Ditching the Car, for Our Planet and Ourselves

In honor of Earth Day, the Mayors Innovation Project brings you this feature from our Senior Associate, Aaron Westling.

In hopes of cleaner air and fresher water, cities across the country are looking for ways to reduce pollution in their communities. Any public official truly invested in creating healthier and more sustainable communities must address the multi-ton elephants on the street… cars

Personal vehicle ownership in the US has historically been lauded as the pathway to the American dream, regardless of the consequences. Unfortunately, those consequences are vast, and disproportionately impact those in our communities who most often bear the brunt of bad policy. 

What’s the problem?

The transportation sector is the largest emitter of carbon dioxide (Co2) in the country, with motor vehicles contributing 83 percent of those emissions in 2019. While Co2 makes up the largest percentage of greenhouse gas emissions, it isn’t the only concerning byproduct of automobiles. Fine particles, which can become embedded deep in the lungs, are a major health concern and are produced by burning gasoline and diesel fuel and through the deterioration of brake pads and tires over time. Researchers studying exposure to one specific type of particulate matter, PM2.5, from on-road sources in California communities found that:

  • On average, Black Californians are exposed to 43 percent more, and Latino Californians 39 percent more, PM2.5 pollution than their white peers.
  • Compared to the state average, PM2.5 pollution is 10 percent higher in neighborhoods where California’s lowest-income households are located. 

This disproportionate impact exists because of our country’s history of racist land use decisions. For decades, “urban renewal” efforts resulted in highways being built directly through communities of color, displacing residents and exposing surrounding communities to devastating amounts of air pollution mostly produced not by those who live in the community, but drivers moving past their community as quickly as possible.

The same study in California found that households without a personal vehicle are exposed to higher levels of vehicle pollution than car owning households due to their location. A new study shows why this is so concerning; researchers have found that air pollution, including PM2.5 pollution, “…is an important independent risk factor for asthma exacerbations in children living in urban areas.” 

Well, soon all cars will be electric so it won’t matter, right?

Unfortunately, electric vehicles (EVs) won’t be the panacea for our car-induced woes. While the elimination of tailpipe emissions will have a significant and positive impact on direct air pollution, and we should continue to transition to more electric vehicles, EVs will still produce particulate matter from the wear and tear of brake pads and tires. More importantly, the negative externalities of our car-centric society reach far beyond just air pollution and greenhouse gas production and cannot be solved solely by a shift to EVs. 

First, EVs have their own environmental concerns. The demand for lithium, a necessary element in the development of EV batteries, is expected to be 40 times higher in 2050 than it is today. The mining of lithium is already leading to contamination, water scarcity and the exploitation of local communities in countries like Chile and Argentina. These issues will only continue to grow as the demand for lithium increases. 

Second, whether electric or not, cars require a ton of space. Surface parking lots cover more than 5 percent of urban land in the US, often occupying more land than housing. Between existing parking and common policies like parking minimums, a regulation that requires a predetermined amount of parking for a new development, we are setting aside a disproportionate amount of valuable land for the storage of personal vehicles. Is this the highest need and best use for this space? Considering cities across the country are grappling with a devastating housing shortage, probably not. 

Additionally, cars are expensive. According to AAA, “…the average yearly cost to own and operate a new vehicle in 2022 [was] $10,728, or $894 per month.” Fostering a system where car ownership is a requirement to access things like jobs and healthcare forces families to spend an exorbitant amount of money on transportation, disproportionately impacting the physical and financial health of low-income communities and communities of color. 

Finally, cars are dangerous. In 2021, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 42,915 people died in car crashes, a 10.5 percent year-over-year increase and the highest number since 2005. And again, it is not only the people inside cars being impacted. Estimates from the Governors Highway Safety Association show 7,485 pedestrians were struck and killed in 2021, the highest number in 40 years and one of the biggest single-year jumps in decades. These deaths and serious injuries disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities, lower-income neighborhoods, and older adults. 

Between pollution, financial burdens, and deadly crashes, cars are killing our cities and our neighbors at an alarming rate.  

So, what do we do? 

Like any other tool, there is a time and place for cars. Especially in rural communities, cars are a necessity for accessing schools, groceries, and healthcare, but there are ways that cities can reduce the need for cars and create safer, healthier communities. The aim is to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a measure of how many miles are being driven by the population during a given time frame. There are number of strategies to reduce VMT, including:

  • Providing reliable alternatives. Transit agencies around the country are facing declining ridership and revenues, a trend that will lead to reduced service and create a cycle difficult to emerge from. Sustainably funding public transit systems and creating well-designed, reliable routes allows more people to live their daily lives without owning a vehicle.
  • Changing our built environment. Motor vehicles are king in America because we build our world around them. From billion dollar highway expansions that don’t reduce traffic, to vast amounts of land dedicated to free parking, to relegating pedestrians and bicyclists to dangerous shoulders, our built environment is designed to move cars through our cities as quickly as possible. Investing in infrastructure that slows cars and makes space for alternative modes is one of the most important steps for all cities working to reduce VMT. 
  • Charging for the true cost of driving. The fact that it costs over $10,000 a year for a family to own and operate a new car is staggering, but that number doesn’t come close to accounting for the full cost that cars inflict on society. Aside from the obvious cost of building and maintaining roads, cars receive an astounding amount of hidden subsidies that include free and required parking, exempting large personal vehicles from emissions standards, tax breaks, sparse enforcement of traffic laws, embarrassingly low punishments for drivers who injure or kill pedestrians, and a federal gas tax that hasn’t been raised since 1993. And, even if you don’t own a car, you’re subsidizing everyone who does. Tony Dutzik of the Frontier Group notes that, “Governments spend more non-user tax dollars on highways than on transit, bicycling, walking and passenger rail travel, combined.”

In addition to removing these types of subsidies, cities can both decrease VMT and recoup some of the cost incurred from vehicle usage by directly charging drivers for using the roads. While traditional road tolling is fairly common in the United States, a strategy used in other parts of the world called congestion pricing is starting to emerge in domestic policy discussions. 

Congestion pricing involves charging drivers a higher rate to enter parts of a city at specified times. This model encourages travelers to shift their modes of transportation away from single occupant vehicles, ultimately cutting down the number of cars on the road, easing the need for highway widening, and reducing the amount of air pollution impacting surrounding neighborhoods. 

A study of congestion pricing in Milan showed the strategy significantly decreased both traffic and pollution. Of course, this type of plan could negatively impact lower income households if implemented without reliable alternatives or appropriate subsidies. Congestion pricing discussions (and arguments) are taking place in major US cities from coast to coast, including San Francisco and New York City.

America loves cars and that seems unlikely to change. But, to truly demonstrate care for the health of our cities and neighbors, we need to pursue ways to reduce reliance on personal vehicles and move toward cities focused on people, not cars. Mayors and other local leaders can advance this work by focusing on common-sense policies that support all people, regardless of travel mode, to ensure access to safe routes to school, work, and play.