Cars Are Not the Enemy

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The last couple years, I have heard a large amount of anti-car rhetoric in the news,
during town halls, in everyday conversation, etc. Cars get blamed for climate change,
congestion, urban sprawl, and other issues, regardless of whether they are the main
contributing factor or not. By quickly jumping to anti-car rhetoric, many root causes of these problems and the real-world experiences of people are often overlooked. We get stuck on discussions of public transit versus cars especially instead of more open mindedly viewing these issues, assuming the person is not making an argument to limit the use of cars in general.

Some argue we need to replace cars with public transportation to combat climate
change. There are multiple flaws with this argument, despite it being one of the most common lines of anti-car rhetoric I have heard. While it is true that cars with internal combustion engines release pollutants, not all sources of public transportation are zero emissions. We need to stop seeing the problem as public transportation versus cars and focus on the power source instead. Public transit can include buses fueled by diesel or gasoline, along with some trains being powered by fossil fuels. There are electric versions of buses, trains, and cars. However, instead of focusing on fossil fuels versus electric or other cleaner sources, people often make general statements about cars being worse than public transit when contributing to climate change. Why do so many people condemn cars and advocate for public transit expansion instead of electric cars and charging stations? When we talk about infrastructure, why are the cleaner versions of cars left out of the conversation often?

Some argue that even if public transit is not fueled by a clean power source, it is still
better than cars because a single bus or train car can fit more people than a passenger car. Beyond climate change, public transit could potentially relieve congestion on roads this way. However, that only helps if people actually ride public transit. Having buses traveling down the road with no one riding besides the driver or few riders does not help relieve congestion, yet close to empty public transit buses frequently exist. Alternatively, depending on the route and time of day, there are buses so crowded that some of the people who want to ride have no room to board and are forced to wait for the next bus or use a different mode of transportation.

Locally, there have been a lot of safety issues with public transit, which further
discourages ridership. Some of these safety issues result directly from the actions of people present on public transit, such as robberies, shootings, verbal harassment, and more. Not only have incidents been in the local news recently, but I have personally witnessed multiple incidents myself. At a recent town hall in my neighborhood discussing adding more public transit options, multiple residents, including myself, voiced issues with safety and crime. Unfortunately, there was a significant amount of pushback and disbelief from others in attendance. One person present argued that increasing the number of people riding will help lessen crime. However, I once saw someone’s purse stolen right in front of me while we were both standing in a very
large crowd of people waiting at a bus stop at a transportation center. The person simply grabbed the bag and ran away faster than anyone could follow. Another time, a man was following a female student and I back when we were in high school and trying to get us to leave with him. We kept walking away only for him to follow. There were plenty of other people at the bus stop who did not intervene. The bus we were waiting for came early and parked at the bus stop, but the driver would not let us board early. We told him about the man who was harassing us and asked him to radio it in, but he just laughed at us. Another time, a group of men harassed me verbally for what I was wearing when I was at a machine at a transportation center refilling my transit card with more money before boarding the train. I was very concerned when
they surrounded me from behind that things could get physical, yet they left after I ignored them. Yet again, no one else intervened, despite other people being present. The clothing I had been harassed for was simply wearing a pink and orange plaid collared shirt with hair short enough at the time to be cut with clippers. The men incorrectly assumed I was a man wearing pink and harassed me for doing so, though I doubt telling them my gender identity would have made the situation any better. I did wonder how they would treat me if they knew I was nonbinary or afab if this is how they treat someone they think is a man, assuming the answer would be worse. I did
not set out that day intentionally breaking gender norms. It was an outfit I had worn many times without issue before this incident, with the date I bought the shirt having been years before cutting my hair that short. Unfortunately, women and LGBTQ people face harassment like this on public transit, with little done to intervene or prevent it. I have also witnessed people with identities other than my own be harassed on public transit as well. While harassment and crime can happen outside of public transit, there is something especially vulnerable about being stuck within a bus, train, or waiting at a bus stop with nowhere to escape it. At least in my car, I have
more control over who enters, can change my route if traffic allows, and lock the door. All of these personal incidents occurred pre-pandemic, so it is not simply a pandemic related issue. When I have rode the train in particular during the pandemic, I have witnessed multiple types of human bodily fluids in the train cars and stations, that the train cars and stations are generally less clean than before the pandemic, and seen signs of disrepair (broken lights in the train cars, rust, etc). There was also an article in the news a couple months ago about how some stations had broken elevators. It has gotten to the point where I refuse to use public transit anymore, between the crime, sanitation issues, state of disrepair, and other safety issues. Every time I have given public transit another chance lately, I witness more issues with it that make me not
want to come back, despite having taken it throughout my life going as far back as childhood.

