Motor vehicles are a root cause of air pollution and other environmental problems. One-third of ground level ozone in New Jersey is attributed to the emissions of cars and light trucks, the rest from utilities and industry. New Jersey's high levels of respiratory illness are causally related to high levels of ozone, particulates and carbon monoxide.
Our over-reliance on automobiles not only poses a danger to human health, plants and wildlife. It also:
Consumes enormous tax subsidies. A report from Komanoff Energy Associates (New York City) estimates that New Jersey highway spending exceeds highway revenues by more than $733 million per year. The shortfall comes from local property taxes used to maintain county and municipal roads. Komanoff suggested that their conservative analysis, extrapolated to the rest of the United States, yields a national taxpayer subsidy of $25 billion per year.
Wastes energy. According to Deborah Gordon, "The average [solo] commuter driving a car or truck uses... four times as much energy as she would riding mass transit." (Steering a New Course, Union of Concerned Scientists, 1991).
Encourages wasteful land use. Automobiles have spawned a vast highway system that ravages the land, facilitates suburban sprawl and actually diminishes mobility through endless traffic congestion. Many New Jerseyans now live in places that are accessible only by car. Suburban sprawl threatens natural areas such as the Highlands, Great Swamp and Pinelands, which protect and nourish vitally essential aquifers.
Contributes heavily to global warming. Fortune magazine, oracle of Corporate America, acknowledged in its December 8, 1997 article, "Science Says The Heat Is On", that "Despite furious debate about the greenhouse effect, there is little doubt that we are altering the atmosphere, and that the earth is warming... On balance, that probably won't be good news." And, despite that growing consensus, the New York Times reports that (11/30/97), "American emissions of global warming gases are increasing faster than previously expected, in part because of the rise in popularity of sport utility vehicles and other gas- guzzling light trucks. These trucks will be the fastest-growing source of global warming gases in the United States over the next decade, exceeding the increase in all industrial emissions combined, according to an Environmental Protection Agency researcher." Given such profligacy, the United States is in a weak moral position from which to negotiate with other countries to determine who will reduce which carbon emissions in the years ahead.
Threatens our national security. According to The New York Times, we consume more than 18 million barrels of oil per day, of which 8.3 million are imported. To maintain that supply, we must intervene heavily in the affairs of oil-producing countries at great costs not factored into the price of "cheap" gas at the pump. Yet, we are still vulnerable to oil blackmail, political disruptions, and increased competition from heavily-populated developing countries for scarce oil supplies.
Isolates the poor, teenaged, and elderly. Car ownership easily costs $5,000 or more per year. If a person desires to work in most parts of the country, he/she must buy a car to reach a job. Often, the only other option is, at best, unreliable, inconvenient bus transportation grudgingly provided by marginal operators or parsimonious local governments. Many of the new service jobs in our economy pay barely enough to cover the rent, let alone the cost of a car. Teenagers in suburbia, unless actively chauffered by parents and older friends to social events and after-school activities, often endure social isolation and boredom. So too the elderly, who are often precluded from driving to social events and needed shopping by diminished vision and reflexes.
What are the solutions to the environmental, economic and social problems created by the automobile society? In the short run, we can tighten motor vehicle inspections, set higher gas mileage standards and raise the federal gas tax to discourage excess fuel consumption. An increased gas tax would be one of the most economically rational and easily administered policy tools available to us. The impact of an increased gas tax on the working poor could be offset by lower income tax rates in the lower tax brackets.
In the long run, we will have to revamp our transportation system. Too much public money was invested in highways in the past century, not enough in rail and other more environmentally sound forms of mass transit. This was not the result of any inherent advantages of motor vehicles. Extensive advertising propaganda and political lobbying prepared the public for the destruction of America's highly ramified public rail transit systems of the 1930's and 1940's. The public trolley systems of some 60 American cities were bought and scrapped by National City Lines, a front company for General Motors and its allies, to be replaced mostly by GM buses. For a powerful documentary about National City Lines, ask your local public TV station to show Jim Klein's Taken for a Ride. Also, put public transit on your local agenda and bring transportation issues into your discussions with public officials, especially those who seek Sierra Club endorsements.
We must open up public transportation decision-making. For too long, it has been dominated by a close-knit interlocking directorate of highway contractors, traffic engineers, real estate developers, secretive bureaucrats and compliant politicos fed by easy access to highway trust fund billions. Public officials too often fail to consult with the citizenry in good faith, as required by federal legislation (ISTEA-Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act). Environmentalists should take the lead in forcing this planning process out into broad daylight.
We can help our fellow citizens envision a positive future based on mass transit and more rationally and humanly designed communities. The movement for a "New Urbanism" or "Traditional Neighborhood Design" among enlightened architects and planners has tried to refocus American town planning on connected walkable neighborhoods with mixed commercial and residential uses and a mixture of housing types, with civic buildings located at visual focal points such as squares and terminating streets. The antithesis of automobile-oriented suburbia, where zoning reserves separate areas for different uses and classes of people, often connected only by highways. Proponents of the New Urbanism include leading designers such as Peter Calthorpe, Randall Arendt, Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. See James Howard Kunstler's books, Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere for compelling discussions of this American town planning revival, as well as the relationship between the automobile and land use. I quibble only with Kunstler's evidently categorical hostility to modern architecture.
It is time to dethrone the sacred car, which has so powerfully shaped our American landscape and culture in the past century. We can't afford it anymore. We can envision and realize a future of cleaner, more efficient transportation.