Many of the obscure political positions that have quickly risen to prominence over the past few years have been, at best, overrated, and, more often, dubious. Some—police and prison abolition or criminalization of pornography—suggest widespread delusion. But, one may be brilliant: taking back cities from cars.
The idea spread through a lucky confluence of factors. For one, we have only recently begun to realize the extent of the negative health consequences caused by cars. Car crashes kill a staggering amount of people. (Would we have accepted almost 40,000 deaths a year for a faster means of transportation ex ante?) But, after removing lead from gasoline and requiring smog checks, many assume car emissions have negligible health consequences.
Not so. As the Neoliberal Project has detailed in their forthcoming policy project, tentatively titled “The 21st Century Clean Air Act,” recent research has unveiled the extent to which other pollutants have wreaked disastrous consequences on public health. In particular, particulate matter 2.5, which is emitted by vehicles, has been found to cause 107,000 thousand premature deaths annually, not to mention harm to the health of many more. Even hybrids and other electric vehicles seem ever more likely to have negative environmental impacts beyond previously expected, as even brake pads can emit deadly pollution.
Another reason to oppose cars is legal: Dr. Greg Shill, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, has made persuasive arguments in both academic and popular media against subsidizing cars. (My previous interview with Dr. Shill is available here). Typically, policy subsidizes an activity with the goal of promoting its occurrence, when positive externalities or some other factor would cause it to be undersupplied by the market. This is not the case with cars—which have negative externalities—yet a number of legal mechanisms serve to subsidize their usage, and suppress their alternatives.
Further support for this shift comes from aesthetic reasons. Create Streets, an organization based in England, uses its Twitter account to showcase what better streets could look like, both by finding photos of some of the world’s greatest streets but also by editing normal, unremarkable streets in regular cities to show how small changes can create a much more beautiful and pleasing built environment. A constant change in these better streets is that they are built around people, not cars. Through the influence of researchers as well as urbanism-focused Twitter accounts, more people are beginning to wonder if more beautiful cities are possible. Needless to say, many have taken note.
These ideas received a good deal of mainstream recognition when Farhad Manjoo wrote yesterday in the Times, “I’ve Seen a Future Without Cars, and It’s Amazing.” Manjoo’s piece reflects on how cities have begun to look different during COVID:
Cities have allowed some restaurants to expand into streets for more outdoor streets, leading many to joke that the US has “invented Europe.”
Most of Manjoo’s piece focuses on simply how much space, particularly in environments with particularly scarce space like Manhattan, is devoted to the car. When writers like Manjoo discuss reappropriating space used for roads, the conservative mind can jump to thoughts of Communist confiscation of private property. I must admit this flashing before my own mind. Yet, roads, so it turns out, are public.
Even in the wealthy demographic of urban car owners, few could afford to pay the full cost of their car usage were it not so heavily subsidized. (Indeed, as Ben Southwood has pointed out, car users are the real communists). When space is public, it is up to the public to decide how it would be best used. And as Manjoo’s piece illustrates, there is a growing consensus that streets would be better by people eating on restaurant patios, riding bikes, and walking to work, than by those fortunate enough to have cars. Not to mention that with a better public transportation regime—alongside private alternatives like bikes and e-scooters—average movement speed could even increase.
Some conservatives reacted harshly to the piece, with accusations of the Left wanting to “ban suburbs.” Their knee jerk isn’t without any merit; the article clearly mood affiliates with the Green New Deal, using language of “justice and equity” to justify the urban transformation. The Green New Deal is filled with bad ideas, but that does not make deemphasizing cars in the urban context a bad idea. On the contrary, there may actually be an unusual opportunity for compromise in our intensely partisan environment.
Tim Carney, writing in the Washington Examiner, attempted to gently quell some of the conservative backlash. He focuses on how deemphasizing cars could help towns return to their ideal of pick-up baseball games and tight-knit communities. Where Carney errs, though I don’t believe he would disagree, is in solely focusing on how opposing cars could behoove those seeking to live a conservative life in their town. Those in cities, too, must be able to live a conservative or family-oriented lifestyle, and support for scaling-back cars is just as important there. Practically mandatory minivan ownership is yet another factor making urban life more expensive for families. Let’s figure out how to make public transportation work better for everyone—kids included.
It is in current vogue for American conservatives to proclaim opposition to a so-called libertarian economic orthodoxy and rethink how to build an economy more consistent with conservative values. Think, for example, Oren Cass and his American Compass Project. Elements of this trend are doomed to fail, as we cannot simply imagine new rules to create an economy in accord with our values while ignoring economic realities. But, in shaping our built environment, there are ways in which design can truly shape behavior to be more in accord with our values.
In fact, design is already shaping our behavior. Driving speed is one of the best examples of this. Speed limits, as they are often unenforced, are actually a relatively ineffectual way of slowing traffic. Urban planners have long employed a variety of design tricks to encourage people to drive more slowly: narrower streets, trees limiting visibility, roundabouts, and medians to name a few. Better yet, these design choices are often congruent with more beautiful streets too.
If one of our foremost concerns is making our cities, not just our towns, less atomized, more community focused, and more hospitable to families, then we should be embracing this movement. Indeed, the solo driver encased in steel is the embodiment of atomization. Wide embrace of this movement could lead to compromises that avoid a few more questionable proposals that Manjoo has, such as using street space for social services. Moreover, Nicole Murray of the NYC Democratic Socialists of America argues in NYT Streets Blog that sidewalk seating is the imposition of private firms into public space. Conservatives would be well-positioned to point out that this is not a real issue that real people care about, and perhaps remind people of the existence of free parking—a much more egregious private imposition on public space.
Deemphasizing cars is only one step on America’s path to better urbanism. Encouraging walkability doesn’t just require good streets, but ones with gentle density so that people are closer together. After all, things have to be within walking distance. There will also have to be more multi-use zoning, so one can walk to their work, to grocery stores, and to their children’s school. But, where these issues can garner politically insurmountable opposition, creating better streets may incur less traditional partisanship and less NIMBY outcry. We’re all beginning to realize that building cities around cars was a mistake. Conservatives must be part of this project to rebuild our communities.
Some social services may be worthwhile, but allocating some part of popular streets to, say, legal injections sites may be—to say the least—incongruent with most of the other goals of orienting streets around families. ↩︎