Don't "Ban Cars", Just Ban Cars
Of course banning cars isn't a winning message in the U.S., that's why you don't ban the car, you just ban what cars use.
You say “ban cars” and the conversation is over. Any radical slogan like that turns off most of the population. But it’s just a tongue in cheek joke on social media arguing not to trash every vehicle but to re-configure the way we live which requires their frequent use. Despite its prevalence being relegated to social media, it’s irritated some people as urbanism grows in popularity. Mostly dumb takes or obivous takes like “you can’t ban every car.” But there’s one anti-"ban cars" take in particular from my friend Noah Smith that has enough merit to focus on: don’t make driving harder, just make transit better.
This is the majority opinion in mainstream discourse about public transportation, including among planners, politicians and almost everybody. Unfortunately, it’s wrong on two fronts. The first being that “do no harm to drivers” has essentially ruined transit expansion in the U.S. Take California High Speed Rail for example. All the pictures of this project show huge viaducts and aerial structures in the middle of flat, agricultural terrain because the planners didn’t want to make driving harder by dead-ending or tunneling roads where the train construction intersects traffic. As a result, unnecessarily large structures extending over roads have dramatically increased the cost of high speed rail to an astronomical level and has delayed the project possibly into oblivion.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Silicon Valley BART extension shows pointlessly deep tunnel bores that dramatically inflated the cost. The reason was to not inhibit drivers patronizing local businesses with a cheaper cut-and-cover method of tunneling. That would’ve taken roughly 8-12 months of construction. So what does auto deference give us? A delayed project projected at $9 billion dollars for four train stops and a highly inflated ridership projection of just 54,600 weekday riders. Dropping bets right now ridership is half that but—at best—that’s $166,000 per rider.
Let's dispense with any fantasies about building bullet trains at Chinese-style speeds in the U.S. with project costs and time frames like these. America’s public process will ensure it’ll never happen in time. Even modern highway projects, for all their federal funding, have huge cost overruns. But enough highways were rammed through in the mid-20th century before public processes were put in place to foreclose any future rapid infrastructure expansion. Now highways have an unbeatable monopoly over transportation.
And sorry to all the normal people out there who think this, but after decades of publicly funded right-of-ways given to private cars, it would be impossible to simply make transit more convenient than driving. That’s why most transit ridership in the United States is motivated by the hardship of owning, driving and parking cars in dense metro areas, not necessarily good transit.
Whenever I want to go to San Francisco from metro Oakland, there’s no question that taking the BART train is the most competitive option. Not because BART is a nicer or faster ride than a car, but because driving is so much worse. To drive to San Francisco requires being stuck on one bridge that’s endlessly congested with traffic at all times of the day. Once you’re in San Francisco, driving around to find parking near your destination is brutal and eventually you’ll pay an exorbitant parking fee at a garage. Don’t even consider parking on the street, if you can find a space, because the meter maids will be quick to ticket your car for any violation. The same is true for Manhattan, Chicago, Washington, Boston and the rest of the older, dense urban metros.
People marvel at transit outside of the United States without recognizing the many mechanisms that exist to discourage car ownership in those countries. To get a car in Japan for example, you have to prove to the local dealership or authorities that you have a parking space to put it in. To own a car in Paris means being able to find the already rare parking spaces, which are shrinking at a considerable rate, and are near universally metered. In most European cities, the streets are so small and so restricted to vehicular traffic that the only motorized vehicles you’ll see are taxis for tourists and mopeds. Gas prices are also much lower in the United States than global peers, thanks to low gas taxes—that don’t come close to paying for road improvements—and higher levels of fossil fuel extraction.
So yes, making driving harder is key to making transit more used. Traffic jams, high gas prices and parking fees are public transit’s ally. You just can’t really say that because nobody wants to hear: “traffic is good, actually.” But traffic is good, actually. Our problem in America, however, is that making driving harder doesn’t solve the problem for the working class suburbanites, many of whom can’t afford to live in the urban core and want to ride transit that largely doesn’t exist.
Paris’ war on cars, cycling and transit expansion cut car ownership in half in 20 years. But Paris has something that most American cities don’t have: a high frequency, regional train network. Even as Paris’ unaffordability pushes more of their working class communities into the suburbs, many of these suburbs are relatively dense and are located along high frequency commuter rail with local bus transit. This is unheard of in the single-family home fetishism of American suburbia.
Thus, mass freeway removal without supplemental transit would neither solve the emissions problem or help the American working class stuck in traffic. Meanwhile, the newest Census data shows that American suburbs are not only growing, but they’re diversifying at even faster rates with Black people and people of color migrating there. If we tear freeways down with incoming federal funds from the infrastructure bill—which I intend to advocate for—we need to use the opportunity to expand public transit to more affordable suburban communities as well.
We can help the suburbs by commandeering freeway infrastructure for public transit rather than private cars (while demolishing low use freeway spurs). We can make bus-only lanes on the freeways by taking a lane from cars to establish a suburban bus network. These buses can quickly swoop people into the cities with swift 5-10 minute frequencies while drivers are stuck in traffic. Toronto is already leading the way on an efficient suburban bus network. We should also fund more Amtrak lines that are focused on connecting cities to suburbs and nearby metro areas.
The biggest challenge we’ll face is how to get Americans to support initiatives like these. Anything that takes space away from cars gets fierce opposition, even though after it’s implemented the same opponents end up loving it. The auto industry has done serious indoctrination of the public but that doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable.
How you frame transit can change people’s minds. Focus transit conversations on mobility justice for those who can’t afford or can’t use cars, especially to liberal city boards who can regress into conservatives whenever parking comes up. Point out that the public ownership of streets are being monopolized for private, for-profit transportation such as cars. That’ll usually make them think about it at the very least. Circulate carbon maps proving that suburban sprawl areas are our most carbon intensive environments. Most importantly, rather than attacking motorists, which comes off as a form of lifestyle shaming, focus on attacking systems like car dependency instead.
Americans actually like urbanism quite a bit. The proof is in the astronomically inflating costs to live in high density American cities with good transit. Most Americans hate cars too in the form of smog, congestion, ugly cities, parking and dangerous streets. They just don’t realize the common denominator is car dependency. As outlined in this great thread by a car enthusiast explaining why car centrism is bad, not cars themselves.
Obviously, mandating only electric vehicle production is huge part of the climate solution and should be done immediately, especially since there are many suburban areas whose carbon emissions are so high and whose land use can’t be fixed within a reasonable time frame. But the nearly 40,000 annual traffic deaths don’t disappear just because the cars are electric. Cars are both a traffic safety and a climate problem.
Mr. and Mrs. America can still keep their Ford Expedition if they like because we’re not going to ban cars. It’s just that when Google Maps tells them what are the fastest routes to work, school and the store—driving should always be the slowest option compared to bicycling and transit. With the unfair advantage gone, cars will ban themselves.
Post has been corrected to state that Paris’ car ownership levels dropped over 20 years, not 4.
Excellent essay as usual, Darrell. I am eager to hear your perspective on what freeways should be removed immediately with federal funding. I've looked briefly at plans to remove I-980 in Oakland, which paired with a second alignment of the Transbay tube plus connected AC Transit, urban green space, and dense/affordable housing seems like a good first candidate. From an urban air quality perspective, I would like to see I-880 buried like in Boston with the bus lanes you describe, especially where it divides Jack London Square from Downtown and Laney College from Brooklyn Basin.