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“War On Cars”: A History

Angry all the time?Here at BikingToronto’s FreeWheel I’ve written on the meaning of the phrase “War on the Car” — here and here.  At the Seattle based think-tank, Sightline Institute’s blog Sightline Daily, Eric de Place has published some great research on the history of the “War on the Car” mythos.

Here’s the article down to where he stops talking about Toronto so much. ;)

I encourage you to read the whole thing – a link is at the bottom of this excerpt.

“War On Cars”: A History
Tracing the origins of a peculiar phrase
By Eric de Place

Back in October, I started noticing the accusation that Seattle is waging a “war on cars” pop up an awful lot in the Seattle-area press, and in suspicious ways.

On its face, the charge that Seattle is waging a war on cars is pretty silly. After all, that the bulk of the city’s political leaders support two car-centric megaprojects — the 520 bridge and the Alaskan Way tunnel — that will cost in the range of $7 billion, depending on how you do the counting. And the evidence marshaled in support of the “war on cars” idea was pretty thin gruel — adding a few bike lanes here and there, and raising on-street parking rates in the downtown core.

So I did some poking around to find out where the “war on cars” language came from. And there is something fishy – or at least fishy-smelling – about it. You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a local example of a manufactured right-wing talking point.

Here’s the history as I was able to trace it.

The phrase “war on cars” has been around for a while. See this 1998 Slate dialogue for example, or this Wall Street Journal editorial from 2005. During the aughts, the phrase was trotted out periodically in objection to congestion pricing, particularly in London. (See, for example, this 2002 piece in the Economist, this 2004 article in the London Evening Standard or this Chicago Tribune piece circa 2007.)

But a review of Google’s news archives shows that, until 2009, the phrase was used infrequently. And even today, the phrase is seldom used outside of just two locations: Toronto and Seattle.

In the spring of 2009, a few months after officials in Toronto rolled out “The Big Move” — a 25-year, multi-billion dollar transportation plan that aimed at reducing per capita driving, reducing congestion, and increasing transit use – when the meme rocketed into prominence. On May 17, 2009, the Toronto Sun, a populist conservative tabloid-style paper, fired what appears to have been the opening salvo with a lengthy article called “Toronto’s War On Cars.” Five days later, the staid Toronto Star, Canada’s highest-circulation daily newspaper, ran an editorial by Denzil Minnan-Wong, a city councilor with a decidedly pro-car perspective, who wrote: “The city’s undeclared but very active war on cars is really a war on people…”

The phrase ricocheted around the Toronto media through most of the rest of the year, with conservative media outlets leading the charge and local officials denying that any such war even existed. On May 25, the phrase appeared in the mainstream press again, this time in the first sentence of an editorial at the Sun written by a bicycle advocate playing defense. Also playing defense was then-mayor David Miller, whose performance at a press conference earned him the May 28 headline “No ‘War On The Car,’ Toronto’s Mayor Insists” in the right-of-center National Post. Just a few days later, on June 4, Toronto Star editorial writer Bob Hepburn weighed in with a heated column under the banner “Time To Stop the Nutty War On Cars.” And in September of 2009, on the occasion of a proposal to reduce speed limits in the city, the Sun followed up with an article called “War On Cars Continues.”

It was about this time that the “war on cars” meme began to percolate in earnest in Seattle (though it had been used used occasionally before). In June 2009, however, Seattle’s pro-road activist Elizabeth Campbell was quoted in the online Seattle PostGlobe saying, ““I think there’s a war on cars and I don’t support it” in reference to a mayoral candidate forum. Later that summer, in a humorous city council candidate forum, the candidates were asked whether they supported “the war on cars.” (It seems that all of them answered “yes.”)

By the autumn of 2009, however, things had quieted down, with no major mentions in either Toronto or Seattle. The sole exception to the calm was a January 2010 anti-Obama hit piece titled, “The War Against Suburbia,” written by Joel Kotkin and published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. It ruffled the blogosphere briefly and then died away.

But by the spring of 2010, with Toronto’s mayoral election was on the horizon, the phrase began to re-emerge. For example, on April 15, Bob Hepburn’s editorial for the Star kicked off with, “Bikes, cars and people — the war heats up in Toronto.” And on June 8, mayoral candidate Giorgio Mammoliti was quoted in the Star using the phrase.

Soon afterward, the ”war on cars” language really caught fire, thanks in part to the right-wing Heritage Foundation. On June 17, writing for Heritage, Wendell Cox criticized Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood in an article called “Washington’s War On Cars and the Suburbs,” which circulated widely. (Interestingly, Cox had tried on this language with Heritage as early as 2004 when he attacked the EPA‘s “war against cars and suburbs.”) Cox is a prominent player in the organized and well-funded anti-smart growth movement. He is affiliated not only with Heritage, but also with the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute, and more than a dozen other conservative think tanks, including two in Canada and one in Washington state. He is uniquely well placed to push out talking points into right-leaning media.

