The days of mega-trucks and supersized SUVs are numbered

“It is a sad fact, but you make a lot of money making cars that can kill people. And so we cannot hope that they change — we have to force them to do so.”

— Zohran K Mamdani, NY assembly member

There’s growing talk in advocacy circles about the need to regulate large vehicles. Right now, the auto industry is bathing in profits from selling absurdly-sized vehicles that are much more likely to kill and maim. With federal government regulation at least a decade off, it will be up to cities and states to take the lead and reclaim their streets from these unnecessarily large SUVs and trucks.

Before today I’d only heard concerns about this topic from transportation policy wonks and activists. Now I know there’s at least one elected official who’s not only serious about the issue from a legislative perspective, but who isn’t afraid to speak about it in strong and clear terms.

New York Assembly Member Zohran K Mamdani (who represents District 36, the neighborhoods of Astoria, Ditmars-Steinway, and Astoria Heights) was on a panel titled, Supersized SUVs, Mega Trucks, and Regulatory Failure.

Mamdani is frustrated by federal inaction and has introduced a bill that would tax vehicles based on weight. He wants to disincentive the purchase of vehicles that have, “a direct link to a higher likelihood of killing children and people on the streets.” “It’s up to us to make it clear to New Yorkers,” he said, “that when they purchase a vehicle of a certain size and a certain weight, that comes with an additional cost. And that cost should be a fiscal cost, not just a moral cost.”

Mamdani speaks with a candor that’s rare among elected officials (he even dropped an “F” bomb at one point). On the auto industry, he said:

“What we have is an industry that is almost entirely unregulated, that is pushing larger and larger vehicles, tying into notions of masculinity… vehicles that can’t even fit inside parking spots! And yet for some reason, they will continue to be allowed to be sold.”

Can government influence market forces? Mamdani thinks so:

“I often think about the development of the mini-fridge, and how that is closely tied to NYCHA [New York City Housing Authority] putting out an RFP [request for proposals] about this, saying, ‘These are the parameters they need for their housing units.’ And then that is what led to this this creation of the mini-fridge, that now we think of as market-driven and it is everywhere in our society. The state has a role in incentivizing the way in which the market acts. If the state puts additional costs on certain sizes of vehicles, then I think that it creates an opening for there to be smaller vehicles… I believe if there’s a clash between the market and the state, the state can and should win.

You must try and influence the market itself, because the market is driven only by profit. And it is a sad fact, but you make a lot of money making cars that can kill people. And so we cannot hope that they change — we have to force them to do so.”

Mamdani was joined on the panel by: Alex Engel, senior manager of communications at NACTO (National Association of City Transportation Officials); Jessica Hart with Families for Safe Streets; and Eric Richardson, the deputy chief fleet management officer for the City of New York. The panel was moderated by Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Danny Harris.

While Mamdani is focused on hitting consumers’ pocketbooks, Engel with NACTO says street design can also influence buying decisions (and in turn, what automakers build and sell):

“We’ve seen in our experience that the by far the most effective mechanism for reducing traffic deaths is street design. Even with vehicles getting bigger, if the vehicles are moving slower, if they’re having to drive more carefully, if you don’t actually have a way to speed into someone or go through a crosswalk, you’re going to make your streets safer.

… there are some mechanisms you can use, like narrowing lanes, making sure that turns are tighter, using real concrete barriers… We receive photos all the time from members who say that put up this concrete barrier and now all these vehicles are getting stuck on the concrete barrier. And we’re like, ‘Yes, that’s the point!'”

Jessica Hart, Families for Safe Streets.

You don’t need a political or policy background to support more regulation of oversized trucks and SUVs.

“I’m here because I don’t like big vehicles, I think that they are horrible and deadly and unnecessary,” said Jessica Hart, after sharing with the audience that her five-year-old daughter Allie was killed in 2021 by the driver of a large van while biking in a crosswalk.

