Paul Dorn: Car reliance is roadblock for California
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Car reliance is roadblock for California
By Paul Dorn

Op-Ed article published in the Sacramento Bee, 01/23/05


In his second State of the State speech on January 5, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put his finger on the major source of California's financial distress. "This is a car-centered state," said the Governor.

Unfortunately, Governor Schwarzenegger failed to identify this dependency on automobiles as a problem. "Californians can't get from place to place on little fairy wings," said the Governor. "We need roads."

The Governor's condescension aside, there is a growing recognition that California's over-reliance on cars is hurting our economic competitiveness, harming our health, damaging our environment, and emptying our bank accounts. We can no longer afford our expensive car habit, which costs us plenty beyond the considerable expense of roads, vehicles, fuel, insurance, and maintenance.


California's high housing costs challenge low- and moderate-income workers while hurting business' ability to attract top-flight talent. This affordable housing crisis is exacerbated by our car-centered transportation system. The huge acreage needed for the movement and parking of automobiles drives up the cost of the remaining land. This expansive pavement reduces our community's tax base, shifting the tax burden onto the non-paved properties, again raising the cost of housing. Precious public money devoted to road maintenance and construction diverts funds away from affordable housing development, education, healthcare and other useful social spending. Off-street garage parking--often required by outdated zoning codes--adds even more to the costs of residential construction.


Motor vehicle crashes kill more than 4,000 Californians every year, and 310,000 car crash survivors require expensive ambulance response, emergency room care, pharmaceutical treatments, and lengthy rehabilitation. This highway carnage adds stress on our heavily burdened healthcare system, driving up the costs of insurance and medical care. Our health care costs are further increased by automobile-related stress, noise, toxic emissions, and the obesity-inducing sedentary lifestyle facilitated by our drive-thru car culture.


Managing California's water resources for the needs of residents, agriculture, industry, and wildlife is a serious challenge, made more severe by the impact of our car dependency. Auto-derived toxins and particulates contaminate surface water sources. Leaky underground tanks at the thousands of gas stations needed to fuel our vehicles contaminate groundwater. Our car-dependent sprawl hinders the replenishment of aquifers, and contributes to erosion and heavy silting of streambeds.


The considerable expense of owning and maintaining an automobile contributes to the abysmally low savings rate of Americans. Yet this expensive automobile is parked for 90 percent of its lifespan, representing a huge amount of social wealth tied up in rusting automotive metal. Even more capital is consumed in a Sisyphean task of maintaining roads and streets to barely accommodate ever growing traffic. The incredible amount of social wealth needed to support auto-dependency means fewer resources are available for more productive investment, slowing our economic growth and holding down wages.


For decades, California's transportation spending has heavily favored automobiles. We are now paying the price of this unbalanced policy. Improving the efficiency of California's transportation system will require a more balanced, multimodal approach that includes transit, walking, and bicycling. We also need policies to better connect transportation investment with land use to discourage destructive and expensive sprawl.

Certainly, as Governor Schwarzenegger suggests, California needs more roads. But we are in greater need of sidewalks, bike lanes, transit systems, and passenger rail. Above all, we need political leadership to tackle the costly auto-addiction of our "car-centered state."

Paul Dorn is executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition (

Related Articles by Paul Dorn
" Pedaling to Save the City - the Critical Mass bicycling movement
" Cycling in Osaka, Japan - the use of bicycles for transportation in Japan
" Class and Traffic - the often overlooked costs of auto-dependency
" Paul Dorn's Bicycles - reasons, considerations and rationalizations on bike types
" Baseball, Apple Pie, and...Bicycling? - bike facilities lacking at California ballparks

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