By Dom Nozzi
A few weeks ago, my brother told me that he had heard a story on NPR on the way home from work that made him laugh. The story, he said, asked if there is a “war on cars” going on.
I thanked my brother for sending the article.
Since starting as a planner for Gainesville FL in the mid-80s, I suffered for two decades as I listened to folks who regularly screamed about a “war against cars.” When citizens screamed about a “war against cars” in Gainesville, that always meant the city planning staff was firmly instructed by supervisors and elected officials to back off on imposing even the most mild restrictions on motorists.
The car in Gainesville, more so than perhaps any city in the US, is truly a sacred cow.
A former elected Gainesville City Commissioner (who is now the head of an extremely right-wing organization called The American Dream Coalition, which is a front group for pushing suburban sprawl and happy cars) was ALWAYS attacking planning staff by saying we were against cars. He even held up my first book (Road to Ruin) at a commission meeting and sarcastically said that he keeps the book on his bed stand so he could learn from and enjoy the thoughts of city planner Dom Nozzi.
Probably the leading national pro-sprawl zealot trumpeting the idea that there is a war against cars is Randall O’Toole, who is based in Oregon, of all states. O’Toole has also singled me out by name on his website when he derisively pointed out that Dom Nozzi supports traffic congestion (gasp!).
Is there a war on cars? If the US hopes to have a livable future, I sure hope so! We need to be much more like the Europeans, who openly acknowledge that they are trying to reduce car use. Many there know that the car is the enemy of the city and the enemy of both quality of life and sustainability.
And Europeans take action against cars. It is not just lip service. Their tactics, admirably, are quite effective.
There are two crucial keys to a better future: To provide transportation choice and quality of life, my colleague Michael Ronkin makes the wonderful point that we don’t need to add more space for bike lanes or sidewalks or bus lanes. Instead, we must TAKE AWAY space from cars (via road diets, as we have, over the past 80 to 100 years, provided cars with way too much space). Secondly, we must take motorists off welfare, by equitably charging them user fees for roads and parking.
I acknowledge, however, that I don’t believe the conditions (high gas prices, extreme economic woe, etc.) are currently such that town and transportation planners or elected officials in the US can openly engage in fighting car use (except in the People’s Republic of Boulder CO, where I live). Instead, I believe that as gas prices increase and economic woes worsen, we will continue to see a trend away from car use and suburban sprawl. It will happen incrementally and on its own, I believe. Only if gas prices and economic woes become a LOT worse will more people be able to openly fight against cars in the US.
I just hope that the incremental, on-its-own trend towards less car dependence happens quickly enough that our society does not experience extreme pain and political turmoil.
If some people derisively and angrily call such tactics a “war on cars,” then I am happy to be called a warrior in that war. Are higher cigarette taxes, a ban on cigarette advertising and a ban on smoking indoors a “war on cigarettes”?? You bet!
I am a proud soldier against cars.
Postscript: My friend Michael Ronkin added to this conversation a reference to the fascinating history Peter Norton has uncovered: starting in the 1920s-30s, there was a covert war on people, to allow policy makers, lawmakers, engineers and planners to redesign streets and cities to facilitate automobile traffic. So the war started a long time ago, and people walking, biking and using transit are the victims.
We are now simply beginning to fight back.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.
Or email me at: dom[AT]walkablestreets.com
My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607
My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:
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