Looking backward to move forward: sustainable alternatives to automobiles

Imagine a future where private automobiles have gone the way of the horse and buggy. For everyday trips, you hop on and off community-owned bikes dispersed throughout the area to get to your nearby goal or to cheap, reliable public transportation for more distant destinations. Transitioning to new modes of transportation is very difficult. People are reluctant to make major changes in their lifestyles, and it is extremely convenient and comfortable to drive from door to door.

Walking, bicycling, and public transportation should become the pillars of local transportation and will involve changes in how people live their lives, as opposed to jumping in their cars.
Moving forward to a differently imagined lifestyle seems like an unrealistic utopian fantasy. Nevertheless, it is certainly technologically feasible and would cut down reliance on fossil fuels. These solutions appear to be moving us backwards. However, it is necessary to adopt different modes of transportation if we want to move forward sustainably. Implementing new modes of transportation will involve massive infrastructure changes constructed by local and national governments.

Many would vehemently object to subsidies for expanding public transportation and making communities more walkable and bikeable. However, the US spends massive amounts of money to support automobile use and $20.5 billion yearly to subsidize the fossil fuel industry. Even people who do not drive subsidize those who do by paying taxes for streets and roads and are exposed to air pollution from other people’s cars. Also, governments already regulate automobile use by mandating car and driving licenses, car insurance, speed limits, and drunk driving laws.
Governments will have to be involved in switching transportation to a system less reliant on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, governments seem reluctant to do so. Thus, massive social movements fighting climate change must push them to change their policies.

For people to mobilize to switch their transportation modes, they need to know exactly why they should do so. One way to motivate people is to remind them of how expensive car ownership is, including the high cost of car payments, including interest, insurance, gasoline, maintenance and repair. Also, higher taxes are paid for street, road, and parking space construction and maintenance. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), the average yearly cost to own and operate a vehicle in 2022 was $10,728. Society pays for policing roads and the effects of noise, water, and air pollution.

Besides the high cost of owning cars, they also damage the environment. When vehicles burn fossil fuels, it adds to the greenhouse effect contributing to climate change. Air pollution from vehicles damages various organs, the cardiovascular, respiratory, and immune systems, and increases asthma, heart attacks and strokes, cancer, and even increases the rates of Alzheimer’s and autism. According to the US Department of Energy, approximately 25 pounds of greenhouse gases are emitted per gallon of petroleum fuel consumed.

The Geneva Protocol on Air Pollution declared the petroleum industry the largest single source of worldwide air pollution. Air pollution even damages food crops. According to Terry Tamminen, author of Lives Per Gallon—The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction, farmers lose around a third of their crops to petroleum-based air and water pollution. Gasoline contains up to 225 toxic chemicals, some of which are carcinogenic. According to the California Air Resources Board, gasoline evaporates whether the engine is running or not. Particulate matter released from engine exhaust, brake linings, and tire wear adds to air pollution.

Air pollution is also created by the businesses and infrastructure that service automobiles. For example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, around 25% of the country’s approximately 623,000 gas station tanks have leaked their contents into the environment. Even all the energy used to produce and maintain parking spaces increases pollution. The petroleum industry used lead as an additive despite previous knowledge of lead toxicity. Tamminen reported that approximately seventy million tons of lead contaminated the environment.

There are various issues regarding switching to walking, bicycling, and public transportation. One large obstacle is bad weather. Sometimes it just seems too hot, cold, windy, icy, or stormy for walking, biking, or waiting for public transportation. However, these harsh conditions can be dealt with by such measures as car sharing and dial-up rides for door-to-door service for anyone unable to walk, bike, or ride public transportation. Young children could ride in an enclosed bike trailer that protects their safety and prevents exposure to the harshest elements. Enclosed rickshaw types of bicycles can be covered with a roof that protects from rain and snow, and leafy green vegetation could be grown on the roof in the summer to provide shade. Enclosed bicycle-driven vehicles that look like cars could also protect against wind, cold, snow, and rain. These methods would be great for the ill, the elderly, and the disabled.

Another difficulty is transporting groceries and other items. Nevertheless, walkers can use shopping carts, and bicyclists can either use baskets on their bikes or ride cargo bikes. Businesses can deliver larger and bulkier stuff.

Personal safety is another issue. However, the more people out and about, the safer the neighborhood is. Unfortunately, making poor neighborhoods more pleasant frequently leads to gentrification. Gentrification is ironic as it pushes out the people who walked, rode bikes, and used public transportation by the classes that abandoned cities. Expressways were built for suburbanites, which tore through poor neighborhoods and exposed them to air pollution from people who didn’t even reside there.

It is extremely easy to criticize the sprawl of detached single-family homes in suburbia. However, it must be acknowledged that these communities are more physically attractive and quieter than cities. In contrast, city living is noisy, and most apartment buildings are usually unattractive. Luckily, increased greenery can make urban living more peaceful and attractive. Apartment buildings could be made more appealing. Murals and other public art are visually captivating and can be scattered throughout communities to attract pedestrians.

