Our potent desire to drive and the government policy preference for cars over other modes of transportation are reflected in the relative size of the U.S. mass transit fleet, which comprises just 129,000 vehicles nationwide.
For every eight public dollars spent on transportation, only one goes to public transit; the other seven dollars go to car-related needs. And on any given day, recessions aside, an average of 150,000 Americans pour in to new and used car dealerships to buy a vehicle. As a result of the improvements in car quality and the rising cost of new cars, Americans drive their cars longer and are more and more likely to buy them used, but they keep on buying them. Though it may slow the purchase rate, even a slumping economy doesn’t stop the buying frenzy: when the recession began, in 2007, Americans simply stopped buying SUVs with such fervor and started buying more used cars.
Once they’ve bought those cars, people take for granted that they rarely find themselves more than a mile from a gas station—or two or three for that matter—as 120,000 stations dot the land. Once centered on car repairs and gas sales, these stations are now usually mini-marts, selling food and lottery tickets along with windshield washer fluid, and reflecting the centrality of the car to shopping and the time crunch American families find themselves in. With remarkable near invisibility, the gas arrives at those stations via hundreds of thousands of miles of pipeline, and a vast fleet of tanker trucks ply the roads daily to make delivery.
And drivers get to those gas stations by using the construction project of the twentieth century: the massive pouring of concrete and erection of steel that became our four million miles of roads and streets and 600,000 bridges (compared to just 200,000 miles of major railroads).
Drivers can belly up to their destinations in one of 105 million parking spaces in the United States. Together, these paved surfaces match the square mileage of the state of Georgia.
While people imagine that road system thick in some places and thin in others, our beloved automobile has demanded access virtually everywhere, including the diminishing wilderness areas of the West. There is no spot in the lower 48 of the United States more than 22 miles from the nearest road, outside of some unbuildable swampland in southern Louisiana. While the most road-remote location is in the southeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park, even such national parks and national forests are crisscrossed with miles and miles of roads and play host to traffic jams in the summer.
We traverse our dense spiderweb of roads to a startling degree, with the amount of driving we do having skyrocketed over the past quarter century. Even with the decline in driving prompted by the gas price spike of 2007 and 2008, the Department of Transportation estimate of the number of vehicle miles traveled in 2008 is 2.98 trillion—almost double the number of miles driven in 1983.
And this is not just more cars and people on the road: from 1990 until 2007, the total number of miles driven in the United States grew at twice the rate of population growth. The combination of increased mileage and worsening traffic congestion has each of us on the road for an ever greater portion of our waking hours—on average, we spend 18 1/2 hours per week in our cars.
Excerpted from Carjacked by Catherine Lutz. Copyright © 2010 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. All rights reserved.
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