Car Culture and Climate Change: A Student Op-Ed

Car Culture and Climate Change: A Student Op-Ed

When you slip into the driver’s seat, are you aware of the numerous processes taking place all around you? The instant you press the start button, the motor starts to turn, the fuel system pressurizes, and spark plugs initiate combustion, resulting in the pistons bringing the car to life. As you roll down the road, the energy generated by the engine travels through the transmission to the back axle where the differential gear redirects the energy to axles, rotating your back wheels. Pulling up to your destination, you shift your car into “park” and climb out without any thought of the complex systems you have just engaged.

Regardless of whether you travel on the highway or a back road, your engine, transmission, steering, breaking, and suspension systems all coordinate to ensure a safe, smooth ride. The mechanism of our cars, however, does not seem to be the source of our infatuation. Rather, we have come to crave the sense of freedom we feel behind the wheel. In his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh speaks of this freedom in connection to climate change:

“A speedy convertible excites us neither because of any love for metal and chrome, nor because of an abstract understanding of its engineering. It excites us because it evokes an image of a road arrowing through a pristine landscape; we think of freedom.”

Bikes lined up outside the Undergraduate Library (UGL).

As we arrow through pristine landscapes, the consequences of our freedom are often unnoticed. Or even worse, dismissed due to an unwillingness to make sacrifices for the sake of the collective whole. Therefore, we must ponder how policies can create incentives for individuals to curb their automobile addiction. For a model of one such incentive, we need look no further than the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The U of I campus is an exemplary locale for facilitating a discussion on how to encourage Americans to use “greener” transportation such as walking, biking, or public transit. With an economy driven by its function as a college town, the city is blanketed in sidewalks and bike paths. Many University buildings are accessible by foot.

To investigate how the University caters to a pedestrian population, I completed a measure of transportation connectivity called the Gamma index. The purpose of the Gamma index is to produce a number that indicates how many edges — or intersections of pathways — are present in an area compared to the maximum possible number of connections. The number produced by this test ranges from zero to one; higher scores indicate higher connectivity and accessibility. This index helps geographers determine how connected an area is, and how connected it could potentially be, by transportation network systems. For the purpose of this article, I performed a Gamma index for connectivity on the University of Illinois’ Main Quad for pedestrians, and separately for connectivity by car.

Students walking on the Main Quad sidewalk during a sunlit fall day.

The study area is defined as the Main Quad, selected because of its centrality to campus as well as the fact that it houses many of the main buildings in which undergraduates attend classes. After defining the location for research, I hand-counted the nodes, or vertices, and edges of the sidewalks and roads in the study area; the road system has eight edges and four nodes. After identifying the number of nodes and edges for both the sidewalk and road systems, I completed the mathematics for a Gamma index of accessibility to the Quad by foot and car, and produced a Gamma Index of 0.37 for the sidewalk system and 0.22 for the road system. Both values are low, suggesting a low accessibility on campus overall. More importantly, this data shows that connectivity to campus buildings is higher when traveling by foot compared to by car.

Although the campus’ lack of accessibility by automobile might feel like a constraint on individual freedom, using infrastructure to encourage active modes of transportation may be the way forward as we search for solutions to the climate crisis. Looking at campus methods, we can see that Illinois reinforces its “pedestrian-friendly” landscape by limiting the amount of available parking. Free parking is nearly nonexistent, and much of the available parking is leased out for months at a time by University faculty and staff. What little parking is left is metered at a high price and rigorously enforced by parking police. The low supply of parking paired with the high rate of cost per hour puts restrictions on who has the ability to park on campus. Naturally, individuals with higher socioeconomic statuses are more willing and able to pay the steep prices to drive on campus.

Parking sign located on Peabody Ave., in front of the National Soybean Research Center (NSRC).

This raises the question of whether manipulating road systems will lead to a car culture that is only accessible to socioeconomic elites. From my own anecdotal evidence, many of the drivers in the Champaign-Urbana area drive cars that suggest high-income status. BMWs, Maseratis, and Ferraris all parade down Green Street during business hours and on weekends alike. If municipalities begin to restrict auto travel by cutting down on the amount of affordable parking, then the face of an area’s car culture is likely to change in a way that excludes those of lower socioeconomic standing. Higher parking prices in an area of employment may force an employee to opt for public transportation. If prices stay constant or increase, the employee may find that the costs of having a car outweigh the benefits, especially if they are unable to use the car as a mode of transportation to their workplace. If this employee is also a member of a distinct car culture and they choose to sell their car, then the area undergoes a loss of that culture. If other employees find themselves following this pattern, then it will not be long until the area is dominated by elitist car culture and the automobile-related culture of the lower classes is underrepresented — if not wiped out entirely.

So, if cities in the nation at large were to follow the University of Illinois’ example of regulating road systems to encourage pedestrian traveling, what might we gain and what might we lose? Manipulating urban infrastructure could have profound success in reducing the nation’s carbon dioxide emissions, but at what cost? Would restricting travel by car harm the unique car cultures across America? It is possible that in the face of restricted travel, car culture would come to be dominated by socioeconomic elites. Thus, we would lose many of the car cultures fostered in lower- and middle-class communities.

In the face of climate change, drastic measures such as an overhaul of infrastructure are necessary; however, this comes at the risk of losing not only our wheels, but the identities we have built as Americans.

This piece was written by Illinois undergraduate student Shelby Job for ENVS 360: Environmental Writing. The course is a part of the iSEE undergraduate Certificate in Environmental Writing (CEW)