The federal government spends more than $45 billion on automotive transportation annually. Add in state and local spending, and costs top $175 billion every year. At the same time, the public health costs of deaths connected to automobile-related crashes and emissions amount to an additional $900 billion. And that excludes the costs related to the 4.5 million people injured in automobile crashes every year.

All in all, the social costs of cars are more than $1 trillion every year for a transportation system struggling with increasing congestion, lengthening commute times, harmful emissions comprising the largest share of greenhouse gases of any sector in the United States and rising pedestrian fatalities from car crashes. We can spend this money better to make our cities more efficient, equitable, and safe.

We didn’t get here by accident. Cities across the country have been designed for and around the use of private cars — the least efficient transportation mode in terms of the number of people that can be moved per hour. For individuals, cars seem to make a lot of sense. They can serve a lot of different trip types (going to do the shopping, picking up the kids, dropping by the grocery store, visiting the cafe, getting to work in the morning), they work in all sorts of weather, and thanks to plentiful parking, they’re practically “dockless”: you can park them almost anywhere including outside your own house in the public right of way, without paying anything. But, most of the time — 95 percent by many estimates — private cars sit idle. 

Our cities are getting more dense, and they are choking on cars. In 2018, average downtown last-mile speeds were below 20 mph across most major U.S. cities. These inefficiencies relate to the basic question of how we get around, and are lowering the quality of life for residents and businesses, especially in underserved communities. It is also a drag on one of the basic economic purposes of cities: connecting people to jobs. One of the keys to improving city productivity is expanding the number of jobs commutable within 30 and 45 minutes of where you live. Conversely, as our cities become harder to traverse, the harmful effects of spatial segregation become more pronounced.

Every resident of a city should be afforded the right to get where they need to go safely and in the most efficient, convenient way possible. This means prioritizing modes of transportation that enable density, move the most people most efficiently, and do not contribute to harmful emissions. Reallocating street space to prioritize the most efficient modes, whether that’s increasing dedicated bus lanes, more protected bike lanes, or dedicated street parking for light electric vehicles such as electric bikes and scooters, will lead to improved mobility, lower stress, better health outcomes, more productivity and help to improve the environment.

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