Two months later, in August, car blogger Ronnie Schreiber (who boasts affiliations with right-wing media productions like Pajamas Media) began a popular series called “The War On Cars” at the automotive site Left Lane, in which he attacked LaHood, Seattle, and Toronto — in that order.

By the next month, September, Toronto’s front-running mayoral candidate Rob Ford had made “ending the war on cars” a centerpiece of his campaign when he released a YouTube version of his transportation plan. The “war on cars” phrase was repeated prominently in coverage by CBC and the Star, while the Sun‘s reporting was headlined, “Ford Declares War On The Streetcar” and the National Post trumpeted “Ford’s Plan Aims To Stop ‘War On Cars.’” (Ford went on to win Toronto’s mayoral election.)

The September explosion of the meme in Toronto seemed to spark imitators in Seattle.


Read the rest…



Via:  Sightline Daily“War On Cars”: A History.

And also via: Grist – “a beacon in the smog”The latest battle in the nonexistent ‘War on Cars’,  by Sarah Goodyear, who’s piece from today, March 23 2011, references Eric de Place’s essay.

Sightline Institute

Image of Mayor Rob Ford via “DoDo Can Spell(barely) Blog
(no attribution for where ‘DoDo’ got it).


Posted: March 23rd, 2011
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Evalyn Parry’s “SPIN” – a Stage Play, a Talk, a Concert: Avant-garde theatre about bicycles

Anna Friz, Evalyn Parry, Brad Hart (and The Bicycle) preform SPIN at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
in association with OutSpoke Productions presents

Mar 15 – 27, 2011
Shows Thurs – Sun, 8pm
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
(The Cabaret)
12 Alexander Street, Toronto ON
Box Office 416-975-8555
$16-$20 – The Cabaret is a fully accessible space
Ticket info by phone or by web at the buddies website.

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in association with OutSpoke Productions presents SPIN Created and performed by Evalyn Parry
Musicians Anna Friz and Brad Hart
Directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones
Production Designer Beth Kates
Starring The Bicycle

From ‘buddies’ – SPIN:

“Through a series of songs played live on a vintage bicycle, SPIN recounts a theatrical cycle of stories about women, cycling and liberation. Inspired by the incredible true tale of Annie Londonderry, the first woman to ride around the world on a bicycle in 1894, SPIN blends theatre, music and technology in a unique tribute to the bicycle as muse, musical instrument and instrument of social change.

“Suspended in a mechanic’s stand on stage, a vintage bicycle is “played” live by percussionist Brad Hart and sound artist and musician Anna Friz. SPIN takes you on sonic historical tour from the first woman to ride around the world to Igor Kenk, Toronto’s most notorious bicycle thief. Funny, political, engaging and thought-provoking: SPIN is a springtime elegy to Toronto’s favourite mode of transportation.”

Listen to the music of SPIN:
Open Letter to Igor Kenk, Bicycle Thief:

(more at Buddies in Bad Times and Evalyn Parry’s site)

Xtra Cover: Evalyn Parry launches SPIN

(from ‘buddies’ – SPIN page):

“Equally funny and dangerous” – CBC Radio

“part theatre, part musical gig, part spoken word poetry and part documentary … whatever it is, it is brilliant” – Catherine Porter, Toronto Star







For much moreneat stuff by Evalyn Parry visit her site:

Thanks to Yvonne Bambrick for the heads up at Facebook.

Player via The Podcast Place.

Posted: March 18th, 2011
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Spring is Coming!

Found this through “Lets Go Ride a Bike“, via “Bike Skirt
(yes, I was looking for something new for spring)

Complicated Life

Sometimes you don’t have to say it to say it.

Clint Maedgen, New Orleans, Louisiana
“Clint Maedgen is a multi-instrumental singer, songwriter, composer and arranger in New Orleans.”

Check out “cmaedgen” at Youtube;  Clint Maedgen uploads music that he makes.



Posted: March 13th, 2011
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Kunstler’s ‘Converging Catastrophes’ illuminates Ford’s, ‘War on the Car’

At Grist Magazine out of Seattle Washington, Kerry Trueman interviews “peak oil profit”, James Howard Kunstler – author of The Long Emergency:   Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century” (2005).

Kerry Trueman’s beautifully written, witty and urbane introduction sets an intelligent tone for a weighty question and answer in which Kunstler’s every sentence are caulk full of thoughtfulness and meaning.