A major advantage of walking is its positive effects on health. “Walkability and its Relationships with Health, Sustainability, and Livability: Elements of Physical Environment and Evaluation Frameworks” was published in Frontiers in Built Environment. The authors reported that walking is good for health and “as a low-intensity physical activity is associated with healthier populations since it contributes to lower rates of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. … Neighborhood walkability is also associated with lower respiratory disease rates, such as asthma in children. … The mortality rate for those above 65 years old who walked for 2,000 steps per day was found to be 78 per 1,000 as opposed to the mortality rate of 12 per 1,000 for those who walked 10,000 steps per day.” The authors stated that walking in daylight is even good for the immune system because it increases vitamin D production.

A study from the American Cancer Society verified the health benefits of walking. They followed 140,000 older adults and found that those who walked 6 hours weekly had a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and cancer than those who were not active.
It would be reasonable to assume that walkers and cyclists are exposed to more air pollution than those riding in cars. However, Damian Carrington, environmental editor at The Guardian reported that there is evidence that this is not correct.

A study conducted in Leeds, England, tracked rush-hour commutes of 2.5 miles. All commuters started at the same time, and the cyclists arrived at the destination in 11 minutes, half the time of car travelers. Cyclists were exposed to half the particulate matter than car riders. Walkers in the same study who took a route that avoided busy streets cut their particulate exposure by 75%. A study in London found that green routes cut walkers’ exposure by half. Carrington also reported that experiments have shown that drivers inside vehicles are exposed to far higher levels of air pollution than those walking or cycling along the same urban route. Stephen Holgate, MD, stated that air pollution “is nine to 12 times higher inside the car than outside.” Dr. Benjamin Barratt at the School of Public Health at Imperial College-London measured the exposure of people traveling by car, bus, bicycle, and walking in London in 2014. He stated, “The car driver, by a very long way, was exposed to the highest pollution level. The fumes from the vehicles in front and behind were coming into the car and getting trapped there.”

Just as walking improves health, it also benefits the economy. Robert Steuteville is the editor of Public Square, a Congress for the New Urbanism publication. Steuteville wrote about the economic value of walkability. For instance, the High Line is a 1.45-mile-long pedestrian park in Manhattan, New York City. It attracts five million visitors a year, and the surrounding developments led to the creation of 12,000 new jobs.

Still another positive effect of walking is its lower carbon footprint. Walking contributes much less to climate change than driving. The LOWA website reported that walking five trips of 1.24 miles a week instead using a car for those trips can decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 189.598 pounds yearly. Another study from the Pacific Institute found that walking 1.5 miles would generate less than a quarter of the greenhouse gases that would be emitted if the person drove the same distance. Cycling also produces only a small amount of CO2.

Bicycling is also great for the health of the biker and even non-riders because less air pollution is produced. Blue Zones is an organization that researches the characteristics of societies in which the populace has longer life expectancies. According to an article they published, bicycling increases cardiovascular fitness, improves muscle strength and flexibility, increases joint mobility, posture, and coordination, leads to stronger bones, decreased body fat, lowers stress levels, and reduces anxiety and depression.

The article in Blue Zones reported that cycling lowers the amount of money spent on health care. An article entitled “Air Quality and Exercise-Related Health Benefits from Reduced Car Travel in the Midwestern United States” was published in Environmental Health Perspectives. The study estimated that if residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota replaced half of their short car trips with bike trips in warmer months, the estimated cost savings from avoided mortality and reduced health care costs could total $146 million yearly.”

Another study was co-authored by Dr. Babak Mohit of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. It reported that the 45.5 miles of bike lanes that New York City built in 2015 “yielded benefits that equated to an extra year of life at full health over the lifetime of all residents of the city.”

Public transportation is a major alternative to automobile use. The American Public Transportation Association [APTA] provided important economic data. For example, every $1 billion spent on public transportation creates approximately 50,000 jobs, and every $10 billion spent on public transportation operating investments yields $32 million in increased business sales.

Besides the economic importance of public transportation, it has a positive effect on riders’ safety. A report entitled “Evaluating Public Transportation Health Benefits” published by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute adds that public transport has only about 1/20th the passenger fatality rate of automobile travel. The APTA reported that traveling by public transportation is ten times safer per mile than traveling by automobile.

Public transportation contributes to a healthier populace by lowering air pollution and climate change. The APTA reported that public transportation saves the country 6 billion gallons of gasoline annually and reduces carbon emissions by 63 million metric tons annually. Public transportation increases the amount of walking. The health report from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute stated that overall, North Americans daily walk about 6 minutes on average, whereas public transit riders spend a median of 19 daily minutes walking, a little less than the target of 22 daily minutes of moderate physical activity.

Just as public transportation improves health, it also provides financial savings. The Moving Forward Discourse website summarized the various costs of different transportation modes. They stated that for every dollar a car driver spends, society pays $9.20. If busing costs $1, society pays $1.50. If walking costs $1, society pays $0.01. If biking costs $1, society pays $0.08.

Fortunately, many Americans support public funding of sidewalks and bike paths. For instance, Princeton Survey Research Associates International conducted a study on this. They first informed their participants that 1.5% of federal transportation funds sidewalks and bikeways even though biking and walking make up 12% of all trips. 17% of federal transportation funds are spent on public transportation, and 80% are used for roads. 47% of the study participants supported increasing funding for sidewalks and bikeways.

Switching to walking, biking, and public transportation will seem like a catastrophe for many. However, it is an opportunity to improve health, lower air pollution, and slow down climate change.

Lenore Hitchler

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    By: ONE Team

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