Metro Youth Council insights: car culture in the U.S.

Allen Yamin, the council’s Communications Officer, recently wrote a research paper on the detriments of car culture in the United States and the benefits that public transportation offers. Here is the paper: 

In 2019, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that “Over the course of the year, Americans collectively spent 70 billion hours behind the wheel,” of a car (Gross). The increasing and widespread usage of personal automobiles in America has continued without much question. The United States evidently has fallen into a car culture – dependency on the use of an automobile for transportation due to suburban growth and the lack of public transportation. After World War II, many working-class families moved to the suburbs, where they could enjoy separation from work in the city and more space. However, a necessity for cars developed, since the suburbs were outside of big cities where most jobs and businesses were located. Cars became a symbol of freedom and mobility in the 1950s as it was the only way of transportation in the suburbs (Maynard). Today, there are everlasting impacts of the emphasis on cars in the 1950s, as “the mean number of vehicles in households is 1.9 personal vehicles” (“Public Transportation Facts”). In 2022, the average price for a new car is very steep $45,596; the yearly salary of many people in the US (Eisenstein). A deeper dive into car culture reveals its detriments on the environment, culture, and economics. A cultural transition to public transportation, ridesharing, and walkable cities is necessary to hinder the deep impacts cars have already had on the US.

New cars at the port. Credit: Shutterstock.

To begin, cars and the infrastructure needed to use them have a high environmental cost in the cycle of their production and utilization. According to National Geographic, “most of an automobile’s environmental impact, perhaps 80 to 90 percent, will be due to fuel consumption and emissions of air pollution and greenhouse gases that climate scientists say are driving global warming,” ( Extracting fossil fuels to be used for cars takes a lot of energy, and once extracted, lots of the fuel is not only used in the daily use of the car, but also in its production, shipment overseas, and the building of infrastructure. In order to use cars, well-planned infrastructure, including highways and roads, is needed to uphold car culture throughout the country. The mass usage of cars contributes to climate change, which is a huge environmental issue for the Earth. Overall, preserving this world’s environment is key to a bright future in which all can thrive, and cars take away from this goal.

Furthermore, car culture has resulted in unwalkable suburbs throughout America, which contributes to the poor health of the general public. Suburbs are generally characterized by having this “lack of sidewalks and easy pedestrian access between neighborhoods, retail clusters, and town services contribute to obesity, according to critics,” (Zoltan). Since active modes of transportation such as walking and biking are limited in many American cities, people are bound to be discouraged in their pursuit of healthy lifestyles. Introducing sidewalks as a normal part of urban planning would promote active living and change the way society goes about its daily activities. Although cars have been said to give people freedom, the conditions which have resulted from cars do not allow people the freedom to use their bodies to get them from place to place: the ultimate human experience.

The E Line (Expo) runs above Westside traffic. Photo: LA Metro.

To continue, cars shape culture heavily by influencing people’s perceptions of wealth in the United States through their lofty costs and glamorous looks. Richard Dahl writes in his article that cars create “an image that people have. If you’re a modern country, you need to have lots of privately owned motor vehicles,” (Dahl). Owning a car, specifically luxury cars, has become a symbol of status and upholds perceptions of wealth and the usage and innovation of modern technology. In a micro manner, having an expensive car shapes the way a person sees another. However, on a larger scale, having society own lots of cars provides an image to the rest of the world that America is succeeding economically and industrially. Perceptions based on the type of car one drives may or may not be true; yet, either way, it is harmful because people are learning to judge others based on material items, not by the content of their character. Valuing people’s morals and actions hold the highest significance in a world striving to have justice and empathy, so decreasing the popularity of cars is crucial.

Moreover, dependence on cars increases the reliance of the US on foreign countries for gasoline necessary to run cars. The necessity of car usage in many areas of America “breeds…use of fossil fuels, increasing the nation’s reliance on foreign oil and compromising national security,” (Zoltan). Since the United States relies on foreign oil imports for the usage of cars, other countries can use this reliance against US national security. For example, another country may stop selling gas to the US, which will cause detrimental economic losses. People will not be able to get to work, gas stations will stop making money, manufacturing will come to a halt, and as a result, the market will crash. Plus, military vehicles and transportation will suffer in the case of an attack. The United States needs to decrease its overall dependence on cars to deter any national security or economic crises.