In part they talk about the urban infrastructure that cheap oil has created and the cultural adoption of it as the American Dream, the myth that seemingly, we’re not ready yet to believe we have to wake up from – before it culminates in a real life nightmare of “Converging Catastrophes”.

Below is the second of five questions from the article where Mr. Kunstler gets to lay out a narrative that explains the motivations behind a wide spread back-lash across America (continent of) against the acceptance of the coming chaos – and that alludes rather nicely I think, to the mythos that carried our new Mayor and his “War on the Car” to power last fall…

From Grist Magazine:

“James Howard Kunstler: The old American dream is a nightmare”

By Kerry Trueman


Q. Is “smart growth” the antidote to sprawl, or just a developer’s disingenuous oxymoron?

A. “Smart growth” started as a polemical retort to the “dumb” growth of suburban sprawl. It happened that dumb growth was utterly entrenched in all our local land-use laws, and in the sectors that served them – especially the construction trades and our lending practices. The zoning laws mandated a car-dependent outcome, and the builders furnished it, exactly as specified.

By the way, it’s important to understand that suburbia was not dreamed up by the devil or any of his agents among us. It just seemed like a good idea in the America of the 20th century. We had the material and capital resources to build this empire of comfort and convenience, so we did. And all this implies a powerful cultural consensus — a broad agreement that this way of living is okay.

Eventually, of course, it became embedded in our national identity as a late incarnation of the American Dream. All well and good — and over! Because our circumstances have changed drastically now. We face the awful predicament of peak oil, and the global contest over the world’s remaining resources, and reality is telling us very loudly that we have to live differently — we have to get a new American Dream.

The resistance to this is ferocious, not because Americans are particularly dumb or wicked, but because of the massive investments we have already made in these suburban infrastructures for daily living. We can’t accept the scary mandates of reality, or begin the process of letting go.

Smart growth was a strategy undertaken by the New Urbanist reformers to offer an alternative template for land development in America — one based on the traditional walkable neighborhood. The New Urbanists were superbly skilled at drawing up clear graphical codes that might be used to replace the suburban codes around the country. The term “smart” growth was intended to be a selling point — though, unfortunately it often offended the very people it was aimed at by making their own codes look dumb.

Personally, I regret that this moniker was adopted, because it inadvertently provoked so much push-back. But by default the New Urbanists have basically won the argument, even if victory hasn’t been officially declared. The housing bubble bust has seen to that. It represents not just a transient economic fiasco; it is the end of the suburban project per se. We are finished with suburbia. We’re stuck with the residue of it. And now we’ll see how this all sorts itself out in the face of $100+ per barrel oil.

We will probably come to see a long era of little-to-no-growth. Whatever happens in terms of the human habitat from now on will involve the re-use of stuff that is already there, one way or another.

Personally, I believe the action is going to shift to small towns, small cities, and places that exist in a relationship with a productive agricultural landscape. The fate of suburbia is to become slums, salvage sites, and ruins. Human beings are very good at sorting out materials, and we’ll have to do a lot of that. I believe a great deal of all trade in the years ahead will be in material goods already made, re-purposed, as they say, and re-circulated.


..Read the whole thing!


Posted: March 9th, 2011
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For the Record: Video of Critical Mass car terror in Brazil

This is a shocking video. On Friday, February 25, 2011 at 06:24 a leisurely gaggle of 150 Brazilian Critical Mass cyclists – husbands and wives, sons and daughters – were plowed into by an accelerating car going at what looks like 30 kph.

Driver tries to kill cyclists in Critical Mass Porto Alegre, Brazil

Via: (live link)

“It’s their own fault at the end of the day.”
Councillor Rob Ford – 03/03/07

Once said a former councillor of the city of Toronto.

I hope that if any good could possibly come out of this example of the human condition it could be that it helps everyone to realize they should be careful with their rhetoric. That this might remind us that there are psychopaths amoung us who, for genetic or environmental reasons, don’t feel the same emotions the rest of us do – like guilt or empathy. In their abnormal brains they can take ill-considered statements by public officials that be-little the value of human life – as a GO! sign.

Least we forget:

Via: (live link)

Rob Ford back tracked on his statement during the 2010 civic election.



Thanks to Yvonne Bambrick for breaking the story here (Saturday at 1:16pm) in Facebook ( – the link works only if you’re “Facebook Friends” with Yvonne). She linked “massa critica” (live link: which was posted to Youtube on Friday night; it’s taken with a camera phone seconds after the terror car is out of sight. She credited “Tino”, who I believe is Martin Reis of BikeLaneDiary: (Feb 26th at 8:24 AM (live link):

The NPR article below sights Toronto’s The Urban Country as source. James D. Schwartz did great research and posted the first article in the English Blogosphere Saturday at 7:53 PM (live link):

From NPR (live link):


Posted: March 1st, 2011
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