I got asked to write the 500 word answer to the above question that was going in a US Information Service publication called "20 Answers" (I think). It was a very curious challenge. Anything you write, when limited to 500 words, ends up feeling biased and a bit like propaganda. There are some great paragraphs in there. I like this piece! You can also read it at its source, the america.gov website too.
It is true that 95 percent of American households own a car, and most Americans get to work by car (85 percent). It wasn’t always this way, nor is it likely to stay this way.
Until World War II and into the late 1940s, many Americans did not own cars. People lived in cities and towns, and 40 percent did not own cars but used public buses, trolleys, and trains. Soon after the war, a surge in low-cost, mass-produced houses occurred outside cities to accommodate returning soldiers and their growing families. The new housing pattern was accompanied by the National Interstate Highway System, which was started in 1956. During the next 50 years, 46,876 miles (75,440 kilometers) of highways were built across America.
Americans could live in affordable suburbs in houses built on cheap land, and they could get to distant jobs with cars. Today, only 5 percent of Americans use public transportation to get to their jobs. However, this pattern of life is changing.
It has been 50 years since America embarked on this plan that influenced how we live and travel today, and we have experienced some shortcomings. Car-dependent travel and infrastructure are poorly suited for the dense urban areas in which increasing numbers of Americans live. As in other parts of the world, Americans seek to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and address climate change through alternative-fuel and fuel-efficient vehicles, but we realize these new cars alone will not meet all travel needs of Americans: The young, the old, the poor, and those living in dense urban areas need other options.
In 2001, car ownership peaked (1.1 cars per licensed driver). By 2008, the average number of miles driven in the United States fell for the first time in history, declining 3.6 percent from 2007, and the number of trips by public transportation rose to a 50-year high. It is too early to tell if this change was the result of high fuel prices in 2008.
More people are choosing to live in cities where they don’t need a car. New York City has the lowest rate of car ownership, with only 50 percent of households owning cars. Good sidewalks and public transit and safe bicycle networks are a priority in these cities. In July 2009, New York City completed the first phase of a plan to make the city more friendly to bicycles by adding 200 miles of bike lanes separated from car traffic within the city.
During the past decade American cities have seen the rise of a service called car sharing. Shared cars owned by private companies are parked throughout dense metropolitan areas and university campuses. Members rent them by the hour or day instead of owning cars. The advantage to members is that they pay only for what they use; they don't have to worry about maintenance, parking or insurance expenses, and they can choose a car that fits a specific trip (a pickup truck, four-door, or two-door vehicle).
In New York City, more than 100,000 people are sharing about 2,000 cars. This service dramatically reduces the number of cars and parking spaces needed to satisfy the needs of a large population. Each shared car replaces 10 to 20 privately held cars and is used by 40 to 50 people.
Looking to the future, it is likely we will see a reduction in the number of car trips Americans take and a rise in the number of trips they take by foot, bicycle, public transit, or train. Car sharing will become common, and more people will take advantage of carpooling (many people sharing the same trip).
Wireless technologies and smart mobile phones will make it easy to quickly find different ways to travel; see schedules; compare speed, cost, convenience, and carbon emissions; and choose the best method for each trip. America's transportation picture once again will be highly diversified.