My Lola (grandma) Rosalina used to call cars “American Dream Machines.” As an immigrant from the Philippines, she lived her life in the wake of the American dream. She was born 31 years after the United States colonized the Philippines in 1898, and felt the ripples of American imperialism in the motorbikes and cars that crowded the streets of Manila. She could feel the heartbeat of Westernization in the puttering engines of Jeepneys, the Philippines’ chaotic public transportation system of deserted American Jeeps from World War 2. In 1962, she immigrated to the United States after she qualified for a Fulbright scholarship, a prestigious cultural exchange program, at New York University.
The subways of New York City were just like Manila’s jeepneys: she had no purpose of a car or driver’s license in either city. However, after she married my grandfather and graduated with a master’s degree in linguistics, the tables turned. The elite tranquility of the Massachusetts suburbs called her name.
Lola Rosalina dreaded driving. The vicious purr of her American car engine unsettled her. She feared the responsibility of automobiles, which potentially endangered her and her passengers’ lives. After she adopted my mother, she knew couldn’t afford to make mistakes behind the wheel. Because of her anxiety and inexperience, “it took her three tries to pass her driver’s test,” my mother said.
My mother would tell me about how Lola Rosalina refused to drive outside of a fifteen mile radius from their house. She hated taking turns, but absolutely despised rotaries, a type of Massachusetts road that entails counter-clock wise traffic flow. After nearly crashing her car while driving on a rotary, Lola almost exclusively drove on backroads. My Lola Rosalina, with her broken American identity, never had any hope of mastering the American dream machine. Like the hopeless American dream she so desperately chased, Lola never fully grasped how to drive a car.
The American Dream machine has uprooted the fabric of the United States in the name of ‘freedom’ for nearly a decade. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act into law, which elicited the U.S. government to invest billions of dollars into construction of interstate highways. Now, Americans must travel by car at the expense of their wallets, safety, and environment.
Cars and their infrastructure take up space and require billions in government funding. Their fuel is extracted through methods that actively endanger local ecosystems, and when burned, pollute the atmosphere. Every year, as pollution worsens and fatal car accidents continue, the legacy of the American dream machine persists. The era of sportscarts, highways, and smog must end: it’s time to retire the American Dream and its machines, and convert the United States into a car-free society.
Arguably, the worst consequence of cars is their destructive environmental impact. Car production alone consumes an incredible amount of energy through the transportation and use of materials such as steel, rubber, plastic, and glass.
Gasoline extraction is an incredibly environmentally taxing process, and threatens disaster through accidental oil spills. Hydraulic fracking, a common method of gasoline extraction, uses explosives, water, and sand to reach oil and natural gas. However, in the process of extraction, fracking industrializes ecosystems and endangers drinking water contamination.
The heaviest burden lies in cars’ fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, which account for 80-90% of automobiles’ environmental impact. Every year, the average American vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which worsens global warming. Cars are responsible for one third of all of America’s air pollution. Separate from carbon dioxide, cars pollute our atmosphere through carbon monoxide, smog, and other toxin emissions.
Just as fracking infrastructure damages ecosystems, car infrastructure encourages the industrialization of rural landscapes through paved roads, parking spaces, garages, and more. Cars and their infrastructure consume 50-60% of urban space, with an estimated 1-2 billion parking spaces available for 280 million American automobiles. In our constant endeavor for convenience, Americans have sacrificed affordable housing and a healthy environment for billions of desolate parking spots.
Given the space, money, and ecosystems that cars sacrifice, one would hope automobiles to be safer and more efficient than other methods of transportation. The opposite is true: the average car is 80% empty when operated solely by its driver, how most working Americans travel. Additionally, every year, an estimated 30,000-50,00 Americans die from fatal car accidents, the second leading cause of death for teens. By placing the responsibility of transportation into the hands of its people, the United States has killed millions of innocent Americans.
Though the negative impacts of cars are clear, the United States carries a heavy burden in pursuing a carless society. America was built around the automobile—it’s going to take a lot of time and money to revolutionize it into a country of mass public transportation. However, the odds are not impossible, as exhibited through China’s massive investments in public transportation infrastructure.
In recent years, China has prioritized the integrity of its environment over its cars through offering fuel alternatives, public transportation, and citizen incentives. China, which was once infamous for its smog, has reduced air pollution primarily through investing in train and subway infrastructure. In 2003, China began investing in a railway system that would soon become the longest high-speed railway network in the world.
Despite China’s considerable investments in public transportation, car ownership continues to grow each year. In order to combat harmful vehicle emissions, the Chinese government began to offer incentives for citizens that opted to drive electric cars over their gasoline guzzling counterparts. For drivers with natural-gas powered vehicles, the Chinese government offered more environmentally healthy fuel alternatives such as compressed natural gas (CNG), which reduces carbon monoxide emissions by 90-97%. Through these transportation and fuel alternatives, China has reduced its carbon emissions in 74 of its major cities by roughly 33%.
Successful alternatives to the American dream machine exist, yet the United States government continues to perpetrate automobile use and infrastructure at its own expense. Although the Biden administration recently introduced an infrastructure law to fund public transportation, our budget of $108 Billion is embarrassing in comparison to China’s $2.3 Trillion plan. The American Dream machine will never die as long as the United States values freedom and profit over the safety of the American people. Until then, my Lola’s dream of a car-free world will go unlived.