America is undoubtedly a nation of cars. There are 908 motor vehicles per 1,000 people in this country, and it is only beaten out by a half dozen micronations like Andorra, San Marino, and Gibraltar for the most cars per capita in the world. With 92 percent of American households owning a vehicle, the average American drove over 13,000 miles in 2022. So, why is America obsessed with cars?
The simple answer is that the United States is big, and it is rural. Today, 1 in 5 Americans lives in ‘rural’ America, but 100 years ago it was 1 in 2. A personal vehicle to travel made much more sense than any public transportation system. It was part of American culture to own your own transportation option, whether it be horse or car.
With 91 people per square mile, the United States is far less dense than most European nations. France has a density of 300 people per square mile, and the UK is even denser, at 720 people per square mile. Nations with robust public transportation systems are almost always smaller, or at least contain transportation systems in denser areas. It is much more expensive to create a high-speed rail system in the U.S. than in Japan, simply because the trains must travel so much farther, even along the relatively dense Atlantic Coast. Our laws and regulations further complicate the feasibility of such a system, this is before accounting for financial costs and which party (public or private) will pay. China, which has built extensive high-speed rail in recent years, has found that routes to more rural areas often lose money and profits are down significantly.
People often point to countries with robust public transportation like Germany and the Netherlands and complain that the U.S. isn’t like that, but European countries are also fundamentally different. Germany has a population density of 600 people per square mile, more than 6 times that of the U.S. In Germany, it takes 9 hours to drive between its three biggest cities. In the US, it takes 13 hours just to drive from New York to Chicago, and 41 hours to drive to Los Angeles as well. The Netherlands is even more dense. With 1,100 people per square mile, the entire Netherlands is more dense than Oklahoma City. Political, social, and cultural elements play in as well, with America expressing more individualism and personal liberty relative to more collectivist cultures around the world.
Motor vehicles have long been ingrained into American culture. After oil and gas, cars are the United States’ biggest production export and also the top import. Americans also buy larger cars than any other nation. In 2022, five of the top 10 cars sold were trucks, while only one was a sedan. Americans are far more likely to buy full size trucks or SUVs than Europeans. In Europe, people generally travel shorter distances on smaller roads, meaning that large cars and trucks are impractical. The average American commutes 41 miles a day to and from work, compared to just 18 miles in the EU.
Still, despite a generally more spread out population, many American cities have significant enough population densities to justify a public transportation system within themselves. In fact, more Americans live in urban areas than Europeans. Yet it is Europeans who utilize public transportation more. Only 5.5 percent of Americans bike or use public transportation to get to work. In the European Union’s 75 largest cities, 49 percent of people use public transit.
There have been false conspiracy theories that American car companies intentionally bought and dissolved streetcar companies and other transit systems in the early 20th century to monopolize road transportation. Known as the “Streetcar Conspiracy,” nine corporations were even convicted in 1949 of “conspiring to monopolize sales of buses and supplies owned by National City Lines,” but were subsequently acquitted of conspiring to monopolize the ownership of these transit companies. In reality the situation was much more complex, and many of the streetcar companies were going bankrupt already. Yet undoubtedly, many companies did benefit from the demise of the streetcar – as for the public, it is a counterfactual at this point, but the likely insolvency would have created negative effects had they been maintained. Some of the corporations involved include major players in the tire, oil, and automotive industries.
America’s deep-seated car culture does have some measurable drawbacks, particularly in major cities where public transportation is feasible. The average American spent 54 hours in traffic congestion in 2021, up from 42 hours in 2014. Other significant drawbacks include more fatal motor accidents, which are significantly higher than in Europe. This is because Americans drive more often, even for short trips, and generally drive bigger cars. Bigger cars are safer and have had a positive effect on driver deaths, but pedestrian deaths have increased significantly. These must, of course, also be weighed against benefits like freedom of mobility and the cost and time savings of flexible travel, which can be difficult to quantify or delineate within wider economic activity.
Another issue with a car obsessed culture is the wear and tear on road infrastructure, much of which is in poor condition due to underspending on infrastructure for decades. As cars and trucks get heavier, so does the load on the roads. Axle weight has a significant impact on road wear. Most of the time it will be the large trucking rigs that will matter for highways, but heavier personal vehicles will also have an effect on older, smaller roads in cities and towns. Importantly, cars are not themselves the problem. They only become the problem when public policy is not appropriately crafted to manage and respond. Consider the failure to adjust the gas tax or provide for an alternative funding mechanism for road use for over 30 years.
The last disadvantage of an ever present car culture is the fuel usage. The average American spends $150 to $200 on gas every month. Gas prices are significantly higher in most of Europe, but Americans use more gas per capita than any other country. Bigger cars are also generally less fuel-efficient, but as car size has increased, so has fuel efficiency. Still, the average 1989 model sedan has roughly the same fuel efficiency as a 2021 truck SUV, and is more efficient than the average 2021 pickup. Here again policy can influence gas prices, but the level of consumption is in many ways a culturally influenced factor.
America is a nation of ever larger cars and trucks. Trucks and SUVs made up a combined 61 percent of the market for new cars in 2021. Personal vehicle transportation is seemingly a permanent fixture in America, yet our roads are in poor shape. Deteriorating road infrastructure is adding to the vehicle repair and operating costs of motorists to the tune of $130 billion in 2021. It’s astounding that despite our obsession with cars, we can’t be bothered to maintain the roads that Americans rely upon. It will be interesting to see if electric cars, high-speed rail, and other transportation proposals will have an effect on the car culture of America over time and how public policy evolves to facilitate or impact those options.
Written by Owen Rogers, Public Policy Intern
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.