Car Culture: The Sociological Factor of Transit

by Macade Allen, Political Science

Abstract: With recent pushes to make American transit systems more sustainable, a greater emphasis has been put on reimagining car infrastructure than investing in mass transit systems or pedestrianization. Because transit is long-term investment that impacts much of daily life, it is important to understand the factors that influence transit systems and the consequences that result. Existing research on improving transit systems often points to expanding or reimagining car-dependent infrastructure; however, there is a growing body of work showing the benefits of pedestrian prioritization and restricting car access. Like other cultural norms, the habits and attitudes people develop surrounding transit are taught through socialization. Communities develop their own transit cultures with behaviors that differ from other communities, and these transit cultures influence the ways we interact with our transit systems. This helps explain why measures intended decrease car use are less effective in the United States than in other similar countries. The persistence of car-centricity in the United States creates several issues, including access disparity, social exclusion, and economic discrimination. Car-dependent infrastructure creates a self-supplying cycle of demand for more car infrastructure, and the problems associated with it will only worsen if changes are not made to both America’s transit systems and transit culture.

transit, culture, socialization, access, United States

As the climate crisis begins to unfold, transit systems have fallen under scrutiny as a major source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the United States, transportation alone accounts for roughly 29% of GHG emissions (EPA 2023). US policymakers are aware of the role our transit systems play in environmental sustainability, as seen in tax credits for electric vehicles (EVs) and electric vehicle infrastructure passed in the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act (White House 2023). Despite this serious commitment to reducing its transit related GHG emissions, very little attention is being given to meaningfully improving public transit or pedestrian accessibility. In addition to the environmental benefits, quality public transit and pedestrianization can bring economic, health, and equity advantages (Yoshimura et al. 2022, Soto et al. 2022, ITDP 2019). While most of the benefits of public transit and walkability are clear, Americans rarely support improvements for these systems, instead opting for the expansion of car infrastructure (Agrawal, 2015). This paper seeks to explore why American transit policy is persistently car-centric, and the consequences that result.

The Sociology of Transit

Like all things, people are socialized into their systems of transit. Similarly to how children learn how to behaviorally navigate the world through socialization, so too do they learn how to spatially navigate the world through the same social forces. Hazel Baslington, a researcher at the University of Leeds Institute for Transit Studies, coined the term travel socialization to describe this way of understanding transit. In her research, Baslington found that the ways children thought about different modes of travel were influenced by their household, their peers (both in and out of school), and media. Children who lived in households with cars had a much greater desire to learn to drive when they were older than their peers in households without cars. They developed social expectations around modes of transit, such as the front seat of a car being reserved for parents and keeping away from strangers on the bus (Baslington 2008).

Certain modes of transit can even create unique social settings with their own implicit rules and expectations. In their ethnographic study of passengers on Chicago Transit Authority buses and trains, Gwendolyn Purifoye and Derrick Brooms observed what they coined Black transit affinities: “a type of actively developed, temporal, meaningful interactions that take place on mobile systems” (Purifoye and Brooms 2020). They noticed that while passengers in majority-White parts of Chicago actively disengaged from other passengers, avoiding eye contact and physically distancing themselves, passengers in majority-minority parts of the city were much more social with other passengers. In majority-minority areas, passengers would often engage in personal, candid conversation with strangers and freely talk about matters of race and politics. These conversations tacitly ended or became heavily filtered as the vehicle entered majority-White parts of the city and White passengers boarded (Purifoye and Brooms 2020).

While the ways people interact with transit can be affected by a number of rational factors, such as price, quality, and access, Purifoye and Brooms’ study shows that the ways we interact with transit are also inherently social. Not only were there differences between groups in the implicit behaviors and expectations surrounding transit, but the expectations changed as the social setting around the passengers changed. This, along with Baslington’s research on travel socialization in children, reveals that transit systems are deeply social in nature and thus cannot be considered through a purely rational lens.

