The Latest Front in the “War on Cars”

Bike lanes on Bloor!

If you live around Bloor Street in Toronto you might have noticed something remarkable today: the commencement of the installation of bike lanes on Bloor. I hope it not too hyperbolic to say that this is a momentous occasion, and as such, I should probably write a positive and optimistic piece. But instead I’m going to sully this event by using it as a platform to address an issue that I am confident that will emerge (or has already, I typically don’t bother reading the relevant media) in the coming days and weeks: the so-called “war on cars.”

This is a phrase that causes me much consternation and I’ve recently realised why: it is an appalling example of double-think.

It would be an understatement to say that our transportation system favours travel by single-passenger automobile. More accurately, we should recognise that our infrastructures systemically prioritise, protect, and promote a particular mode of transport, and indeed, a specific vision of human life, one that is so all encompassing that it directs, if not dominates, every facet of North American culture. To suggest that a few kilometres of bike lanes eked out of this wholly car-centric state of affairs somehow constitutes a “war on cars” is patently absurd. It’s like saying that encouraging people to eat a vegetarian meal once a week is a “war on meat” (I don’t dare do a Google search to see if this has already been proclaimed).

But it is more than an absurdity – it is an irony, a paradox, the holding of a self-contradictory idea without recognising it as such. I know there’s probably a properly psychological concept that describes this more “scientifically,” but this is one of those instances that I have no qualms in appropriating the pseudo-psychology of Orwell.

The gist of the double-think is that people who speak of a “war on cars” interpret complaints about entitlement (the ubiquitous belief that people have the right to individualised motor-vehicle transportation, coupled with the infrastructural entrenchment of that entitlement) as a case of discrimination. They recognise that discrimination exists, but they believe they are the ones who are being discriminated against. They are simply unable to recognise the structural entitlement that the system grants them (I’d argue a good example of this is the myth that drivers “pay for roads” and non-drivers don’t). I don’t want to overplay the rhetorical might of this analogy, but I think it demonstrates a similar “logic” as to when people speak of “reverse racism” (the analogy isn’t to moral reprehensibility but to how people respond to criticism of entitlement). “Reverse racism” doesn’t exist in any real sense because it misses a fundamental meaning of racism: systemic privileging of one (racialised) group over another. The phrase egregiously dismisses legitimate critiques and responds with indignant reaffirmations of privilege (or as the venerable Doug Ford put it, “Isn’t calling someone a racist, racist?”)

Anecdotally, I surmise that a good deal of the indignation and defensiveness of people who feel there is a “war on cars” is a reaction to implicit moral judgement. Just as our car-centric infrastructure reflects values, so too does non-car-centric infrastructure like bike lanes. And it is precisely in the context of the dominance of cars that this value judgement riles so deeply: why would any one ride a bike (or walk or take the subway) if cars are so superior? What, are these people too good for cars? Do they think they’re better than me? But my car costs so much money! I think this points to a partial explanation of why regular car-users deride other forms of transportation as some sort of moral failing. Consider, for example, the oft-exclaimed idea that only poor, unsuccessful people would ride a bike or take a bus – I don’t know how many times drivers have told me to “get a job and buy a car.”

Thus, in response to this moral judgement, rather than confronting the fundamental question at hand – should I be driving a car? – the discussion turns to sanctimonious nit-picking about the “rules of the road,” ad hominems, silly platitudes about “no one being perfect,” red-herrings (“but what about the elderly and delivery trucks?”), and self-assurances that car drivers are no worse than anyone else. This last point may well be true, except for the decision to drive a car, which is the moral question at hand.

But here too the racism analogy might be instructive. Many discussions about racism are hobbled by the fact that people fail to recognise that racism is both a structural problem and one of individual ethics. So too with questions of transportation infrastructure, and socio-technical systems more broadly.

Driving a car regularly, as your chief means of transportation is an enactment of a structural and systemic entitlement. This doesn’t mean that individuals who drive regularly are morally “bad” people – not simply as a result of driving, at least. Cars can legitimately be viewed as a necessity. People are born into a car-centric world and have little to no choice but to participate in it. Abstinence is possible in certain contexts, but not most. So, in this regard, the necessity of cars, and the individual behaviour of driving, is structurally determined. But again, car-centrism isn’t wholly technological. Even if it weren’t extremely difficult to access parts of our built environments without cars, people are guided by the societal assumptions that link cars to notions of progress, freedom, prosperity and success. Car commercials, basically. Cars are imbued with deep symbolic values. And hence the phrase, “the war on cars.” When you suggest alternative means of transportation, it is perceived as an attack on these values.

Such accounts do mitigate in some sense individual moral culpability (or maybe they don’t, but that’s too big an issue to address here). But such explanations do not absolve responsibility, rather, they give it a broader scope. Cars are necessary, yes, but this is a necessity of our own making, one borne out of a long series of interrelated choices and reflecting certain values and dispositions. Recognising that the issue is structural (literally, in the sense of infrastructure), then the individual ethical responsibility turns to supporting alternative infrastructures – ones with far fewer social and environmental (and I’d argue cultural and economic) costs. Questions of individual behaviour are not entirely displaced (there are certainly many trips by car that are completely unnecessary), but individual behaviours need to be understood as structurally determined.

I don’t expect such arguments will be exceptionally persuasive to those committed to driving cars (and hence the need to build physical infrastructure). There will still be enormous resistance – such is the result of trying to change any system, especially those that entrench a (selfish?) way of life. Perhaps, though I speculate quite liberally here, the obstinacy and tantrums are a psychological mechanism to deal with the cognitive dissonance created by the dawning realisation that cars are not inherently superior – that one’s cherished beliefs, beliefs that might legitimately be called dogma, are actually dependent on a specific set of constructions. It’s as if drivers are terrified there might be better means of transportation. As if a thorough and efficient multi-modal transportation system, one that prioritises public and environmental health, is a cause for deep existential concern. If infrastructure looks different, the inherent superiority of cars disappears. At least that’s what would be dawning on me if I was stuck in traffic as cyclists happily glide by in the new bike lane.

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