A thorough solution to the negative aspects of car culture is making a shift towards the usage of public transportation in place of cars. An impactful way to promote public transportation would be to highlight its all-around benefits. Compared to automobiles, public transportation such as buses, trains, railways, and shared bikes are more environmentally friendly, cheaper, and safer. First, public transportation, in general, has reduced gas usage and carbon emissions. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), public transport systems save the United States “6 billion gallons of gasoline annually” and “reduce the nation’s carbon emissions by 63 million metric tons annually” (“Public Transportation Facts”). Public transportation is superior to automobiles because it helps to preserve the environment on a massive scale. Plus, this form of transportation would save people money since they would be spending less on gas. Even if society partially changed its habits to use public transportation more often, the environment would benefit greatly.

Cycling and walking are great ways to get around and reduce pollution. Photo: LA Metro.

Another reason to use public transportation as a substitute for personal automobiles is that transit is cheaper to use. For the average household, the cost of owning and maintaining a car is “the largest expenditure after housing”. The APTA suggests that “A household can save nearly $10,000 by taking public transportation and living with one less car,” (“Public Transportation Facts”). Just by using one less car and instead of taking public transportation, people can save thousands per year while making environmentally conscious lifestyle decisions. Instead of spending money on cars, people can spend more on new experiences and daily commodities, which, in turn, improves their standards of living.

Not only is public transportation cheaper than cars, but it is also safer than them. The same article states that instead of using a car, “A person can reduce his or her chance of being in an accident by more than 90% simply by taking public transit”, since “Traveling by public transportation is 10 times safer per mile than traveling by automobile” (“Public Transportation Facts”). Public transportation is much safer than driving a car every day for long distances. Also, public transportation would decrease the amount of physical harm done to the public. Traffic congestion as a result of personal automobiles has led to more “pedestrians and cyclists [becoming] common victims” (Dahl). Increased usage of public transportation means that fewer cars would be on the roads, resulting in fewer pedestrian traffic collisions.

Too, an improvement to reduce the excessive use of automobiles in the United States is to make ridesharing common practice. One way to do this is through carpooling with friends, family, or neighbors in personally owned cars. The main benefit of ridesharing is the environmental improvement that it would pose. Brian Caulfield’s research report on carpooling finds that “by adding one person to every commute trip [of a car]… it would result in a saving of 7.7% on fuel consumption,” (Caulfield). A more unique and futuristic strategy for ridesharing is using self-driving taxis to transport multiple people at once. Since “the typical American vehicle spends ninety-five per cent of its life parked…driverless cars can reduce that waste,” (Heller). With ridesharing autonomous vehicles, fewer trips would be necessary to move people from one place to another, resulting in a decrease of cars in parking lots, wasting space. People would not need to own their own cars; instead, they can just call a taxi at any time they need, and the car could make other trips throughout the day.

Finally, building walkable cities combats the dependency on cars in the United States by reducing the need for long-distance travel. A city’s walkability is defined by “the degree to which it has safe, designated areas for people to walk or bike to work, dining, shopping and entertainment venues,” (Charron). Walkable neighborhoods allow residents to walk to any place they may need to visit in their daily lives. These areas “encourage fewer car trips, which minimizes air and noise pollution…communities can use portions of the roadway to build more green space,” (Charron). Since there is no need to drive around walkable cities, more space can be used for the community’s enjoyment and pleasure. This idea of walkable cities completely dismantles the culture and infrastructure surrounding personal automobiles.

Smog hovers over oil tankers in Santa Monica Bay. Photo courtesy Steve Hymon.

