9 Reasons the U.S. Ended Up So Much More Car-Dependent Than Europe
Understanding mistakes of the past can help guide U.S. transportation policy in the future.
Ralph Buehler Feb 4, 2014
Between the 1920s and 1960s, policies adapting cities to car travel in the United States served as a role model for much of Western Europe. But by the late 1960s, many European cities started refocusing their policies to curb car use by promoting walking, cycling, and public transportation. For the last two decades, in the face of car-dependence, suburban sprawl, and an increasingly unsustainable transportation system, U.S. planners have been looking to Western Europe.
The numbers show the need for change. In 2010, Americans drove for 85 percent of their daily trips, compared to car trip shares of 50 to 65 percent in Europe. Longer trip distances only partially explain the difference. Roughly 30 percent of daily trips are shorter than a mile on either side of the Atlantic. But of those under one-mile trips, Americans drove almost 70 percent of the time, while Europeans made 70 percent of their short trips by bicycle, foot, or public transportation.
The statistics don’t reveal the sources of this disparity, but there are nine main reasons American metro areas have ended up so much more car-dependent than cities in Western Europe.
Mass motorization. Mass motorization occurred earlier in the United States than in Europe, mainly facilitated by assembly line production that brought down cost. By the mid-1930s there was already one registered automobile for every two U.S. households, while car ownership in Europe was mostly limited to wealthy elites. Moreover, greater personal wealth in the U.S. allowed households to more readily afford cars than comparatively poorer European households, particularly in the years immediately after World War II.
Road standards. As a result of early mass motorization, American cities were first to adapt to the car at a large scale. U.S. planners and engineers developed initial standards for roadways, bridges, tunnels, intersections, traffic signals, freeways, and car parking. Successful innovations quickly spread elsewhere, often in the form of standards. Europeans also experimented with automobile infrastructure—Stockholm opened a large inner city clover-leaf interchange in the 1930s—but European cities adapted to cars much more slowly than U.S. metros did, especially before World War II.
Vehicle taxes. Taxation of car ownership and use has traditionally been higher in Europe and helped curb car travel demand. Today a gallon of gasoline is more than twice as expensive in Europe than in the United States. Moreover, in Europe gas tax revenue typically contributes to the general fund, meaning roadway expenditures compete with other government expenditures. In many U.S. states and at the federal level, large parts of the gas tax revenue are earmarked for roadway construction, assuring a steady flow of non-competitive funds for roads.
American cities were first to adapt to the car at a large scale.