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The car won't die—but that's not a bad thing
The rollout of autonomous, electric vehicles could turn an American shortcoming into a strength
A main point of discussion for internet political hobbyists are the shortcomings of America’s car dependence and the need for more sustainable, safe, and accessible transit in the form of public transportation. European cities are often heralded as models for public transit, with a city such as Milan (with the same population as Detroit) containing a sophisticated subway system to rival that of New York City, the only city in America with an expansive and effective public transportation system.
There are several reasons for this, with a notable reason being the high cost of rail construction in the US; the catastrophic flop of California’s high speed rail project is a notable example. Many YIMBYs (yes in my backyard) say that America needs to unleash its public transportation potential to fight climate change and reinvent cities, but I am skeptical that this could happen. While I am optimistic on the issue of increased housing construction through high density zoning, I doubt the political will or priority is there to pass a large bill constructing extensive public transit.
I expect the US to develop a modest high-speed rail network between a handful of large cities over the next two decades, mainly by private sector funding and investment, but I am overall bearish on the US government’s ability to construct public transit. The US will remain a car dependent place, but that might not be a bad thing.
There are a handful of reasons America’s car dependence are a problem (for now).
One issue is traffic fatalities:
The United States’ prevalence of cars as a mode of transportation means that far more people are killed in traffic accidents. A rapid move to public transportation would certainly decrease this number, given that more miles would be travelled using relatively safer means of transportation.
Another reason is access. Owning a car can be expensive, but a car is necessary in many parts of the US because cities aren’t built to be walkable. People are surrounded by large residential areas, making a walk to a store very far for many people. For poor people, this can limit employment opportunities and job prospects, making living difficult in many areas.
Finally, there is the question of climate change. Cars are generally driven by just one person, making the per person emissions very high. Public transport uptake could, in theory, reduce emissions.
So why am I optimistic about America’s car dependence? Cars are changing. Cars are rapidly becoming electrified—8.6% of cars sold in 2021 were electric, and this trend is going to accelerate, limiting the harmful effects cars currently have on the environment. Secondly, cars will soon become autonomous. This will reduce traffic fatalities to near zero, as well as mitigate concerns about traffic jams because autonomous cars that can talk to each other will be able to coordinate routes that mitigate both traffic and collisions. With autonomous vehicles there will be a massive drop in the cost of Uber-like ride-share services, because a driver won’t be needed.
Imagine a world where many middle class Americans own an autonomous car like today. It’s all electric, and it allows people to work during their commutes by driving itself (assuming they don’t work remote at this point). Maybe a family has 2 cars, but are only using 1 at a given moment. They can use a service to rent out their autonomous vehicle for a small sum to someone without a car and give an autonomous taxi ride to that person. This both makes the experience of cars better, as well as makes the need for a car decrease, because more and more autonomous cars will be driving around, giving people rides at a moment’s notice.
And it is in this world that I think Americans are better placed than Europeans. America already has the car infrastructure to support this system. America has far more extensive and wide roads than Europe. And in most cases, having a car is more convenient than public transportation. You’re in a private space, it is usually faster, and you don’t have to run to catch your bus or train. With the rollout of technology, the car’s negatives will mostly have been eliminated, while the benefits remain. By 2040, the US will be on the right side of this trend.
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