Here in America we are all about the car; its personal freedom, it’s a rite of passage for young adults, and it’s just how we get around in this country. But on the flip side it insurance payments (high ones for us here in New Jersey), maintenance costs, and ever rising fuel prices. Not to mention the exhaust emissions, which are thought to account for about half of the greenhouse gases emitted in the Garden State. I like to drive, I can get to where I want to be on my own schedule, and down here in South Jersey I can do so without the hassle of traffic congestion (for the most part). Though I can sympathize with and understand city residents and the desire for an easy way to get around without cars; while I loved living in Philadelphia during college, dealing with traffic up there drove me crazy.

This brings me to an interesting article from the NY Times this week: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/27/science/earth/27traffic.html?_r=2&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha2

The piece notes how planners, politicians, and engineers across Europe are now purposely creating traffic headaches, with the specific goal of reducing the number of cars in these cities. This idea is absurd based on our way of thinking in the States. Sure cities will try to encourage the use of mass transit, but they’ll also do what they can to ease traffic headaches for those who do drive through signal synchronization and other techniques. In Europe they are doing the exact opposite, but their motivations are different than ours.

Times writer Elizabeth Rosenthal outlines the European dilemma well:

“Europe’s cities generally have stronger incentives to act. Built for the most part before the advent of cars, their narrow roads are poor at handling heavy traffic. Public transportation is generally better in Europe than in the United States, and gas often costs over $8 a gallon, contributing to driving costs that are two to three times greater per mile than in the United States, Dr. Schipper said.

What is more, European Union countries probably cannot meet a commitment under the Kyoto Protocol to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions unless they curb driving. The United States never ratified that pact.”

Generally we don’t deal with major daily traffic problems down here in at the Shore with a mostly suburban landscape; sure there is traffic in Atlantic City and putting up with the vacationers coming down on weekends in the summer, but typically we are spared this mess on a daily basis. Major urban centers in the U.S. do have these problems though. New York City attempted a plan similar to what is being used in Europe, essentially using an EZ-Pass like system to bill drivers who go into Manhattan during peak business hours and clog up the roads, but it was ultimately shot down. It’s called Congestion Pricing. Here is a good video outlining the concept:

While we don’t face all the problems that Europe does, gasoline prices continue to creep up and there is growing concern over emissions and climate change. However rather than take steps to disincentivize using a car, as is being done in Europe, we are trying to find ways to keep them though alternative fuel vehicles that will negate the cost and pollution of petroleum. We may never really be able to replace the car in the U.S. due to the spread of suburbia, which is not well suited for mass transit or pedestrian access. (In fact if you really want to consider what the heck would happen if we ran out of oil and couldn’t drive around, watch the movie “End of Suburbia” http://www.endofsuburbia.com/)

However, I think most people, especially those living in urban areas, would like a greater variety and abundance of alternative ways to get around. Should we be pushing less for alternative fuel vehicles and more for better transit design including more light rail service and walkable neighborhoods and cities? The NJ Transit Philadelphia to Atlantic City line, and the ACES New York to Atlantic City line are both incredibly underutilized, is it a scheduling issue or would people simply rather drive down the Expressway and Parkway than take the train? Do you think making driving even more difficult in cities, either through fees or traffic design, is a good way to get people off the road and using public transit? Or are we just a nation of drivers waiting for that battery technology breakthrough that will make electric cars cost competitive?