decade. In the WEF 2010 league table America now ranks 23rd for overall infrastructure  quality, between Spain and Chile. Its roads, railways, ports and air-transport infrastructure are  all judged mediocre against networks in northern Europe...
There is little relief for the weary traveler on America's rail system. The absence of true high- speed rail is a continuing embarrassment to the nation's rail enthusiasts. America's fastest and  most reliable line, the north-eastern corridor's Acela, averages a sluggish 70 miles per hour  between Washington and Boston. The French TGV from Paris to Lyon, by contrast, runs at an  average speed of 140mph. America's trains aren't just slow; they are late. Where European  passenger service is punctual around 90% of the time, American short-haul service achieves just  a 77% punctuality rating. Long-distance trains are even less reliable. 
How did Europe's transportation system come to be better maintained, more environmentally friendly, and less car-reliant than the U.S.’s system? In a February 7, 2014, article for Mother Jones, Virginia Tech urban affairs professor Ralph Buehler discussed several historical factors that help explain this phenomenon. He wrote:
Roughly 30 percent of daily trips are shorter than a mile on either side of the Atlantic. But of  those under one-mile trips, Americans drove almost 70 percent of the time, while Europeans  made 70 percent of their short trips by bicycle, foot, or public transportation.
The statistics don't reveal the sources of this disparity, but there are [several] reasons American  metro areas have ended up so much more car-dependent than cities in Western Europe.
Mass motorization. Mass motorization occurred earlier in the United States than in Europe,  mainly facilitated by assembly line production that brought down cost. By the mid-1930s there  was already one registered automobile for every two US households, while car ownership in  Europe was mostly limited to wealthy elites....
Vehicle taxes. Taxation of car ownership and use has traditionally been higher in Europe and  helped curb car travel demand. Today a gallon of gasoline is more than twice as expensive in  Europe than in the United States. Moreover, in Europe gas tax revenue typically contributes to  the general fund, meaning roadway expenditures compete with other government expenditures.  In many US states and at the federal level, large parts of the gas tax revenue are earmarked for  roadway construction, assuring a steady flow of non-competitive funds for roads....
Government subsidies. Over the last 40 years, gas taxes, tolls, and registration fees have  covered only about 60 or 70 percent of roadway expenditures across all levels of US  government. The remainder has been paid using property, income, and other taxes not related to  transportation. These subsidies for driving reduce its cost and increase driving demand in the  United States....
Technological focus. [In the United States,] responses to air pollution or  traffic safety consisted  of technological fixes—such as catalytic converters, reformulated  cleaner fuels, seat belts, and  air bags—that let people keep driving as usual. European countries implemented these  technological requirements as well, but also more aggressively reduced speed limits in entire  neighborhoods, created car free zones, reduced car parking, and implemented other policies  that encourage behavioral shifts.
Public transit. Sustained government support helped European transit systems to weather the  rise of the car more successfully. Particularly after World War II, privately owned US transit  systems increased fares, cut services, lost ridership, and either went out of business or were  saved by public ownership—with help from US governments often coming too late. For  instance, many cities saw their trolley systems disappear entirely in the 1950s and '60s....
Walking and cycling. Only a few US cities, such as Davis, California, have a tradition of  implementing pedestrian and bicyclist amenities since the 1970s. By contrast, many European  cities, led by Muenster, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen, have implemented entire networks of  bike lanes, separated cycle tracks, off-street bicycle paths, and traffic calmed neighborhood  streets—allowing easy travel by bicycle between any origin and destination in a city or region.  European cities also have a longer history of providing networks of sidewalks, crosswalks, and  car free zones in city centers....
Zoning laws. There are many differences between land-use planning systems in the United  States and Europe. Europeans tend to allow a greater mix of uses in their residential zones, thus  keeping trip distances shorter. For example, in Germany, a residential zone can include doctors'  offices, cafes, corner stores, or apartment buildings. By contrast, single family residential zones  in the United States typically forbid those uses.... 
If there is a sign of hope that our country might yet reduce its car dependency, it is that American attitudes (particularly those of young people) have shifted subtly away from a preference for car ownership. As Elisabeth Rosenthal reported in June 29, 2013 article for the New York Times:
America’s love affair with its vehicles seems to be cooling. When adjusted for population growth, the number of miles driven in the United States peaked in 2005 and dropped steadily thereafter, according to an analysis by Doug Short of Advisor Perspectives, an investment research company... Part of the explanation certainly lies in the recession, because cash-strapped Americans could not afford new cars, and the unemployed weren’t going to work anyway. But by many measures the decrease in driving preceded the downturn and appears to be persisting now that recovery is under way....
"Different things are converging which suggest that we are witnessing a long-term cultural shift," said Mimi Sheller, a sociology professor at Drexel University and director of its Mobilities Research and Policy Center. She cites various factors: the Internet makes  telecommuting possible and allows people to feel more connected without driving to meet friends. The renewal of center cities has made the suburbs less appealing and has drawn empty nesters back in. Likewise the rise in cellphones and car-pooling apps has facilitated more flexible commuting arrangements, including the evolution of shared van services for getting to work.
With all these changes, people who stopped car commuting as a result of the recession may find less reason to resume the habit.
On top of that, city, state and federal policies that for more than half a century encouraged suburbanization and car use — from mortgage lending to road building — are gradually being diluted or reversed....
New York’s new bike-sharing program and its skyrocketing bridge and tunnel tolls reflect those new priorities, as do a proliferation of car-sharing programs across the nation. 
With young people leading the way, the prospect of Americans turning to more environmentally sustainable modes of transportation seems more plausible than any time in the past century.
For Discussion: 
1.  How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
2.  What are some of the reasons that American cities are more car-dependent than European cities? 
3.  What can American cities and suburbs do to create greener and more sustainable systems of transportation?
4.  What are some of the travel challenges you face yourself? What do you think is responsible for these challenges?  What changes would you like to see to make travel easier and greener?
5.  Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times suggests that American attitudes about car ownership might be shifting. How important do you feel it is for you to own a car, now or in the future?