Title media by
Lina Petronino

My Lola Rosalina used to call cars “American dream machines.” As an immigrant from the Philippines, she lived her life in the wake of the American dream. She was born 31 years after the United States colonized the Philippines in 1898, and felt the ripples of American imperialism in the motorbikes and cars that crowded the streets of Manila. She could feel the heartbeat of Westernization in the puttering engines of Jeepneys, the Philippines’ chaotic public transportation system of deserted American Jeeps from World War II. In 1962, she immigrated to the United States after qualifying for a Fulbright scholarship at New York University. 

The American dream machine has uprooted the fabric of the United States in the name of ‘freedom’ for nearly a decade. In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal Aid Highway Act into law, which elicited the U.S. government to invest billions of dollars into construction of interstate highways. Now, Americans must travel by car at the expense of their wallets, safety, and environment. 

The subways of New York City served the same purpose as Manila’s jeepneys: Lola Rosalina had no use for a car or driver’s license in either city. However, after she married my grandfather and graduated with a master’s degree in linguistics, the tables turned. The elite tranquility of the Massachusetts suburbs called her name.

The car holds a similar place in contemporary American society as the jeepneys did in the Philliphines at the turn of the century: both are relics of the monolithic, extractive and exploitative systems that dominated each country in turn. The U.S. Army and American auto manufacturing industries both exemplify the harmful individualistic, exceptionalist ideologies and profit-seeking drives that have caused so much harm to our communities around the world.

Cars and their infrastructure take up space in our cities and require billions in government funding. Their fuel is extracted through methods that actively endanger local ecosystems, and when burned, pollute the atmosphere. Every year, as pollution worsens and fatal car accidents continue, the legacy of the American dream machine persists. The era of sports cars, highways, and smog must end. It’s time to retire the American dream and its machines, and convert the United States into a car-free society.

The worst consequence of cars is arguably their destructive environmental impact. Car production alone consumes an incredible amount of energy through the transportation and use of materials such as steel, rubber, plastic, and glass. Historian Mark Foster estimated, “fully one-third of the total environmental damage caused by automobiles occurred before they were sold and driven.” His estimation was sourced from a research study that approximated that every car produces roughly 29 tons of waste and 1,207 million cubic yards of polluted air during its production process. These approximations don’t even factor the incredibly high environmental cost of extracting fuel for the cars we drive.

Gasoline extraction is an incredibly environmentally taxing process, and threatens disaster through accidental oil spills. Hydraulic fracking, a common method of gasoline extraction, uses explosives, water, and sand to reach oil and natural gas. In this process of extraction, fracking industrializes ecosystems and endangers drinking water contamination. 

The heaviest environmental burden lies in cars’ fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, which account for 80-90% of automobiles’ environmental impact. Every year, the average American vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which worsens global warming. Separate from carbon dioxide, cars pollute our atmosphere through carbon monoxide, smog, and other toxin emissions. According to National Geographic, “vehicle [emissions] are especially troubling because they leave tailpipes at street level, where humans breathe the polluted air directly into their lungs.” 

Just as fracking infrastructure damages ecosystems, car infrastructure encourages the industrialization of rural landscapes through paved roads, parking spaces, garages, and more. Cars and their infrastructure consume 50-60% of urban space, with an estimated 1-2 billion parking spaces available for 280 million American automobiles. In our constant endeavor for convenience, Americans have sacrificed affordable housing and a healthy environment for billions of desolate parking spots. 

Given the space, money, and ecosystems that cars sacrifice, one would hope automobiles to be safer and more efficient than other methods of transportation. The opposite is true: the average car is 80% empty when operated solely by its driver, how most working Americans travel. Additionally, every year, an estimated 30,000-50,00 Americans die from fatal car accidents, the second leading cause of death for teens. By placing the responsibility of transportation into the hands of its people by forcing them to drive cars, the United States has killed millions of innocent Americans.

Lola Rosalina dreaded driving because she recognized how dangerous cars can be. The vicious purr of her American car engine unsettled her; she feared the immense responsibility that automobiles represented, which potentially endangered her and her passengers’ lives. After she adopted my mother, she knew couldn’t afford to make mistakes behind the wheel. Because of her anxiety and inexperience, “it took her three tries to pass her driver’s test,” my mother said.

My mother would tell me about how Lola Rosalina refused to drive outside of a fifteen mile radius from their house in Carlisle. She hated taking turns, but absolutely despised rotaries, a type of Massachusetts road that entails counter-clock wise traffic flow. After nearly crashing her car while driving on a rotary, Lola almost exclusively drove on backroads. Like the hopeless American dream she so desperately chased, Lola was never fully comfortable driving.

Manilla, The Philippines

Though the negative impacts of cars are clear, a transition to a carless society is more complicated for the United States than it may be for other countries. America was built around the automobile—it’s going to take a lot of time and money to revolutionize it into a country of mass public transportation. However, it’s not impossible, as exhibited through China’s massive investments in public transportation infrastructure.

In recent years, China has prioritized the integrity of its environment over its cars through offering fuel alternatives, public transportation, and citizen incentives. China, which was once infamous for its smog, has reduced air pollution primarily through investing in train and subway infrastructure. In 2003, China began investing in a railway system that would soon become the longest high-speed railway network in the world

Despite China’s considerable investments in public transportation, car ownership continues to grow each year. In order to combat harmful vehicle emissions, the Chinese government began to offer incentives for citizens that opted to drive electric cars over their gasoline guzzling counterparts. While some states offer similar environmental incentives, the efficiency For drivers with natural-gas powered vehicles, the Chinese government offered more environmentally healthy fuel alternatives such as compressed natural gas (CNG), which reduces carbon monoxide emissions by 90-97%. Through these transportation and fuel alternatives, China has reduced its carbon emissions in 74 of its major cities by roughly 33%.

Successful alternatives to the American dream machine exist, yet the United States government continues to perpetrate automobile use and infrastructure at its own expense. Although the Biden administration recently introduced an infrastructure law to fund public transportation, our budget of $108 Billion is embarrassing in comparison to China’s $2.3 Trillion plan. The American dream machine will never die as long as the United States values freedom and profit over the safety of the American people. Until then, my Lola’s American dream machines will continue to boast the empty promises of the ideals they're named after.