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.
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.
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- Drive Time: Commuting In American Cities
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
I'm Audie Cornish. And now to the NPR Cities Project.
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CORNISH: We're reporting on the state of cities in the urban century. And our next few stories deal with the relationship between cities and cars. It's a conflicted relationship, to put it mildly. In Seattle, Toronto, Chicago, Boston and elsewhere, some people go as far as to claim there is a war on cars.
In Washington, D.C., too. That's where NPR's Franklyn Cater has been out on the street to learn what this is all about.
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FRANKLYN CATER, BYLINE: Well, let's start with a quick tour, and some of the things that people in various cities talk about when they talk about a war on cars. I'm at the corner of 9th and I Streets Northwest, here in Washington. Ninth Street is a one way, with three lanes of traffic. And the right lane is labeled with giant letters, right on the pavement, that say "Bus Only." Now, there aren't many buses going by - just occasionally - and cars are straying into the lane.
And I've been talking to drivers at this stoplight. On the whole, they really don't like this bus lane - especially the cab drivers. Let me just walk up to one here now.
I wonder if you have any thoughts about this bus lane.
ISAIAH MUSTAFA: It makes it - squeeze the street, actually.
CATER: Makes it hard to drive the cab?
MUSTAFA: Yeah, I think so. Yeah.
CATER: What's your name?
MUSTAFA: Isaiah Mustafa.
ANTHONY COWANS: It's horrible. (Laughter) You know, there's so much traffic, why can't we ride in that lane as well?
CATER: Can I ask your name?
COWANS: My name is Anthony Cowans.
CATER: Thanks a lot.
COWANS: All right, no problem.
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CATER: This bus lane is among changes, in recent years, in Washington and other places. Motivated by environmental concern and a design philosophy favoring foot traffic, cities are making room for other forms of transportation, not just cars.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CAR DOOR)
CATER: OK, now let's go for a ride. We're in a Ford Explorer with Lon Anderson.
LON ANDERSON: They have an army of ticket writers out there on the streets.
CATER: Anderson is spokesman for the AAA in the mid-Atlantic, and he's showing us where he sees a war on cars - parking tickets and automated enforcement, red-light cameras, speed cameras - one of them right behind a "Welcome to Washington" sign.
ANDERSON: Yeah, Welcome to Washington, D.C. Please, just open your wallets and be charitable. And if you don't, we'll still get you.
CATER: Well, Anderson's not the only one in Washington who has cried war. Let's get back on the sidewalk.
CHUCK THIES: My name is Chuck Thies. I'm a political consultant. And we are standing on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 15th Street, Northwest. And there's a bike lane right next to us.
CATER: Your contention is, there's a war going on. What's the war?
THIES: Sure. Ultimately, the war comes down to resources. Transportation dollars are few and far between, and everyone wants them for their projects. If you're a cyclist, 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.
CATER: Chuck Thies wrote about this for the Huffington Post. He says some cyclists, and others, have an attitude towards cars. Thies says he bikes himself. But get real, he says - we can't get rid of cars.
THIES: Take a look around. Right here, I see four bikes, five or six pedestrians; and I see, what, 50 cars? This is the predominant form of transportation in America. In fact, it's something that we can't live without. When you get a refrigerator delivered to your house, when someone goes to a construction site with a bunch of 2-by-4s, they don't bring it on a bicycle. They don't bring it on a Metro. They bring it in an automobile. It's easy to vilify the automobile, but it's not productive.
CATER: Well, from the other side of the front, the cyclists on 15th Street fire right back. Say the phrase "war on cars" to Brian Menifee, Tom Garnett or Martin Vieiro...
BRIAN MENIFEE: I mean, I just think that that's ridiculous.
TOM GARNETT: Well, that's ludicrous.
MARTIN VIEIRO: You know, if you ride your bike around the city enough, you'd feel like they're at war with you, opposed to you at - being at war with them.
CATER: Who are the casualties here? some ask. Cast about in North America and in nearly any city, you'll find some version of this heated rhetoric. In Toronto, the mayor pledged to end a so-called war on cars. In Seattle, that phrase - war on cars - has been aimed at all kinds of city plans, including lowering speed limits; in Chicago, at bus lanes and a congestion fee; in Boston, at a proposal to turn parking spaces into tiny parks called parklets. And some accuse the U.S. government of waging a war, with money that helps make these changes.
But 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 wrote about a Georgia town waging a war on automobiles by banning them. To get some perspective, I went in search of that so-called war - a century ago, when cars were the insurgents. I drove to Charlottesville, Virginia.
PETER NORTON: Hi, I'm Peter Norton. I'm a historian of technology at the University of Virginia.
CATER: Norton wrote a book about the dawn of the motor age, in the American city. He says America eventually did welcome the automobile, but it was not an instant love affair.
NORTON: 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. Mothers told their children to play in the streets, at that time. And when a child was struck by a car - at that time - people didn't blame the parent. They blamed the motorist. So as a result, there were efforts to restrict cars.
CATER: Norton says people had to be retrained before motorists were given right of way. That took a public relations offensive. Among the tactics - people who walked in the street were ridiculed; they were called jaywalkers.
NORTON: 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. In a parade in New York City, they had one of these characters repeatedly rear-ended by a Model T - over and over again - to the delight of onlooking crowds.
CATER: And what does Peter Norton make of the 21st century battle?
NORTON: To me, when I watch that, what I'm seeing is a rediscovery of debates that were happening 90 or 100 years ago; only people don't recognize it, because the success of the automobile age vision of the city street was, really, complete for a few decades.
CATER: So let's head back to Washington. War or not, that history is central to the way that D.C. officials see their goals these days.
HARRIET TREGONING: For decades, the mode of transport that cities were concerned about, were automobiles.
CATER: I'm on Pennsylvania Avenue with Harriet Tregoning, director of planning for Washington D.C.
TREGONING: 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 everybody who wants to be here, to work or to live, if everyone was always in an automobile for every trip.
CATER: City officials say they're trying things out. They don't always work. But those bus lanes are supposed to move lots of people, not just cars. Automated tickets, they say, are about safety. Bike lanes give people another choice. And choices, says Harriet Tregoning, enhance street life for city residents - not just suburban commuters.
TREGONING: 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.
CATER: And this phrase, "the war on cars"?
TREGONING: You know, I'm not aware of such a war. You know, I love cars. I own one myself. But, you know, it's also great to get out of them, every once in a while.
CATER: Well, are people getting out of their cars? That's tricky to measure. Tregoning points out, D.C.'s population grew in the past several years, while the number of vehicle registrations shrank. The number of cyclists is up. A bike rental program, which began two years ago, just celebrated its 2 millionth ride. And right now, the city estimates half of trips in D.C. don't involve a car. The city's goal by 2030, is for 75 percent of trips to be made without one.
At 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Franklyn Cater for the NPR Cities Project.
CORNISH: And you can go online, to learn how people commute to work in different communities around the country. There's and interactive map at NPR.org/nprcities. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.