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Motorists To Urban Planners: Stay In Your Lane

A cyclist rides in the the bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C.
Becky Lettenberger
A cyclist rides in the the bike lane on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in Washington, D.C.

Cities and cars share a conflicted relationship these days. Environmental concerns, growing traffic congestion and an urban design philosophy that favors foot traffic are driving many cities to try to reduce the number of cars on the road. In cities such as Seattle, Chicago, Toronto and Boston, some people go so far as to claim there is a "war on cars."

That's a phrase that has popped up around the country as cities spend more transportation dollars on transit; add streetcars, bus and bike lanes; raise parking rates; install "traffic calming" measures; and increase traffic enforcement with cameras. Advocates of these changes say they give people more options and make cities safer. But some motorists feel like they're under attack.

Heated Rhetoric

In Washington, D.C., where 9th Street NW meets I Street NW it's a one-way street with three lanes of traffic. The right lane is labeled with giant letters on the pavement: BUS ONLY. The bus lane is among changes in recent years in Washington and other places that are making room for other forms of transportation, not just cars. It's a source of tension with some drivers, especially cab drivers, who are often stuck in congested street lanes with empty bus lanes right alongside them.

Lon Anderson, chief spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, wrote an op-ed in 2010 about what he called a "war on drivers" in Washington. He says he sees it in the more than 1.6 million parking tickets issued annually in the city, not to mention increasing automated enforcement, red light cameras and speed cameras.

"Welcome to Washington, D.C. Please just open your wallets and be charitable. And if you don't, we'll still get you," he says in jest as he spots a speed camera behind a sign welcoming visitors to the nation's capital.

Anderson contends that these cameras are installed for reasons other than safety. He accuses the city government of balancing its budget "on the backs of motorists."

Political consultant and Washington resident Chuck Thies, who has written about what he calls the "war on automobiles" for the Huffington Post, says, ultimately, that war is over resources.

"Transportation dollars are few and far between," he explains. "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."

Some cyclists, and other nonmotorists, may have a negative attitude toward cars. But Thies, a cyclist who for years didn't own a car, says critics need to face the reality: We can't get rid of cars. They're essential to the economy, he says.

"[Cars are] the predominant form of transportation in America. In fact, it's something that we can't live without," Thies says. "When you get a refrigerator delivered ... they don't bring it on a bicycle. ... They bring it in an automobile. It's easy to vilify the automobile, but it's not productive."

Still, on the other side of this argument, cyclists often express concerns about the difficulties of sharing the road with four-wheeled commuters.

"If you ride your bike around the city enough, you certainly feel like they're at war with you as opposed to you being at war with them," says Washington cyclist Martin Vieiro. And if there is a war, some people argue, cyclists and pedestrians are the ones who suffer casualties.

Cast about North America and in just about any city you'll find heated rhetoric about urban transportation.

In Toronto, the mayor pledged to end a so-called war on cars. In Seattle, the phrase has been aimed at all kinds of city plans, including lower speed limits in residential areas. It's also been used in Chicago to label bus lanes and a "congestion fee" at parking garages.

In Boston, a local columnist for The Boston Globe accused the mayor of waging war with a proposal to turn parking spaces into tiny parks called "parklets." Some even accuse the U.S. federal government of waging a war with money that helps cities make these kinds of changes.

The History Of Cars Vs. Jaywalkers

The "war on automobiles" is not just a 21st century phrase. It's nearly as old as the car itself. In 1909, The New York Times reported that a Georgia town waged a "war on automobiles" by banning them.

Peter Norton, a technology historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, says America did eventually welcome the automobile. But it was not an instant love affair. In fact, he says, cars were initially greeted in cities with hostility and militaristic language.

"Today a lot of people think it makes sense that cities made space for cars because streets are for cars. But the attitude then was, 'No streets are for everything except cars,' " Norton explains. "Mothers told their children to play in the streets at that time, and they did and it was normal. And when a child was struck by a car at that time, people didn't blame the parent. They blamed the motorist."

Norton says people had to be retrained before motorists were given right of way. That took a public relations offensive. One tactic involved ridiculing people who walked in the street as "jaywalkers."

According to Norton, "jay" used to be city slang to describe people from rural areas, and "jaywalker" was an insult directed at people who bumped into other pedestrians because they were distracted by all the city sights.

But with the advent of the automobile in cities, a new meaning emerged. In campaigns to clear city streets for vehicles, "jaywalker" was newly directed at pedestrians who were walking in the street and getting in the way of cars.

"In a number of cities, they had clowns dressed up to look like uneducated rural people with sandwich board signs that would say things like 'I'm a jaywalker.' And they would walk around looking like idiots," Norton says. "In a parade in New York City, they had one of these characters repeatedly rear-ended by a Model T to the delight of onlooking crowds."

Ridiculing pedestrians in parades may not be as common today, but Norton says the current debates about cars and cities echo discussions from a century ago. It's not obvious, he says, "because the success of the automobile-age vision of the city street was really complete for a few decades."

Getting Out Of The Car Lane

Back in Washington, D.C., Harriet Tregoning, the director of the city's Office of Planning, says the nation's capital is shifting away from decades of car-focused transportation planning.

"We've begun more than a decade-long effort to rebalance our transportation system, in part because we just don't have the capacity in the city to accommodate everyone who wants to be here to work or to live if everyone was always in an automobile for every trip," Tregoning says.

According to Sam Zimbabwe, associate director for policy, planning and sustainability at the city's Department of Transportation, automated tickets are about safety. He says the city raised raising parking meter rates to encourage more turnover in street parking spaces.

Overall, city officials say, they're trying things out — experimenting, innovating. Washington's bus lanes are supposed to create space on the street to move lots of people. But they don't work perfectly, Zimbabwe says, and they may be removed. Bike lanes on Pennsylvania Avenue were restriped three times before the city settled on the current plan.

Those bike lanes, and an anticipated new streetcar line, give people more choices. And choices, Tregoning says, enhance the vitality of street life for city residents, not just suburban commuters. As for a war on cars, she says she knows of no such war.

"People are using these other transportation modes, and it's making it possible for restaurants and other businesses to open in all kinds of neighborhoods throughout the city," Tregoning says. While she loves cars and owns one herself, she adds, "It's also great to get out of them every once in a while."

It's difficult to measure whether commuters are actually getting out of their cars in the Washington region, one of the most congested areas in America. But Tregoning points out the city's population has grown by tens of thousands in the past several years. At the same time, there are 3,000 fewer registered vehicles, and the number of cyclists in the city is up. Capital Bikeshare, a bike rental program that began two years ago, just celebrated its 2 millionth ride.

Right now, the city estimates half of the trips made in the nation's capital are made without a car. The mayor's sustainability goal is for 75 percent of trips to be made without one by the year 2030.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franklyn Cater