Last year, you probably had the unfortunate experience of hearing or reading about this new “war on cars” raging all over the streets of Seattle. Mayor McGinn was running around slashing tires on his lunch break, Cascade was using their Big Bicycle money to push through legislation making it illegal to sell Turtle Wax, and Erica Barnett at Publicola was planting row upon row of sweet corn and heirloom tomatoes in downtown parking lots.
Well, it turns out the war never really existed. Shocking, I know. Eric de Place at Sightline went back and tried to figure out exactly where this “war on cars” meme started. Turns out, it started exactly how you might think it would: as a right wing talking point.
Basically, “war on cars” was a rarely-used phrase until last spring, when it started to get thrown around in Toronto in the early stages of the mayoral race (anti-war-on-cars candidate Rob Ford won). Then the conservative Heritage Foundation used the term to attack Ray Lahood because he thinks cars are not the only way people and goods can be moved (clearly a declaration of war). After that, Toronto and Seattle were really the main cities where the phrase has been heavily used, de Place writes.
On September 29, almost as if on cue, conservative blogger Stefan Sharkansky wrote a short post about Seattle’s new mayor called “Mike McGinn’s War On Cars” and dyspeptic radio host Ken Schram aired a segment about “the war on cars.” (Sound Politics had actually used similar language as early as 2006, when a blogger attacked the previous mayor, Greg Nickels, for a “war against cars.”) The next day, Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly leveled the same accusation with the same words.
By mid-October, Fox News had jumped into the fray. Seattle-based reporter Dan Springer led the charge with the language, generating both local and national versions of the same story, “Seattle’s War On Cars,” on October 13. A couple of days after the Fox segments aired, Ross Reynolds, a host on Seattle’s NPR affiliate, KUOW, held an on-air debate about whether “Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposed increase of parking fees amounts to a war on cars.” Not to be outdone, KING 5 (the local NBC TV affiliate) ran an October 19 segment called “Is There A War On Cars In Seattle?” On October 20, Publicola journalist Erica C. Barnett, who was featured in both the KOMO and KUOW radio segments, pushed back against the “war on cars” meme. By October 28, the ‘war on cars” was considered commonplace enough that it was used without attribution in the Seattle Times (“…a backlash from drivers and freight advocates who perceive a “war on cars” being waged…”).
So that’s the origin of Seattle’s “war on cars” tempest in a teapot: it was a low-level “meme” that circulated for a decade or so; bubbled up in Toronto; was then picked up by a few right-leaning national pundits in the US; and was then parroted by the Seattle-area noise machine.
The concept of Seattle’s war on cars is clearly ridiculous, particularly in a city where there is strong political backing for two massive, multibillion-dollar car-centric projects (the deep bore tunnel and the 520 bridge) as well as other very large car-centric projects like the Mercer changes.
But this war on cars meme is, of course, not about reason or research or good policy. As de Place points out, it’s almost about anything but:
There’s something almost laughably overheated about the “war on cars” rhetoric. It’s almost as if the purveyors of the phrase have either lost their cool entirely, or else they’re trying desperately to avoid a level-headed discussion of transportation policy.