By Ronnie Schreiber
Thursday, Aug 26th, 2010 @ 3:20 pm
 
This is the third installment of the War on Cars, and before it goes any farther it's probably a good idea to address the main premise of this series. Is there really a war against the car?

If there is such a war, it's a world war and one of the cities on the front lines is Toronto. Toronto has maddening traffic congestion, particularly on east-west routes. So much so that it's become a political issue, even more so since the city replaced traffic lanes on Jarvis Ave with bike lanes. Outgoing Toronto mayor David Miller, who has championed transit and replacing traffic lanes with bike lanes, though, insists that there is no such war on cars.

At a city council meeting last year debating the eventually approved restructuring of Roncesvalles Avenue involving reducing traffic lanes in favor of bike lanes, wider transit platforms and fewer parking spaces (all of which reduce space for cars), conservative members of the council called it a "war on the car." Mayor Miller responded, "the suggestion that this has something to do with the so-called war on the car lies uneasily in the mouths of those who speak it. To suggest that it interferes with commuting from the suburbs is nonsense, it's factually false, it's ridiculous, it's not worthy of a member of this council. Period."

Factually, Miller may be correct. It doesn't interfere with commuting, it interferes with getting around the city once you're there.

Most council members echoed the mayor's denials. Council member Kyle Rae insisted, "I'm not involved in a war on the car, I'm involved in making streets work for everyone."

"Making streets work for everyone" = Making streets work less well for drivers.

Adrian Heaps chair of the city council's cycling committee, also denied that there was a war against the car.

The Rocesvalles Ave. plan was approved by a 35-5 vote. At the time the "war on the car" was seen by many as a ploy by the conservative minority, a wedge issue with voters. Toronto Star columnist Joe Fiorito wrote, "There is no 'war against the car' - that is a right-wing catchphrase which muddies the debate about public transportation in this town."

It may be a catchy phrase, but it appears to be resonating with the electorate. The leading candidate to replace David Miller for mayor this year, Rob Ford, has vowed to end the war. It's not that most people oppose bike lanes, they oppose bike lanes that replace traffic lanes making congestion even worse. As I discussed in the last episode of the War On Cars, increasing congestion seems to be a favored method of transportation activists to persuade drivers to get out of their cars.

How did bike lanes become a battlefront in the war on cars? It has to do with land use and city planning.

In 1995, two Australian urban policy professors, Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy, published a seminal paper titled, The Land Use - Transport Connection; An Overview.

In their abstract, Newman and Kennedy made it very clear how they felt about cars. "There is a growing international movement, "The New Urbanism', which seeks to reconnect transport with land use and in particular to establish transit-oriented development [...] that can help to loosen the grasp of automobile dependence."

In the paper, Newman and Kenworthy asserted that before the invention of the automobile, land use was directly tied to the then limited transportation. Limited transportation forced a very dense land use. Medieval cities typically had the radius of a 30 minute walk, about a mile and a half. With the arrival of streetcars, both first horse drawn and later powered by electricity, development was confined along streetcar lines. Even later with suburban rail systems that radiated out from center cities, development was still limited to a 30 minute walk to one of those spokes.

However, when the car was invented and popularized, people could settle in between those radial spokes, filling in the entire area with development. "The significance of the automobile is that it appeared to provide a means of overcoming the transport-land use connection," the paper explains. "It offered freedom in space and time""to live anywhere and get quickly to all destinations regardless of location."

Lest this sound too positive about the personal automobile, Newman and Kenworthy hurry to point out the dystopian result: "Individual desires for mobility in a city where individualized locations are not subject to constraint will inevitably mean traffic rises at super-exponential rates."

So, what to do? "Cities without the political ability to increase the price of automobile use to account for its true costs will need to do even more in the planning area to minimize car use expansion," wrote Newman and Kenworthy. "Thus interest has shifted to the planning process."

So, either tax drivers out of their cars or use city planning towards the same ends. It's not really about the environment and land use, it's about controlling people -- "constraint." Though the anti-car activists say that they are concerned about carbon and other emissions, alternative energy, and the environment, their solutions all seem to go through the path of making people sit in traffic so they will find alternatives more attractive.

The authors approvingly cite the experience of Zurich, Switzerland. In the 1970s, the city expanded and upgraded the old tram system, and transit buses were given right of way at traffic lights. It seems that all the transportation solutions proposed by alternative transport enthusiasts necessarily involve punishing drivers. Giving buses right of way at lights means that private car and truck drivers must constantly be on the alert for a bus, regardless of having a green light or not. Not only is that stressful, it's bound to create more congestion since buses hold up drivers with green lights. That seems like a recipe for making driving more inconvenient and it appears that was exactly the plan.

Newman and Kenworthy say that following the expansion of the tram and bus system, pedestrian malls followed that deliberately took up road space and parking lots. The authors quote activist Willi Husler that it was part of a strategy to "point out other, better possibilities of use. That way we can fight a guerrilla war against the car and win."

While today's transportation activists loudly deny they are waging a war against the car, they are following a strategy designed to do explicitly that.

Over thirty years ago automotive writer B. Bruce-Biggs wrote: "In theory, as well as in practice, the number of routes between any two points in the United States approaches infinity. In selecting a route, you are not committed in advance -- you can change your mind. Furthermore, you may elect to make several stops along the way. In other words, you have control over your own mobility -- this is the clincher. There are few things in our society, and fewer with each passing year, that offer us so much individual freedom." "
What car enthusiasts, or more importantly your average driver, see as the fundamental worth of the personal automobile, transportation activists see as its fundamental detriment. If you compare Newman/Kenworthy to Bruce-Biggs you'll see that their basic descriptions of a car's functionality are not too far apart:

Newman/Kenworthy: "It offered freedom in space and time""to live anywhere and get quickly to all destinations regardless of location." "

Bruce-Biggs: "Control over your own mobility.""

When two groups agree on the definition of a thing but one group says that thing is a good and the other says it is an evil, that is a recipe for a conflict, perhaps martial.

The name of B. Bruce-Biggs' book? The War Against The Automobile.