Policy and Personal Vehicles
How to Legislate for a World Without Cars
The prevalence of personal vehicles in the United States is not in the public interest. With respect to climate change, this is virtually self-evident. Personal vehicles with combustion engines cause 20% of the country’s carbon emissions. Although electric vehicles only cause half as many emissions, they’re still major offenders when compared to public transportation.
But even if electric vehicles were entirely carbon-neutral, there would still be plenty of reasons to ditch cars altogether. The infrastructure that cars require (roads, garages, parking lots, etc.) — take up an ungodly amount of space. Parking lots alone occupy 14% of Los Angeles’ surface area. This drives housing prices up, deprives the city of human spaces, and causes urban sprawl- which, in turn, creates a need for more cars.
Furthermore, the very presence of cars in cities -independent of the infrastructure required to support them- is just unpleasant. Anyone who has outdoor-dined in one of the many commercial areas newly closed off to traffic will surely have noticed: public spaces are just nicer without cars.
Personal automobiles are also detrimental to public health. They don’t only ruin air quality and cause fatal accidents, they also make us sedentary- causing us to sit behind a wheel when we’d otherwise be walking or cycling; car ownership even has a demonstrable link to obesity.
Local and independently-owned businesses would also benefit from fewer cars. When you’re walking or biking, you’re a lot more likely to go to the grocery or bodega down the street than you are to trek over to the Whole Foods across town.
We stand to gain a lot by taking direct, political action to reduce the usage of personal automobiles- but it’s a lot easier to see the problems cars cause than it is to find a solution. Building affordable public transportation is a great place to start, but it’s hardly sufficient. Huge numbers of Americans own cars, are accustomed to driving them, and are surrounded by infrastructure that makes them convenient to use. They aren’t just going to stop using them en masse when new bus routes open up in their neighborhoods. We have to do more than create better alternatives to cars. We need to actively discourage their use.
But here we run into other problems. Existing policies that discourage automobile usage (gasoline tax, toll roads, permitting fees, etc.) haven’t been effective and place a disproportionate burden on lower income-earners. Driving shouldn’t be made more expensive. All we need to do is write our laws and plan our cities in the pursuit of public interest- excluding the convenience and enjoyability of driving from our definition of that term. Policies that develop public spaces, serve public health, combat legal injustice, and improve the efficiency of public transit should not be put aside to accommodate driving.
Public policy would look a lot different if these were our priorities. In what follows, I will explore how two categories of public policy — traffic laws and city design — might look if they put more importance on citizens and public space than on personal vehicles.
Driving slowly is not fun. Anyone who’s ever encountered a residential road with a 15 MPH speed limit knows this; driving at that speed is all but physically painful.
Lowering speed limits would not produce a significant practical inconvenience. Speed limits of 20 in residentials, 30 on thoroughfares, and 55 on freeways wouldn’t drastically reduce commute times, but it would reduce rates of fuel consumption and vehicular death. It would also make driving less enjoyable, and by extension — public transportation more attractive. On the population level, that could make a real difference in transportation habits.
We should also change the way speed-limits are enforced. For motorists living paycheck-to-paycheck, a speeding ticket could mean missing that month’s rent. Meanwhile, motorists with higher incomes might find the annoyance of being pulled over and risking a license point to be a bigger deterrent than the actual fine. The asymmetry of this punishment is so absurd that a martian couldn’t be blamed for thinking that the purpose of our ticketing system was to discourage poor people from driving.
A ticketing system that issues fines as a percentage of discretionary income would resolve the injustice imposed on poorer motorists, and make the effect of speed-limits match their purpose: to uniformly discourage speeding.
This isn’t a pipe dream, either. In Finland, where a Nokia executive was issued a $103,000 speeding ticket in 2002, such a system has been in place for almost 100 years, and it enjoys an 80% approval rating among its citizens.
Searching for parking is one of the most frustrating experiences a human being can have, and its looming threat is a considerable deterrent to unnecessary driving. When I was in high school, my friend and I would go to our local commercial district to get Mongolian barbecue almost every single Friday. As the district grew in popularity, it became harder and harder to find a place to park within reasonable distance. Eventually, we felt lucky if we could find a parking spot in 30 minutes. After two or three weeks of putting up with this, we started taking the bus. The habit of skipping the car ride stuck, and nowadays I cycle there: even on weekdays, when finding a spot would be a breeze.
If cities were to reduce the number of parking spaces made available for non-essential outings, such that 30 minutes of spot-searching was to be expected, it would encourage people to adopt more sustainable methods of transportation. Spaces previously dominated by idle cars could also be put to excellent use- whether as outdoor dining spaces, city parks, or new housing developments.
Street closures allow for the same re-purposing opportunities. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many major cities (including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston) have closed major city streets to encourage socially-distanced outdoor dining. These re-imagined streets, with tables, umbrellas, and pedestrians taking the place of cars, feel so much more alive, welcoming, and human than they did a year ago.
Restricting outer lane-access to buses and cyclists kills three birds with one stone. It discourages driving, makes cycling safer, and speeds up buses. The grueling pace of some bus-routes makes them an unrealistic option for many people; freeing buses from traffic and minimizing the time required to make a stop would speed them up dramatically. Although they’re dangerous to use, thoroughfares are often the fastest way to get from point A to B on a bicycle. If riders could use them without getting grazed by rear-view mirrors, cycling to work would suddenly look a lot more attractive.
I didn’t outline these two approaches to propagandize the specific policies contained in them. I simply want to point out how much public benefit can be attained if we stop treating automobile drivers like a privileged interest group.
The time when it made sense for cars to serve as the bedrock of America’s transportation system has long passed. Greater public safety, justice, health, and cities can be attained in a future beyond cars.