Why is the U.S. More Car-Dependent than Europe?
Car-centric travel was once the model every city, town, and country wanted to follow. In the height of motorization, the U.S. became the role model for the rest of the world for car production and travel. This gave room for other parts of the world to develop other strong modes of transportation. We began to see Europe focus their attention on a more balanced transportation system that encouraged pedestrian and bicycle friendly forms of transit much earlier than the U.S. Only recently has the U.S. and its policies focused on the need for complete streets. Americans are extremely dependent on cars for transportation, but we are learning as time goes on why we need to focus transportation planning and funding on more infrastructures than roads for cars. But why did the U.S. become more car-dependent than Europe? What elements allowed the U.S. to develop this way? According to Ralph Buehler, there are 9 reasons why this trend happened.
- Mass motorization– Mass motorization occurred earlier in the U.S. than other countries. In addition, Americans in general have “greater personal wealth” than Europeans, which allows households to purchase more cars more often.
- Road standards– Related to mass motorization, the U.S. had to adapt its streets and roads to allow for cars to thrive in cities across the country. Infrastructures were created that would allow cars to succeed over any other means of transportation.
- Vehicle taxes– Taxes on cars and gas are much higher in Europe than in U.S. Also in the U.S., parts of the gas tax are “earmarked” for road construction, which means certain programs or initiatives do not need to compete for funds. Europe does not function this way.
- Interstate highway system– The highway system was created in the 1950s, allowing for suburban sprawl to explode across the country. As people spread out farther from cities, Americans became more dependent on cars to travel to services and amenities they need.
- Government subsidies– Prices Americans pay for elements that allow us to drive (gas and tolls) only amount to “60 or 70 percent of roadway expenditures,” with the rest covered by other taxes they pay. In Europe, citizens pay more in taxes that are spent on road construction.
- Technological focus– Americans focus more attention on “technological changes rather than altering behavior” to hinder the problems surrounding cars and car traffic. In Europe, actions are taken to change citizens’ behavior surrounding cars, such as creating “car free zones” or reducing speed limits in certain areas.
- Public transportation– In general, the governments in Europe have supported public transportation for longer and with a higher monetary value than the U.S. government. The U.S. government often comes in too late to save a public transit system, allowing the system to slowly disappear.
- Walking and Cycling– There are many European cities that have “implemented entire networks of bike lanes, separated cycle tracks, off-street bicycle paths, and traffic-calmed neighborhood streets.” The U.S. has only begun to incorporate these elements in redeveloping urban areas. The White Flint Sector has taken notice of this need to incorporate a walkable and bikeable street network or grid.
- And finally, Zoning laws– Ralph Buehler stated that the majority of European cities have a sustainable mixed-use land use planning that incorporates residential space with commercial and retail space. The U.S. has only begun to use this type of land-use planning. This is primarily due to zoning laws preventing commercial and retail spaces to exist in zoned residential areas. Montgomery County is in the process of revising its own zoning code to bring this thinking into action.
The White Flint district faces many of these elements Buehler lists. With the sector plan, as well as the potential passing of the urban road code updates, we hope that we can start to shift the area’s reliance on cars as the main mode of transportation to a more walkable focus.
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