9 Reasons the U.S. Ended Up So Much More Car-Dependent Than Europe

spirit of america /Shutterstock.com
spirit of america /Shutterstock.com


This story synopsis is a part of a brilliant series published in The Atlantic about the future of transportation. This in-depth reporting about how America developed its current transportation system and how it may be improved or changed in the future covers everything from telecommuting to why we hate our commutes, from transportation’s historic underpinnings to a future without cars. It is a fascinating series of articles.

How did we end up with such a car-dependent system here in the USA? Here are nine reasons that explain why the US is so much more car-dependent than Europe. It is a story of unintended consequences. This is a synopsis of the article. For the full story click here.

1. Mass motorization. Mass motorization occurred earlier in the United States than in Europe. Mass production lowered prices and personal income was higher than in Europe.

2. Road standards. The USA built better roads that helped spread automobiles. European standards were not standardized

3. Vehicle taxes. The USA has far lower vehicle taxes than Europe, making car ownership more affordable.

4. Interstate system. In Europe drivers pay more than enough to finance roads and bridges. The Interstate system has penetrated American cities. In Europe, the high-speed roads link cities rather than push through them.

5. Government subsidies. The USA subsidized road building. America’s highway systems are not paid for through vehicle and gasoline taxes; they are subsidized by other revenue sources such as property taxes and income taxes. In European countries, meanwhile, drivers typically pay more in taxes and fees than governments spend on roadways.

6. Technological focus. The USA has used technological changes, like catalytic converters and cleaner fuel, to fight environmental effects of automobile and truck transportation. In Europe efforts were made to limit the use of automobiles with car-free zones, restricted parking and other policies.

7. Public transit. Public transportation in the USA has deteriorated since WWII with fewer government subsidies. Meanwhile, in Europe, government planners at both country and local levels focused on mass transit. While trolleys disappeared in the USA, they proliferated in Europe.

8. Walking and cycling. Everything from the legal system to the budgeting system has worked against integration of walking and bicycling into the transportation network. Only recently, many USA cities have begun to mark off bike lanes and improve crosswalks for pedestrian traffic.

9. Zoning laws. For example, in Germany a residential zone can include doctors’ offices, cafes, corner stores, or apartment buildings. By contrast, single family residential zones in the United States typically forbid those uses. This kind of zoning forces residents to travel farther distances in order to get many basic services and to shop.

  • TonyA_says

    Just flew out from Japan last night but still in SE Asia. Not sure why the article is quite Eurocentric. Japan is much cleaner and nicer than most of Europe. It has a great train system and the highways are partly skyways. In Kyoto everyone seems to be riding bicycles including old people and mothers with young children. I’d look to Japan before I’d copy Europe.

  • JLM276

    In 1912 my grandfather, living in rural eastern Washington could travel by electric train to many nearby towns for groceries or other necessities. Farm products, grain and animals, were hauled by freight trains.

    Now, if I lived in the same area, I’d be dependent on an automobile for any transportation. There’s no rail service, freight or passenger. Grain is hauled from elevators by diesel trucks.

    The highway is better though. It’s paved instead of being a gravel road.

  • AKFlyer

    Cheap land in the US made highways far cheaper to build, plus our population growth and economic expansion coincided with growth in vehicle ownership rates. The middle and upper classes moved from urban areas to the suburbs starting in the late 1800s and wanted a way to get around once they ditched horses. Didn’t hurt that the U.S. steel industry, vehicle manufacturing industry, oil industry, and parts industry (e.g. tires) obtained massive political power in the early 20th century, directing all those government subsidies towards infrastructure that supported private vehicles and away from mass transit.