Cars seem to be an emerging front in America’s culture wars. Consider the reaction to an essay by Carlton Reid, written for the Works in Progress website, claiming that ubiquitous driving doesn’t necessarily create happy, healthy communities. “Cars may seem dominant in many cities right now, but that’s because choices have been made to allow such dominance,” Reid noted. “Choices can be redone; minds can be changed. This quotation generated a backlash among conservative critics, who argued that the worldview he represented would be “impose serfdom on America» and compel people to «a pod in a blue cesspool.” Any overhaul of our existing land use and street design regimes, the implicit thinking, would make the American way of life impossible.
The flip side of this cultural medal came in response to a recent New York Times column on family travel and the spiritual benefits of driving. Columnist Ross Douthat claimed that driving could both instill “adult mastery and knowledge” and provide “a non-virtual experience of America beyond your class, tribe, and bubble.” Although Douthat observed that walking or taking the subway in a city can engender similar personal growth, many urban planning advocates interpreted the article as an attack not only on livable cities but also on liberal values. A critic from Minnesota, for example, described the columnist’s vacation as an exercise in “burning buckets of fossil fuels and torturing his children with boredom, punctuated by visits probably not to the new civil rights monument known as the from George Floyd Square in Minneapolis, but to the water park next to a developed mega-mall in Canada.
The internet backlash is an internet backlash, but these particular cycles of outrage provide a window into how discussions of urban space are politically coded in the United States. Challenges to the car-centric status quo in this country are often seen as leftist. Meanwhile, progressive city planners sometimes take an antagonistic stance toward rural and suburban America and demonize its car-centric way of life. Cars and the question of how to use public space deepen geographic, personal and political divides – an unfortunate dynamic that crowds out alternative perspectives.
How should pro-market advocates for efficient and safe urban living navigate this terrain? As Darrell Owens of the California-based advocacy group YIMBY wrote, “conservative YIMBYs”—supporters of new housing construction on the right of the political spectrum—are the smallest subset of housing advocates and typically reside in San Francisco. and in New York. The statement applies more generally to conservative planners. The perception that activists from these progressive coastal cities are parachuting into America’s heartland risks polarizing conservatives against different planning models.
In truth, the ideas of Reid’s Skeptical Car Essay apply just as much to suburban and small-town America as they do to Reid’s hometown of Newcastle or Manhattan. Conduct imposes consequences; US municipalities typically allocate too much prime real estate to parking; building highways isn’t always the healthiest thing for a neighborhood. But translating these proposals into good policy outside of our densest metros requires accommodation. Calls for basic commitments to family, neighborhood and community are more likely to resonate with conservatives than rants against the McMansions, climate change or big trucks.
From Harlem to Plano, Texas, people want safe public places where kids can play, neighbors connect, and friendships flourish. Creating them does not require a “war on cars”. Too often, defenders of livable spaces veer into outright leftism, with calls for “direct action”. A British trend is to “disarm” cars by deflating their tires in the dark of night. A gang of vandals in England claim to have “disarmed” more than a thousand vehicles in two weeks in July. Broader urban planning would treat public space as a public good, a place that helps families and communities thrive, rather than indulging in progressive intolerance.
As Americans prepare for the next Supreme Court ruling, House committee hearing, or executive order, something as bland as recommending traffic calming or congestion pricing is likely to be interpreted as part of a larger campaign. The challenge for market-friendly city planners will be to convince Americans living outside urban cores that allocating a little less space to cars is not a Trojan horse for the transformative progressive project. Fortunately, the evidence suggests localities are more open to a concrete deal than the latest Fox News or MSNBC segment would indicate. Families tend to favor safe places to ride, walk and gather, no matter what political team they are rooting for.
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