An American Culture

American transit is characterized by its notably high rates of car travel. While common arguments to explain this include a perceived lower population density and high rates of car ownership, Americans still use cars disproportionately more than other, similar countries. According to Dr. Ralph Buehler, professor of Urban Affairs and Planning at Virginia Tech, Americans are more car dependent than other similar countries even when controlling for multiple socioeconomic and spatial patterns. In his 2010 comparison of car use between the USA and Germany (two countries with very similar rates of per-household car ownership and extensive car infrastructure), Buehler found that Americans use cars far more frequently, and for much shorter trips, than Germans do. Even factors that have been suggested to affect public transit use were less effective in the US than in Germany. For example, he found that “if all other variables are set at their mean, living within four hundred meters of a transit stop decreases the probability of using the car by 5.9 percent in Germany, but by only 0.9 percent in the USA” (Buehler 2010).

Buehler points to gas prices as the largest determinant of American car use and suggests that increasing gas prices could be an effective tool for pushing the US away from its car-dependency. Recent events, however, have shown that gas prices might not have as much of an effect on car use as previously thought. While US retail gas prices increased from an average of $2.691 per gallon in 2019 to $4.059 per gallon in 2022, the number of vehicle numbers traveled increased from 3.25 trillion miles in 2019 to 3.26 trillion miles in 2022 (EIA 2023, DOT Federal Highway Administration 2023)1. While this is not a comprehensive analysis, it suggests that gas prices are not a significant determinant in US car use, as Buehler hypothesized. It is possible that the persistently high car use in the US is caused not by rational, economic decision making, but rather by the existing car-dependent infrastructure and a culture that places cars as the “default” transit system and other modes of transit as secondary, niche alternatives.

Car-Dependency and Access

While transit systems are affected by social forces, they are also vital in creating and maintaining social structures. In most cases, buying food, participating in the workforce, obtaining an education, and socializing with others requires movement. The rise of internet-based institutions and delivery services in recent years has challenged this idea, but for many reasons they are still far from completely replacing the need for transit in everyday life. Without the ability to reliably access essential spaces like grocery stores, schools, or healthcare facilities, it is impossible to function in society. Also, travel is essential for maintaining social relationships and forming strong social networks that impact emotional well-being and the ability to land and maintain a job (Cass, Shove, and Urry 2005).

In the US, Americans spend an average of thirteen percent of household expenditure on transportation. For the lowest-earning quintile of Americans, that percent jumps up to twenty. In the US, as income increases, the percentage of income spent on transit consistently decreases. This is not the case in the European Union, where the percentage of income spent on transit increases as income increases (ITDP 2019). Because the US government subsidizes the inflated cost of car use through infrastructure and oil investments, but not the inflated cost of car ownership, there is a unique burden placed on those who pay for car transit but do not have the financial means to utilize it.

Not only does car-centric infrastructure create unequal financial burden, but it actively makes other modes of transit less efficient and more dangerous. In a pattern noticed in 1983 by Gelnn Yago, as car ownership increases, the need for more car infrastructure, like highways and parking lots increases. Because car infrastructure takes up so much space, cities and suburbs became increasingly fragmented and dangerous for pedestrians. Mass transit systems, such as trams and trains, were torn out to make room for car infrastructure. Since walking became infeasible and robust public transit systems no longer existed, demand for cars increased and more car infrastructure was created to meet this demand (Yago 1983). This runaway feedback loop between car infrastructure and car demand has shaped America’s transit systems since the 1950s, and created a culture of car-centricity that continues to dominate current US transit policy.

As a result of this, car-dependency creates and actively upholds economic discrimination. In a society that requires a car to safely and reliably access essential services and build strong social networks, those who cannot afford the inflated costs of car ownership are excluded. Since obtaining and maintaining a job often depends on getting to specific places reliably and on time, there are substantial barriers for people who currently cannot afford a car that prevent them from earning enough to own one in the future.


While much of the current literature examines rational, measurable aspects of transit, less attention has been given to the social aspect of transit. The ways people think about and interact with transit systems are socialized from an early age, and this socialization creates unique transit cultures that differ between countries, cities, and even neighborhoods. Understanding transit systems as institutions deeply intertwined with social expectations and culture is important in being able to critically examine them without bias. By understanding how communities interact with their transit systems on both a rational and social level, policy makers and planners can more effectively enact reforms to make their communities safer and more accessible for everyone.


  1. Years 2019 and 2022 were chosen to analyze effects of the 2022 gas price spike on car use. 2020 and 2021 were excluded from comparison due to the effects of COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns on travel behavior. ↩︎


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