Hart has channeled her grief into a campaign to revise the federal New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) star rating system so that it takes into account how safe a vehicle is for people who are not inside of it. Her petition on Change.org has 35,000 signatures so far, and she hopes to push to 42,000 — the number of road deaths in America the year Allie was killed. 

NACTO, a group with a member list that includes hundreds of planners and engineers from 100 of America’s largest cities, is behind Hart’s proposal. Engel said they’re lobbying the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), but they’re a long way from major breakthroughs. So in the meantime, they’re focusing on educating car buyers. “We’re trying to show that a five star rating does not belong in a vehicle that’s much more likely to kill someone.”

One of the thorny problems with this issue is how cars and trucks are sold. Eric Richardson with City of New York, shared a jaw-dropping story that has led them to pressure car companies to decouple luxury and safety. “If I walk into a dealership, I should be able to get the highest safety package I can get, without having to pay for heated seats, massaging seats, a sunroof, a five CD changer, you know, it goes on and on and on.”

“We receive photos all the time from members who say that put up this concrete barrier and now all these vehicles are getting stuck on the concrete barrier. And we’re like, ‘Yes, that’s the point!'”

– Alex Engel, NACTO

On one occasion, Richardson was negotiating the purchase of several vehicles for the city fleet and asked for the package with the highest level safety trim. “I was told, the only way we could get it is if they put TV screens on the back seats. And I’m like, ‘Wait a second, I’m in city government, nobody’s going to use those TVs… So we ended up actually pulling them out when the vehicle got delivered, but we paid for them because they were part of the safety package.”

All this though talk around big SUVs and mega-trucks plays well at a Vision Zero conference in Manhattan; but the issue will likely stoke serious pushback among many Americans. That’s why, for the politician Mamdani, an anti-car framing might not be the best approach.

“I think that there’s a ceiling if all of these fights are framed as the ‘war on cars,’ Mamdani said. “I think there’s a lot more possibility if it is framed through the lens of safety.” He cautioned against framing it as a moral choice and said to resist engaging in culture wars. “What if our city government just did an advertising campaign saying, ‘How long would it take you to find parking if your vehicles was this big [holding his close together]? And how long would it take to find parking if your vehicle was this big [holding hands further apart]?’ Right? I think time is money — especially in New York.”


— Part of BikePortland’s special coverage from the Vision Zero Cities Conference in New York City, hosted by Transportation Alternatives. See more stories here.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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RipCityBassWorks
RipCityBassWorks
9 months ago

It’s crazy that not wanting people to die from unnecessarily large vehicles with unnecessarily large blind spots is consider ‘culture war’. What culture are we waging war against? The ‘culture’ that killing other road users is a worthwhile tradeoff for not having vehicle size regulations?

dw
dw
9 months ago

People take systemic problems – like cars getting bigger and bigger through policy and market incentives – and immediately map them onto themselves. “Well I drive a big SUV and I’m a safe driver!” they say. “I’m paying attention and won’t hit anyone! Why punish me?” Until they do hit someone who was in their enormous blind spot, or they are going too fast to react to something unexpected. Or they back over the family dog in the driveway.

It’s so hard to have these conversations with friends & family without them getting defensive about their own lifestyles.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
9 months ago
Reply to  dw

What makes me see black sooty particles in my eyes is the fact that many of those who complain about supersized SUVs on social media/blogs drive SUVs that are enormously larger than the tiny hatchbacks and sedans that were the norm 40 years ago. It goes kinda like this:

The SUV those people drive are bad but my SUV is something I will just not think about.

dw
dw
9 months ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

Yeah. I was recently listening to an episode of Citycast Portland and the hosts were going on and on about how housing density near jobs/destinations needs to increase for the sake of affordability and sustainability. They all ended the episode by saying basically “people need to live close together and learn to build community and get along – but not me. I want to keep my big house and yard.”

