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Beyond the Car Culture?

David Callahan

Few trends in human history have been more environmentally destructive than the rise of America's car culture starting in the 20th century. Americans drive their cars more than people in any other country and drive less fuel-efficient cars. There are 808 cars in the United States for every 1000 people, a rate 50 percent higher than most European countries. And while America has about a quarter of the world's one billion cars, it emits 45 percent of the world's automotive carbon emissions.

All told, cars driven by Americans emit 10 percent of all global carbon dioxide emissions annually from fossil fuels, the leading source of greenhouse gases. Which means that American motorists are contributing more to climate change than, say, India, which has over a billion people.

Cars are environmentally destructive in other ways, too. As an article in Grist explains, each U.S. car "requires on average 0.18 acres of paved land for roads and parking space. For every five cars added to the U.S. fleet, an area the size of a football field is covered with asphalt." The United States now has 2.7 million miles of paved roads, and we are adding thousands more miles every year. At the height of the most recent boom, in 2007, one hundred thousand miles of new roads were built in the United States. Roads and parking lots -- so called "impervious surfaces" -- cover an estimated 43,000 square miles in the U.S., a land mass larger than 14 U.S. states and 140 countries.

Impervious surfaces tend to amplify solar heat and reduce the ability of acquifers to recharge -- negative effects that are amplifying climate change in places like Phoenix.

Given this fallout from America's love affair with cars, it was reassuring to read in the New York Times today that this affair may be cooling as young Americans become less car-obsessed. According to the article:

In 2008, 46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and drivers ages 21 to 30 drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 1995.

Forty-six percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car, according to the research firm Gartner.

Cars are still essential to drivers of all ages, and car cultures still endure in swaths of suburban and rural areas. But automobiles have fallen in the public estimation of younger people. In a survey of 3,000 consumers born from 1981 to 2000 — a generation marketers call “millennials”— Scratch asked which of 31 brands they preferred. Not one car brand ranked in the top 10, lagging far behind companies like Google and Nike.

Good news, indeed. Now what we need are public policies that support young Americans who aren't so keen about car culture. Such policies would include greater investments in transportation, with polls showing that more people would use this option if they had the choice, and more support for urban redevelopment, nurturing environments where people don't need cars to get around every day.

Alas, both kinds of policies are not very popular right now. Republicans in Congress have worked energetically to reduce funding for public transit and urban America has been losing influence in legislative chambers at both the national and state level for decades. 

But maybe here, as elsewhere, younger Americans will lead us into a new cultural moment and help legitimize a new set of spending priorities. The age of the car is not over by a long shot. But, finally, it shows some signs of waning here in the U.S. -- and that's good news for the planet.