Cars Are Here to Stay
Real progress on climate change will require innovations that some on the left won’t like.
by Alex Trembath
I live in an apartment in Oakland, California. It’s less than ten minutes by foot from a grocery store, a McDonald’s, a 7-11, a butcher, a bike repair shop, a cannabis dispensary, half a dozen cafes, and three natural wine bars. On the few days a week I go into the office, I ride my bike. If it’s raining, I am a five-minute walk from the nearest BART station. On other days, I work from my living room. My partner and I own a car, which we use for the occasional errand or visit with friends.
I would venture to guess my lived experience mirrors that of many, if not most, in my field of environmental research and advocacy.
The climate movement, increasingly enamored of walkability and intra-city transit, has turned the car-centric lifestyle into a chief villain in the fight against global warming. And it makes some sense. Since the coal-to-gas shift over the last decade and the rise of wind and solar, transportation has overtaken the electric power sector as the leading source of carbon emission in the United States. Cars and trucks also belch out significant particulate pollution, sulfur and nitrous oxides, and volatile organic compounds, although, mercifully, much less so than they used to. And of course, vehicle accidents are a leading source of early death in America, with almost 40,000 deaths and another 4 million injuries attributed to cars every year.
Despite this, cars and sprawl remain extremely popular.
Over 85% of Americans commute to work by car, overwhelmingly alone, compared to about 5% who use public transit and less than 1% who bike. Some have speculated or hoped that as the post-Covid rush to remote work takes hold, these patterns will shift. But as my colleague Juzel Lloyd recently showed, while US vehicle miles traveled (VMT) plummeted in the early days of the pandemic, they have almost entirely normalized since then.
This should not come as a surprise. Fifty-five percent of Americans live in suburban counties, a figure that is growing, not shrinking. Most Americans live far from where they work, which is just as often a feature as it is a bug. While many are priced out of urban job centers, others simply choose to live in less dense, more affordable, more spacious communities in the exurbs and the suburbs. And while the work of environmental researchers and advocates like myself has proven relatively easy to do remotely, most jobs are not so easily distributed. By the end of summer 2021, only thirteen percent of Americans were still working remotely, down from a high of 35 percent in May 2020.
It is against this backdrop that we must evaluate visions to “reimagine cities” and development “without relying on personal vehicles.” Tackling carbon emissions from the transportation sector, as well as the other problems caused by cars and trucks, will require solutions that conflict with the ideological and aesthetic preferences of the urban professionals that populate the environmental movement.
I admit a strong sympathy to visions of walkable utopia. My journeys by bicycle are regularly more pleasant and invigorating than the stop-start trips made in my car. I wholeheartedly agree with urbanist campaigns to separate bike lanes and install more micromobility-friendly rules and infrastructure. Every day I venture onto Telegraph Avenue, the north-south arterial that bisects my neighborhood, and imagine it completely devoid of personal vehicles, replaced by carefree families walking and food and art stands. My inner YIMBY yearns for denser, more populous urban cores teeming with cyclists, pedestrians, and more frequent (and better funded) intra-urban transit.
But the devil, as always, is in the details. And I worry these details are missed by a climate movement disconnected from the needs of Americans working in the industrial and service sectors, and the enduring desires of all sorts of our neighbors for bigger homes with more space. “Car-dependency,” far from a crushing constraint, remains a worthwhile price to pay for many, if not most, Americans.
As knowledge economy workers increasingly crowd into walkable, expensive urban cores, lower-income Americans are crowded out into suburbs and exurbs. Increased housing construction and affordability would certainly reduce these pressures. But as civil rights attorney Jennifer Hernandez recently wrote, the policies and regulations put in place to reduce car dependence and invest in transit often come at the expense of these low-income communities. Even a radical acceleration of densification is unlikely to reverse these dynamics:
Public transit, the “solution” wealthy Whites imagine will supplant personal vehicles, does not work for many people in less-affluent communities of color, where housing, employment, and other opportunities are often more dispersed and many more jobs can be accessed in a 30-minute drive than a 30-minute ride on public transit. Unlike affluent residents in the keyboard economy, workers of color more often have multiple jobs, commute during non-peak hours, and simply cannot use transit to “balance work, child care, elder care.”
It is easy and credible enough to blame the fossil fuel and auto industries and the legacies of redlining and racial covenants for the land use and transportation infrastructure arrangements we have in the United States today. But there are legitimate reasons that more and more people, in the United States and abroad, continue to sprawl outwards. Housing will always be more affordable and more spacious in the suburbs, amenities that remain attractive to many people here and around the world. As urban scholar Judge Glock recently observed, even YIMBY paradises like Paris, France have seen urban density drop by half in the last 50 years, while per-capita car usage has doubled. This was almost bound to take a more pronounced effect in the United States than in countries like France or Japan, which are much smaller and which developed most of their major cities long before the advent of the personal vehicle.
Climate and urbanist movements that wish to make real progress on emissions, vehicle pollution, and auto deaths will have to reckon with the enduring appeal of cars and sprawl. This will accommodate much of the latter-day YIMBY agenda: up-zoning and densification, bicycle infrastructure, walkable streets, e-bikes, and increased rail and transit. But it will also require innovations that parts of the urban left have soured on.
While electric vehicles obviously do not eliminate the car-centric lifestyle, they are unequivocally a solution to both the carbon emissions generated by the transportation sector and the conventional pollutants like noxious oxides and particulate matter. And despite skepticism from urbanists, automation of traffic enforcement and partial or full automation of vehicles can help reduce traffic accidents and vehicle deaths. Meanwhile, investments in new housing, services, walkability, high-speed broadband, and other amenities within suburban areas would improve social and environmental outcomes without fully severing Americans’ dependence on personal automobiles.
While no panacea, investments in the suburbs and technological innovations in personal vehicles do not, as some on the left believe, “distract us from the larger and more entrenched problem with America’s transportation system.” Indeed, the greater danger is posed by the circumstances and preferences of a minority of progressive urban professionals distracting us from tackling carbon emissions and other problems for the large majority of Americans who will continue to depend on cars and suburban living.
This will necessitate not just technical shifts, but cultural and political ones. If nothing else, a more expansive vision for climate-friendly transportation would also be more attractive to people who can’t or don’t want to live like I do.
Alex Trembath is deputy director of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center in Oakland, California.