Car Culture: Everything You Need to Know
Quick Key Facts
- Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on Our Lives, define car culture as “a society built around private modes of transportation, but with massive public investment in the infrastructure that allows those private uses.”
- In the U.S. in 1900, more than a quarter of the 4,200 cars made that year were electric.
- The first law against “jaywalking” was passed in Los Angeles in 1925.
- The number of cars on the road in Mumbai increased from 320,000 in 1981 to more than three million in 2018.
- Road travel is responsible for 15 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.
- If everyone on Earth drove at the rate of the U.S. population, there would be eight billion cars on the road and transportation emissions would go up by at least triple the current emissions of the entire worldwide economy.
- Road collisions kill 1.35 million people every year worldwide.
- The U.S. government spends about four times more on roads than on public transportation.
- In 2020, new SUV sales canceled out the reduction in oil demand from increased EV sales.
- A bike lane can carry six times as many people as a car lane, assuming 1.5 passengers per car.
What Is ‘Car Culture’?
When you Google, “America’s love affair with…” the first word the algorithm fills in is “the automobile.” The third is “cars.” (The second is, surprise, surprise, guns.) In the U.S. — and increasingly in other parts of the world too — cars and driving have a significant impact on our daily lives. They determine the use of our streets, shape the design of our cities and suburbs, define coming of age for many young people, and affect the quality of the air we breathe. From anthropomorphized vehicles like Herbie: The Love Bug and the cars of Cars, to road trip epics like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Thelma & Louise to bangers like “Fast Car” and “Route 66,” automotive travel has had an outsized impact on our imaginations. Yet despite the association between cars and freedom, the world built to accommodate them has actually become quite limiting. As journalist Daniel Knowles wrote in Carmageddon: How Cars Make Life Worse and What to Do About it, “We have designed our cities so that having a car is not a luxury but a necessity.”
Car culture is exactly this built-in necessity. As biking columnist Shannon Johnson puts it, “‘car culture’ refers to the specifically car-centric, car-dominant, car-prioritizing, and car-biased beliefs/habits/behaviors and policies that make up the typically unconscious accepted norms of our wider society.” Catherine Lutz and Anne Lutz Fernandez, authors of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and Its Effect on Our Lives, further define it as “a society built around private modes of transportation, but with massive public investment in the infrastructure that allows those private uses.” Common infrastructure, in other words, encourages individual car use.
Well, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t any society going to prioritize its primary mode of transportation? Knowles argues that cars are one of the No. 1 causes of externalities — ”costs imposed on others by your decisions.” Those costs include traffic jams, vehicle collisions, common space given over to parking and highways, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to the climate crisis. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning us that we must nearly halve carbon pollution this decade to avoid ever more extreme weather events and environmental impacts, imagining a world beyond car culture is more urgent than ever.
How Did ‘Car Culture’ Come to Be?
If you remember a time before the dominance of the smartphone, then you have something of a sense of how the emergence of a new technology can fundamentally alter the texture of daily life. In the 1990s, the time and place of meetups with friends had to be set in advance and stuck to, people relied on physical maps to navigate new cities, and cellphone users were often portrayed in popular culture as exceptional workaholics. Today, smartphones are required for everything from banking to ordering in a restaurant to applying for asylum in the U.S. They have so enmeshed themselves in the infrastructure of living that their ascendence feels inevitable, but in fact it was the result of a series of technological and political choices and accidents. A similar thing happened with the car.
The First Cars
When the automobile was first invented in the second half of the 19th century, it was far from a sure thing that cars powered with internal combustion engines would come to rule the roads. At the time, the streets were primarily places for walking, playing and socializing. While pedestrians shared them with horse-pulled vehicles and streetcars, these did not move quickly enough to scare walkers to the sides. An onlooker described the streets of Washington, DC, at the time as “absolutely black with people.” Cars were expensive, and the few early drivers were characterized as upper class speed demons, such as Mr. Toad in Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 classic The Wind in the Willows. For distances that proved too far to walk, people relied on public transportation. There were approximately 22,000 miles of streetcar tracks in U.S. cities by 1902, with around five billion riders.