I have had trouble reporting some of these issues when I attempted to. For example, when I took the bus to work a few months ago while waiting for repairs on my car, the driver during a particular ride seemed to be speeding and not keeping his foot solidly on the brake when passengers were getting in and out. They kept stopping past the bus stop and the bus would roll forward at points randomly when it was supposed to be at a full stop. This meant passengers were exiting a vehicle still in motion every time it suddenly rolled forward, making it more difficult and more dangerous to exit. I tried to call it in, but the customer service staff for the transit agency the bus belonged to were gone for the day when I called their number. That is not the only time I have run into issues reporting or addressing issues with local public transit after attempting to by various communication methods. There have also been times where my local public transit agency responded back that they are not planning to improve certain local routes due to low ridership and have at points considered removing some existing routes due to low ridership. That becomes a chicken and an egg situation where people do not want to ride because of safety and reliability issues, but then the transit agency and other organizations do not want to focus on improving some routes due to low ridership. When people voice their negative experiences with public transit, they are too often not believed or taken seriously.

The safety issues alone are not the only reason public transit is not a viable option. Over a year ago, I wrote a post discussing why Philadelphia needs better transportation options. One issue I discussed in that post that is relevant here is how local public transit fails to connect me to multiple areas. There simply are no routes connecting me to certain parts of the city or the surrounding suburbs. Of the routes that do exist, some stop running in the evenings or on weekends, only run on the hour, take over twice as long as driving, require me to transfer to another bus or train to get to my destination, and have reliability issues. I have lost count how many times there were issues on the tracks that halted local trains (especially in the winter), a
scheduled bus never showing up due to either equipment issues or for unknown reasons, a bus that came significantly before its scheduled time that I watch drive past me before I reached the stop, or when there were delays long enough to miss my connection if I planned to transfer between routes. Reliability issues forced me to either be late, cancel plans, or not attend something at all due to a lack of routes to get there or available routes not running late enough to get home again prior to when I had access to a car and relied on public transportation as my main source of transportation. I once had to cancel a doctor’s appointment because a bus never
showed up as scheduled (which would still have gotten me there early if it had arrived with a slight delay) and the next bus would have made me too late to keep the appointment, even if I walked to the next nearest bus line instead of waiting at the route that failed to arrive. Having to cancel my appointment was a result of the bus both not showing up and running infrequently that time of day. There have been many times where I left an hour or more early to take public transit, either to give myself a buffer or because the next scheduled bus would make me late.This includes times where my destination was less than an hour away by car, but the bus only
ran on the hour, forcing me to leave so early. Even when I gave myself a long buffer, there were times where buses not showing up or issues on the train tracks still made me late. Learning to drive and buying a car has allowed me not to be late going forward for things, since it had often been the fault of public transit issues out of my control before. Outside of major, unforeseen public transit or road condition issues, I am the type of person who is usually early for things. For comparison sake, I have driven through heavy rain multiple times and still been early for medical appointments. It takes something harder to find a workaround, such as being stuck in
unmoving traffic after a sudden accident on a highway occurs up ahead with no exit nearby, to make me late now that I switched from public transit to driving. Even then, I often get caught in traffic without being late by continuing to give myself buffers by leaving early when driving.

Cars get blamed for issues beyond climate change, including urban sprawl. Some argue that we need to make cities more walkable and have more jobs, schools, and other resources closer to where people live. On the one hand, I am all for having more resources closer to where people live. I am tired of institutions such as university hospitals, colleges, county assistance and other government offices, and more being mainly located in Center City, Philadelphia or in far away suburbs that are not the ones that border my part of the city while rarely being located out towards where I live. However, cars are not the problem here, either. I have seen plenty of dense, urban environments that are not car friendly and the complete opposite of urban sprawl, yet are still food deserts or missing other resources. There is also a much larger discussion to be had about how simply building schools, hospitals, and places of employment in a neighborhood does not mean any of those things are accessible to the residents of that neighborhood. You can have plenty of jobs within walking distance and still struggle to get hired. Almost every job I have had in my life so far was not within walking distance, despite there being many businesses nearby. Some of that was due to the types of jobs available locally (as far as the industry, how physically demanding they were, amount of pay offered, etc), though other major factors were involved, such as some employers not responding at all to my applications and whether there were any job openings to begin with at
local businesses when I was searching for a job. You can have a hospital or medical practice nearby, but that does not take the types of insurance residents have. While my neighborhood lacks many types of clinical services, we have a very large number of dentists. However, I have struggled to find dentists that take Medicaid within those located at all nearby (even when expanding my search beyond walking distance to include about a half hour drive), despite a large number of people in my neighborhood being low income besides me. Additionally, while my neighborhood thankfully is not a food desert, local grocery stores continue to be affected by supply chain issues. I have also run into issues with expired products being on the shelf and moldy food at some local grocery stores recently. These issues have forced me to travel further for groceries and other common household supplies, regardless of multiple places to shop being located within walking distance or a short drive. While cars may at least allow urban sprawl to occur, putting more institutions within walking distance or even going as far as to get rid of cars will not solve the problem. People still often have to travel to see a doctor, attend college, access jobs, etc, regardless of whether those same resources are located nearby. They are often not traveling by choice, but out of a lack of accessible, quality options closer to home. Instead of blaming cars, we should be focusing on why people are not finding jobs nearby, why people are traveling for certain things, if these institutions are accessible, the quality of those institutions, etc. Simply being anti-car ignores some of the other route causes of why people travel for groceries, work, school, medical care, and more.

