Why Can’t the United States Disincentivize Driving?
Visit Amsterdam, which feels like the bicycle capital of the world, and you’ll see everyone on bikes, from chic ladies on their way to coffeehouses (a longstanding tradition in this European city) to office workers. The city offers dedicated bicycle paths, ample bike parking and lots more options to encourage people to cycle and it creates active disincentives for driving. It’s a decision born of practical and environmental concerns: Amsterdam is a small, easily-crowded city, where cars could become a serious hazard and frustration if they multiplied on the streets, and its residents are very eco-conscious.
It’s not the only city that’s effectively taken an aggressive anti-car stance; London, for example, charges a high toll for entering the heart of the city in a car, encouraging drivers to think twice about making the trip. Around the world, cities are making themselves car-unfriendly to get people out from behind the wheel and into more ecologically-friendly forms of transit, like bicycle saddles, train seats, bus benches and good old fashioned shoes. The United States, however, seems to be struggling with this; in a nation where the car is practically a national icon, few cities want to make the first move when it comes to getting drivers off the road, and Emily Badger atThe Atlantic suggests this is because we are too afraid.
The situation is a complicated one, though, as she herself acknowledges. On the one hand, disincentivizing driving is an excellent way to get people to stop doing it. Fuel is much more expensive globally than in the United States, for example, and pushing fuel costs up to a more natural level could be effective, as could increasing taxes to turn them into a realistic reflection of the costs of road maintenance. Eliminating parking spaces, increasing parking fees and tolls and replacing parts of the road with walkways and bike paths are more options, limiting the space available for cars. There’s also the carrot approach; employers can pay employees for not using parking and provide other rewards for using alternate transit to get to work, for instance.
All these approaches might seem sound on the surface, but there are several problems with them. The first is that they don’t acknowledge the fundamental infrastructure problems that can make it difficult for people to switch to public transit. In centralized, logically-built cities, the choice can be obvious: drive a car, or take excellent public transit? In more far-flung American cities with poor transit options, this choice is much harder, especially in areas where public transit doesn’t reach, or is so unreliable that people can’t use it. The only way to improve public transit is to get people riding it and supporting it through fair revenue, though, which creates an awkward double bind.
These disincentives also effectively penalize low-income drivers, who, incidentally, are the most likely to live in areas where public transit is not a viable option. They tend to live further away from central hubs and major areas of activity due to the fact that it’s cheaper to live on the outskirts, forcing them to use cars for commutes, doctor visits and other daily needs. Car ownership can already be an expensive proposition for them, and a disincentive program could make their lives even more difficult, forcing them to sacrifice in order to maintain their cars.
While it’s clear that the United States is slowly moving towards a stage of decreased reliance on cars, the nation struggles with paradoxes like the push to revitalize the auto industry versus the desire to get people to stop driving. Until it can resolve these issues, it will continue to fight with itself over the best way to encourage people to change their habits to help the environment.
How could the United States adopt some habits from its European cousins? A start might be a shift in the US auto industry to promote the production of even smaller, more efficient cars alongside more US-made buses and other pubic transit vehicles. Cities could incorporate issues like walkability and bikability into revitalization schemes and improvement projects, while individual companies could join the bandwagon of paying a premium to employees who bike, walk or take public transit to work. Meanwhile, public transit could be extended into low-income areas to live the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy. While it might be necessary to take a loss in early years as people get into the swing of using it, with a well-designed program and good funding (through parking fees, meter revenue, and other car-related fees and taxes), cities could get public transit self-supporting in communities over time.
Photo credit: Library and National Archives Canada.