What’s the deal with car-centric infrastructure?

Every year the average internal combustion car emits approximately 4.6 metric tons of carbon into our atmosphere, over a quarter of a person’s average annual carbon footprint. That is not to mention the carbon emitted by its creation, ongoing maintenance, or the shipment and refining of its fuel. All of which begs the question, why have we not embraced public transit and other low carbon transportation that has the potential to not only lower our carbon footprint but to improve our lives?

While it is true that countries in North America have not embraced it, many European countries have with open arms. Almost all European countries have implemented forms of mass transit for their citizens in some form, with many offering incentives. A good example of this is the small country of Luxembourg, plagued with an almost three-fourths ratio of cars to residents. This has made commuting via roads difficult and time-consuming, and traffic jams a fact of life. But in February of 2020, public transit was made free for all Luxembourg citizens, which helped to increase transit ridership, albeit before decreasing due to restrictions put in place during the coronavirus pandemic.

Countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands have been making very robust cycling networks to eliminate the need for cars on short journeys, further alleviating the burden that public transit must bear and offering a near-zero carbon transportation solution for short trips. In the Netherlands, many streets are being converted to one-way traffic to allow for protected bike lanes or dedicated separated bus lanes. Some streets are restricting all vehicle traffic to make way for tram lines. In other places, they have completely gotten rid of streets entirely to make public areas only accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. This has reduced noise and pollution in the centers of their cities and is one of the reasons that the Netherlands is often considered one of the happiest countries in the world.

If we tried something like this in America, we would be met with overwhelming opposition. The very thought of reducing car-related infrastructure is enough to make many Americans’ blood boil, but why is that? I think that it is largely because most Americans have never been exposed to what transit could be if done properly. All they have ever seen are poorly run city buses, dirty transit hubs, and the continual half-hearted attempts by politicians that result in losses of millions if not billions of dollars. In short, it is hard to expect people to know what they are missing. Most Americans have lived their entire lives in a car-centered environment which makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get anywhere without being behind the wheel. They have never seen any other way, and with the state of public transit in this country there really is not one.

Things are looking up, however, as the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure package dramatically bolstered particularly Amtrak’s funding, allowing them to make much-needed improvements on their high-speed Northeast Corridor between Washington D.C. and Boston. We are also seeing change at a local level, as Seattle and other cities along the Puget Sound are investing in large transit projects like the Sound Transit light rail link between Seattle and Everett. These projects have the potential to improve our lives and to help keep our world healthy for generations to come.