08/10/2010 06:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Real Red Scare

If you want a glimpse at what awaits America if we don't change our auto-dependent ways, just look at Russia.

In "Stuck," a stunning piece in a recent issue of the New Yorker, Keith Gessen paints a nightmarish vision of Moscow's streets that we're already far too close to.

As Gessen writes, car culture has spread like wildfire in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Car ownership rates in Moscow have increased fivefold in the last two decades, while the subways and trams have been left largely untouched. The result, according to Russian traffic expert Mikhail Blinkin, is a city "on the verge of transportational collapse."

Moscow will simply cease to function as a city. You and I will be living in different cities. Some people will live in one neighborhood, and others will live in a different neighborhood, and that will be fine, except they won't be able to get from one neighborhood to another.

As the U.S. has for decades, Moscow builds and builds and builds, endlessly expanding highways and roads at massive financial and ecological cost. The problem? As University of Pennsylvania transportation expert Vukan Vuchic says in the article:

No city has ever constructed itself out of congestion. It's impossible.

Other U.S. academics and city planners have offered similar warnings for decades, but America's dependency on the automobile has only increased. Americans drive twice as many miles per year as they did 20 years ago, and spend more of that time than ever in traffic. The average American driver spends 47 hours per year stuck in traffic, wasting 2.3 billion gallons of fuel per year in the process. The wasted fuel contributes to smog, creating chronic environmental and health problems.

Prior to World War II, the majority of American cities enjoyed reliable public transportation systems and thriving urban centers. Few now remember the electric streetcars that once dominated the downtown streets of Los Angeles, Detroit, St. Louis, and a dozen other cities before the quiet buyouts and closures orchestrated by GM, Standard Oil, and Firestone.

Fueled by a federal highway program that was the largest public works project in human history, our federal and state Departments of Transportation began building the sprawling webs of interstates, highways, and roads we know today. Paradoxically, but predictably, American cities are now more congested and less connected than ever before.

Moscow stands as a warning to us. Without adequate investment in public transportation and a concerted effort to combat sprawl, our metropolitan areas face a grim future. Cities like Los Angeles and Houston are already mired in some of the worst congestion in the U.S., and often seem to be competing for the dubious distinction of having the worst air quality in America.

The result for the poor, working class, and people of color -- in city and suburb alike -- has been devastating. A lack of fair access to economic opportunity has left America with the largest income gap of any developed nation. The strict income segregation enforced by suburban planning has left suburbanites profoundly divided even within their own towns. Meanwhile, asthma rates in cities are as much as 50% higher than in suburban and rural areas because of the air pollution left by millions of cars commuting in daily.

There is a better way. TEN and our allies are building a national movement to reverse the decades of bad policies and practices that have brought us to this state. Find an affiliate in your area and join us in changing a nightmare of endless gridlock into a dream of a more just, prosperous, and connected America.