If By "War On Cars" You Mean...
What would it actually look like anyway?
The War On Cars exists. It’s a podcast, ironically named after the accusation that there is a war on cars. A progressive urbanist told me once that he liked the phrase “ban cars” because it triggered conservatives. That’s stupid. And that’s about the extent to which that notion has any currency among policy people.
If you listen to Jordan Peterson or Dennis Prager, on the other hand, you’ll be assured that progressives or regulators or somebody is fighting this war on cars.
This is the description of PragerU’s video on “The War On Cars”:
There is a war against cars in America. Regulators want Americans out of cars and onto trains, buses, and bicycles. Why? Because of what cars represent -- freedom.
That sounds ominous. But it’s basically just a list of policies various municipalities have implemented—eliminate some parking spaces, add some bike lanes, etc. There isn’t really any attempt to demonstrate a smoking gun proving that any of this is driven by an attempt to limit Americans’ mobility. In fact, those who favor these policies argue, rightly, that they’re about expanding mobility, which is obviously true unless you think freedom of movement is, and only is, congruent with the car.
The video also includes the disgusting argument that large cars are “safer” than smaller ones—which triggers a car-size arms race that nullifies the increased safety of the occupants, imposes more risk on those outside the cars, and really constitutes a morally corrosive promise of “don’t worry, the other guy will die.”
Not to be outdone, Jordan Peterson—who I generally would have considered a smidge more serious than Dennis Prager—had this to say:
It’s important to understand that these people despise cities, bicycles, and anything in that broad orbit 100 times more than a handful of cranky Twitter noisemakers despise motorists. (It’s also important to understand that while many conservatives—like me, before circa 2017—repeat these ideas, they have never really heard any real positive case for urbanism.)
But for these right-wing opinion-makers, cities aren’t normal places where people live, where certain transportation options make more or less sense. Cyclists and pedestrians aren’t normal people trying to get around without getting creamed by an SUV. They’re foot soldiers, witting or unwitting, in this war against the normal, respectable Americans who drive. Their vision of safe, vibrant, walkable communities is incidental—merely the form that their hatred of American freedom happens to take.
You can see I don’t take any of this seriously. That’s because virtually no serious urbanists and transportation advocates propose anything close to banning cars or otherwise fighting a “war” against them. In the one case where something like this did occur—in another country, in Oxford, England—I saw a lot of American urbanists opposing it. As I did, and do.
What the PragerU folks are doing in that video is essentially reverse-engineering the conclusion they want. You’ve done this before: in high school or college, when you wanted to argue X in a paper, so you went and found anything that could be construed as evidence of X. It’s possible to tell a story that looks credible like this, and you might accidentally conclude something true, but it’s what we would call intellectually dishonest.
Instead of fitting the facts you see, or had to go look for, into a pre-ordained theory, the honest, perceptive thing to do is to look at the facts without bias, and to see what they tell you.
My dad taught me this: don’t say, “He must be doing X, so that’s why did Y.” Instead ask yourself, “If he’s doing Y, is it really credible that he’s trying to do X?”
So sure, you can list a bunch of different policies with different purposes and constituents taking place in different localities, attach a shadowy “they” to it all, and pretend you’ve demonstrated something.
But if you look at the actual state of cars in America, you see no evidence that regulators or Democrats are trying to take away anybody’s cars, or implement some more realistic version of that. For one thing, unlike, occasionally with guns, none of them even point in that direction rhetorically. Cars rule America, determine our land-use pattern, and drive a large portion of our economy. Motorists have far more leeway to behave badly than people outside of cars. Neither political party shows any sign of wanting to touch this, except perhaps at the edge.
There’s the culture. Think about how many close calls you have on the road. That guy is eating his burger, that woman is on her phone, these guys are yelling at their kid in the backseat. Or maybe you are. Think about how many times you sort of zone out staring at the lane markers, or miss a traffic light change, or come to a sudden stop because you didn’t look right again when a pedestrian had the green and you had a right on red.
