The problems with a car-centric America

Stanley Wang ’23 is involved with rowing, Greater City and Citizens Climate Lobby. Email Stanley at

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.

Every time a mass shooting happens in America, it reignites a national conversation on the “right amount of gun control” be it permits, bans, licensures, education, background checks or nothing at all. In this conversation, an analogy is often made to the situation with cars: cars are similarly dangerous tools used daily in American life whose operation requires obtaining licensure. Others argue that cars are more immediately necessary to the American lifestyle, so their licensing requirement implies a need for even more extreme limitations on guns. I ask: where is the furor over the necessity of cars? 

If the high rates of gun deaths signal something needing to be changed, do know that America also leads the OECD for road deaths by far in 2020, we tripled the rate of second place Canada. You are, in fact, almost twice as likely to die in a car accident than by any form of homicide. 

If what concerns you about gun control is the possibility of being in a mass shooting and the entailed lack of control, know that America is also a leader in pedestrian deaths. This time, we beat second place Ukraine by nearly fivefold (and Canada by a factor of twenty). If we converged to the OECD average, that would represent over 18,000 lives saved per year

The reason for this disparity lies indubitably with our reliance on cars you are more likely to die in a collision when you are colliding with a two-ton object. 

Perhaps these deaths have not caught the national imagination because accidental deaths are not quite so heinous as those from murder. However, if deaths by accident are less heinous because they are a function of random chance instead of intent, are we not then more to blame for perpetuating the system making accidental death a certainty? 

Defense of this car-centric infrastructure typically varies between the lines of free choice, enjoyment and its importance to the American identity. These are oversimplified arguments, however, and car-centrism is, in fact, incompatible with American values. 

It is hard, for example, to imagine a low-income family choosing to spend a fifth of their income on transportation or for their enjoyment of being stuck in traffic. This is a choice made for them by the paucity of alternatives in a system that requires cars or else claims their ability to work. Neither is this eventuality the result of households’ free choices. This is a system designed and built along government policy lines and the repeated decision to invest in boulevards, not buses. 

Neither is it that only low-income households spend so much for basic transportation. Factoring in the purchase cost, insurance costs, maintenance, gas and licensure, the average American spends about $9,000 a year on car ownership. This is over a fifth of the median individual income of about $42,000. Again, it is hard to justify expenditures of such magnitude on the sheer joy of driving alone. Instead, these are costs reflecting the necessity of cars in a system designed only for cars. When you need one to buy food or get to work, there is no other choice. In a world where cars are the only reliable way to get around, these costs represent a tax for getting daily deeds done. 

This, of course, has mammoth implications for social mobility. Those who cannot afford a car and its upkeep are denied access to job opportunities, medical care and grocery and retail choice. This harms not only the standard of living for the less fortunate, but also their ability to better their lives. If we value merit and one’s ability to better oneself, alternatives are a necessity. Cheap public transportation would mean an easier climb for the average American and more disposable income for his unluckier cousins to spend on food, clothing and shelter. 

It is not just the wallets of American households that suffer either. Costs of construction and upkeep hamper city budgets and restrict the services they can afford to provide. This is especially so because the weight of cars means roads break down particularly quickly and require constant and expensive resurfacing.  

At the state and local level, highway construction and maintenance expenditures alone total about $200 billion. This is the fifth-largest source of expenditures and nearly four times what we spend on housing and community development. Excluding the recently signed $500 billion infrastructure bill, the federal government typically spends on the order of $150 billion in direct expenditures and transfer payments, of which over 40% goes to funding highways. The Netherlands, meanwhile, spends about $5 billion annually on all infrastructure. Extrapolating expenditure per capita, that equates to about half of what our state and local governments spend on car infrastructure alone.  

These costs come back to us in the form of higher taxes. That is, maintaining the system that works so poorly requires additional money out of your paycheck. Alternatively, these higher costs represent fewer and lower quality government services: less affordable housing, fewer parks, poorer maintained libraries. The societal toll is ceaseless. 

Despite this, it appears most Americans are oblivious. If we are to stay a democratic and meritocratic society, though, this is a pressing issue we cannot let escape our attention. The first step, then, must be to question the role cars and roads should play in our future, to ask: if it is part of the American identity, why? The responsibility of beginning this dialogue, I turn over to you.


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