A quippy slogan has galvanized the ‘ban cars movement’

Screengrab from Jalponik. Inset image: Doug Gordon in 2012 by Jonathan Maus/BikePortland

It’s impossible to explain the crusade to reform the American transportation system with a quippy slogan. But a successful movement needs a catchy tagline, and some bike and transit activists have settled on “ban cars” as the t-shirt and sticker-worthy phrase to summarize their ideology.

To the average car-dependent American, however, the rallying cry comes with baggage and may seem like bait for Fox News fearmongers. The fight against car culture is much more complicated than simply “banning cars.” So should we go with “ban cars (once we have enough alternate transportation infrastructure to accommodate everyone so they don’t need to drive, and even then there will be exceptions”)? Well…I don’t think that really has the same ring to it.

Those who want nuance are going to have to stick around past the slogan.

In a recent Jalopnik piece (an outlet whose tagline is “drive free or die”), transportation activist and co-host of the War on Cars Podcast Doug Gordon provided some of that nuance in a summary of what the phrase “ban cars” means to him. In the article, Gordon says the ‘ban cars movement’ “wants us to reckon with the truth about the automobile’s impacts on society, to weigh the bad against the good.” He’s explicit about the bad, citing statistics about how many Americans die in car crashes every year (last year, it was 42,915 people) and how much carbon cars spew into the atmosphere. Transportation activists know these stats well, but the general car-driving public doesn’t often come face to face with the destruction cars create.

Gordon writes the ‘ban cars movement’ is not literally a movement to ban cars, and is instead simply a prompt to consider how dominant the automobile is as a part of American society – and is that really so radical?

It’s a fight to expand the rights and freedoms of those who are unable to drive — for medical, financial, or legal reasons — and those who are simply uninterested in operating a multi-ton machine where a momentary lapse of judgment can kill. Given the aggregate ways in which cars negatively impact individual lives, communities, and the planet, I believe a good-faith understanding of “the ban cars movement” is actually less radical than maintaining the status quo, which often seems to take the shape of a ban on everything but cars.

I really struggle to articulate my thoughts on this subject, and I appreciated Gordon’s helpful explanation that contains all the disclaimers necessary when talking about something so controversial. Gordon’s article acknowledged the ways “ban cars” is not an adequate argument against car culture while still defending its usefulness as “a short, pithy message.”

Here’s more from Gordon’s piece:

The goal of “the ban cars movement,” as I see it, is not to render cars obsolete. It’s to give people the choice to live a life where car ownership, and car dependence, are unnecessary — regardless of socioeconomic status or physical ability to operate an automobile. It starts in dense urban areas, places where a few policy tweaks could turn public transit, cycling and walking into the lowest-stress, most convenient options.

No societal effort ever reaches 100 percent success. If the humorously-named “ban cars movement” enacted just a fraction of its goals, people who need to drive, or who simply enjoy driving, would still have that option. Car ownership simply wouldn’t be the price of admission for full participation in society. Or for picking up a gallon of milk.

None of what I’ve described could be accurately called a “ban on cars.” At worst, you could say these are limits on driving in specific locations and circumstances. Taking a lane away from car traffic to install a protected bike route? Sure, that bans cars — from a sliver of pavement. Dedicated bus lanes do the same. At its heart, “ban cars” is not a call to abolish all motor vehicles, but a focused effort to de-emphasize the least efficient form of transportation — the single-occupancy private vehicle — in urban centers where public transit is available and space is at a premium.

I’ve been met with enough backlash after making seemingly reasonable claims about the state of the American transportation system to know this is a topic to tread lightly about. But I also think being overly explanatory can water down the message. Sometimes I get so nervous about coming across as dogmatic or holier-than-thou, I use so many justifiers I end up saying nothing at all.

There’s a fine line to walk here. The transportation reform movement needs as many people on board as possible, and nobody likes to listen to someone on a high horse that makes such a direct affront to the status quo. But given the dire state of the earth and so many things on it, it feels like the right time to push open the Overton window a bit more.

You can read Gordon’s full article here, and be sure to check out the War on Cars podcast if you haven’t already.