The car will triumph, again
The American way of life will not be easily disrupted.
I grew up in a town built for cars. There were very few bike lanes or sidewalks, but every store had a parking lot and every house had a big wide driveway. Street parking was free. My dad, a bearded ex-hippie professor who would rather ride his bike to work, lamented the driving culture. With everyone trapped inside their steel cages, he said, the chance of meeting new people was diminished; loneliness and social isolation were the result. He also complained about the inefficient sprawl that road-centric development produced, and the environmental degradation.
He wasn’t wrong about any of those things. When I moved to Japan as an adult, I experienced the polar opposite of my Texas town. I found incredible freedom and convenience in being able to walk out of my house and just take a train to anywhere I wanted to go, without having to worry about filling up my gas tank, avoiding accidents, or finding a place to park. I constantly met new and interesting people on the street, and often would discover excellent new shops and restaurants just by walking past them.
Like many Americans who live in East Asia, Europe, or other places with dense transit-centric cities, I returned to the U.S. wishing that I could transform the suburban wastelands of my youth into something closer to what I had enjoyed overseas. I wasn’t alone.
Over the past few years, the twin ideas of density and public transit have inspired a generation of youth. Much of this has taken the form of a rebellion against car culture, with the famous rest stop at Breezewood, Pennsylvania becoming an icon of everything that young lefty types said they wanted to change about America.
In recent years, you could be forgiven for thinking that the movement against cars was building into a wave. Young Americans love socialism, and being socialist increasingly seemed to mean opposing car-centric development. Online movements like NUMTOT (New Urbanist Memes for Transit Oriented Teens) were all the rage in the late 2010s. A wildly ambitious map of an imagined future high-speed rail system repeatedly made the online rounds, and a steady drumbeat of op-eds reminded us that cars are killing machines. “Ban cars” became a popular slogan on social media. When the Green New Deal came out in 2019, one of the biggest criticisms of it — at least from the left — was that it didn’t pay enough attention to changing the way American cities are built. Environmentalists even began to turn against the idea of electric vehicles as the way to decarbonize transportation, arguing that development patterns had to change wholesale instead.
Then, when the pandemic came, it seemed as if the anti-car movement had its big chance. With indoor dining too dangerous, whole streets were blocked off for restaurants to use. Lots of people, especially in wealthier communities, fell in love with the new “open streets” trend. It appeared that cities in the U.S. might go the way of Paris, which recently elected to ban cars from its city center by 2024. Mountain View announced a plan to expand outdoor dining and close off its main thoroughfare to auto traffic. Finally, we would see the beginning of the end of America’s car-centric development model.
Then inflation hit, and the Ukraine war came, and those dreams were revealed for the phantasms they were. Car culture has risen up with a vengeance and reasserted its centrality to the American way of life.
Car culture strikes back in the 2020s
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