Can We Finally Declare Peace in the 'War on Cars'?

Recent polling data suggests the public is much less divided than many headlines would have you believe.

Image
Reuters

Can you still have a war if nobody wants to fight?

A recent survey of attitudes toward bicycles in Seattle raises the question. As local alt-weekly The Stranger points out in a piece called "Debunking the So-Called Bike Backlash," residents in Seattle have been talking about a “war on cars” for years. And the front line in that alleged war has been the stripes of paint that mark off lanes for bicycles.

But according to a recent survey commissioned by the Seattle-based Cascade Bicycle Club, this war isn’t anywhere near as hot as the rhetoric would have you believe. Before we go any further, yes, this is an advocacy group-commissioned poll, but they hired reputable research firm FM3 to conduct a scientific poll, which has a margin of error of 4.9 percent. The poll was originally intended for internal use, but according to Craig Benjamin, Cascade's policy and government affairs manager, the results were so heartening that they decided to share them with the public.

Here are some of the poll’s findings:

  • 73 percent of the 400 Seattle voters surveyed supported the idea of building protected bike lanes.
  • 59 percent go further and support “replacing roads and some on-street parking to make protected bicycle lanes.”
  • 79 percent have favorable feelings about cyclists.
  • Only 31 percent agree with the idea that Seattle is “waging a war on cars.”

The "war on cars" trope has long been a favored talking point for anti-bicycle and anti-transit types. But this survey and others seem to indicate that it might, at last, be wearing a bit thin, no matter how much the auto warriors try to whip up their troops.

Last year, a Quinnipiac poll of New York City residents showed that 59 percent support bike lanes, up from 54 only a few months earlier. Quinnipiac also found that 74 percent support the city’s sadly delayed bike-share plan. A New York City Department of Transportation poll about the Prospect Park Bike Lane – supposedly a bloody battleground of the war on cars that the New York Post insists the DOT is waging – found 70 percent of respondents liked the lane.

Toronto has also been a major front in this fight. The city’s embattled mayor, Rob Ford, famously declared that his election would mean an end to the city's supposed war on cars. (He also said that when a cyclist is killed by a driver, “it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”) On Ford’s watch, Toronto removed some downtown bike lanes last fall, prompting protests and even an arrest for mischief and obstructing a police officer.

But the aftermath has been more constructive than martial. Tomislav Svoboda, the physician who was arrested for his act of civil disobedience, was recently joined by 34 of his medical colleagues in a call for faster construction of new bike infrastructure, asking the city council to “change lanes and save lives.” Even Ford seems to be feeling less combative. He came out the other day talking about a 2013 budget that will include 80 kilometers of new on-street bike lanes, 100 kilometers of off-street bike trails, and 8,000 new bike parking spaces.

Maybe the public discussion about transportation infrastructure seems to be cooling down because the bellicose language just doesn’t resonate the way it once did.

“Our feeling over the last two years is that the ‘war on cars’ rhetoric has fallen flat with voters,” says Benjamin. Instead, he says, people seem to be responding to the tone taken by a group called Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. On their website, you’ll find this:

Imagine your neighborhood, knitted together with quiet residential streets where children and adults safely walk, ride bicycles, play and run. Imagine these streets are close to where you live and connect you to the places you want to go — the grocery store, your favorite coffee shop, your community center, your child’s school. Imagine traveling along a whole city network of streets designed first for children and adults who are walking and biking. Places where people are alert when they drive, and open their car doors carefully after they park.

Sounds pretty peaceful, doesn’t it?

Top image: A cyclist rides along the Kinzie Protected Bike Lane in Chicago. (Jim Young/Reuters)

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.