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Do more cars and less public transport reflect a developed country?

Passengers wait to board the bus at the New Bohemia temporary bus depot in Cedar Rapids. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

There is a famous quote attributable to Enrique Peñalosa, the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia from 1998 to 2001 and from 2016 to 2019 and a strong advocate for the expansion of bicycle and bus routes during his time as mayor: “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. This is where the wealthy use public transit. But what does that really mean? After all, cars are a status symbol and owning a vehicle is negatively associated with poverty. Indeed, the freedom of movement afforded by access to a car has been shown to dramatically increase economic opportunity, to the point that household ownership of just one car has been associated with a tripling of income. So what gives?

A starting point for comparing cars to public transport is to consider the two as broader systems, rather than just individual choices – public transport as a network of routes and its integration with homes and businesses people come and go to and cars don’t. only as individual vehicles, but also the garages, highways and parking lots necessary for the circulation of these vehicles.

The post-1945 suburban sprawl that people in eastern Iowa know well is expensive. A Canadian study found that due to lower efficiency and greater distances for services such as emergency services, water pipes, roads and waste removal, the cost per household in a suburban area is significantly higher ($3,462) than in an urban area ($1,416). ). Multiplied by thousands of households, plus faster growth on the outskirts of the city rather than in historic centres, one begins to wonder what the sprawl spending might have been affected if development had been more compact. Perhaps towards parks, educational institutions or the repair of existing roads rather than constantly building new ones? And yes, maybe some of that surplus could also be allocated to a better regional transit system; one that circulates frequently at all hours of the day, in both urban and rural areas.

Even with aids like relatively low gas prices, the amount of driving Americans are required to do imposes a significant cost – even with average gas prices exceeding $6 a gallon in Sweden, the proportion of Annual income spent on gasoline in Sweden is about half (1.23%) compared to the United States (2.16%). The culprit for this phenomenon is threefold: with far less travel in the United States by bike or public transit, Americans are simply driving so much that the benefit of cheaper gas is more than offset by the sheer rate of consumption. The United States is also much more densely populated than Sweden, with 91 people per square mile on average compared to 60.

Add in factors like insurance, registration, parking, and maintenance, and at a minimum, the costs of owning a car over its lifetime have been estimated at around $400,000 for a moderately compact car. used, as well as $246,000 in estimated grants, including from those who do. not drive. Again, the question must be asked whether these funds could be put to better use elsewhere and whether funds allocated to cars rather than other purposes have in fact deprived us of goods and services that would have improved the quality of life.

Car addiction in the United States also completely robs people of life. Deaths from traffic collisions were significantly higher in the United States than in Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan and the European Union since the 1990sthe largest increase in recorded history having occurred last year – up 10.5% to 42,915 in 2021. excess mortality in the United States, which translates into lower and decreasing life expectancies compared to comparable developed countries.

From this perspective, structuring life around drive-through dining begins to feel much less like “every man is a king” and more like a dystopia where the collective need for transportation has been abandoned by organizations at scale. to take care of such problems, like the government. It leaves out all those who cannot drive alone, including those with more comfortable means – children, the disabled, the elderly, etc.

If it was common in the United States for governments to invest in and create alternatives to the car – like public transportation – to the point where it is more convenient and practical to walk, bike or ride rather than drive , we would almost certainly be better off as a society. Rates of illness, injury and death from road collisions and vehicle emissions would decrease. Greenhouse gas emissions from transportation would also decline, especially since transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States.

It is true that a considerable amount of resources are needed to maintain a system where everyone can or should drive. But material abundance alone is not the only measure of development. Looking at parameters such as health, safety, accessibility and the marginal benefit of every dollar spent, it becomes increasingly clear that a more developed society is one where the reign of the car is not absolute. .

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