Eating, drinking, chatting, listening to loud music, and generally fooling around in the car is basically entirely accepted. You can point to the crackdown on drunk driving, and to a much lesser extent phone use, but those are the only counterexamples. Distracted driving, in the sense of being tired, or carrying on an argument, or reaching for the radio dial or the water bottle or the snack or the lip gloss in the glove box? Utterly normal. There is no social norm that says it’s kind of bad and irresponsible to drive in an impaired state, unless you’re actually drunk.
There is no shame or discredit in any of this whatsoever; the culture has nothing to say about it. We disapprove more of raising your voice in the library than piloting two tons of steel at 50 miles per hour in a pre-coffee mental haze.
The law does not generally touch these situations, either. Only a small handful of specific distracted-driving actions are illegal. Speeding—literally low-level lawbreaking—gets a shrug. It is very rare for a motorist who cooperates with the police to be criminally charged for injuring or even killing someone.
This is because it is effectively impossible to treat driving with the seriousness it calls for and demands, and also rely on driving to do almost everything. Responsibility and human lives came up against convenience and auto sales, and we resoundingly picked our side. The idea that non-motorists—even in America’s largest and most urban cities—have any real representation in any of this is almost a joke.
And then there’s design and regulation. There is no large-vehicle tax to dissuade the manufacture or purchase of large, heavy vehicles which kill more people and impose more wear on the public roads—which is to say, cost taxpayers more—than smaller vehicles. Some of these vehicles are so large that they do not fit in ordinary parking spaces or home garages, clog tight parking decks, and overrun and block sidewalks when parked. They impose real public costs and public nuisances, and the “freedom” they represent is inherently anti-social and zero sum.
The fuel efficiency loophole that allows SUVs to be regulated as trucks is still in effect. As recently as early 2023, “many crossover vehicles are now built on car frames, but for regulatory purposes are still counted as ‘light trucks.’” Basically, these vehicles, classically built on truck frames, but as noted now including some car-frame vehicles, function as passenger cars but technically class as trucks. Trucks are held to lower fuel-efficiency standards, and so even as fuel efficiency standards have tightened, the number of cars offering poor fuel efficiency has ballooned.
The Obama administration did tighten the CAFE standards. But it didn’t close the SUV loophole. And it also administered “cash for clunkers”—official acronym, CARS—which explicitly aimed, under a fig leaf of environmentalism, to boost the American car industry by destroying hundreds of thousands of used cars.
Modern cars have electronic controls, touchscreens, and all sorts of features that obviously fall closer to entertainment than to basic features that enhance driving. In fact, plain old buttons, knobs, and dials are hanging on or coming back not because of any regulation requiring controls that can be adjusted quickly—with feedback and muscle memory, without taking your eyes off the road—but because touchscreens turn out to be pretty unpopular with motorists. In other words, the drivers are more responsible than the automakers, and the government does not take the side of the drivers, let alone the folks outside the cars.
And the government only grudgingly takes the side of consumers vis a vis automakers. This was written in June:
The Biden administration has warned car manufacturers that they should not comply with a Massachusetts law that makes it easier for consumers and independent auto shops to repair cars, citing concerns with hacking.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's letter is a huge blow to consumers' rights and is a puzzling move considering that President Biden and his administration have repeatedly championed the right to repair and have specifically stated that they do not believe that right to repair laws pose cybersecurity concerns.
Only in late August did the administration reverse its recommendation that automakers ignore a popular and duly passed state law.
In a universe where the Democrats, the government, or the regulatory agencies were seriously trying to get rid of cars in some sense—where something that you could roughly characterize as a “war on cars” was ongoing—none of this would be the case.
We would hold motorists and automakers to a much higher standard, in culture, law, and regulation. We would levy taxes on the public costs that cars impose. We would treat 40,000 traffic fatalities a year as something more than the cost of getting around. We would be able to clearly see that a car in a dense city makes as little sense as a pedestrian on an Interstate.
Which, by the way, is banned.
In that alternate universe, we would do all these things. And we should. There’s no “war on cars,” but a man can dream.
Thank you for reading! Please consider upgrading to a paid subscription to help support this newsletter. You’ll get a weekly subscribers-only post, plus full access to the archive: over 700 posts and growing. And you’ll help ensure more material like this!
Check out free and paid subscription options!