At the Lehigh Valley Mall on the outskirts of Allentown, Pennsylvania, Tony Saba is already feeling the impact of rising gas prices.
“The price is skyrocketing,” he said. “I can’t move like before. My car is in my garage. I can’t move it because I don’t have any money.
Saba, a 70-year-old retiree, was driving to the mall. He doesn’t go to any of the shops or restaurants – he just likes to sit in the comfy chairs and chat with his friends.
Now his car is out of service and he still wanted to come to the mall. But the bus takes too long and costs too much. So he called a friend, who came to pick him up.
Saba’s story, in a nutshell, illustrates the problem many people face in America. Owning and operating a car is becoming more expensive as the price of oil rises. The Russian invasion of Ukraine – and the resulting ban on Russian oil – will likely make matters worse. But largely inefficient public transportation in the United States means Americans have no choice but to use their cars. In much of the United States, Americans need their vehicles to work, shop, study, and survive.
It’s an addiction that goes back decades.
“In the United States, we really saw an increase in automobile use in the post-war period, the baby boom generation. At that time, we had this new availability of relatively inexpensive mass-produced automobiles, this is the first time people from middle-income households can purchase a motor vehicle,” said Gregory Rowangould, director of the Transportation Research Center at the University of Vermont and an associate professor of engineering. civil and environmental.
“And at the same time you have soldiers coming back from World War II, starting families, we have a huge population boom, so there’s also a need for more housing.”
Back then, many cities were polluted, noisy and generally less attractive, Rowangould said. It leads to a boom in suburban housing construction: cars and suburbs go hand in hand.
“It’s just been a pattern in the United States that once started was really persistent.”
The construction and planning of these new suburbs rarely included viable bus or train options. Many newer neighborhoods also lacked walkable amenities. Now people needed cars to do their shopping, or take their kids swimming, and certainly to get to work.
It’s a legacy that lives on. Americans drive much, much more than other nationalities.
In 2019, U.S. motorists averaged 14,263 miles per year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That puts the United States at the top of the list in terms of miles traveled, and it’s not even close. In the second highest country, Canada, people drove an average of 9,562 miles per year in 2018. The average car in the UK drove 7,134 miles in 2019.
America’s reliance on cars and the current rise in gasoline prices will disproportionately affect those who are already struggling, Rowangould said. Low-income households are forced to devote a larger share of their budget to transport than wealthier households.
“They’re more likely to own a less fuel-efficient, older vehicle, they have less of an option to buy an electric vehicle, so it’s harder to acquire more fuel-efficient vehicles,” Rowangould said.
In Pennsylvania, grassroots group Pittsburghers for Public Transit has called for investments in public transportation to match the amounts spent on roads. According to a recent report by the group, 80% of federal transportation funding goes to highways and only 20% to public transit.
Laura Chu Wiens, executive director of PPT, said the disparity has perpetuated America’s car addiction and communities of color have suffered the most. “The households that rely the most on public transportation, or that don’t have easy access to a car, are disproportionately low-income households, unsurprisingly black households, undocumented immigrants,” Chu Wiens said.
Most US cities have some form of bus service. But commuting can often mean people have to take multiple buses or trains just to get to work, with serious consequences. It can also be dangerous due to insufficient investment in public transport. “These are deeply dangerous and undignified environments in which we ask public transport users to exist. And then not only that, we penalize them with things like fares for having lower quality trips,” Chu Wiens said.
A 2017 study from Harvard University found travel time to be the single most important factor in escaping poverty. As the New York Times put it, “The longer an average commute is in a given county, the more likely low-income families are to move up the ladder.”
But even among those who own a car, many don’t like to drive, said Christof Spieler, director of planning at engineering firm Huitt-Zollars and author of Trains, Buses, People: An Opinionated Atlas of US and Canadian Transit.
“For a lot of people, their commute is the most miserable part of their day,” Spieler said.
Americans in favor of better public transportation and its benefits can look to Europe or East Asia, where there are working subways, streetcars, bus systems and bike lanes, and see little hope that the United States will ever have the same.
Car culture is too ingrained, some think. There is no money to build railways. But people shouldn’t be so quick to admit defeat, Spieler said.
“One mistake a lot of people make is that when they make the comparison to Japan, or they make the comparison to Europe, they assume that those outcomes were much more inevitable than they were,” did he declare.
“But in the United States, we could easily have made different choices. If you look at Europe, a lot of places actually seem to be heading towards the United States.
Cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen are considered incredibly bike-friendly today, Spieler said, but by the 1960s, “cars took over these cities.” The difference in these places is that there was “a serious readjustment moment that happened in the 1970s and 80s going in a different direction.”
Another argument is that the sheer size of the United States means that public transport would not work. Anyone who has experienced Amtrak’s cross-country services – the railroad offers little-used one-day trips from Los Angeles to New Orleans and Chicago to Florida – can attest to the problems with scale. .
But having working public transport is not about connecting the whole country or forcing bus lines down the throats of small villages.
“There are places where owning a car is really the right answer. A rancher in Wyoming should really own a car or a truck,” Spieler said.
However, most people are not ranchers in Wyoming. There are more than 50 cities in the United States that have a metropolitan population of over one million, according to the 2020 census.
However, many people in these areas live in homes in the suburban sprawl, rather than the city itself, and to truly be successful in getting away from cars, some believe there needs to be a change. in our way of life – bringing people back to the center of cities.
“If we really want to move things forward, we’re talking about people’s lives changing and we’re talking about people living differently, and I don’t want to underestimate that,” Spieler said.
Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at Brookings Metro who leads the organization’s metropolitan infrastructure initiative, agreed there was a need to change the way people live.
People moving to cities from the suburbs must arrive, Tomer said, and better rail and bus networks will follow.
It may seem unrealistic, but there is hope. Tomer said that while the suburbs, as they are, “won the day”, that doesn’t mean that, given the choice, people would always choose a suburban life.
“Cities are just plain cool in America,” Tomer said. “And it’s still present in our culture, but our actual development doesn’t really reflect that.
According to Tomer, a “political window has opened,” caused by soaring gas prices, that could potentially pave the way for changes in the way people understand life and transportation.
In a recent poll, more than 60% of Americans said they were willing to endure higher gas prices in order to continue supporting Ukraine, a victory for Joe Biden, who acknowledged that US support for Ukraine ‘Ukraine would mean that prices will continue to rise.
Meanwhile, some experts have suggested that soaring prices could serve as a wake-up call for the public and politicians to move away from dependence on oil and towards greener methods of transportation.
“If there’s a real American conversation that’s different from what we’ve had in nearly 40 years, about conservation, about using mass transit for energy reasons, it might be a different time. “Tomer said.
“Transportation is our biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. It’s different from any of our peers. So there might be a window here to at least start changing the conversational trajectory.
With gas prices unlikely to drop anytime soon, a move away from America’s dependence on the car and serious investment in public transportation would not only benefit the environment, but also the millions of struggling Americans. financial.
Improved transportation would allow people to get to work faster or take their children for the day.
For others, like Tony Saba, it would just be easier to get to the Lehigh Valley Mall.
“I came here every day. I would call a friend and say, ‘Meet me at the mall,'” he said.
“I like it here. It’s social. It’s a good life.