To me, being anti-car is not being disability friendly. Multiple times in recent years, my physical health has temporarily made taking public transit more difficult than driving. Some of that is due to the existing public transit not being completely accessible. There are some routes that require taking stairs to board and stations where taking the elevator means walking further than if I took the stairs due to where the elevators are placed, assuming the elevator is working at all (countless times over the course of years, various stations have had their elevators out of service). Taking a car also makes it easier to travel at my own pace. I have more flexibility in when I leave if I only have to start the car compared to getting to a bus or train at a certain time before it departs. It is easier to stop somewhere to use the bathroom when driving or use the bathroom before leaving the house if I suddenly need to as I am leaving without fear of missing my ride. There were times in the past when suddenly needing to use the bathroom led me to miss a scheduled bus, often only by minutes. Being able to more flexibly adjust my route when driving compared to public transit also makes running errands easier, including picking up prescriptions after a doctor’s appointment. I can take more time getting in and out of my car while a train will not wait for me to gather my belongings and exit necessarily at my own pace. Especially with the reliability issues and some routes running infrequently, I have also gotten stranded in bad weather when taking public transit. This includes waiting at bus stops in extreme heat or cold, in the rain, etc. When I drive, I do not have to stand and wait outdoors. I can head straight to my car and get inside. I can set the temperature of my car how I like and not be concerned about how the air conditioning or heat on public transit sometimes is not functioning or set to a temperature that is not ideal for me. I can travel with more belongings when traveling via my own car compared to public transit, whether I need to take medical supplies with me, I am simply trying to travel with grocery bags, or any other reason I might need to take a bag or multiple bags with me. Back when I took public transit to school prior to having access to a car, I often struggled to simply take my backpack with me, let alone a lunch box or any additional bags. When I studied filmmaking or was working any jobs related to video or photography, I was traveling with tripods and camera bags in addition to my backpack, which took up even more space and added much more weight to what I was carrying. Too often, the trains or buses are standing room only and there is not enough space to put a bag anywhere. Few local transit options have bag racks and the ones that do are too high for me to reach sometimes. Fellow passengers get angry at the extra space my bag(s) take up, assuming there is space at all. I am forced to carry those bags when it is standing room only, which can lead to more fatigue and other issues compared to being able to put those bags down in my car. Just keeping my backpack on the entire trip to school used to hurt sometimes. The lack of room for
bags on public transit affects those with and without disabilities. It especially makes grocery shopping by public transit difficult, since that often involves traveling with multiple bags that may be particularly heavy and contain items that can start to spoil if having to travel for a longer period of time by public transit than driving would have taken. The other reason an outright ban on cars would not be disability friendly is there are times when my doctors will not allow me to take public transit, such as when they required me to be picked up by someone by car in order to discharge me from same day surgery and procedures that involved anesthesia.

Please keep in mind I am not anti-public transit, either. Public transit can be very useful, especially when the safety issues are not present and when a reliable route is available. Cars are also much more expensive than public transit in many cases. However, when people argue cars are more expensive within larger anti-car statements, it is important to note that I used to spend hundreds of dollars a year on public transportation before buying a car. That does not include additional taxi and ride sharing fees I paid when public transit was unable to get me to my destination or times where I arranged for a friend or family member to drive me to an otherwise inaccessible location. Just because cars are more expensive does not mean public transit, ride sharing, or other transportation options other than owning your own car are affordable either. Besides arguing for these conversations to expand beyond public transportation versus cars to get to the route of certain issues, I think we need both public transit and cars. It should not be one or the other. We need to expand public transit infrastructure so we do not continue to have a lack of routes to certain destinations and existing routes that are in disrepair. We also need to be building more car related infrastructure, especially more environmentally friendly car infrastructure, such as charging stations for electric cars and improvements to the power grid to allow for the charging of more electric cars than before. Too many times, I hear people quickly being anti-car instead of having these larger conversations that I have attempted to address in this post. I hear this anti-car rhetoric from experts in various fields or in everyday conversation. When simply making cars out to be the enemy, so many factors and groups of people are left out of the conversation and real-world problems beyond cars are overlooked.

I come at this as someone who years ago did not want a car due to the environmental
impact and who at first could not financially afford a car. It is still not easy to afford, though I saved up for it and make it a priority when budgeting now. I was practically forced to get a car when not having one limited what jobs I could apply for, what time of day or day of the week I could travel (which especially impacted my ability to spend time in person with friends or family during evenings or weekends), etc. Learning to drive and buying a car gave me the freedom to travel at any time of day, go anywhere I want as long as there is a road to get there and parking when I arrive, apply to jobs and visit doctors that were not geographically accessible before, take evening college classes when I otherwise would not have been able to get home that late and used to only enroll in classes during certain times of day when I relied on public transit, and
more. There are aspects to driving that public transit just cannot replace, especially in its current form, ignoring that public transportation or getting rid of cars does not necessarily solve the problems people argue it would, at least not on its own.