Is there a war on cars?

Most writing about transportation options ends up falling into the same language traps. We use the words drivers, bikers, and pedestrians as if the transportation mode a person chooses defines them as a person. This causes unnecessary divisiveness. When we separate people into groups like this, some of them start to get nervous. People who often drive get afraid that these ‘cyclists’ and ‘pedestrians’ are looking down from their moral high horse upon the lowly car-driving masses, scheming and planning to prevent anyone from ever driving a car. They get frustrated that infrastructure is being built for other modes, when most people choose to drive and have to deal with potholes and traffic. They see discussions about traffic calming and road diets and say that there’s a war on cars. Except that the war on cars is a completely made up thing. Here’s why.

A brief history of our streets

Cars did not always own the road. Up until the dawn of the automobile, the streets were places for everyone. Horses, people on foot, buggies, children playing: all were welcome in the street. The street was a part of the vibrant fabric of city life. When the car first showed up, it was seen as a dangerous intruder on these public spaces. When a car would kill someone, it was the driver’s fault. The driver of the large, fast vehicle was always to blame.

Today, deaths from car crashes are seen as private tragedies, to be mourned privately. Back in the early 1900s, these incidents were viewed as public tragedies, to be mourned publicly. Mayors and other public figures would mourn the lives needlessly ended by car crashes. People began to rail against cars, saying that they were dangerous and did not belong on the streets. Several cities tried to ban them.

Unfortunately, due to some crafty and nefarious marketing, not only did bans on cars fail, but the car eventually took over the public street. Not only that, but by outlawing jaywalking, blame in car crashes was shifted from the driver to the pedestrian, who shouldn’t have been in the way. This shift completely changed the function of city streets, for the first time in thousands of years.

When people say now that the streets are for cars, and that any attempt to reclaim some of this space for other modes is an attack, they’re missing the point. Streets are the places where the drama of city life plays out. The amenities that make other modes of transportation more convenient, such as protected bikeways, wider sidewalks, and better transit, improve city life. When streets are easily accessible by a variety of modes, they’re more alive and full of people. If walking is safe and destinations are close, more people will be out on the street. Walking in your neighborhood among strangers and acquaintances is one of the fundamental pleasures of living in a city. Even when you’re alone, you don’t feel so alone. You feel like you’re part of something bigger.

Watch your language

Even in this NPR article about the ‘war on cars’ they use confrontational language by separating people into neat little categories. For example, they interview a political consultant who says, “If you’re a bicyclist, perhaps you want it for a bike lane or more bike racks. If you’re a motorist, perhaps you want it for more highways or the roads to be improved.” The way that we talk about transportation options make it sound like there are warring factions. People are categorized as drivers/motorists, cyclists/bikers, or pedestrians. I’m guilty of using this distinction in my own writing, it’s an easy habit to slip into.

In Seattle, the war on cars rhetoric became a serious problem that prevented the city from moving forward on new projects to improve biking, walking, and transit. One small nonprofit worked to change the language in the discussion, which eventually shifted the whole discussion. Instead of drivers/motorists it’s people driving a car. Instead of cyclists/bikers, it’s people biking. Instead of pedestrians, it’s people walking. Instead of saying “the car hit someone,” you say, “the person driving a car hit someone.” Instead of saying, “as a cyclist,” you say, “as a parent and neighbor who rides a bike,” or, “we all get around in many ways.”

The discussion got reoriented towards people, community, and neighborhoods. No longer were there drivers, those speeding, reckless, distracted entities that are always impatiently trying to get somewhere no matter whose life they put at risk. No longer were there cyclists, those scofflaw, spandex-clad, smug know-it-alls who are always slowing traffic or blowing through a stoplight. No longer were there pedestrians, those slow, in-your-way, meanderers who are never paying attention and make your day worse. There were only people. People who go places, sometimes using one mode, sometimes using another. This shift in language in Seattle, along with some political changes, put the end to their paralysis and allowed them to move past the war on cars rhetoric.

It’s about people

Building infrastructure for other modes isn’t about punishing people who drive, it’s about leveling the playing field a little. Almost every single street in Minneapolis prioritizes cars. There’s so much more infrastructure available for using a car than for using any other mode, and up until now driving has been prioritized at the expense of city life. In the 1960s, literally thousands of homes, businesses, and communities were destroyed to make way for the freeways. Right now, it’s easier for most people to choose to drive than to choose a healthier option. One of the main reasons people don’t ride bikes is because they’re afraid of biking in traffic. If we slowed traffic down a little, we put in a protected bike lane, maybe some of those people who are driving would finally feel comfortable enough to bike. If we narrowed a street to create a parklet, maybe it would make walking more interesting and more desirable. The idea is just to make it a little more equitable for people to choose other ways of getting around.

