The Car Habit Is Tough to Break


"People are addicted to their cars," said John Street, the Mayor of
Philadelphia, at a panel on transport yesterday during the C40 Large
Cities Climate Summit. He was identifying what he saw as the major
challenge for cities striving to make their transport systems more
environmentally sustainable.

That remark prompted a comment later from Jim Press, president of
Toyota North America, who was in the audience. "It’s not an addiction
to cars, which makes me feel a little like a dealer," he said, to
general laughter. "It’s an addiction to personal mobility." Press went
on to say he thought part of the solution to the problem of pollution
in cities could be a car-sharing scheme (with Toyota supplying the
cars, of course) in which people could take mass transit to a city
center, then pick up a car to get to their precise destination.

Street, despite his earlier anti-car rhetoric, seemed suddenly interested. And no
one in the room appeared to think there was anything odd about the idea
of reducing pollution by giving people new opportunities to drive cars.

The exchange was typical in a discussion that focused on alternative
fuels for existing and future motor vehicles, or on different types of
motor vehicles, rather than on the reduction of the vehicles
themselves. Certainly, mass transit (and getting more funding for it
from central governments) featured heavily among the strategies touted
by the municipal leaders on the panel, and all of them acknowledged
personal cars as the biggest villain. But they seemed reluctant to press the idea that people could ever be convinced to give up their autos.

Representing the promise of better living through better fuels was
panelist Ken Fisher (above, left), a senior vice president from Shell
Oil. He acknowledged the deficiencies of ethanol and other fuel
alternatives that require huge swathes of land and plenty of energy to
produce, but he held out hope for "biofuel from waste, not food," like
cellulose ethanol.

Apirak Kosayodhin (above, right), the Governor of Bangkok, bemoaned
the difficulty of getting motorists to relinquish road space for Bus
Rapid Transit in his city of legendary traffic jams — where car
ownership continues to soar, and where significant pollution reductions
have been achieved only by focusing on means other than limiting vehicular traffic.

Only Luis Eduardo Garzán, the mayor of Bogotá, Colombia (where former mayor Enrique Penalosa promoted radical cyclist- and pedestrian-friendly measures),
briefly mentioned bike lanes. Other than that, the conversation had
little to do with encouraging entirely pollution-free forms of
transportation — or shall we call it "personal mobility"? — such as
bicycling and walking.

At this rate, that addiction is going to be hard to kick.

  • Greg Raisman

    A number of people here in Portland have chosen to have car free households. One resource we have that has helped some make that choice is a car sharing company called Flexcar. Zipcar is the only other car sharing company I am aware of in America.

    Flexcar has a variety of vehicles parked around town (from hybrid sedans to pick-up trucks to multi-passenger minivans). Instead owning a second car, or a car at all, people use the shared cars for occasional trips. Also, many companies and government agencies have either decreased the size or eliminated their fleets through working with Flexcar.

    My wife and I own one car and drive about 3000 miles a year between us. We’ve used Flexcar for the truck and when our family visited and we needed more passenger space. Shared cars decrease the number of cars on Portland’s streets.

    Here’s what Flexcar says about how sharing a car fleet is better than owning one car:

  • Charlie D.

    If you live in a city, you shouldn’t need a car to get around in the city. However, you need to have access to ways to get out of the city to areas not served by transit. I think car-sharing such as ZipCars fill a huge role in this.

    I really wish we could get the message out to people that bicycles in a city give you MORE personal mobility than anything else.

    We really need to get people to think outside their typical “use the car to go everywhere” mode. It doesn’t help that car companies are essentially working against this.

    Maybe cars really are the new cigarettes!

  • HEY, be nice to the cigarettes!

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Nice spin there, Mr. Press. I must not have an addiction to “personal mobility” because I don’t like being strapped into the same seat for long periods of time, or being unable to go anywhere without lugging around two tons (or more) of plastic and steel that could kill someone if I’m even momentarily distracted.

    Yeah, I feel so immobile being able to walk or bike all over the city and suburbs, and to get on the train or bus just about any time of day or night.

    And of course that’s exactly the way I want to get around the densest, most walkable part of Philadelphia: in a car surrounded by millions of other people in cars, with buses and subways all around.

    Very sad that so few of these people can see their cities from anything other than a windshield perspective.

  • Greg Raisman

    No. 😉

  • Greg Raisman

    (the No. comment was directed at Jason)

  • These car sharing services belong at the fringes of cities (if anywhere), not their centers. In smaller cities like Portland it’s good that they reduce the space consumed by parked cars, and even better if they reduce the number of car trips taken (?), but inevitably they retard the development of non-car means of “personal mobility” and collective delivery services like Fresh Direct that may (and certainly could) beat personal car trips in efficiency.

  • BikeBeatsCar

    Here’s an extreme example to reinforce #2’s comment about bicycles and mobility:

    I usually enjoy a car-free commute (walk or bike + train) from my home in NJ, but for whatever reason my wife the other day wanted to ride her bike from Manhattan to home. So, she drove downtown and I took over the car while she rode the bike. Long story short – thanks in part to a truck that happened to catch fire on the GW Bridge, she called me from NJ to see where I was, and I hadn’t even reached the exit ramp to get onto the bridge yet.

    Bike beats car. And I’m never agreeing to that drive again.

  • rhubarbpie

    To Mayor Street’s credit (and I know little about his tenure otherwise), his administration did initiate a deal with the not-for-profit Philly Carshare intended to reduce the use of city vehicles. (Philly Carshare works in the same way as Zipcar.) I don’t know how much it actually has reduced that use, but that small move deserves notice. Philadelphia is certainly manageable without a car, though mass transit there is not nearly as extensive as it is here.

