Student Opinion: Can We Move Past Car Dependency?

Photo Credit To Jae C. Hong/AP

by Ian Bastida


LOS ANGELES — Many Americans rely on cars as their primary means of transportation.  It is difficult to imagine a commute to work that does not require one because this country’s infrastructure revolves around the automobile.


Towns and cities transformed as more and more Americans in the suburbs obtained a set of keys.  The grocery store was no longer a short walk down the street like it was in the city.  It altered the way Americans completed errands and traveled.


Highways erected across the nation as a result of the automobile’s invention and prominence.  This new construction contributed to the destruction of many neighborhoods–primarily affecting communities of color without proper compensation or reparation for their displacement.  


In turn, many Americans grew accustomed to the lifestyle and rush that came from zooming down the street.  How freeing is driving with the windows down as the breeze blows through your hair?


However, for every time that a driver can cruise down the main boulevard, they are left with a traffic-jammed freeway on their way to work.  


In 2021, 42,915 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes. In addition, parking lots take up more space than the shopping center themselves.It is time to reconsider our relationship with the personal vehicle.


The Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA found that there are 18.6 million parking spaces compared to 3.5 million housing units in Los Angeles County.  These researchers also noted that the United States has 3.3 parking spaces for every car.  This is dysfunctional.


Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, explains to the Los Angeles Times that there is a price to pay with our car-centric nation.  The result of an abundant amount of places to park has contributed to high housing costs, traffic congestion, air pollution and climate change.


Shoup further elaborates, “It’s always nice to have a car, but they’re expensive, especially for low-income people who then have to support the car. Ruinous interest rates, borrowing to buy the car and pay for the fuel and the repairs… If it’s easier to live without a car, they will be the biggest beneficiaries.”


Living in Westwood is a completely different experience than my upbringing in the San Gabriel Valley.  My university apartment is a ten minute walk from Trader Joe’s, the Westwood Village is just down the street from me and my trip to campus is no more than fifteen minutes by foot.  


I am in the fortunate position to live where all my daily necessities are within walking distance from my apartment.  This is not the case for my suburban hometown where the sidewalks are narrow and run along busy streets.  Walking to the nearest grocery store was unimaginable because of the risk it posed to pedestrians’ safety.  


Despite the fact that Westwood has grocery stores, restaurants, cafés and convenience stores all within walking distance from me, my new neighborhood still has its restrictions. It is difficult to visit all that Los Angeles has to offer without a car.  


The Santa Monica Pier is a fifteen minute ride without traffic.  Olvera Street is a thirty minute drive away or an hour and a half via the LA Metro.  These trips remain infrequent for me because I do not have a car and Uber does not always fit within a college student’s budget.


We have created towns, cities and neighborhoods that are meant for cars rather than people.  Any convenience that the car might have offered does not outweigh its destructive influence.   Creating walkable communities and improving public transit will help up live less car-reliant lives.

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  1. Tim Keller

    One of the biggest challenges we have as a city, I feel, is the fact that we have been conditioned over the course of our lives to think that “housing” = “R1 Single Family Home Tracts”

    And it is understandable that people think that way, because that is almost the only kind of housing that has been been produced in our country over the past two generations.

    But as Professor Shoup and others have pointed it out… R1 single family zoning is a failed paradigm, for a number of reasons, one being the implicit car dependency discussed here.

    Urban planners and academics have been talking about the failure of “the suburban experiment” for several decades now… yet single family homes remains the staple of our housing supply.   This really does need to change, and citizens, developers, and city hall need to start understanding that we have to do EVERYTHING differently.

    If we want to develop our city in a sustainable way, we need to reject the patterns of old, think outside our cars, and start making better decisions about development… No more lost opportunities like the U-Mall, no more complaining about a given building being “too tall”  instead we should be asking if it is tall enough!

    When we build densely and zone for mixed-use, people can walk and bike places, and transit starts to pencil out a lot better too.

    Final thought since I brought up transit:   It is funny that people who consider transit always immediately wonder if there is going to be enough ridership to make it pay for itself… but we have invested BILLIONS of dollars providing streets and parking lots that do NOT pay for themselves in any way.     If we could start thinking about transit with the same level of entitlement that car drivers think about roads, we might start to get somewhere….

    1. Ron Oertel

      The problem with what you advocate here is that this isn’t what people prefer – and communities still accommodate it.  (For example, look at all of the new, single-family housing construction that’s occurring throughout the region and beyond, while the overall California population is simultaneously DROPPING.)

      This is due to an exodus from the very type of dense development that you’re advocating for (e.g., San Francisco).

      A lot of this driven by the ability to telecommute.

      And in response, Governor Newsom put forth a proposal to CUT funding for public transit.

      The thing is that Newsom is probably right, in a sense. That is, you can throw all the money in the world at public transit, but that isn’t going to force infill (or force ridership).

      Public transit does work well for workers who are required to report to the workplace in dense areas. Especially if it’s subsidized by employers.

      Ultimately, there’s a presumed “assumption” which doesn’t even exist, in a state with a declining population. In other words, a problem which doesn’t exist. (The assumption that presents a choice as “more infill”, vs. “more sprawl”.) A third choice is “none of the above”. (I could see this coming a long time ago.)

      So to answer the title posed in this article, the answer (overall) is “no”. And the governor himself has ceded this point.

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