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Indybay Feature
The U.S. Desperately Needs To Rethink the Role That Cars Play in Daily Life
by James Cutino
Wednesday Nov 17th, 2021 7:29 PM
The wide, grid-pattern suburban sprawl that has become a familiar sight to nearly all Americans is a costly, unsustainable nightmare that results in thousands of preventable deaths each year in California.
Urban design and infrastructure investment practices in America need a full overhaul in order to reduce reliance on personal cars for transportation. It was only last summer that a student at the university I attend was hit and killed by a car attempting to cross East Cotati Avenue, a street that has only a single crosswalk accessible from campus. For a portion, it even lacks a sidewalk. Both streets like this, and deaths resulting from them are not at all rare in this country. According to the National Safety Council, an American's lifetime odds of dying in a car crash are 1 in 107 as of 2019. According to the CDC, Cars are the leading cause of unnatural death in the U.S. for people under 54 years of age. The data clearly state that despite intense and arduous regulation of cars, they still pose a significant risk to public safety. But if cars are so deadly, why are almost all American cities built post World War II so car-centric?

The answer lies, as with countless other societal issues, with corporate lobbying. Both the automotive and oil industry have contributed nearly incalculable sums of money over the past century to criminalize jaywalking and promote an intrinsic association between cars and vague American ideals like freedom and agency. The entire middle class suburban culture that most people know and aspire to even today was originally devised as a way to sell more cars, and by extension, more petroleum products.

This is all made even more troubling when you consider the dire health of our planet’s atmosphere. Every single internal combustion powered car emits gasses that directly draw us closer to ecological collapse, and electric cars are just as bad when you consider that vast amounts of carbon emissions are required to mass produce them. According to the EPA, an “average passenger vehicle” produces roughly 404 grams of CO2 per mile. Biking and walking, by contrast, emit next to nothing.

Even if you are somehow completely unsympathetic to both pedestrians, and the planet, then I should also point out that reliance on cars is not at all fiscally responsible (Failure to accommodate pedestrian as well as bicycle traffic results in bankrupt cities, and greatly reduces participation in the local economy. Wide, fast streets lined on either side by parking lots are extremely costly to build and maintain, and offer absolutely no revenue in return. The space needed to build a single strip mall parking lot could easily house several more stores, and doing so and a large enough scale would vastly increase the overall profitability of any city, all without the need to develop more land.

It is time that American urban planners begin to put people before machines, and invest in slower roads with more safe crossings. Bike paths that stray from the normal street grid rather than bike lanes that run parallel to it are also a great way to incentivise biking as a quicker means of transportation.

I am by no means advocating for the complete abolition of cars and roads, but there is nothing to be lost from lessening our societal dependence on an unsustainable industry. Less cars also, (shockingly) results in less traffic congestion, and slower speed limits result in a drop in fatal accidents. At this point there really is no telling what other benefits are in store by simply taking a few common-sense measures to promote walking and biking over driving.
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