Nonya
Nonya
9 months ago
Reply to  dw

When I retire I hope to move to a place where I can stand on the roof and not see the neighbors, be it distance or trees either way. The houses are getting too close together, and I lived in the tightly stacked boxes for enough years, dont plan on doing it again until i am too old to take care of myself and then won’t care.

squareman
squareman
9 months ago

We receive photos all the time from members who say that put up this concrete barrier and now all these vehicles are getting stuck on the concrete barrier. And we’re like, ‘Yes, that’s the point!’”

Tell that to the Portland “Plastic Wands” Bureau of Transportation.

Daniel Reimer
9 months ago
Reply to  squareman

I have. PBOT said “that’s the point”

Watts
Watts
9 months ago

“The days of mega-trucks and supersized SUVs are numbered”

Absolutely nothing in the article supported this headline.

David Hampsten
9 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Long gone are the good old days when NY had any impact on the market – it’s #4 now after California, Texas, & Florida – and so them outlawing huge SUVs will likely be ignored by the rest of the USA.

dw
dw
9 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

NYC could ban cars completely tomorrow and the demand would be sucked up by every sunbelt metro that is expanding freeways and sprawl into the desert.

John V
John V
9 months ago
Reply to  David Hampsten

I don’t know, the number four market on anything is not something that’s easy to ignore, no matter what the market is. Manufacturers aren’t going to stop wanting to sell to that market even if supposedly demand exists elsewhere (which, of course, they’re already meeting). The number four market is still a big market.

Wren (Max S)
Wren (Max S)
9 months ago

A friend of mine suggested discouraging larger trucks by requiring the to carry commercial insurance. His reasoning was people who do actually need the larger capacity for work would already carry it and so wouldn’t be punished, but most other people would be encouraged to buy a smaller car. Anyone have thoughts on that idea?

ShadowsFolly
ShadowsFolly
9 months ago
Reply to  Wren (Max S)

The road rager that I encountered this morning hauling a load of tree limbs, driving with out of state plates, would likely just laugh at the thought of requiring them to have commercial insurance for their 4×4.
People who are well off and upstanding citizens would pay for commercial insurance.
The rest would just drive without and not care.

My idea is vehicle registration amounts should be tied to the size of vehicle and income level of the owner. But alas with the no enforcement rules in Portland people would just drive around with expired or no plates. There’s plenty of vehicles in my neighborhood that have expired tags from 2022 and earlier.

Watts
Watts
9 months ago
Reply to  ShadowsFolly

Insurance should be tied to the risk created by the driver and the vehicle.

And it is.

John V
John V
9 months ago
Reply to  Watts

But is it? Insurance is tied to the financial risk to the insurance company, so if every crash caused by a vehicle being oversized is just swept under the rug by local cops’ “investigation” that assumes the fault of the victim, the financial risk is small.

So I think you’re right, insurance is tied to the financial risk to the insurance company, so we need to make that financial risk much steeper.

Watts
Watts
9 months ago
Reply to  John V

The purpose of insurance is to ensure that there are funds available to compensate people for being injured (physically or financially) by someone driving a vehicle. That’s all.

We might agree that, in Oregon at least, liability insurance requirements are set too low, and increasing those requirements would make insurance a bit more expensive.

That opinion is based on ensuring victims are adequately compensated not by using insurance premiums as a vehicle for income redistribution, as the post I was responding to suggested.

surly ogre
surly ogre
9 months ago

it’s about time an elected official is calling for regulation of an industry that manufactures missiles with 4 wheels. it is super bad news when an airplane crashes and hundreds of people die. Imagine if Tesla, GM, Ford, all had to pay 1% of their quarterly revenue every time a serious crash occurred. Reducing Crashes and Safety would become their focus, not luxury and speed. There was a time when people did not wear seat belts and look where we are now, nearly everyone wears seat belts. People used to smoke inside and look where we are now, smoking is not allowed in restaurants or airplanes. Culture changes when government realizes there is danger and/or financial loss. People can change when there are carrots and sticks. TAX LARGE VEHICLES NOW. TAX LARGE TIRES NOW. TAX LARGE ENGINES NOW. TAX VEHICLES THAT CAN EXCEED SPEED LIMITS NOW.

