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Uncle Sam: Moving beyond cars

Cars are a foundational part of American life. Companies like General Motors, Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) and Ford are thought to be essential to American manufacturing. Owning a personal vehicle has even become equated to images of the American Dream and individualistic grit.

This cultural phenomenon is empirically supported: Americans have about 816 vehicles per 1000 people. For reference, that figure is about 656 in Canada, 591 in West Europe and 105 in China. Disparities in car ownership also play out within nations: rural areas tend to have greater rates of car ownership and usage than urban areas, simply out of necessity. Alongside sprawling cities, such rurality may be partly why, at 910 vehicles per 1000 people, Ohio’s rate of vehicle ownership is even higher than the already elevated national average.

I am certainly a product of this “car ownership out of necessity” phenomenon. Growing up, my house was several miles outside the nearest town, and owning a car was a prerequisite for transport to work, engagement in extracurricular activities and simply having social interaction. In a nearly literal sense, without a car, I would have been stranded on a social island.

In college, however, living in Athens has helped reduce my need for a car. Consequently, I’ve also come to dislike cars. While this general aversion has expanded steadily throughout my college career, “the straw that broke the camel’s back” occurred during the cold snap the nation underwent in early February when, needing my car to make a grocery run, I was unpleasantly confronted with the reality that my battery was completely dead, to the point of needing to be replaced. It was this moment when I set a goal to ditch my car at some point during my life.

This resolution is by no means unique to me: less young people are getting driver’s licenses today than 30 years ago, and, when they do drive, they are driving fewer miles than their parents. Many predict that car ownership is set to plummet in the coming years. To understand my own decision and the greater trend of which it is part, we should dive deeper into their quantitative underpinnings.

The reliance on cars does not come for free. The average American commuter, according to one study, spends 54 hours per year stuck in traffic. And cars, of course, have a monetary cost: buying personal vehicles, parts, insurance and fuel costs the average Ohioan $3,028 per year. Governments of all levels also spend much more on highways than other forms of transit, starving other sustainable and equitable modes of the funds they need to thrive.

Time and money are still not the only costs of cars. In 2019, there were 1,155 traffic fatalities in Ohio – that’s more than three people a day. This is not even to mention the major lasting effects of non-fatal injuries. A final significant cost of cars is, of course, environmental. With so many cars on the road, personal cars and trucks accounted for 17% of all American greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, situating them among the largest contributors to global warming in the country.

In addition to these costs that push us from driving are many pull factors away from it: the proliferation of ride-sharing platforms, like Uber and Lyft, make car ownership less necessary. Some cities are investing in mass transit and walkable infrastructure that also make not having a car more feasible. Walking and biking are also cheaper, healthier ways to get around than using cars.

Depending on where you live as well as your particular needs and hobbies, you may not need a car in Athens. gives locations a score of 0-100 based on how walkable that location is in terms of walkable infrastructure and amenities. Consider these examples of random addresses in Athens: one on Court Street earns a score of 90, making it a “walker’s paradise.” Another on West Union gets a score of 70, which is “very walkable.” And, finally, a location on Columbia Avenue gets a score of 19, leaving it “car-dependent.”

In short, whether you can get away with ditching your car in Athens is largely circumstantial. Certainly, there are many students and townies alike who do not own a car and do well, but the success of some not having a car cannot be extrapolated to all; many in Athens may still need a car to shop, to leave town, to get to work, to get to class, to go to appointments, etc.

However, just because everyone in Athens cannot live without a car does not mean we can’t limit their use here. While not perfect, Athens does have a rather extensive sidewalk network that allows for non-car transportation. Side streets and the bike path even allow for relatively comfortable access to East State Street by bike. And, of course, Athens Public Transit is a great way to get to some key places around town.

We will probably never reach a point where car ownership is entirely obsolete in America– the country is simply too sprawling. That said, some of us do have the fortune of making decisions about where and how we live that can reduce our need for cars– if not entirely, then at least partly. Doing so saves us money, makes us healthier, reduces emissions and keeps us safer.

Sam Smith is a senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_.  

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