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The problems of America’s car dependency are staring us in the face. So are the solutions.

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COVID-19 has shown us what a world without traffic could look like. Over the last year, we’ve seen a world of empty freeways and city centers devoid of the noise and congestion that many of us have come to accept as unavoidable facts of life. We’ve seen the environmental benefits of an existence free of the compulsory daily car commute. And we’ve seen how life could be if our streets were reorganized to put pedestrians and cyclists first.

If our travel patterns could change so quickly and dramatically as a result of a pandemic, imagine what could happen if we made a deliberate effort to make it easier for people to live their lives without spending so much time in a car.

America’s transportation system has been designed, built and centered around the automobile. And, as we discuss in our new report, Transform Transportation, it’s a public health disaster. Traffic-related air pollution cuts short an estimated 58,000 American lives every year, and causes or exacerbates serious illnesses ranging from childhood asthma to lung cancer, strokes, heart disease and dementia. Excessive driving, and especially commuting, erodes our mental health, our relationships, and our quality of life. And that’s to say nothing of the thousands of people every year killed or injured in vehicle crashes.

To make matters worse, many of us have no choice but to drive. In large parts of America, public transit simply isn’t a viable alternative to personal vehicles for those who are able to drive. And where walking, cycling and other active modes of transport are an option, the auto-centric design of our streets can make these forms of transport unappealing at best, and at worst, lethal.

The problems of our car-dependent transportation system are staring us in the face – and they have been for years. But as we outline in Transform Transportation, so are the solutions.

Many of the clean transportation technologies and infrastructure changes that not so long ago seemed far off on the horizon are now tried and tested and well on their way to becoming mainstream.

Zero-emission electric vehicles have proven themselves viable alternatives to the internal combustion engine, and EV ownership is rising rapidly as more and more car manufacturers embrace the reality that the future of the automobile is electric.

Cities and school districts that have added electric buses to their transit fleets have found them cheaper, cleaner and more efficient than their old, polluting diesel counterparts, and every year brings new commitments from cities all over America to electrify their transit systems.

Bike lanes, bike sharing, e-bikes and e-scooters are increasingly common sights in American cities, and it no longer seems so outlandish to imagine a near future with streets designed to ensure the safety of pedestrians and cyclists, giving people the option to spend less time behind the wheel and more time traveling in ways more conducive to safeguarding our health, wellbeing and environment.

As we emerge from the pandemic, we have a choice to make. Do we want to return to a car-centric transportation system that ruins our environment and makes us sick and unhappy? Or do we want the freedom to travel in ways that are clean, convenient and better for our health? In Transform Transportation, we lay out a vision for creating such a future – one based on zero-emission electric vehicles, expanded public transit, and increased access to active modes of travel like walking and cycling. These are the tools that should be front and center in a reimagined approach to transportation that puts public health and the environment first.

Photo: Adam Coppola Photography, via Flickr (public domain)