Christine
Christine
9 months ago
Reply to  surly ogre

COTW!

Buckwylde
Buckwylde
9 months ago

Current CAFE standards are written so that they are easier to met with a large vehicle than a small one and are less stringent for any vehicle called a truck. The CAFE standards do the opposite thing they were intended for, reduce fuel use per mile driven in the USA.

Matti
Matti
9 months ago

Is that mega- or maga-trucks?

PTB
PTB
9 months ago
Reply to  Matti

Yes

dw
dw
9 months ago

What’s especially disgusting is how electric vehicles are only going to exacerbate this. The easiest way for manufacturers to get big range numbers is with a bigger battery. Bigger battery = larger and heavier vehicle. Pair all these stupid huge Rivians and electric F150s with the crazy acceleration provided by EVs, and we’re only going to see deaths continue to skyrocket in the absence of some action to curb vehicle weight and size by governments.

Nonya
Nonya
9 months ago

“We receive photos all the time from members who say that put up this concrete barrier and now all these vehicles are getting stuck on the concrete barrier. And we’re like, ‘Yes, that’s the point!’”

It’s going to be so fun watching appliance companies make deliveries with a Prius, or grocery stores being restocked by a fleet of Tesla’s and school lunch workers have to pick up supplies because box Van’s and semi trucks can’t navigate the streets.

If you want to make a change go after the government standards that set fleet milage expectations to unrealistic levels for vehicles under the size you are criticizing because vehicle manufacturers are building around those rules due in part to decades of big oil (with government subsidies) preventing ICE research and development that would have met those standards 20 years ago. Maybe make it harder to get/keep a license, maybe enforce traffic laws, maybe have higher penalties for violations, maybe introduce vehicle safety inspections for tag renewals. Nope. Vehicles evil. This sounds a lot like another campaign going around the country.

dw
dw
9 months ago
Reply to  Nonya

Oh jeez. What a baby-brain take. We don’t need multiple freeway-sized lanes through residential streets for the occasional fridge delivery to happen. Good lord. You’re like the folks that insist they need a lifted F350 because they tow a trailer once every two years.

I agree with you that traffic laws should be enforced but enforcement alone is not a solution. Regulations should also change to incentive manufacturers to build smaller, more efficient, and safer vehicles.

Where in the article does it say “vehicles bad”? I think you’re just projecting some knee jerk reaction because you probably drive an SUV and consider yourself “one of the good ones”.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
9 months ago
Reply to  Nonya
Nonya
Nonya
9 months ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

How many of those trikes would it take to deliver the equivalent of one high cube amazon van or UPS trucks? Wasteful comes in many fashions though – I don’t order from Amazon often because one order of four items may come in four different shipments in four different vans, sometimes on the same day.

UPS did add some electric full size trucks to the fleet in our downtown not long before covid, they had a new safety issue because they were too quiet and distracted people would walk out in front of them, so they had to add a beeper that sounds whenever it’s moving. You can imagine how much the drivers appreciated that. They were also heavier, adding to wear and tear of streets. The volume for just the downtown business/commercial/retail deliveries required multiple full size trucks every day. There are some changes being made but the volume creates it’s own issues with many solutions.

Dane Chalmers
Dane Chalmers
9 months ago

Don’t forget that Jonathan Maus drives a Subaru SUV

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
9 months ago
Reply to  Dane Chalmers

And it’s ridiculous for someone who recently purchased an SUV to write this kind of piece without some sort of mea culpa.

dw
dw
9 months ago
Reply to  Dane Chalmers

Oof. I’m inclined to give him like 5% of a pass for it being a Subaru. They are large and heavy but at least the front ends aren’t designed (as much) like a solid human-crushing brick wall.

Though I wonder, why not a little hatchback? Still lots of cargo space but they’re smaller, lighter, more efficient, cheaper, and much safer for pedestrians in the event of a collision.

