What Will It Take for the U.S. to Kick the Car Habit?

Government played a big role in creating the car-centric United States that exists today. Climate change requires that government take the lead in reducing automobile dominance.

Read Time: 2 minutes

September 14, 2021, 7:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


cleanfotos / Shutterstock

An article by Gabby Birenbaum poses the question in the headline, first summarizing the pressing need for Americans to drive less.

Data from the EPA shows that the transportation sector is actually the biggest source of pollution in the US, and that light-duty vehicles (or passenger cars) are responsible for 58 percent of those emissions.

Residents in the most urban areas, which theoretically should reduce per capita emissions by delivering the benefits of density: alternatives to automobile transportation and proximity to jobs. "According to a 2021 study published in Frontiers, Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles have some of the highest per-capita emissions totals in the world," according to Birenbaum. "The study broke down cities’ emissions based on sector, using the most recently available data (from 2009 and 2010), and found a large portion of those emissions come from transportation."

Breaking the habit of driving to reduce carbon emissions is hard—despite the pressing need—because so many U.S. cities are built for driving. "Biking and walking are often not options, and public transit, where it exists, does not typically serve trips that do not involve going from a city’s outskirts to its downtown or back," writes Birenbaum.

Despite the depth and breadth of the challenge, Birenbaum focuses on the potential for local authorities to "create a safer, more democratized transportation ecosystem" and provide a significantly positive contribution to the effort to reduce carbon emissions. The prescriptions offered by Birenbaum, with more detail provided in the source article are: 1) Make streets safer for bikes and pedestrians, 2) end single family zoning to encourage mixed-use development, and 3) make drivers pay the cost of driving.

Notably, these prescriptions are seemingly diametrically opposed to the housing preferences of the majority of Americans according to the results of a post-pandemic survey by the Pew Research Center published earlier in the summer of 2021.

Sunday, September 12, 2021 in Vox

Chicago Commute

The Right to Mobility

As we consider how to decarbonize transportation, preserving mobility, especially for lower- and middle-income people, must be a priority.

January 26, 2023 - Angie Schmitt

Sharrow bike markings on black asphalt two-lane road with snowy trees

Early Sharrow Booster: ‘I Was Wrong’

The lane marking was meant to raise awareness and instill shared respect among drivers and cyclists. But their inefficiency has led supporters to denounce sharrows, pushing instead for more robust bike infrastructure that truly protects riders.

January 26, 2023 - Streetsblog USA

View of stone-paved street with pedestrians and "Farmers Market" neon sign on left and old buildings on right in Seattle, Washington

Push and Pull: The Link Between Walkability and Affordability

The increased demand for walkable urban spaces could make them more and more exclusionary if cities don’t pursue policies to limit displacement and boost affordability.

January 27, 2023 - Smart Cities Dive

Protesters with signs in Atlanta after Tyre Nichols murder

Memphis: Crime-fighting Camera Sheds Light on Police Abuse

The irony is unmistakable. Public surveillance cameras, long controversial in the criminal justice community, provided pivotal video footage of the beating of motorist Tyre Nichols by five Memphis police officers at a traffic stop on January 7.

58 minutes ago - The New York Times

Photo of cars on two-way separated highway with illustrated lines between them indicating tech-driven decisions

How Autonomous Cars Could Impact Energy Use

The complex algorithms used by self-driving vehicle technology use massive amounts of energy, which could lead to a steep rise in carbon emissions as autonomous cars become more commonplace.

1 hour ago - Dezeen

Overhead view of crosswalk with pedestrian median

Safe Streets Grants Announced

The federal Safe Streets and Roads for All program funds planning and implementation for road safety projects aimed at reducing traffic deaths and building safe infrastructure for pedestrians, cyclists, and other vulnerable road users.

2 hours ago - U.S. Department Of Transportation