The United States is a freakish outlier when it comes to the number of miles we drive in our cars and trucks. Americans drive a lot more on average than people in most of the world, and somewhat more than people in countries like Canada and Australia that share America’s vast geography.
Driving has often been equated with freedom, but a new study finds that all the driving and highway building we do is not necessarily making us happier or better off.
The new paper from Austrian researchers, published in Ecological Economics, compares data on surface transportation infrastructure for 172 countries and data on distance traveled per capita for a smaller subset of nations against a variety of measures, including gross domestic product (GDP) and a series of broader measures of societal well-being.
Interestingly, the study measures transportation infrastructure by weight. As the authors write, “a substantial share of total societal material stocks is used to build mobility infrastructures, which require significant flows of material and energy for their construction and maintenance.” If societies are going to incur the climate and environmental costs of building or expanding transportation infrastructure – especially in the midst of a climate crisis – it makes sense to at least evaluate whether those expenditures actually deliver improvements in people’s lives.
One counterintuitive finding of the study, at least to me, is that the United States is not at the head of the pack globally when it comes to transportation infrastructure per capita, clocking in just shy of 200 tons/person (which, when you think about it, is a jaw-dropping number).
America’s 200 tons/person is, however, at the top end of the range at which researchers find that further investments yield severely diminishing societal returns. “Above levels of ~92–207 t/cap of mobility infrastructure no further significant gains in well-being can be expected from a further increase of infrastructure.” The roadway expansions the U.S. has built in recent years – some of which we have critiqued in our periodic Highway Boondoggles reports – have likely not provided nearly the marginal benefits of previous waves of highway construction, even as they have imposed tremendous social and ecological costs. Interestingly, though, while societal well-being doesn’t increase with further highway investment, GDP does – an example of how measures of economic activity such as GDP are often disconnected from measures of overall societal well-being.
The authors reach a similar conclusion when it comes to the number of miles traveled. In largely immobile societies, each new mile of travel corresponds with steep increases in well-being, until a point of diminishing returns is reached at which additional travel appears to do society little good.
Americans drive far more than residents of other developed countries, and yet, according to the study, our measures of societal well-being are lower than those of many countries where people travel far less than we do. The U.S.’s outlier status was not enough to affect the overall results of the analysis (the authors ran a separate case in which the U.S. was excluded, with no significant change to the results), but it does raise an interesting possibility: Could Americans’ high level of automobile travel actually be diminishing our societal health?
It’s not crazy to think that it might. Automobile travel imposes stress that harms our mental health, can lead to reduced activity that affects our physical health, and takes time away from the activities we enjoy and the people we love. The money we spend and the debt we absorb to participate in a car-dependent society represent resources we could be spending in ways that might bring us greater health and happiness, while America’s high level of roadway injuries and deaths imposes physical pain and emotional trauma of a scale that is difficult to contemplate.
And of course, both infrastructure construction and driving impose environmental impacts with immediate and long-term harms. The authors of the study acknowledge this, writing: “pursuing a strategy of building up more mobility infrastructure is therefore only useful for achieving high average well-being up to a certain extent, but would definitely increase environmental impacts, through material use itself and from the use of fossil fuels for materials processing, construction, and provision of mobility services.”
So, what can we take away from this?
First, for those members of society who don’t have access to mobility for economic or other reasons, extending that access can be a portal to improved well-being. The United States as a society is far beyond the threshold at which “more mobility” translates into “more happiness”; in fact, the opposite may very well be true. But pockets of American society may not yet have reached that threshold, which is important for transportation policymakers to keep in mind.
Second, we need to reorient our thinking about the goals of transportation policy away from economic activity and toward broader measures of well-being – including environmental sustainability. The Austrian research suggests – as would be common sense – that a country can encourage economic activity by keeping cars moving and bulldozers running, even well beyond the point at which that activity actually improves people’s day-to-day lives. What masquerades as “growth” as measured by GDP in this case actually erodes our societal wealth and well-being. As economist Herman Daly asked in a recent interview in the New York Times, “Does growth, as currently practiced and measured, really increase wealth? Is it making us richer in any aggregate sense, or might it be increasing costs faster than benefits and making us poorer?” Transportation may be one example of where growth in GDP or economic activity may actually be making us poorer. That’s important to recognize and likely has implications for other areas of American life.
Finally, the idea that more driving may be harming us runs counter to a romantic notion of driving as a source of freedom most recently espoused by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. As an introvert with a strong sense of wanderlust, I resonate with Douthat’s evocation of the road trip and the personal autonomy granted by the automobile, and I suspect many other people do as well. So, while most Americans – carrying Douthat-esque romantic notions of the open road in our heads, not to mention the more practical question of how we can live daily life in an environment built for cars – may hesitate to “ban cars,” the new study suggests a frame for transportation reform that might be more relatable: that cars and roads are useful and even fun in moderation but, like alcohol, gambling and other activities that breed damaging dependence, they are destructive when they come to dominate our lives.
Kurt Vonnegut made a similar point when he famously asked the forgiveness of future generations for our behavior because “We were rolling drunk on petroleum.” Breaking a dependency is hard and difficult work, which often comes with setbacks and relapses. But as the new research – combined with the ever-worsening climate crisis and the increasing day-to-day misery and danger of driving – shows, when it comes to breaking our dependence on cars, our very health and happiness relies on our success.
 A likely reason for this is that the authors assume that U.S. infrastructure is less materials-intensive per mile than that in many peer countries, which is an interesting finding deserving of further exploration.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Tony Dutzik is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. His research and ideas on climate, energy and transportation policy have helped shape public policy debates across the U.S., and have earned coverage in media outlets from the New York Times to National Public Radio. A former journalist, Tony lives and works in Boston.