Trike Guy
Trike Guy
9 months ago
Reply to  dw

Back in about 1982 or 1983 my dad purchased a Honda Civic Station wagon.

That thing had a curb weight of 1,900lbs (empty), and more than enough room for a family of 4, or 2 people and groceries for a family of 4 for a month. Literally a month – my mom menued out that far and we drove into Dallas to do the shopping.

Now, my dad didn’t keep that thing running for 30years the way his brother in law did, but then again he can squeeze a nickle until the buffalo poops.

Zach
Zach
9 months ago
Reply to  Dane Chalmers

When working towards large, societal change it is most effective to focus on the policy and infrastructure needed to affect that change, not the individuals. This isn’t hard.

BB
BB
9 months ago
Reply to  Zach

I know right?
Live in a huge home, drive a huge car, fly around the world.
It’s not my problem,, it’s society that needs to change.
This isn’t hard.

John V
John V
9 months ago
Reply to  Zach

While yes, of course that’s true, this isn’t one of those situations where you have to make a sacrifice to drive a reasonably sized car. You’re not losing anything by doing it. And you’re not gaining anything by getting the oversized people smasher. That’s the point. So why have one when you ostensibly know better?

(I should add the caveat, I don’t know what the SUV in question is. They’re not all the same and some of them are much closer to a station wagon than an Escalade.)

Watts
Watts
9 months ago
Reply to  John V

you have to make a sacrifice to drive a reasonably sized car

Is that really a sacrifice?

John V
John V
9 months ago
Reply to  Watts

No, it isn’t, that’s my point. People who drive excessively sized cars justify it by saying they get some benefit from driving it. They “need” it to haul things or some such excuse. I’m just saying that this is mostly an excuse or an illusion, because you don’t lose much if anything by driving a reasonably sized car.

Nonya
Nonya
9 months ago
Reply to  John V

I find with most “reasonably sized cars” I have a hard time getting in and out because of a combination of cabin design, bottom of vehicle relative to the ground, and my height, but I also have to duck to see traffic lights if I’m first (or second) in line because the roof line is too low, sometime hit my head getting in and out, head rubs the headliner, and there is no room behind my seat for person or car seat. I’m only 6 foot tall. But I also haven’t shopped for a new car in a while as what I have is paid for.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
9 months ago
Reply to  Zach

When individuals collectively change, society also changes. The idea that change can only come about via some top-down mechanism is both ahistorical and absurd. We need both structural change and prefigurative politics (individuals organizing for collective social change).

Gregg Dal Ponte
Gregg Dal Ponte
9 months ago

How prescriptive do you want your government to be? Tell us what vehicles we can buy? Tell us how large a refrigerator we can own? Interfere in decision to buy a gas appliance? Regulate where we can go to church or what we teach our kids? Where does it end? How far should we let government regulation go to further the idealistic ambitions of someone’s societal reengineering ideas?

If Jonathan wants to buy an SUV why is that anybody’s business but his?

dw
dw
9 months ago

Lol. All of those are already prescribed by the government. The rise in large vehicles is precisely because of government regulation, not because big cars = freedom from tyranny.

Nonya
Nonya
9 months ago

Look into automaker fleet milage requirements and you might be surprised at the real reason they have been moving away from sedans and into pickups, SUV’s, and crossovers. They try and blame buyers but really it’s about regulation.

EP
EP
9 months ago

With federal government regulation at least a decade off”

It’s sad to realize that huge trucks and SUVs will be around for a few more decades, even if production stopped today. Years from now, they’ll still be rolling around on the street in ever-increasingly bad states of repair, like a lot of 90s SUVs still are. It would take some kind of cash for clunkers type of deal to get people to trade in pickups and SUVs for a small car, but I’m sure the “from my cold dead hands” folks would resist.

I’m not sure I want to wait around for change for the rest of my cycling years. Sucks for kids growing up now, too. Seems like the solution is to go and move to a cycling-friendly place in Europe, but that brings a whole other set of problems/expenses/issues.