  • Sarah Goodyear

    Street did discuss the Philly Carshare program, and I think that’s great. Which is why I was so mystified when he had a positive response to the Toyota guy.

  • The City of Philadelphia joined PhillyCarShare in 2004, under Mayor Street. Philadelphia became the first city worldwide to share cars with local residents in a major fleet reduction effort. The project has helped remove 330 municipal vehicles, saving taxpayers $6 million so far.

    Another 8,000 Philadelphians (about half of participants) say they’ve also reduced their car ownership through PhillyCarShare. So there is hope! 🙂

    Selected articles on Philly’s pioneering project are here:


  • It seems to me that the most straightforward and effective way to reduce the use of automobiles would be by substantially raising the price of on-street parking. If it cost, say, $10 per hour to park at a metered space, I suspect there’d be fewer people driving into Manhattan — plus, it would be a hell of a lot easier for people who had to drive to find on-street parking.

  • ruby

    there are plenty of car share programs in the u.s.:

    Here in chicago we have the non-profit i-go.

  • Dan Icolari

    I think one way we enable the addiction is by continuing to link the provision of mass transit services to the farebox. Mass transit is a public good that should be financed 100% through a progressive tax structure–an acknowledgement that EVERYBODY, even those who can’t kick the habit–benefits from reduced car use.

    Yes–heresy!–I’m talking FREE mass transit, at least within the five boroughs. If transit were free it would have instant mass constituency agitating for expansion and improvements and the allocations to pay for them. And we’d have a lot fewer cars on the road.

  • momos

    I lived in Philadelphia before moving to NYC. The PhillyCarShare project is a noticeable presence there (so is Zip Car). You see quite a few of their vehicles in neighborhoods circling Center City.

    But Sarah Goodyear really hit the nail on the head. John Street, in particular, should be looking at ways to eliminate cars altogether from city streets. Philadelphia’s transit system is very good relative to most American cities (Boston, NYC, DC and Chicago excepted). But more than that, it is an incredible bicycling city. Center City’s streets are the most compact of any downtown area in the US. The topography is flat and traffic is slow. West Philadelphia, South Philly and the Northern Liberties are all extremely accessible from Center City by bike. The trip by bike to these areas from Center City is never more than 15-20 minutes, far faster than any other transportation mode.

    Philly also has a growing activist bike culture. Critical Mass usually draws several hundred riders. There’s a significant anarchist scene in West Philly, where many bike cooperatives exist. On Critical Mass rides you see the various bike constituencies, from lawyers in suits to the West Philly militants to yuppies from the Northern Liberties.

    With institutional support from the city government, biking in Philadelphia could really grow. Physically separated bike lanes and ubiquitous municipal bike racks would be a great start.

  • rlb

    Assuming Congestion Pricing happens here, I hope and think it should spread to other cities around the country.
    In Philadelphia, for example, it could go from south st. to the Vine St expressway and between the two rivers. The price would necessarily be lower than in Manhattan because mass transit isn’t nearly as effective and traffic isn’t as bad. I wonder how much uproar a $2-3 dollar charge to drive into center city would generate? A quarter of the city uses mass transit already. Similarly, the revenue would go into SEPTA – which has AMTRAK scale financing problems – eventually leading to more improvements. As the transit system improved and more people began relying on it, the Congestion Price could defensibly increase. More money, more improvements, more ridership… A fairly pleasant cycle, don’t you think?

  • I just spent a couple days in Philly and it seems like a city poised to kick the car habit.

    -They have created bus only lanes out of parking lanes on narrow 30 foot wide roadways and added large curb extensions to the sides of the streets with parking.

    -The car share program is a ubiquitous part of the front of every public parking lot, sending a strong signal to encourage people to resist the addiction of individual car ownership.

    -Mayor Street has done a lot to raise awareness about the city’s significant problems with obesity.

    -The Center City District (the downtown BID) has been a leader in a lot of the improved walkability of the downtown. As we highlighted in the Livable Streets exhibit:

    -PPS has worked with CCD to reorient some of its most car oriented areas to pedestrians:
    Many of the improvments have just been or are currentl being implemented.

    -It also seems a city ripe for congestion pricing. The geography of its downtown between two rivers, its density, residential population, low capacity streets, and great walkability and historic assets all seem to support a case for road pricing.

  • Nylorac

    If it were true that people are “addicted to personal mobility” not cars they wouldn’t be wasting several hours of personal commute time every year sitting or creeping along in traffic. If the majority of Americans were “addicted to personal mobility” they would find another way to get their “hit.” The American love affair with the car is well documented and it is an addictive love. This love affair has spread world wide and China is falling deeply in love at this very moment! Cars are an integral part of the American psyche and the reason car manufacturers spend billions on psychographic and demographic research. And after doing all their research, they spend billions more putting product images everywhere. Mr. Press–a “dealer”??? Yes, he IS a dealer and a PUSHER. His feathers were ruffled at the meeting because any proposal that threatens Toyota car and truck sales from Philadelphia to Phuket arouses his attention big time. He had to spin Mayor Street’s comment in his favor.

  • Mitch

    If cars are an addiction, a car-sharing service is like a nicotine patch. And that’s a good thing; it eases the craving and helps you deal rationally with your dependency.

  • Nylorac

    Thinking more about addiction…there was the ad campaign slogan for the 2007 Lexus ES350: “Is it possible to engineer desire?” Deborah Meyer, the vice president of marketing for the Lexus brand, stated, “The vehicle’s advanced engineering and distinctive styling come together to inspire the theme of engineering desire. The new campaign demonstrates how the ES is designed to appeal as much to one’s heart as to one’s head.”


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