Road to Nowhere:
The Automobile, Sprawl, and
the Illusory Suburban Dream
by Hank Dittmar
A few years ago our nation reached a dubious milestone: we now have more registered vehicles than licensed drivers! In fact, the number of vehicles is increasing at six times the rate of population growth. And were not just parking these cars in our driveways; were driving them.
Auto-oriented sprawl development has meant that for most Americans there is no choice but to drive. Distances between places have grown as our metropolitan areas have sprawled outChicago grew just 4 percent in population between 1970 and 1990 while developed area grew by 46 percent: Los Angeles grew by 45 percent in population and by a whopping 300 percent in developed land. This has meant that not only are trips longer (the average work trip grew in length by 36 percent over the past 20 years), but people are taking more trips (up over ten percent from 1990 to 1995). Total miles traveled by vehicle thus grew by over 40 percent between 1983 and 1990.
The impacts of all this driving are profound. By some estimates, one-third of the land in our cities is devoted to the automobile in the form of streets and parking lots. Over 43,000 Americans die each year from automobile accidents. Aggressive driving or road rage fills the news and the federal government estimates that aggressive driving is a factor in two-thirds of all accidents.
Auto-dependency has economic costs as well. The average cost of owning and operating a car is over $6,700 each year, and the average household would have to dedicate half a years income to buy the average new car. Transportation was the second highest component of household expenditures in 1994 at 19 percent of household spending, following housing at 31.8 percent. We spend more on driving than we do on health, education or food!
The environmental costs of auto-dependency and sprawl are also huge. Over one-third of carbon dioxide emissions in this country and 40% of nitrous oxide emissions come from the transportation sector. Transportation and the sprawl associated with new highways account for the loss of wetlands, habitat and farmland. Automobile byproducts including brake and tire particulates, air toxins, and road chemicals run off into groundwater and are increasingly acknowledged as a major source of both ground and surface water pollution.
How We Got Here
Beginning with the adoption of a model uniform zoning code by the Department of Commerce during the 1930s, a series of direct and indirect government actions paved the way for a new type of community organization that has dominated our development patterns in this century. This new development pattern was characterized by single use zoning which physically separated work activities, shopping, and living places from one another. Auto-oriented suburbs introduced new street patterns organized around cul de sacs extending from arterial streets and road design standards intended to allow cars to operate at high rates of speed in residential areas without pedestrian interference.
After World War II, a series of governmental decisions combined with the workings of the market to reorient our economy around new development. Manufacturing plants geared up for wartime shifted from weapons, tanks and jeeps to automobiles and household consumer products. People whod left the farm or the city to join the war effort settled in the West and Southwest, using VA loans to purchase new single family homes in new suburbs. By and large, these suburbs were located on cheap land rendered valuable by federally-financed infrastructure, particularly the Interstate Highway System. Many of these subsidy arrangements and financing structures continue to this day, only they are now so imbedded that we call them the working of the free market.
As a result, efforts to reduce auto use are swimming upstream. The 1980s saw a new explosion in suburban development fueled by savings and loan deregulation along outer beltways all over America. Throughout the latter part of the 1980s and 1990s, Americans drove more and farther than ever before. Vehicle miles traveled grew at over 4 percent a year from 1983 to 1990, for a total increase of over forty percent. The length of average auto commutes in urban areas grew by 25.6 percent from 1983 to 1990, according to the National Personal Transportation Survey.
At the same time cars have grown less efficient. Dramatic improvements in tailpipe emissions of criteria pollutants brought on by clean air regulations are being offset by increases in driving. As to gasoline consumption and carbon emissions (which are the main problem for global climate change), we are seeing dramatic declines in efficiency. The CAFE fleet mileage standards havent been changed since the Carter Administration, and indeed Congress has blocked the Clinton Administration from using its executive authority to set new efficiency standards through appropriation riders in each of the past several years. The car companies have exploited a loophole exempting light trucks and sport utility vehicles from these standards. Last year a majority of new cars sold to families fit into the light truck/SUV category.
If we hope to contain and even reduce the number of miles Americans drive alone each year, we must first acknowledge that the auto will remain the single dominant mode of travel into the future. The automobile is convenient, reliable and cheap. At the present time, most Americans do not have a choice not to drive for most of their trips. Walking or bicycling is difficult if streets lack sidewalks or if shopping, schools and libraries are inaccessible. Public transit is often not within reach, and when it is it often is more expensive than driving and less frequent than one would need. The cities and suburbs where most of us live are structured around the automobileour zoning codes, financing systems and tax laws encourage developers to build single family homes on large lots which are physically separated from daily activities.
Originally, these laws were meant to protect us from smelly factories, but now they separate us from a loaf of bread, from the hardware store and from the elementary school. A multifaceted approach to this problem is essentialan approach which seeks to give Americans a choice not to drive rather than an approach which seeks to punish us for driving. At the same time we need to build consciousness about the need for improved efficiency and Detroit must be required to offer more fuel efficient vehicles at every part of the automotive fleet. Of course, most Americans will choose a comfortable sport utility vehicle over a tiny Geo Metro, but why cant we also have efficient sport utility vehicles?
In large part, this effort to reduce driving is also an effort to restore communities wed like to live and share in rather than transient places in which we build equity. Creating livable, walkable communities where transit is an option can increase our access to opportunities and amenities, serving a variety of ends.
When I was growing up, getting a drivers license and access to the family car meant freedom and getting out of the house. Some part of me still carries that association, but the larger part associates driving with traffic jams, nonproductive time, and expense. More and more, we have nowhere to go in our cars. If we surrender our towns, countryside and cities to the c ar, we will also be surrendering many other values that we hold dear: neighborhood life, a sense of history and place, a feeling of belonging somewhere.
Hank Dittmar is the former Executive Director of the Surface Transportation Policy Project. He now serves as Director of the STPP's new Transportation Quality of Life
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