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In a Car-Driven Culture, Some Search for an Alternative

Gas prices are increasing. Politicians are complaining about U.S. dependency on foreign oil. Scientists are issuing dire predictions of global warming due to air pollution. And yet the number of automobiles in the United States continues to rise.

"If we don't control driving in America, the whole idea of controlling carbon dioxide emissions goes out the window," argued Charles Komanoff of the New York City-based Right of Way, a pedestrian and cyclist rights group.

In downtown Washington, D.C., a bike rider maneuvers through traffic during rush hour.

Photograph by Jennifer Mapes/National Geographic Society

One-third of the half-billion cars on the Earth are found in the United States. U.S. cars travel more than 1.5 trillion miles (2.4 trillion kilometers) each year. With warnings of a coming energy crisis and global warming, why do Americans cling to their cars?

"Right now there is no choice except to drive," said Jason Henderson, who is writing his Ph.D. dissertation on the hotly-debated topic of U.S. automobile politics. Henderson, a student at the University of Georgia, presented research on this subject at the American Association of Geographers annual meeting in New York City last month.

A Culture of Cars

American culture perpetuates the belief that cars are needed to live freely in the United States, said Henderson, a belief brought about by "three generations of growing up in a landscape of subdivisions and not knowing another way."

Upon examining the relationship between America and the car, Henderson said he found that the United States has produced both a landscape that is centered around the automobile and "the belief that Americans will not get out of their cars."

The philosophy of the U.S. transportation system, as well as its structural reality, make finding transportation alternatives difficult, noted Henderson.

"Pedestrians are an obstruction [in the system]. Cyclists are an obstruction. We spent 50 years trying to get them off the road."

Brookings Institute senior fellow Anthony Downs testified last week to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit that ridding the United States of cars—or even cutting into their numbers—is not likely.

Cars, said Downs, remain a faster, safer, more comfortable option than other forms of transportation. "Privately owned automotive vehicles will remain the dominant form of ground transportation for at least the near future and probably longer."

Searching for Auto Alternatives

Despite Downs' prediction, Komanoff said he believes that incentives can help take cars off the road.

Car owners, he suggested, should be dissuaded from driving not through a gasoline tax, but by a tax on driving itself. A charge of a nickel per mile driven would convince drivers to find an alternative, he said.

Komanoff advocates biking as an alternative to the car. "I'm just struck by the beauty and the simplicity of the bicycle," he said.

The use of a bike rather than a car could solve numerous social ills, Komanoff argued. It would improve social interaction, cut air pollution, and bolster the physical health of those who use a bicycle to commute, he said.

To make the bicycle a truly viable alternative, Komanoff said he believes the United States needs to enact a federal traffic law giving bicycles the right-of-way on the road.

"It could turn every road into a bike lane overnight," he said.

With their rights protected, Komanoff said the number of cyclists would increase. "The presence of cyclists on the road enhances safety," he said, "because drivers learn to watch for and respect cyclists."

For Henderson, decreased car use can only come with a much-needed change in the U.S. perspective on transportation.

"So many people argue that it's our culture, that we can't do anything about it," concluded Henderson. "I think it would be sad to just leave it at that."

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