Lentis/Car Dependency in the U.S.

Car dependency, or automobile dependency, describes the results of a series of policy making, and city planning decisions that nudge people towards purchasing and using private vehicles. There have been studies on influence of automobile dependency over modern American life in various aspects. The following article will show how the increasing costs of automobiles with the suburb layout has disadvantaged many Americans who cannot afford a vehicle, how the interests of motorists have monopolized zoning laws, and how the social, financial, environmental, and health impacts of car dependency has affected the quality of life in the United States. This article will also address the current trends and the future of car dependency, and the participants who oppose the hegemony of the automobile.

Car Dependency in the Modern DayEdit

Car dependency stemmed from zoning ordinances, and kept developing. To better understand the consequences, there has been many studies from different aspects, including social, financial, environmental and health on impacts of Car Dependency.

Zoning Ordinances and Car DependencyEdit

Zoning laws have an impact on the layout of cities. Critics of zoning laws argue they contribute to car dependency by forcing developers to build out rather than build up.[1].

Zoning in Morris County, New Jersey

Proponents of "Smart Growth" propose a change in zoning laws that decrease car dependency. One paper describes smart growth as "... defined as a policy framework that promotes an urban development pattern characterized by high population density, walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, preserved green spaces, mixed-use development (i.e., development projects that include both residential and commercial uses), available mass transit, and limited road construction"[2]. Smart Growth America is a non profit organization that promotes this policy. They work with local governments on urban planning among other activities. Critics of smart growth argue its policies can decrease property values, availability of affordable housing, restrict property owner's rights and disrupt existing communities or even increase urban sprawl[2].

Social ImpactsEdit

The environment designed for car dependency inherently discriminates against those who cannot drive. The poor, young, elderly, and disabled can’t travel on their own. Without cars or well-developed public transportation system, they have limited travel options, meaning most of the time they are just stuck at home. [3]

Social isolationEdit

Car dependency also causes degrees of social isolation. In other ways of commuting, people usually experience some sort of random interactions with strangers. But during driving, they are locked up in their own space, and there’s no interaction whatsoever. [4]

Psychologically dehumanizingEdit

This study from Australian universities shows that car driving psychologically relates to blatant dehumanizing. [5] They conducted survey on vehicle drivers, showing them a spectrum of chimpanzees/insects evolving into human, and asking them where they think cyclists stand. Results show that 55% of car drivers think cyclists are not completely human.


Car dependency has caused financial burdens for multiple parties. For city planning sectors, citizens using more cars means they have to accommodate parking, and expand lanes for cars. [6] City planning opts for horizontal growth from the zoning laws. This furthers the demand for cars because facilities are now more spread out, and this creates a cycle of automobile dependency. For individuals, besides the costs of owning and maintaining a car, government spending on building roads is also spending their tax money. Not having a car also means a limited travel options and high time cost. Economically speaking, the disadvantages from not owning a car way overwhelms the financial costs of getting a car, and therefore people are nudged to own a car under this environment.

Burden on small businessEdit

For small businesses, this car-dependent environment establishes a high cost of entry. Many cities expect business to have their parking lots. And from the consumer’s perspective, traveling between small specialized shops like grocery, butcher, bakery, or pharmacy, takes too much time. It is convenient to buy everything from a single place, and small businesses have to produce goods at an exceptional level to worth consumers’ time to park their cars. [4]

Environmental and HealthEdit

Over the years, car manufacturers have consistently made cars cleaner regarding carbon emission [7], and following Jevons paradox, we can see transportation-related CO2 emission has steadily increased over the years until the recession in 2008, and since then has taken over power becoming the biggest source of greenhouse gas emission. [8] Besides greenhouse gas, cars also emit air pollutants like Particulate matter (PM), Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Nitrogen oxides (NOx), and Carbon monoxide (CO), etc. [9] All of which can cause respiratory diseases or harm other organs, not to mention more than 4 million people are injured each year in traffic accidents. [10] Regarding health, there’s also an interesting finding about the relation between driving and obesity. Researchers at the University of Illinois found from all US county data that vehicle use (measured in annual vehicle miles traveled) correlated 99% with annual obesity rates. [11]

How do the car-less manage?Edit

Choose to live in an area where it is feasible to live without a car. There is always the option of walking. In addition to private ownership, there are ride sharing services for bicycles and electric scooters. Many cities have public buses and some larger cities have high speed rail systems that move passengers within the city and even between cities.

Alternative Transportation AdvocacyEdit

The League of American Bicyclists(LAB) is a non profit organization which advocates using bicycles for transportation. They lobby the federal Congress to provide money for local bicycle projects. They also work to promote bicycle related legislation around the country and even rank states on bicycle friendliness.

Clifford Street bike lane in Providence RI

A nonprofit organization, America Walks (AW), advocates for walking as a form of transportation. A partner Sam I. Schwartz, P.E. asserts "One quarter of all trips in the U.S. are 1 mile or less, and yet most of these trips are taken by car – increasing walking reduces traffic congestion and the cost of road maintenance". AW works with federal agencies to make urban areas more "walkable". Education pertinent to a wide array of participants is offered at their learning Center. Training, resources and workshops are offered to local and state organizations to help build effective advocacy groups.

There is also the National Complete Street Coalition, a part of the Smart Growth America non-profit. It advocates for safe and convenient access to transportation, and works with local jurisdictions to help them draft and implement Complete Street policies.

