Debunking the Myth of “Car Cities"
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I always assumed cars were a necessary part of life in California. Despite a love of biking and hiking in my family, we drove everywhere — to the grocery store, to school, to soccer practice. It was convenient, comfortable, and what most people in my community did. More so, public transit was a distant concept from our suburban lifestyles. Despite the city’s love of the cable car, San Francisco’s modern public transit garners far more criticism than adoration. Cars swarm the city, where demand for car trips allowed car-centered companies like Uber and Lyft to take off. In Los Angeles, the triumph of the car is even more apparent. Freeways surround the sprawling area and car ownership continues to rise as transit ridership declines. As Matt Novak from the Smithsonian says, “nobody walks in L.A..”
When I first moved to Boston for university, I was fascinated with the T. The ease of catching the Red Line and being in downtown Boston in less than 30 minutes was thrilling. No cars, no traffic, just a (usually) quick and painless ride. For my friends who attended school in California, transportation looked quite different. In fact, most of them relied on a mixture of borrowed cars or numerous Uber/Lyft rides, never using public transit, to meet their mobility needs. These experiences certainly aren’t limited to college students — having access to a driver’s license and a car is often viewed as a necessity in my home state. California’s early innovation in freeways and car infrastructure allowed the state to triple its population and support a booming economy — but what is the cost of such rampant growth? Congestion and air pollution are serious concerns for California. In 2017, Los Angeles was ranked No. 1 in the world for time wasted while stuck in traffic, with an average of 104 hours per year spent sitting in traffic during rush hour. San Francisco came in fourth with 82.6 hours per year on average. Freeway pollution in the state has created high-pollution zones in housing areas near busy roads, where residents have a greater risk of asthma, cancer, heart disease, and other serious health conditions. It’s clear that something needs to change in California’s car-loving ways.
In the debate around why California has lagged behind the rest of the country (and world) in developing reliable, comprehensive public transit, critics often cite the spread out geography of Los Angeles or the hilly terrain of San Francisco as natural barriers to the type of subway lines we see in New York and Boston. Luckily, we can look to the success of cities like Houston, where public transit reforms have allowed the previously car-dominated city to better serve the mobility needs of its residents. Similar to Los Angeles, post-World War II Houston was built to make cars the easiest, most popular mode of transport within the extended metropolitan area. However, the demand for well-connected, efficient public transit has become clear in Houston, where the implementation of its first light rail line placed the city among the top three cities in the country with the most riders per mile.
While most American cities still center around cars, adding in bus and train infrastructure that connect densely-populated areas to key locations can promote the use of public transit over personal cars. Converting commuters from drivers to riders is beneficial in both reducing traffic and lowering greenhouse gas emissions from city transport.
It’s also essential to discuss the strong socio-economic and racial inequity in public transit systems across the country. Research shows that neighborhoods with large nonwhite populations have disproportionately lower access to reliable transit. Additionally, there are racial and economic disparities in the length and quality of these rides. In Boston, African American riders spend 66 more hours per year than white riders when waiting for and taking buses. Therefore, it is necessary to look at public transportation reform through a lens of social justice.
Our conception of these cities as “car cities” reinforces a dangerous narrative that success in California means owning the latest Tesla or Prius. Yes, electric cars are an important step towards the decarbonization of our transportation systems. However, pouring millions of dollars into these ventures with no care to reforming California's lackluster public transit further exacerbates the transit inequity in the Golden State.
We don’t all need electric cars (and currently, most of us can’t afford them). We need an accessible, multi-modal transportation system that acknowledges differing mobility needs within our communities. Adding in options such as shared electric bikes or small neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) can help fill in the gaps between electric cars and public transit. In recent years, we have seen San Francisco and Los Angeles take steps to address the flaws in their transportation systems, most notably with the $120 billion plan Los Angeles passed to upgrade its public transit before the 2028 Olympics. However, it will take more than just public funding to reroute transportation norms in California and the US. We need to shift our mindset away from the toxic car culture of the past and become more accepting and accommodating of alternative forms of transport. Creating space for innovations such as micro-mobility and low-emission green zones will allow us to make transportation greener and more accessible, particularly for those who are currently harmed by these systems. Even better, these shifts will move us away from the isolating car culture we are currently in and towards an understanding of mobility as a community-based venture that can bring residents together.