In the US, it is difficult to think of a product that has impacted the past, present, and even the future of our nation more so than the automobile. Unfortunately, climate change looms large in that future. Whereas the US has made some progress in switching to fossil-fuel alternatives in the last decade (though recently that has been stifled by the current administration), progress has been undercut by the fact that the nation continues to put more cars on the road. So much so that in recent years, transportation has replaced power plants as the prime culprit of greenhouse gas emissions in the US today.
Which isn't surprising, as so much of the US infrastructure is designed around cars, and in many parts of the US, even major metropolitan areas, one can hardly get to work or buy groceries without owning a car. The common refrain is that we 'love' cars in the US, but upon closer examination, what has been interpreted as love looks more like fixation or even addiction.
Unsurprisingly, the goals set out by the UN IPCC are not even close to being met. A recent study published inNature found that the only possible way to limit warming of 1.5°C, is to cancel all fossil-fuel infrastructure projects. Which doesn't bode well, as in several major cities across the US, over $26 billion in highway construction projects are currently well underway. California is exemplary of our car problem, for despite higher state fuel-efficiency regulations, their transportation emissions have gone up in recent years due to the fact that there are much more cars being driven than there were in decades past.
One might be tempted to think that electric cars are the solution to this problem. Which is both right and wrong. Though it is necessary to move away from fossil-fuels, if everyone were to drive electric cars in the same way that we drive our gas-powered cars today, the carbon reduction would in fact be cancelled out by electrification. Not only that, but if to switch over the entire fleet of US cars to electric would require "18 times the world's current cobalt production, about nine times global neodymium output, nearly seven times global lithium production, and about four times world copper production." reports The Hill.
Betting everything on electric vehicles alone is not a realistic solution. Inevitably the nation must move away from away from fossil-fuels and there simply needs to be less cars on the road. In design, there is a desperate need for new transportation solutions, especially in the urban environment. Several cities around the world like Madrid, Oslo, and Bogotá have been working to diligently to remove private vehicles from city centers, and expand public transportation as well as bikeways for residents. To curb our impact on the climate, the US must follow suit.
Herald Square, New York City, 1973
Ironically, cars are a great example of how design can change the world, but if things don't change quickly that change will have been for the worse. The global climate crisis is more pronounced than ever, and if the US and the world is to curb the climate crisis to any degree, designing new transportation alternatives is one of the most important undertakings that governments and global industry must address.