Can America Go Car-Free? Gen Z Hopes So.

Can America Go Car-Free? Gen Z Hopes So.

Can America Go Car-Free? Gen Z Hopes So.

Young people today are already driving less, but breaking the country’s car-dependency will require unprecedented investment in infrastructure and public transit.

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While driving to my family’s house for Christmas, I got into an accident that totaled my car. I’d made this exact trip before, but this time I hit a small patch of frozen slush on the salted road. The accident left me with a severe concussion, along with months of headaches, brain fog, whiplash, and vertigo.

I was lucky to be alive. Around that time, I resolved to live car-free.

In recent years, studies have shown that young people are driving less. While roughly 62 percent of 17-year-olds had their license in 1997, only 42 percent in 2021 were legally allowed to drive.

What inspired this shift away from cars by our nation’s youth? The answer is complicated. For some young people, the fears around driving and safety outweigh any convenience it offers. Studies show that riding trains tends to be 20–30 times safer than driving, and riding buses is as much as 60 times as safe. Making matter worse, according to The New York Times, car safety features like seat belts, airbags, and dashboards were created to best fit the size of an average man in the 1970s, an outdated standard that has resulted in disproportionate injuries.

“I’ve always had a lot of anxiety about driving because a family member of mine had a very bad car accident when I was young,” said Laura, a 21-year-old from Austin, Tex., who doesn’t own a car. “I tried to learn to drive, but always felt super uncomfortable.” Cars also pose a serious risk to those who choose not to drive. Pedestrian death rates in the United States as a result of vehicle collisions recently reached the highest rate in the past 40 years. These rates are even higher for people of color and in historically redlined communities. “There were three different instances when students were hit by cars walking or biking to school, one of which was hospitalized,” said Adah Crandall, a 17-year-old climate and transportation justice activist from Portland. “The Oregon Department of Transportation is investing millions in the expansion of I-5, when we don’t even have safe crosswalks.”

The price to purchase, maintain, and fuel a car has skyrocketed, rising by 11 percent between 2021 and 2022. “For a generation already burdened with debt, the bus or ride-sharing might seem like a better option,” said professor Katui Attoh of the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies. The income and number of workers in a household tend to predict car ownership, and households with lower incomes and fewer workers typically drive less. Trends toward single-income households with lower wages among younger generations in recent years suggest that car ownership is less accessible for many households. Wealth, along with preference, has likely played a significant role in Gen Z’s decision to go car-free.

“The average cost of insurance in the US is something like $150 a month. That doesn’t include registration, gas, and any maintenance a car requires. And if I absolutely need a car,” said Leo Espinoza, a 23-year-old living in San Jose, Calif., “it is still cheaper to rent out a car or a U-Haul than it is to buy a car.”

For many young people, the desire for a healthy planet and future can outweigh the appeal of an automobile. Cars and trucks contribute to nearly 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and road vehicles (cars, trucks, buses, and motorbikes) account for about three-quarters of all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions. “I feel morally conflicted about getting my driver’s license,” said Crandall. “In many ways, it feels like giving in to the status quo, but I’m also acutely aware of the fact that the climate crisis is not the fault of individuals like me but of policy-makers and corporate executives who continue to prioritize cars and fossil fuel infrastructure over our health and safety.”

A spokesperson for the Federal Transportation Administration said sustainability is a major motivator for the shift away from driving. “We consider combating the climate crisis a top priority. Every person who leaves their car behind is helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, through FTA’s support, transit agencies put 1,100 low or no emission buses on our roadways with the intent to increase that to 10,000 buses in the coming years.”

The emissions associated with driving exacerbate the effects of climate change, disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities. Reducing emissions and transitioning to a more sustainable transportation system is at the forefront of the minds of many young people, as their generation is left to clean up a mess they didn’t make. At the same time, however, electric vehicles do not seem to be the catch-all climate solution they are often touted as, with the lithium required for their operation creating a demand for increased mining in already vulnerable environments.

For many young people I spoke with, their ability not to drive was largely dependent on the accessibility and costs of public transit. Bolstering public transit and building pedestrian and bike-friendly infrastructure are productive ways to support a less car-reliant lifestyle. “Cities and regions with robust public transportation can cut traffic death rates by up to 40 percent by prioritizing transit, in addition to bicycle and pedestrian safety efforts, showing that use of public transportation saves lives,” stated a spokesperson for the Federal Transportation Administration.

“Car-dependent metropolitan areas divide and isolate people from one another. Strong public transit systems do the opposite: They bring people and places together, fostering fortuitous interactions and vibrant experiences,” said Joe Grengs, professor of Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Michigan. “When young people shun a car-burdened lifestyle, I suspect they prefer to enjoy the lively and fulfilling experience that comes with interacting with a diversity of people and places that can only happen where the car is tamed and subservient to the needs of all people.”

At present, almost every region of the United States is reliant on cars. Our communities are built around this car-dependency, which comes at the expense of public transit and walkability. Cars are prioritized through the construction of single-family housing, parking lots, wide roads, fast speed limits, driving subsidies, and more. This makes walking, biking, and public transit much more difficult to access for many Americans—further reinforcing our dependency on personal automobiles.

“If we want to reduce car dependence, we need transit to be easier and driving to be more difficult,” argued associate professor Alex Karner of the University of Texas. “Only when we have policies in place that set these incentives will we start to see things change. The things that make public transit attractive are not rocket science. Service has to be frequent, reliable, and affordable. Around the world, we’ve seen that when transit has these qualities, people of all ages and all abilities use it.”

The investments needed to shift away from cars are surfacing now. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides a strong opportunity to promote accessible, affordable mass transit and road infrastructure to protect bikers and pedestrians. “In America, 28 million people lack access to a car or choose not to drive. Under the Biden-Harris Administration in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, funding increased about 30 percent to transit agencies and is providing the largest investment in public transportation in our country’s history, expanding service and getting more Americans to their schools, medical appointments, grocery stores and entertainment events,” said a spokesperson from the Federal Transportation Administration.

The key is making sure the funding is adequately allocated and used. In many low-income areas, access to affordable, reliable mass transit, however, is more difficult to come by. “One place to look for sustainable models of rural transportation is the developing world where people in more-rural settings often rely on a collection of smaller buses/vans to perform basic trips,” wrote Attoh in response to questions of what the future of public transit and sustainable transportation might look like. “Even in rural areas, it’s possible to build housing close to regional transit in a way that makes it convenient,” offered Karner. At the same time, creating marked bike lanes on rural roads or building additional sidewalks would make it safer and easier to get around without relying on a car. “It probably doesn’t make sense to have a full-fledged local transit system in every rural area, but we can think about ‘complete’ rural communities with essential needs close by.” For example, offering those in rural areas a weekly bus to grocery stores in neighboring towns or to larger cities.

“To live in a walkable place with good public transportation would be amazing, but feels impossible or at least prohibitively expensive in the US,” said Jack Sullivan, a 23-year-old from Tennessee. Of course, better options exist—we just need to make them accessible and affordable. “I am fighting for a world where the bus comes every 5 minutes, where kids can walk and bike to school without fearing for their safety, and where we can finally begin to heal the harm cars have caused to our cities and communities,” said Crandall, whose former former middle school, Harriet Tubman, sits less than 50 feet from one of the busiest parts of the Interstate-5 freeway. “I’m fighting for kids at Tubman who don’t have clean air, for people across Oregon that don’t have access to reliable public transit, and for my entire generation across the world who may not have a livable future.”

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