Before October 2020, I’d never owned a car, which I’d considered a point of pride. I live in Baltimore, which isn’t the country’s most walkable city—WalkScore gives it a 65%—but I got by.
Now that I have one, my life has improved dramatically. Yet that shouldn’t be the case—and if our nation invested in better transit, it wouldn’t have to be.
I got by fine without a vehicle before, but don’t get me wrong, I had to plan my life around my carlessness. I chose apartments based on their proximity to the train and bus routes as well as grocery stores and dive bars, which ruled out some otherwise lovely possibilities. (In a segregated and disinvested city, this is also unfortunately a privilege not everyone can afford). Before my job at Earther, I worked in an office downtown, so I never considered living more than walking distance away from it. And to get to farther-flung places, like my dentist or the community garden where I volunteer, I became comfortable bartering with my friends for rides, insisting on buying them sandwiches or bottles of wine in exchange for an inconvenient trip to pick me up.
Then last year, the pandemic began, and my priorities started to shift. I was no longer comfortable with my regular regional train rides to see my family members living outside the city. And during quarantine, living near the spots I frequented like the public library and my favorite local punk bar no longer seemed like a plus. I longed instead to be able to easily head to the H Mart about 10 miles (16 kilometers) west to mask up and buy bok choy or visit the big parks outside the city for hikes, but it was proving difficult to figure out how to do so.
For awhile, I tried to simply make better use of my bicycle, but I deeply suck at biking. I learned to do it when I was 22 years old, and I still wobble on every turn. Taking my 7-speed onto big roads didn’t seem like a safe option.
Two months into Baltimore’s covid-19 lockdown, I started to daydream about what it would be like to be able to drive wherever I wanted. By three months, those daydreams were keeping me up at night.
The mere thought of buying a car made me feel guilty. I’ve never put much stock in individual change as a means of taking on the climate crisis—personal actions can never be a replacement for robust policy, after all—but I still felt a twinge each time I checked out the used car page on Craigslist. Per mile driven, a car emits a third more carbon pollution than a city bus and nearly triples the emissions of subway and commuter rail options, according to the Department of Transportation. An American Public Transit Association report shows taking transit is a top way to reduce your individual carbon impact, and yet here I—a climate reporter!—was consumed by the desire to give that up.
But then it became clear that my longtime partner would have to travel for work and family reasons, and we decided to dive head first into a search. The actual process was demoralizing because having never owned one, I know next to nothing about cars. I found myself Googling things like “how to buy a car and not be dumb” and “am I getting ripped off car.” I didn’t know how much to spend or what to look for. I also had one horrible experience seeing a hybrid where the seller drove over a cat with his left back wheel, but that’s a story for another day. Soon after, though, I met a philosophy professor through a friend of a friend who was selling a cheap and reliable Nissan, and my partner and I split the cost.
Immediately, it was like I lived in a different city. What seemed impossible to access before was suddenly available, a world of opportunities opening up before me. I made plans to see friends in their backyards and went for swims in lakes hours away. But all that excitement came with extreme dread every time I’d actually embark on one of those journeys, not just because I felt guilty, but also because driving is scary.
Cars are dangerous. They constitute one of the largest shares of greenhouse gas emissions of any sector in the U.S., and they also produce toxic pollution like carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and particulate matter. Studies show that that pollution disproportionately affects disinvested communities through which highways have often been constructed—here in Baltimore, that’s most often low-income Black neighborhoods. Yes, in theory I could have gotten an electric car, which are way less polluting. But I don’t live near a charging station, so that wasn’t much of an option.
There are other hazards, too. Nearly 6,000 pedestrians nationwide are killed by motor vehicles (and that number is on the rise). Another 38,000 drivers are killed every year in car crashes, too. Each time I get behind the wheel, I try to put all these thoughts aside. But these days, I can’t stop them from spinning in my head.
Still, when I drive, my indignation is combined with relief. With a car, many of my regular journeys have become half as long. This isn’t just my perception, either. A 2017 analysis of Census data by Governing found that in nearly every U.S. city, driving to work is much quicker than using a bus or train. In Baltimore, the average commute is under half an hour by car but almost a full hour by public transit.
It’s a real shame that that’s the case. There’s nothing inherently slow about public transit—in fact, when it’s properly designed, it can actually save users hours of their lives. But by and large, U.S. metro areas are designed around cars. Since 1956, the country has spent nearly $10 trillion in government money on highways and roads, yet invested just a quarter of that on buses and trains.
As a result, most people drive. Nationwide, 92% of people drive to work, and some 80% of all trips are taken by personal vehicle whereas just 3% are taken on mass transit. If we’re going to draw down greenhouse gas emissions and help ensure our climate is livable, that has to change (and a majority of voters want it to).
Yet investing in public transit isn’t just a good idea for the climate and commute times. It’s also a good way to ensure everyone has access to opportunity, including the opportunity to relax. Imagine if access to parks and lakes weren’t limited to those who can afford to buy, maintain, and park their cars. That could go far in improving access for exploited, poor communities who are disproportionately harmed by highway pollution. We could even make public transit free, as a growing number of American cities already have, to make it even more accessible. That could also increase ridership, helping cut more carbon pollution.
My partner and I are going to keep our car for right now, but I wish we had no reason to. In a better world, a car wouldn’t be of much use because we’d have robust bus and train systems to get around and out of the city. Even if that’s not our present, there’s no reason that can’t be our future.