Car Ownership: The Scarlet “C”

I’ve been writing about bikes on the Internet for a long time–going on 14 years, in fact, which is like 50 years in non-digital time. In fact, in an attic somewhere there’s an oil painting of my analog self, and it looks like this:

While I still consider myself an outsider as far as the bike industry is concerned, my status as a half-tolerated curmudgeon has afforded me something of an insiders’ view of many facets of the cycling world; everything from pro racing to the media to advocacy. With regard to that last one, I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship the world of bicycling advocacy has with cars.

Most advocates acknowledge that the idea of “bikes vs. cars” is fundamentally absurd, and that life in the modern world involves transporting oneself across a broad spectrum of locomotion. At the same time, advocates often employ anti-car rhetoric that leaves little room for nuance: car owners are selfish and entitled, they’re destroying the planet, their death machines don’t belong in cities, etc. Of course, inasmuch as people tend not to think about how deadly cars can be as they go about their daily routines, it’s certainly important to remind them that the choice to drive comes with myriad consequences, including death. However, there’s a difference between raising awareness and shaming, and it’s not uncommon for advocates to resort to the latter.

Certainly advocating for one’s own position can sometimes require one to simplify that position; in the case of bike advocacy, for example, one might truncate “car-centric policy foists several negative externalities upon urban-dwellers” into “cars are bad” owing to the character constraints of Twitter, the time limits on speaking at community board meetings, etc. Yet even this cannot account for a fundamental irony of which you become aware when you spend your time behind the curtain of the advocacy world: lots of these people own and use cars.

I don’t consider myself an advocate, in that, while I believe strongly that anyone even remotely interested in riding a bicycle should be able to do so as easily as possible and advance that notion publicly, I don’t really do anything about it. (At best you could call me a critic, though the most accurate assessment would be “self-important windbag.”) Nevertheless, I have always felt that, if I was going to insinuate myself into the discourse, I should be as open as possible about THE CAR THAT I OWN. It seems to me that anyone advocating in the area transport policy and street design should mention whether or not they own a car, since–and let’s be honest–all of this boils down to one thing, and it’s what the fuck do we do about all the goddamn cars???

To be clear, I certainly don’t think you have to be car-free to be a bicycle/livable streets/whatever-you-want-to-call-it advocate. However, I do think it matters whether or not you do own a car, and if you do own a car, why? Owning a car doesn’t undermine your credibility, and in fact if you understand from personal experience why people often resort to car ownership you’re arguably in a better position to effect positive change. Even so, advocates can be cagey on the subject of their own car use, which prompted me to tweet this:

To be clear, my use of the word “required” was hyperbole; I don’t think you should have to undergo a certification process to be an advocate. I do, however, think it’s something advocates should be up front about, and I wondered whether people agreed. The many ensuing threads showed that some do agree, some don’t, some seem to prefer a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy, some feel compelled to rationalize their own car ownership, and there are even those who would prefer to deflect by shifting to a “deep dive into gender studies, gender media bias, the perception of the bike bro, and the role of women in politics and policy making”:

Or it might not.

I do think it’s important to note that even in New York City, the easiest place in the United States to not own a car (or the hardest place in the United States to own a car, depending on how you look at it), plenty of people who want more bike lanes, fewer cars, etc. still own them. It seems important to acknowledge this–not to expose the livable streets movement as a bunch of hypocrites, but because maybe embracing the fact that people really do want cars–even a not-insignificant number of the people who think they are “bad”–might actually help make the streets better in the long run. Existing in a state of denial and treating cars as The Thing That Should Not Be seems destined to fail, both in terms of garnering public support and in terms of actual planning. (New York City sometimes seems to redesign streets in an idealogical vacuum that reflects how things should be instead of how they are, with predictable results.)

In one of the threads, someone used the term “personal calculus” to refer to the process by which people decide to own or not to own a car. We each have our own “personal calculus,” as we should, but where we run into trouble is when we start applying it to others and declaring that they’re wrong. Instead, we’d all have a lot more to gain if we simply shared our numbers. Who knows, we might even learn something.

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