Even if cars were to become the primary mode of transportation, there was no guarantee that it would be the gas-powered cars of today. The first commercially available combustion-engine vehicles were made by Carl Benz in Germany in 1886. But this model had two main competitors: steam- and electric-powered vehicles. In the U.S. in 1900, most of the estimated 8,000 cars on the roads used steam. Of the 4,200 cars made that year, more than a quarter were electric while a quarter used gas. Many people preferred electric vehicles for their lack of noise and pollution, but eventually the internal combustion engine won out due to its longer driving range and lack of need for bulky batteries. It was helped along by the emergence of Henry T. Ford’s Model T in 1908. Ford’s 1913 innovation of mass producing via assembly line and 1914 decision to pay workers $5 a day (a big raise at the time) significantly reduced the price of a car — from $825 when it debuted to $260 in 1925 — and allowed his workers to purchase their own. The Model T’s affordability allowed the U.S. middle classes to finally hit the roads.
Even then, the rise of the car might have been stopped over safety concerns. As cars got faster, they became more dangerous for all the people sharing the road with them. Beginning in the 1920s, cars began to kill 30,000 people a year in the U.S., and that number has never gotten smaller. At first, when a driver struck and killed a child playing in the road, the driver would be blamed and often charged with manslaughter. Angry citizens protested. In 1922 in New York, 1,054 children marched in honor of the 1,054 children lost to cars the year before. In 1923, more than 10 percent of Cincinnati, Ohio, signed a petition to mandate that cars have an in-built speed limit of 25 miles per hour. The same year, sales of new cars fell off.
In response, car markers, dealerships, auto-clubs and wealthy enthusiasts came together as “Motordom” and began a political and social lobbying campaign to claim the street for the car. They managed to shift the blame for pedestrian deaths from drivers to “jaywalkers” — from the earlier term “jay driving” for driving on the wrong side of the road. The first law against “jaywalking” was passed in Los Angeles in 1925, and the charge caught on. “It is now the fashion to ascribe from 70 to 90 percent of all accidents to jaywalking,” a New York traffic court magistrate wrote at the time.
Automobiles managed to crowd the streetcars off city streets as well. In the 1920s, the majority of urbanites rode public transit to work. Today, the number of public-transit commuters hovers around five percent (falling to 2.5 percent in 2021), and not on streetcars. There’s a sort of conspiracy theory — made famous in Who Framed Roger Rabbit — that General Motors and Standard Oil purchased streetcars in the 1930s and 40s in several U.S. cities in order to intentionally run them into the ground. In fact, they didn’t really have to. Because most streetcars did not have the right-of-way as automobiles began to crowd city streets, they got stuck in traffic and became unreliable. At the same time, city contracts requiring streetcar companies to maintain the roads they used and keep fares at five cents proved too much of a burden once they were no longer the only game in town. So commuters turned to the car, but with different urban policy choices, it could have been otherwise. In Chicago, streetcars did keep the right-of-way and there they survived.
The Suburb and the Freeway
While cars became a mass market product in the U.S. by the 1920s and took over urban streets, they facilitated an even more dramatic transformation of the country in the period after World War II. In 1950, there were 25 million cars on the road. That number more than doubled to 67 million by 1960 and by 1970 it had more than quadrupled to 118 million. The 1950s is probably the decade most associated with the rise of the car: 1950s American automobile culture has its own Wikipedia entry. This was facilitated by the nation’s biggest-ever construction project: The Federal-Aid Highway Act, which spent $25 billion — or a fifth of the nation’s gross domestic product — to build 60,000 miles of new roadways. This allowed cars and trucks to become the leading choice for long-distance travel and transport, overtaking trains.
The car also fundamentally transformed U.S. cities. As they became more congested, developers began to build highways and move residential dwellings out to the expanding suburbs, where 55% of U.S. residents earning more than $10,000 lived by 1965. At the same time, the new highways would be built through urban neighborhoods, often majority Black. Many urban neighborhoods that weren’t bulldozed outright were cut off from the rest of the city or fell into decline as their tax base moved away and did their shopping in suburban malls. In total more than a million people were displaced. While racism was the ultimate cause of this new urban/ suburban segregation, “it was mass automobile ownership, and the construction of highways, that made white flight possible,” Knowles explains.
