If there's a 'War on Cars,' it's a Counterinsurgency

The “War on Cars” is a manipulative framing. And the media can’t resist regurgitating a “War on” anything.

So as I listened to this recent NPR piece, “Motorists To Urban Planners: Stay In Your Lane,” I was ready to be annoyed, and NPR delivered. The report leads with a reference to a claimed “war on cars.” The reporter, Audie Cornish, front loads the first half of the report with people whining about bus lanes and cyclists — a taxi driver, a spokesperson for the AAA, etc.

But then it got better. The piece pivots from anecdotal bitchiness to actual data on the benefits of facilitating cycling and public transportation. Cornish even brings in an historical perspective from an academic. Before introducing Peter Norton, a historian of technology from the University of Virginia, Cornish says:

[T]he 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. [My emphasis.]

Norton backs up (with a historian’s credibility) the point I tried to make a few days ago to an unimpressed Facebook friend-of-a-friend. Norton’s historical perspective is the most interesting part of the piece. Listen to it.

But the reporter fails to spell out the logical implication of cars as the insurgents — even though he teases that perhaps he is close to this epiphany:

If there is a “War on Cars,” then it’s a counterinsurgency.

And if it’s a counterinsurgency, it’s been 100 years in the making — meaning the days are not in living memory before motorists were considered the privileged users of public roads.

A French machine-gunner and a cyclist
Photo: WPR

Nobody alive today remembers the days, when, as Norton said:

…a child was struck by a car… people didn’t blame the parent. They blamed the motorist.

Remember Old Man Warner, a character from Shirley Jackson's short story, The Lottery? He was the oldest geezer in the village. And even he couldn’t remember the days before stoning citizens to death wasn’t institutionalized and linked (in the minds of the community) to progress and prosperity. (I wrote a whole thing about that.)

I imagine most cycling advocates think of their fight as creating a new normalcy where cycling is safe and respected. Perhaps instead they should view and describe their work as an effort to restore safe and normalized aspects of life from the days before motorists claimed public roads, and marginalized all other forms of transportation.

Are we stuck with this obnoxious “War on Cars” framing? I’d like to think not. I’d rather we stop focusing on one type of vehicle verses another. I’d rather proceed with the assumption that roads are for people “in whatever form of conveyance” they choose — and let that guide our transportation and energy policies and infrastructure investments.

But I’m starting to think that we are stuck with it. And if we are, maybe we need to educate about it and embrace it for the kind of “war” it is.

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