The private car is a defining feature of modern life. Our lives are built around the personal car, and as a result, there are few alternatives. It is nearly impossible to survive without a car in most of suburban and rural America. Even in cities, it can be a time-consuming hassle to navigate unreliable, patchwork bus systems. As a result, cars are far and away the dominant mode of transport.
This, of course, has repercussions. A car-based transportation system is incredibly inequitable to low-income Americans, as it forces most poor people to live in cities or spend a disproportionate share of income on cars. This mobility gap between poor and rich Americans creates an opportunity gap, as lacking access to a car also deprives poor Americans of access to jobs.
Our car-based system is also fundamentally unsustainable. Transportation recently passed electricity as the most carbon-emitting sector in the United States, and our cars are to blame. The most commonly proposed solution to this problem — mass adoption of electric vehicles — is blind to equity concerns. After all, most working class people cannot afford a Tesla, nor should they have to in order to have the freedom to move.
The common wisdom asserts that America developed this car addiction because there is an overwhelming demand for cars, because Americans love the freedom of the personal car and because Americans love the car culture. Sure, America has undoubtedly fallen in love with cars. But the idea that this is the basis of our addiction, that Americans decided to spontaneously adopt the car en masse, is fiction. America’s inequitable, unsustainable transportation system is the result of decades of intentional public policy.
There’s enough evidence for this claim to fill books, but I’ll sketch out the basics here. For almost a century, the federal government subsidized a specific type of housing, which, by coincidence, is reliant on cars. The federal government spent much of the 20th century heavily incentivizing middle-class whites to move to the suburbs with low-interest, long-term mortgages. Meanwhile, they confined black Americans to cities through redlining, blockbusting and racist standards for loans. The result of this policy effort is a United States in which most white people lived in sprawling suburbs which necessitate private cars to get around.
The effects of this racist and unsustainable housing policy could have been partially ameliorated had the federal government also invested in quality public transportation. But that was not on the agenda. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act, which set the United States on a long path of highway expansion and neglect of public transit. These highways were often built directly through low-income, black neighborhoods, decimating and further marginalizing these communities. Today, a vast majority of our transportation spending is still dedicated to maintaining and expanding roads, rather than public transit like rail and buses.
Again, this is a vastly simplified version with leaves out crucial aspects like single-use zoning, the General Motors streetcar conspiracy and state-wide decisions, but the fact remains: The United States’ federal government has been using public policy to promote cars and neglect mass transit for almost a century.
It’s a depressing history, but it’s also a history that can and should inform 21st century public policy. The government has the power to shape our transportation system. We should invest massively in dense, mixed-use, transit-oriented social housing. We should build high-speed rail lines to connect cities and regional rail lines to connect suburbs to city centers. We should revamp urban bus systems with dedicated streets, electric buses and expanded service.
We have the power to create a transit system that tackles the dual problems of climate change and inequality. If we don’t, we will continue down a path of climate catastrophe and further stratification of wealth.
Highways and racist suburbs are the past; public transit and dense, inclusionary social housing should be the future.
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Harry Zehner is the opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.