Over dinner with our beloved Editor-At-Large two weeks ago, Ed and I discussed what we felt was the coming “post-car” era; rampant consolidation, the death of beloved brands and the subsequent widespread love for classic cars, the adoption of other forms of mobility and a fierce anti-car backlash. A nugget of information buried at the end of a Ward’s Auto report instantly brought all my fears and apprehension to the forefront, a mere fortnight after Ed and I concluded that things weren’t going to be that bad after all.
A crucial aspect of ensuring the future of any vehicle is an understanding between OEMs and city planners. An unwillingness to reform neighborhoods with charging stations, for example, is dovetailing with local pushes for bicycle riding and car-sharing.
To get the necessary context here, the Ward’s Auto article was primarily talking about the necessity of government intervention in the adoption of alt-fuel vehicles. But the notion of a carless city runs much deeper than that. There is a growing movement nowadays that sees the automobile not just as an inconvenience, but a societal menace. Some of it is rooted in environmental concerns, but a more nefarious form of this anti-car opposition is rooted on dubious social justice initiatives.
A few years ago, there was a famous case where Ontario’s Attorney-General, Michael Bryant, was attacked by a drunk cyclist while driving his Saab convertible at a busy downtown Toronto intersection. Bryant, who was out with his wife, driving with the roof down, panicked and drove off, with the cyclist clinging to the car. The Saab collided with a solid object and the cyclist died. Bryant was absolved of any criminal charges in the case, but his political career was over.
The uproar over the case was palpable in a city where cyclists and motorists are frequently at odds. But what began cropping up was a new form of criticism. One letter writer to NOW magazine, a Toronto alternative weekly, has forever stood out in my mind, with the commenter blasting Bryant and the automobile as being some kind of hierarchical, top-down individualistic mode of transportation (I couldn’t find the letter, so this is paraphrasing) while praising the bicycle as a grassroots form of transportation that is accessible to all.
The above quote suggests that opposition to cars has moved beyond mere environmental concerns into something more ideological. As a downtown resident, I can understand the desire for less smog, less traffic congestion and more pedestrian friendly streets and public spaces. These are what ultimately created the vibrant, bustling urban cores and livable communities (pardon me – I hate that word, but it really is appropriate) that make cities great. I feel that public transit is also a necessary ingredient to this mixture, having seen first hand the nightmare that comes with inadequate infrastructure and a sub-par public transit system.
If urban planners are attempting to eradicate the car from our cities, then they are simply refusing to meet reality on realities terms. Despite the best wishes of public-transit advocates, utopian cyclists and their distant cousins, the general crackpots that infest the world’s great cities, the car isn’t going anywhere. Only Copenhagen has managed to fully embrace cycling, specifically because it’s built for it. A recent trip to New York City saw my girlfriend and I walk and take the subway nearly everywhere. It was fast, efficient, emissions free and yet cars were everywhere. Livery-service Town Cars, yellow Crown Vic taxis, motorcycles, luxury SUVs and even supercars all shared the road in Manhattan, where owning a car is apparently both passé and a pain in the ass.
I don’t think it would be fair to blame our current crop of urban planners. If anything, the faculty, doubtlessly hailing from the Boomer generation and desperately clinging on the outdated, asinine “critical” theories and “radical” dogma are likely spurring something as, well, vindictive as banning EV charging stations. I agree that a more walkable and transit-accessible city is always a good thing, but that should have no bearing on the presence of the automobile. My experiences with EVs have all been positive, and having a charging station near my office makes things a lot easier – but my neighborhood at home was built before WWII, when garages and outdoor electrical outlets weren’t commonplace. A community initiative to install EV chargers for example, would save me from having to run a 30 foot cord from my driveway to my dryer outlet in the basement.
We’ve seen time and time again how these kinds of social engineering initiatives pan out. The bigger worry is that the opposition to the automobile has crystallized into something more visceral, more ideological and more rigid. It’s in danger of becoming a moral stance akin to one’s position on abortion or same-sex marriage. Fortunately, all it would take up here is a miserable winter of carrying home local produce from the Farmer’s Market on a bicycle and no taxi access to the downtown core to make a number of anti-car types reconsider their choices.