Around the World
While the gas-powered car was first invented in Europe, it took until after World War II for it to become a mass-market product there. The industry faced similar early speed bumps across the Atlantic — such as concerns about road safety — but it took longer for it to accelerate, partly because the majority in Europe had a lower standard of living and less purchasing power, the overall market was smaller, and there were stricter taxes and tariffs. After the war, this changed, and major cities like London, Paris, Rome and Amsterdam built circular highways surrounding their centers in the 1950s and 60s. This made the cities harder to access without a car, and led to the decline in railways and other forms of urban public transportation.
Worldwide, car production increased by nearly 10 times in the 35 years after the war, and the U.S. share of that production declined from around 80 percent to 20 percent. In addition to European countries, Japan emerged as a major player by the 1980s, and South Korea an important producer as well. China became the world’s No. 1 car maker at the start of the 21st century. At the same time, the rising middle classes in Global South cities like Mumbai or Nairobi all want to drive, and infrastructure is being built to accommodate them. In Mumbai, for example, the number of cars on the road increased from 320,000 in 1981 to more than three million in 2018. But the number of cars is increasing everywhere on Earth. Car culture has gone global.
What Are the Problems With Car Culture?
The rise of the car has had a profound impact on everything from urban design to the quality of the air we breathe, and many of those impacts are negative.
Perhaps the most urgent problem with cars is that they burn oil for fuel, and that process releases carbon dioxide out of the tailpipe and contributes to the escalating climate crisis. Cars emit 24 pounds of greenhouse gases per gallon, with around five of that coming from the process of acquiring the oil and more than 19 of that from direct emissions.
In the U.S., transportation is responsible for more climate pollution than any other single sector, at around 29 percent of the country’s total emissions, and cars and light-duty trucks are responsible for 57.5 percent of those emissions. Worldwide, transportation is responsible for around a fifth of total emissions and a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions from energy. Road travel — cars, buses and trucks — contributes three-quarters of that, making it responsible for 15 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions. And this is with the current number of cars on the road — 1.4 billion in 2019. If the global number ballooned to match U.S. rates of car ownership, there would be eight billion cars in circulation and transportation emissions would increase by at least triple the current emissions of the entire worldwide economy.
Carbon dioxide isn’t the only pollutant that comes out of a tailpipe. Cars, trucks and buses also emit particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds including the carcinogenic pollutants benzene, acetaldehyde and 1,3-butadiene. Nitrogen oxides and VOCs can interact with sunlight to form ground-level ozone, which is a major component of smog that causes respiratory distress. Particulate matter is the world’s leading public health threat, taking 2.2 years off the average human life, and it is primarily generated by the combustion of fossil fuels, including in vehicle engines.
The 1970 Clean Air Act in the U.S. has done a good job of ensuring cleaner vehicles, and therefore healthier air — most tailpipe emissions are down 98 to 99 percent since the 1960s. Yet cars are also getting bigger and heavier, and the new vehicular behemoths are releasing particulate matter from tire wear at a rate of nearly 2,000 times that of exhaust emissions. Further, after Global North governments like the U.S. and Europe pass regulations, they ship their older cars to the Global South, where cities like Delhi and Jakarta are now used to the hazy skies once normal in 1970s New York. A 2020 report that around 80 percent of used vehicles exported between 2015 and 2018 were shipped to poor or middle income countries. While air pollution is a greater health burden in poorer countries, 99% of people everywhere breathe unhealthy air based on World Health Organization standards. And, in recent years, smoke from climate-fueled wildfires has begun to reverse air quality gains in the U.S. West. While cars aren’t solely responsible for this, their exhaust is part of the greenhouse gas soup heating our atmosphere.
Environmental Demands of EVs
In recent years, wealthy countries and car companies have begun to embrace electric vehicles (EVs) as the solution. The European Union is set to ban the sales of new gas and diesel engines by 2035, as are U.S. states like California, Oregon and Washington, and major carmakers are announcing more EVs in their lineup. EVs do not burn fossil fuels, so they mitigate two of the big problems with cars: carbon and air pollution. Even accounting for manufacturing the batteries and the source of the electricity used to charge the car, EVs generally have lower cradle-to-grave emissions and carbon footprints than conventional cars, and a new study has found a link between EV uptake in a zip code and decreased air pollution and asthma ER visits, though electric cars still emit particulate matter from tires.
