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The war on cars that never was, remembered

A column by Jason Gay yesterday in the Wall Street Journal takes a look back at New York’s bickering over the city’s supposed “war on cars.” Now that the weather has improved and more people are riding around town, all that rhetoric seems to have died out now that it is “eclipsed by reality.”

From the WSJ:

The revival of urban cycling in this country follows a fairly predictable pattern: nervousness and ridicule, followed by the realization that the truth never matches the fear-mongering. The supposed choice between bikes and everyone else is a bogus choice. More bikes in a city doesn’t merely benefit riders; it reduces congestion, saves money, improves quality of life, elevates the experience. No one returns from a city and says, “Oh, it was great—except for all the biking.”


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The biggest mischaracterization about the infamous New York Cycling War is that there’s a war at all.

Any of this sound familiar?

Ben Schiendelman wrote a post for Slog in May that, aside from pointing out the absurdity of the Greenlake Community Council’s Michael Cornell leading a mayoral recall effort, also posted some interesting poll numbers to demonstrate the city’s support for such projects:

A recent poll of Seattle voters found that—when asked if they support spending more transportation funds on investments in transit, bicycling, and walking—57 percent said yes, only 28 percent said no and the rest weren’t sure. When asked if, given limited funds in the city’s current transportation budget, they would support greater investment in transit, bicycling, and walking if it meant fewer dollars were available for auto-oriented projects, 49 percent said yes, 34 percent said no, and 16 percent weren’t sure. And, when asked if they supported changes in the configuration of Seattle’s streets that make mass transit, walking and bicycling safer and easier (think Stone Way, Elliott Way, Nickerson St, and Fauntleroy Way), 62 percent said yes, 25 percent said no, and 13 percent weren’t sure.

That’s not a war on cars—that’s simply a city that supports all of the basic modes of transportation that we use to get around.

A post by Zach Shaner at Seattle Transit Blog also addressed the nonexistent war in May, pointing out the way we talk about transportation helps to lead to this extrapolation:

A simple truth:  cycling is not an inherently political act.  When a person is on a bicycle, they are just cycling, a verb whose adverbial embellishments (recklessly, quickly, safely, cautiously, etc…) have a short shelf life and extend only to observed behavior.  When people insist on twisting you into a noun – a Cyclist, a Motorist – you become not a person doing something, but rather a category expressing some fundamental defining value.   By definition, categories are constraining, and they make it easier to load transportation choices unnecessary moral weight.  As transit advocates we also do this to “Drivers” – and it’s just as unfair to “them” as to “us”.

He also suggests that anger about any amount of money spent on safe bicycle infrastucture is a matter of our “cultural expectation for complete car dominance.”

Our current investments in bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure are modest, they are appropriate for bicycling’s mode share, and they can only be seen as radical in the context of a cultural expectation for complete car dominance.  When you build your city for its largest scale mode, smaller scale modes are precluded and society actively engineers your mode choice upward toward cars. In a depressing segment Monday on KOMO Newsline AM, John Carlson affirmed as much when he suggested that bicycles be banned from any road with a speed limit higher than 20 mph.  When you build for cars, they become the only permissible game in town.   When you build for choice, all modes are enabled and respected (including cars!).


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7 responses to “The war on cars that never was, remembered”

  1. Gary

    My personal conspiracy theory is that the “War on Cars” is a fake talking point ginned up by the Koch brothers and their think tanks to distract people from the fact that people are spending way more money on gas/cars than they should have to. Via lack of mass transit, unsafe to bicycle or walk along roads.

    1. Gary

      Here’s good old Wendel Cox, at the Heritage Foundation on the “War on cars”

      http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2010/06/washingtons-war-on-cars-and-the-suburbs-secretary-lahoods-false-claims-on-roads-and-transit

      Here’s the funding that the Koch brothers gave the Heritage Foundation:
      http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Koch_Family_Foundations

      (over a million dollars)

      Here’s Media Matters refuting the assertion of Mr. Cox.
      http://mediamatters.org/blog/201103030040

      I think bicycle related funding because it’s such a small amount of any city’s transportation budget gets sucked into the bigger war against mass transit, ie light Rail, heavy rail, monorail, and Bus Rapid transit.

      Then the echo chamber starts howling and all facts are laid aside in favor of “that bicyclist ignored some traffic law.”

    2. Gary

      Here’s the Cato institute weighing in on the war on cars:
      http://www.leftlanenews.com/war-on-cars-how-governments-are-attacking-the-way-we-like-to-live-op-ed.html

      If you check that other link I posted on the Koch brothers you’ll see they donated $8,450,000

      So other than personal ideology and gas and oil exploration, I’m sure what monetary benefit the Koch brothers gain by all of this, but someone who is better at digging this stuff up might be able to find out.

  2. Found myself riding through Lynnwood yesterday. Anyone worried that cars are losing some sort of battle to bikes only need to go there to have their mind put at ease. Aside from the occasional empty bike rack and the fragmented Interurban Trail, bike infrastructure is non-existent up there. The few bikes I did see had training wheels and were being ridden by children. At least some people still understand that bikes are toys not transportation.

  3. […] advocates were winning battles but “losing the war” (this was before the whole “war on cars” meme derailed city conversation for several months for no […]

  4. […] Shen hates bike lanes and is convinced that the city is still concerned about the so-called “war on cars” meme of 2010. Equating building bike lanes as somehow an attack on working families? Come […]

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