On the other hand, many people say that using electric vehicles is enough of a solution for car culture since it reduces the environmental costs of transportation. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that electric cars release on average 8000 fewer pounds of carbon dioxide emissions than traditional gas cars (“Emissions from Electric Vehicles”). Even though electric cars are more environmentally friendly, they still do not solve car culture’s issues of traffic congestion, materialism, and big expenses; after all, EVs are still cars in principle and the only change would be in engine power. As for expenses, electric vehicles actually cost more than gasoline cars, contributing to the materialism and elitism of car culture. In 2022, EVs cost “on average… $60,054 in February. That compared to $45,596 on average for all new vehicles” (Eisenstein). EVs are more expensive than regular cars, however, only solve one of the many issues permanent from the dependency on cars in America. It would be wiser to invest this money into infrastructure for public transportation, which is a multifaceted solution for car culture.

Proponents of the usage of cars in the United States argue that cars grant people autonomy and freedom. As cars became more prominent throughout history, they have become “identified as a symbol of empowerment, and success and individuality,” (Maynard). Cars allow people go anywhere, anytime they please, which is a unique ability for a material item. The immense power cars give people makes them feel in control of their lives while offering an outlet for personal expression. Although there are some advantages of owning a car, the negative aspects are overpowering. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in the year 2020, transportation contributed “27% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest contributor of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions,” (“Sources of Greenhouse Gas Emissions”). Transportation creates a significant amount of emissions that contribute to climate change and other environmental issues. The well-being of planet Earth is incomparable when juxtaposed to the privilege of driving a car in America. Plus, reducing the usage of cars would end the toxic culture of materialism within the United States.

It is evident that car culture has many negative effects, which include high environmental costs, materialism in society, poor safety, and financial burdens. To mitigate the significant consequences cars have had on the United States, public transportation needs to become more common, ridesharing should be readily available, and walkable communities should be constructed. Overcoming car culture is less about the cars themselves; it is about stopping its bleakness and creating a better society for everyone. A person should think about the true impacts of their car before going on a mindless drive for fun or two minutes away to a friend’s house. The impacts can cost everyone the world and its beauty.

Works Cited

Andrew Gross Manager, et al. “Think You’re In Your Car More? You’re Right. Americans Spend 70 Billion Hours Behind the Wheel.” AAA Newsroom, 19 Nov. 2020, 70-billion-hours-behind-the-wheel/.

Caulfield, Brian. “Estimating the environmental benefits of ride-sharing: A case study of Dublin.” Transportation Research Part D-transport and Environment 14 (2009): 527-531.

Charron, David. “Analysis | Walkable Neighborhoods Provide Health, Environmental and Financial Benefits.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 5 Dec. 2021, provide-health-environmental-and-financial-benefits/.

Dahl, Richard. “Heavy traffic ahead: car culture accelerates.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 113, no. 4, Apr. 2005, pp. A238+. Gale In Context: Environmental Studies, =cfcfa804. Accessed 23 May 2022.

Eisenstein, Paul. “Will Owning an Electric Vehicle Save You Money?”, NBCUniversal News Group, 16 Mar. 2022, 0256.

“Emissions from Electric Vehicles.” Alternative Fuels Data Center: Emissions from Electric Vehicles,

EPA, Environmental Protection Agency,

Heller, Nathan, et al. “Was the Automotive Era a Terrible Mistake?” The New Yorker, 18 July 2019, Maynard, Micheline. “Taking a Spin Through American Car Culture.” The New York Times, 12 Mar. 2019, “Public Transportation Facts.” American Public Transportation Association, 7 July 2021,
Staff, National Geographic. “The Environmental Impacts of Cars Explained.” Environment, National Geographic, 3 May 2021,
Tucker, Sean. “Average New Car Price Declines; Still $5K Higher Than a Year Ago.” Kelley

Blue Book, 11 March 2022, Accessed 23 May 2022.

Zoltan, Melanie Barton. “Socio-Economic Issues in Suburban Geography.” Human Geography: People and the Environment, edited by K. Lee Lerner, et al., vol. 2, Gale, 2013, pp. 671-674. Gale In Context: Environmental Studies, xid=99fa80a2. Accessed 23 May 2022.

Categories: Transportation News

1 reply

  1. The car culture will destroy the beauty of the 6th Street Viaduct. Why isn’t there a light rail line going down the middle, or a dedicated bus line? That would slow traffic and make it impossible to do donuts. Designing the viaduct in this manner from the start would have saved us years of complaining from entitled drivers when we eventually do just that. Or will we…?