That said, there would be other serious environmental consequences if everyone who drove a gas-powered car swapped it for an EV, because EVs, and their batteries, require around six times the minerals that regular cars do. A recent study found that the U.S. alone would require three times the amount of lithium currently available if current EV adoption trends continue to 2050. This is a problem because lithium has to be mined, and mining is both extremely damaging to the environment and the sector most linked to violence against land defenders. Cobalt, also, is an important EV battery component. Around 70 percent of it is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there have been reports of human rights abuses and children working in mines that also contribute to deforestation in an important global carbon sink. So while driving EVs may be better for the atmosphere and air, they still demand the exploitation of vulnerable communities and ecosystems. What’s more, switching to EVs won’t do anything about the rest of the problems on this list.
Congestion and Space
One of Knowles’ major arguments against cars is that they require so much space to be useful — at least two parking spots as well as space to move between them without causing traffic jams. In the UK, cars take up more space than the Isle of Wight. Yet attempts to ease congestion by building new highways or adding another lane ends up isolating the neighborhoods they pass between or through and increasing the amount of car-based infrastructure between where people live and where they work or shop, forcing more people to drive and eventually raising traffic levels to what they were before the expansion.
He gives two examples at opposite ends of the globe. The Kennedy and Eisenhower Expressways in Chicago were built in the 1950s and 60s to help an expanding number of drivers through the city, yet in 2020 the stretch of the Eisenhower leading up to where it intersects with the Kennedy ranked as the most congested in the world. In Nairobi, meanwhile, politicians respond to congestion on the Uhuru Highway by building more bypasses, yet developers then build near the new roads, attracting more drivers and restoring the traffic to the status quo.
Worldwide, a total of 1.35 million people die every year in road crashes, and 42,795 U.S. residents died in motor vehicle collisions in 2022. More people now die in crashes than from HIV/AIDS, and they are the No. 1 cause of death for people aged five to 29. As Knowles points out, the use of the word “accident” to describe car crashes is a good example of car culture, since it encourages us to take these deaths for granted as an inevitable fact of life. But studying the history of public anger surrounding early car-crash deaths helps us to rethink the issue. It would be more accurate to describe traffic accidents as car killings. Of the nearly 3,700 people killed daily in collisions involving cars, buses, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, more than half of them were walking or riding a bike or motorcycle.
As with air pollution, traffic safety is a much greater problem in less wealthy countries, where the death rate is more than three times higher than in wealthy ones. While people in low- and middle-income countries drive 60 percent of the world’s registered vehicles, they suffer 90% of its crash deaths. However, that doesn’t mean the wealthy world is unaffected. In 2016, when U.S. traffic deaths stood at 37,461, Edward Humes noted that more U.S. residents died in car crashes annually than in any year of fighting in the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan. “If U.S. roads were a war zone, they would be the most dangerous battlefield the American military has ever encountered,” he wrote.
Beyond air pollution and car crashes, car culture harms health in other ways. Post-war U.S. car culture is intimately linked to the rise of fast food, as restaurant owners streamlined their kitchens to meet the demand of drivers along the new highway system. The first ever drive-thru restaurant was opened in 1947 in Springfield, Missouri, along Route 66. Fast food has risen alongside, and often encourages, industrial agriculture; it is high in calories, sugar, trans fats, sodium and chemical preservatives; low in essential nutrients; and linked to negative health impacts on essentially every bodily system.
While cars encourage people to put unhealthy food in their bodies, they also make it more difficult to burn it off. Driving tends to encourage a sedentary lifestyle, as people only walk between their homes and their cars and their cars and their destinations. Relying on a car means you are less likely to get incidental exercise during your day — physicians recommend 10,000 steps daily, and walking just back and forth from a car uses only around 1,000 — and the time spent commuting gives you less time for intentional exercise. Extended periods of sitting every day increase the risk of heart disease and other chronic ailments, and every extra 30 minutes in a car ups the risk of obesity by three percent.