Some activists are part of highly decentralized movements like Critical Mass, who in cities across the U.S. organize cyclists to meet up at specific times and ride through cities as one large mass, taking back the road from automobiles.

The Future of Car DependencyEdit

Commuter TrendsEdit

COVID-19 caused large shifts in how Americans interface with their workplace, before, only about 3% of Americans regularly worked from home[12]. By April of 2020, about half of all employed adults were working from home[12], and a contemporary survey of CFO’s found that a fifth of them were planning on keep 20% or more of their workforce working remotely after the pandemic[13]. This combined with the increase in the use of e-commerce services like grocery delivery, is expected to drive a decrease in two-car households in the US[14]. About 14 million fewer cars are expected to be on the road as a result of this shift[14].

Public TransportationEdit

Bus only lanes in New York City

Up until 2019, public transportation had seen a steady increase in usage[15]. However in 2020, monthly public transportation use dropped by 65% due to COVID19 [16]. Even with $25 billion worth of emergency funds from the CARES act being allotted to public transportation, it remains to be seen if the public transit sector returns to its pattern of steady growth from before the pandemic.

Urban DevelopmentEdit

Cities across the US have started to reevaluate the place cars occupy in an urban environment. For example, in New York and San Francisco, lawmakers placed bans on private vehicle use on some of the most congested roads in the cities for upwards of 16 hours each day[17]. The results of this experiment was an increase in public transit use, faster commute times, and less pedestrian accidents[17]. In Boston, COVID-19 prompted the creation of more bike only lanes, and a movement to make more streets pedestrian friendly[18].


Automobiles continue to be the focal point of American life, and will likely remain as such for the next few decades. However, the future of Car Dependency in the United States depends greatly on the actions of activists, corporations, and government policy alike. The effects of the shift to remote work, as well as the movement towards "Smart Cities", remain to be seen. Future researchers could explore other potential disruptions to car dependency, including the continued development of autonomous vehicles and the potential for ride's as a service that would accompany them. Though whether they are viable solutions for the car dependency problem is still up for debate.


  1. Shill, Gregory H., Should Law Subsidize Driving? (2020). 95 New York University Law Review 498, U Iowa Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2019-03. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3345366
  2. a b Resnick, David B. (2010). Urban Sprawl, Smart Growth, and Deliberative Democracy. American Journal of Public Health 100, 1852-1856. , https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2009.182501
  3. Automobile Dependency: Transportation and Land Use Patterns That Cause High Levels of Automobile Use and Reduced Transport Options. (2019, September 6). https://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm100.htm
  4. a b Price, A. (2017, November 03). The Negative Consequences of Car Dependency. https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/11/2/the-negative-consequences-of-car-dependency
  5. Delbosc, A., Naznin, F., Haslam, N. & Haworth, N. (2019). Dehumanization of cyclists predicts self-reported aggressive behaviour toward them: A pilot study. Transportation research part F traffic psychology and behaviour. Transportation Research Part F Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.
  6. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/07/car-crashes-arent-always-unavoidable/592447/
  7. CO2 emissions from new passenger cars in the EU: Car manufacturers' performance in 2017. (2018, July 11). https://theicct.org/publications/co2-emissions-new-passenger-cars-eu-car-manufacturers-performance-2017
  8. Irfan, U. (2018, January 11). Cars and trucks are America's biggest climate problem for the 2nd year in a row. https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2018/1/11/16874696/greenhouse-gas-co2-target-2017-paris-trump
  9. Cars, Trucks, Buses and Air Pollution. (2008, July 23). https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/cars-trucks-buses-and-air-pollution
  10. Preliminary Semiannual Estimates. (2020, September 14). https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/motor-vehicle/overview/preliminary-estimates/
  11. Schwartz, A. (2014, November 13). Mapping The Link Between Obesity And Car Driving. https://www.fastcompany.com/1679157/mapping-the-link-between-obesity-and-car-driving
  12. a b Global Workplace Analytics. (2020, October 10). Latest Work-at-Home/Telecommuting/Mobile Work/Remote Work Statistics. https://globalworkplaceanalytics.com/telecommuting-statistics
  13. Guyot, K., & Sawhill, I. (2020, April 06). Telecommuting will likely continue long after the pandemic. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/04/06/telecommuting-will-likely-continue-long-after-the-pandemic/
  14. a b Silberg, G., Mayor, T., Dubner, T., Lakshman, B., Suganuma, Y., Doshi, N., & Anderson, J. (2020). Automotive's new reality: Fewer trips, fewer miles, fewer cars? https://advisory.kpmg.us/content/dam/advisory/en/pdfs/2020/automotives-new-reality.pdf
  15. Crowe, C. (2019, June 26). 3 emerging public transit trends from the 2020 THUD budget. https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/news/3-emerging-public-transit-trends-from-the-2020-thud-budget/557607/
  16. USAFacts. (2020, October 13). Monthly public transit ridership is 65% lower than before the pandemic. https://usafacts.org/articles/covid-public-transit-decline/
  17. a b Kaufman, M. (2020, February 19). Car bans: Your city could be next. https://mashable.com/feature/car-bans-car-free-streets/
  18. Shemkus, S. (2020, October 23). 'Streets are for people': Boston reflects on the role of roadways after COVID-19. https://energynews.us/2020/10/26/northeast/in-boston-pandemic-prompts-reflection-on-role-of-streets-after-covid-19-passes/