The other thing is that many of these changes, like narrowing streets and putting in bike lanes, make it safer to get around no matter what mode you’re using. It’s safer for people who are driving because they’re driving slower. It’s safer for people who are biking because they have a designated lane. It’s safer for people who are walking because traffic is slower and narrower streets are easier to cross.

Obviously people are going to drive. Hell, I drive. I bought a car, even after eight months of not having a car, because I realized that I wanted one. There were things I couldn’t do without one. I want to be able to drive to get places, but I also want to feel safe while I’m walking and biking. It’s time to do away with this dichotomy that there are warring factions of drivers, bikers, and pedestrians. There are just people going places, sometimes by one mode, sometimes by another.

This post was written by Lindsey Wallace and originally published on Biking in Mpls. Follow Lindsey on Twitter: @bikinginmpls.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/29/2015 - 12:13 pm.

    Us vs Them

    A very sensible article. When we use language that creates a sense of the Other, then the other party becomes less human, less part of our tribe. That makes it easy to demonize them as a people apart from us who don’t share our values and goals.

    I’ve long maintained that people who complain about “those drivers” or “those bikers” are also vilifying themselves, friends, and family. A guy who runs a red light on a bike is the same guy who’s going to run a red light in a car. As the author pointed out, we can all benefit from people in all modes of transportation if the operators slow down a little bit, take some time to absorb the world around them, and watch out for people interacting with their space.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/29/2015 - 12:31 pm.

    Dollars and Sense

    How much is MnDOT (or, adopting the parlance of the writer, people who work for MnDot) spending on the complete re-build of I-35E in St. Paul? It was billed as “adding a MNPass lane”, when it is actually a complete re-build.

    Is that the same plan for the upcoming 35W project in south MPLS? I wonder what the total cost will be for those two relative to what will be spent on bike infrastructure in the two cities during the same time span?

    I don’t buy the war on cars any more than the war on Christmas.

  3. Submitted by Phil Dech on 10/29/2015 - 01:21 pm.

    Truth is, I’m all three.

    I’m a year-round bike commuter, and often ride for short errands. I am mainly a pedestrian as I frequent the shops and restaurants near my home. (Who are currently fighting parking meters – can you guess where I live?) And I regularly drive, especially for the bigger or more far-flung errands. I like to be able to do all of these things safely and conveniently. Too often these transit conversations devolve into either-or propositions.

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 10/29/2015 - 03:24 pm.


    As a dedicated pedestrian (often more than 5 miles daily on sidewalks) and driver (often 10 miles or more daily, and owner of two more vehicles) I’m with the author on this, only adding that I’d bike as well, but experienced too many scares while on one in traffic. I believe that many bicyclists would ride more safely and better if they had more experience driving (and vice versa for drivers).

  5. Submitted by Dan Berg on 10/30/2015 - 06:15 am.

    The more modes the better

    I agree with the idea of building strong infrastructure for multiple modes and that traffic specifically on residential streets should be generally slowed. One reason I picked the house I now live in is because I can easily ride my bike, take transit or drive to work. It also has the advantage of allowing me a 2 block walk to just about any type of store I need.

    For me the war isn’t about language per se (though the author falls in to that trap when saying that “crafty and nefarious” marketing was the reason cars weren’t banned at their inception) but about funding. The thing is we are all paying for the infrastructure no matter what mode it supports. If we are truly interested in stopping the conflict all we need to do is have people pay for infrastructure based on their associated costs. If each mode were self supported there would be little no reason to argue about which one should be accommodated. It would also reduce overall costs of transportation because people will tend to the more efficient options when their true costs are reflected in the price.

    The one area that would be left to work out would be surface streets which would at that point be paid for through property taxes of the connected properties. About ten years ago I lived by Audubon Park in NE Minneapolis and biked to work downtown whenever the weather was decent and took the bus when it wasn’t. I found the most pleasant and safest route was Fillmore to Spring to Hennepin rather than taking Central because there was almost no traffic. The reason is that those streets don’t really go anywhere for cars. Yes, they can be used by cars but they can’t be used to get more than a few blocks before something interrupts progress. I always thought that was the best way to manage street use. Simply adding the occasional forced right or left hand turn on residential streets and putting mini roundabouts at intersections would do wonders. I see these things occasionally through the city already and don’t know why we don’t do it more often. Major arteries would still exist. Northeast has Marshall, University, Central, Johnson, Stinson and other areas have theirs which would allow people driving cars to still make efficient progress.

    The funny thing is this same general idea that created many suburban layouts. Straight higher speed arteries and winding residential streets that didn’t go anywhere and were meant to reduce through traffic and slow speeds. The suburbs were built around cars but residents wanted their kids to be safer using the streets to found methods to make that happen. No reason we can’t use those findings to adjust urban environments to better deal with automotive traffic.

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