As the example of U.S.highway construction and white flight illustrates, cars tend to exacerbate existing inequalities. Black people in the U.S. are around 25% more likely to be killed in car crashes than white people and also more likely to be pulled over by police while driving and then either ticketed or arrested. While women are responsible for fewer car crashes, they are 73 percent more likely to be seriously injured in one than men and 17 percent more likely to be killed. Globally, the poor are less likely to own cars but must still breathe the air they pollute and navigate the streets they make more dangerous — not to mention contend with the climate impacts that vehicle emissions contribute to.
Designing cities and suburbs for cars also encourages inequality. What historian Margaret Walsh wrote of the 1950s is still true today: “To be without a car in the United States…[is] to be almost in exile.” Yet the U.S. government spends about four times more on roads than public transit. This forces low-income individuals to either struggle to afford a car — the poorest 10 percent of U.S. households spend 7.5 times as much on vehicle-related costs as the richest — or go without. Sixty-one percent of the poorest fifth of U.S. households have a car, compared with 90 percent of the richest. There is racial disparity too, with a little more than two-thirds of Black households owning cars compared to 86 percent of white households. And then there are those, like the blind and low vision, whose disabilities prevent them from driving. While 91.7 percent of U.S. residents drive, only 60.4 percent of those with disabilities do.
Bigger Isn’t Better
Despite growing awareness of the environmental cost of private vehicles, in many ways the vehicles on the road are getting more dangerous, not less, especially in the U.S. That’s because more and more people are buying larger sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickup trucks instead of smaller sedans, and those larger vehicles are themselves getting larger. SUVs sold at twice the rate of sedans in the U.S. in 2019, and — together with light trucks — accounted for 72 percent of sales. The number of SUVs worldwide has gone up by more than five times from 50 million in 2010 to 280 million in 2022, when they accounted for nearly half of global car sales.
The problem with this trend is that heavier cars are more dangerous both for the road and for the planet. Taller SUVs and trucks have larger front blind zones, which can be dangerous for pedestrians, especially children. Between 2016 and 2020, 744 U.S. children died after being hit by a vehicle driving forward, and in most cases that vehicle was a truck or SUV. Larger, heavier rides also require more gasoline and emit more carbon pollution. In 2020, the International Energy Agency calculated that SUV sales canceled out the reduced oil demand of EV sales. In 2022, the agency found, they emitted nearly a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. While there is a growing market for electric SUVs, these require larger batteries and therefore more of the minerals that put a strain on the EV transition.
Is There Anything Good About Car Culture?
So if car culture is so bad, why do so many people seem to love cars and driving? Certainly necessity and advertising play a role, but it would be foolish to discount the sense of accomplishment a young person feels after tuning up their first car or the sense of adventure a family experiences when loading up for a road trip. Because, especially in wealthy countries, cars have influenced so much of people’s daily lives, the time spent in them or working on them has inevitably taken on profound meaning. While cars can exacerbate inequalities, their greater affordability has also helped oppressed groups find greater freedom. For example, cars allowed Black Americans to escape segregated public transit during the Jim Crow era, as Gretchen Sorin documents in Driving While Black. Certainly, within a world built for cars, owning one can make it much easier to commute to work, run errands and visit loved ones if none of those things fall along a convenient public transit route. The question is, if we build the world differently, could we construct a better one?
What Could Be Done to Reduce Reliance on Cars?
Reducing car dependence is a major component of a just transition to a climate-friendly world. The same study finding that business-as-usual EV use would require three times current lithium supplies also found that that number could be slashed by 90% by a combination of reducing EV size, improving battery recycling and shifting transportation away from one-person-one car. So how do we make this happen?
Improving Public Transportation
One major solution for reducing dependence on cars is to invest more in public transportation and make it more reliable and accessible. This can be done in part through something called “transit-oriented development” in which homes and businesses are built near train and bus stops to make them more convenient to ride. This is what railway companies did in Tokyo, for example, where only 12 percent of trips take place by car. Increasing the share of commuters who don’t rely on private vehicles has many benefits. It reduces greenhouse gas emissions because even if a bus or train uses fossil fuels, it still carries many more people per gallon and is much easier to electrify and switch to renewable energy. Increasing public transit use can also reduce air pollution, traffic, and income inequality.
