“War on cars” (or bicycles) isn’t new

By Robbie Webber

A recent NPR story asked if there was really a “war on cars.” This idea seems to appear in newspaper comments, on radio talk shows, and as opinion pieces whenever funding is moved from highway capacity expansion to transit, parking fees are raised, or street right of way is reallocated to facilitate other modes of travel.

But NPR and Peter Norton, author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City,  point out that this question really isn’t new, but dates back to an era when cars were fairly new and their right to be on urban streets was still in question. Streets had many uses at that time: for commerce, walking, children playing, public transit, and socializing. Cars were seen as intruders into this careful balance, and injuries from car-pedestrian interactions were generally seen as the driver’s fault.

Today we are again asking how to best allocate this public space we call roads. As we seek new ways to pay for infrastructure, whether it is maintenance of existing roads or a place to park, some decisions are unpopular. In particular, increased fines and new user fees often result in protests from drivers, though many cities have latched on these as a source of revenue. Residents are also demanding safe streets for walking and bicycling, and municipalities have studied whether transit might move people more efficiently than individual cars on the same street. Often the above results in a headline or letter proclaiming a “war on cars.”

At the other end of the speed and weight spectrum on our local roads are the frequent jabs leveled by pedestrians about inconsiderate bicyclists. Atlantic Cities recently ran a column titled, When the Bad Guys Ride Bikes, detailing the problem of bicyclists endangering pedestrians. As more people take to bikes for fun, fitness, or transportation, more complaints have surfaced, even overseas. Almost any media mention about new infrastructure or programs to facilitate biking is likely to be followed by a flood of comments, letters, and calls about bicyclists breaking the law or endangering others on the road. Even some bicyclists agree that scofflaws make all two-wheelers look bad.

But once again, this is not a new frontier in the battle for the public right of way. As author David V. Herlihy wrote in the New York Times, complaints about reckless cyclists, and the danger they pose to themselves and pedestrians, dates back to the great bicycling boom of the 1890s. At that time, bicyclists were perceived as the speed demons of the public space.

Even pedestrians can raise the ire of others on the sidewalk and street. “Texting while walking” seems to be the newest menace proclaimed in the media. New York DOT has even developed PSAs to remind all road users, whether in cars, on foot, or on bikes, to pay attention to others.

Whether in the 19th or 21st century, or whatever mode of travel we examine, there have been and will be battles for the public right of way and complaints about users that are rude or lawless. The “war on cars” is not new, nor are complaints about clueless pedestrians or law-breaking bicyclists. Everyone has a right to the road, and we must find a way to fairly allocate space both safely and fairly to all.

Robbie Webber is a Transportation Policy Analyst at SSTI.