When discussing low-carbon transportation and the question of why cars play such a dominant role in our society, it is often tempting to fall back on a comfortable and familiar answer: We drive cars because we like them!
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has radically disrupted people’s travel habits, with uncertain outcomes for car use. On one hand, it has resulted in empty roads, sold-out bike stores and cities with cleaner air. On the other, it threatens a public transit death spiral and the sudden dominance of drive-in services.
The stresses of the past year have altered the complex system of constraints that underpins mass car use, irrespective of personal travel preferences, and changed the ways we use cars. If this continues, it could reduce the use of private cars (yes, even electric ones), but could also radically increase it.
Achieving an outcome that reduces greenhouse gas emissions, while ensuring the development of safe and healthy cities, will require policy-makers and activists to act decisively. Our research on a general theory of car dependence suggests a few ways that they can do this.
Narratives justifying car-dependent infrastructure have become deeply embedded across the political spectrum, justifying enormous hidden subsidies for cars in the form of infrastructure such as roads and parking lots. This defunds alternatives and forces people to use roads as their primary transportation system, creating a nation of drivers who are predisposed to support even more subsidies for cars.
The pandemic, however, has disrupted the narrative and created an opening for new kinds of infrastructure that can facilitate car-free travel. Cheap-and-cheerful “pop-up” bike lanes have already taken hold in cities around the world, but policy-makers can think bigger.
Public transit, in particular, should also be the focus of a new round of state investment that makes it affordable and convenient for everyone. It will be particularly important to increase service levels to reduce crowding so that infection-wary travelers are no longer faced with the choice between a crowded rush-hour bus and a car.
What about jobs?
The car industry plays a big role in underpinning car dependence. Car companies’ capital structure requires them to sell cars at a fixed rate, and to build multipurpose, four-seater vehicles with redundant capacity. This creates a clear incentive for the car industry to lobby against alternative forms of transportation, and for auto workers to support the car industry or face plant closures and job losses.