Low Emission / Congestion Charging Zones
Another way to encourage public transit use in a city is to either limit the highly polluting cars entering certain areas (low emissions zones) or limit the total number of cars in an area (congestion charging zones). London, for example, has just won the right in court to expand its Ultra Low Emission Zone, which charges dirtier vehicles to enter most of Greater London. A study of both policies in cities in Asia and Europe found that they were linked to improved heart health in city residents.
Another way to reclaim city streets is simply to close them to cars, either permanently or for certain hours in the day. Many cities began experimenting with this during the initial response to the Covid-19 pandemic to increase outdoor public space so that people could socialize safely. In many places, residents liked the experiment so much, they kept it up. For example, John F. Kennedy Drive in San Francisco, which used to be closed to cars only on Sundays, is now permanently blocked to them. New York City began its Open Streets program, closing certain streets to cars for social activities, and now it is a summer tradition. An early pioneer of street closures was Paris, which began transforming its Voie Georges-Pompidou into a beach during the summers in 2002 and finally closed to all vehicles but scooters in 2017. Paris Isn’t stopping there — it plans to ban all private cars from its center in 2024.
Adding Bike Lanes
The reason Paris has been able to get away with shuttering roads to cars, according to Knowles, is that it has made it easier to bike. During the pandemic, when public transportation was closed down, the city built 60 kilometers (approximately 37 miles) of new bike lanes and started giving people 500 euro subsidies to buy electric bikes. Even before then, the road closures had increased cycling rates by 30 percent between 2010 and 2018. Another example is Copenhagen, which built bike lanes in response to the oil crisis in the 1970s and, in 2016, the number of cars in its center dipped below bikes for the first time since the 1950s. Adding bike lanes brings several advantages: They are much cheaper and easier to install than new public transit, they can transport commuters door-to-door, they encourage exercise and boost health and they can move six times as many people as a car lane, assuming each car ferries 1.5 people.
The term 15-minute-city was coined by French urbanist Carlos Moreno. “In a nutshell, the idea is that cities should be designed or redesigned so that within the distance of a 15-minute walk or bike ride, people should be able to live the essence of what constitutes the urban experience,” he explained in a TED talk. That means they should be able to live, work, eat, shop and access green space and entertainment. The 15-minute-city concept has been at the center of Paris’ redesign, and the C40 network of mayors taking climate action embraced it as part of their plan for a “green and just” recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
Most of these solutions have focused on cities, where people are more densely packed and tend to head to similar central locations for work or shopping. One might reasonably assume that, in rural areas, where people live farther apart from each other and from stores or businesses, that cars would still be necessary. However, people in rural areas tend to live clustered around smaller towns, and more than half of the U.S. counties in which 10 percent or more of the population doesn’t drive are rural. One thing that can help rural residents access their downtowns without cars is by making their main drags — many of which double as highways — safer for pedestrians, as Hillsboro, Virginia, did with Route 9.
Sometimes, like when you are ferrying large amounts of boxes during a move or heading out to a truly remote campsite, you do need something larger than a bike to get you from departure to arrival. But do you need to actually own the car you drive? In recent years, car sharing companies like Zipcar, Getaround and Turo allow people to pay to use shared cars just for a specific task or trip. Research has found that people who car share end up being more intentional about the kind of transportation they use overall, instead of defaulting to cars. BloombergNEF calculates that there will be more than 70 million shared cars — including taxis and ride-sharing apps — on the roads by 2040.
Today we live in a world driven by the car, but becoming aware of that fact can help us reclaim control over the steering wheel and steer the car into the garage. Inner cities did not have to be gutted to make freeways snaking out to suburbs; getting hit by speeding chunks of metal didn’t have to be normalized as an “accident;” the price of moving around an urban area didn’t have to be the ability to safely breathe its air. As the world seeks to transform itself to limit global warming and stave off ever worsening climate impacts, it can reimagine modes of transportation that are healthier for human communities, bodies and the planet.