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.
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.
Image of Mayor Rob Ford via “DoDo Can Spell” (barely) Blog
(no attribution for where ‘DoDo’ got it).
Posted: March 23rd, 2011
Author: michael holloway
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