To Fix Inflation And Climate Change, Get Americans out of Cars

Image:  Piqsels via Creative Commons
Image: Piqsels via Creative Commons

Americans can fix their inflation and their climate problems if they do one simple thing — extract themselves from “king car.”

That was the gist of recent America Walks webinar headlined by Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, and Nailah Pope-Harden, the executive director of advocacy group Climate Plan CA, illustrating the connections among inflation, rising temperatures, and auto-centric infrastructure and land use — and discussing how we might channel funds from the recent federal infrastructure and climate packages to right our national priorities.

“Reducing automobile dependency can play a major role in reducing costs,” Freemark said. “A society where fewer people drive is to society with less transportation expenditures overall both personally and publicly. Second, it’s a society that is more resilient to random spikes in energy prices, and one that of course is less destructive to the environment.”

Car dependency also has left both families and local governments at the mercy of rising gas prices.

“A society built around the car encourages car ownership, you have no choice but to buy a car if you live in most parts of the United States and if you want to participate in the economy of our society, car ownership, even without driving, is expensive,” Freemark said. “Car-dependent land uses are also more expensive to maintain meaning the taxes people have to pay for their typical public services go up over time.”

The flip side, however, is that “households that do not have a car available spend considerably less of their overall income on transportation than households who do have a vehicle,” Freemark said. Thus, “if we create a society where more people are able to live without having to rely on a car, they’ll be able to save money on transportation and spend it on other needs like housing, food and recreation.”

Freemark gave the example of how three hypothetical families might balance their $40,000 annual budgets. The scenario assumes a gas price of $3 a gallon, cars that get 30 miles a gallon and car insurance/maintenance of $7,000 annually:

  • A city-dwelling household that spends $3,000 a month on mortgage or rent, but lives in a walkable community and doesn’t own a car. It spends about $4,000 a year on transit on bikes and on taxis for transportation, for a total of $40,000 a year on housing and transportation.
  • Another household that spends about $2,500 a month on mortgage, owns one car and drives about 14 miles a day. It spends $10,000 a year on a car and other transportation needs, such as transit and bikes. It also spends a total of $40,000 on housing and transportation.
  • A third household that lives in an exurb and spends a relatively cheap $2,000 a month on housing, but owns two cars and drives 40 miles a day. That family spends $16,000 a year on its cars — for a total of $40,000 a year.

But let’s say inflation, led by a doubling in gas prices to $6 a gallon, socks each family — pretty much like we’ve seen over the last few months. The no-car family spends nothing more on transportation. The two-car family, on the other hand, must spend an extra $1,500 a year on gassing up, fully $3,000 on gas costs alone. That’s a 7.5 percent hike in its household expenditures. That family would “blow out” its budget, Freemark said.

The same goes for government expenditures. Even though it might seem that cheaper land costs would make suburban and exurban government less costly, in reality, the lack of density “makes it more expensive to do things like provide trash collection, policing [or] school busing,” Freemark noted.

Freemark detailed what he called the “vicious cycle” of auto dependency: The $10 trillion of government money that’s been spent on roadway infrastructure during the past 50 years has ensured that communities are built around cars and that most Americans must drive almost everywhere. That, in turn, has created a political constituency for road and highway subsidies. As investments poured into auto-centric land uses, employment and housing followed the money out into the sprawl and left behind those with fewer resources — creating vast inequities between city dwellers and suburbanites. Such investments also discouraged people from using transit.

Car dependency doesn't come out of nowhere — and it doesn't continue for no reason. Chart: Yonah Freemark
Car dependency doesn’t come out of nowhere — and it doesn’t continue for no reason. Chart: Yonah Freemark

“You had places like the Atlanta region, or the Houston region or the Miami region where, back in 1970, almost 10 people of people used to take transit or walk to get to work, but now only 5 percent in each of those regions actually make those choices,” he said. (And the population of all those cities is higher than in 1970.)

Pope-Harden emphasized that Americans shouldn’t make the same inequitable choices with climate dollars that they made with highway funds. There will be a lot of money for electrification of vehicles, she said, but in California, as elsewhere, “residents can get rebates for cars, but we don’t see that as much for bikes and scooters and so we want to make sure that not only are we pushing for electrification, but …for a multimodal electrification future.”

The siting of electric infrastructure is also an important equity concern.

“Do people have access to chargers are chargers accessible to chargers fit people’s lifestyles?” she asked. “If we have apartment complexes that we’re putting chargers in? Are we making sure that there’s enough chargers to manage the whole apartment complex?”

Finally, in order to reach their ambitious climate goals, states must try innovative ways to discourage driving, she said — in effect, turning our over-subsidized highway system on its head. California is doing a lot of research around “road pricing…so that people are less inclined to drive and want to use alternative to roads.” A “road charge” is a “user pays” system in which drivers pay to maintain the roads based on how much they drive, rather than how much gas they purchase, helping to replace funds lost from fuel taxes as electric-car users buy less gas.

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