Saturday, March 26, 2011

Know your opponents

I want to get people out of their cars, for the reasons given above: clean air and water, efficiency, safety, health, better society, and fairness. Some people disagree with me on this, for a variety of reasons. If you're like me, you want to persuade those people to change their minds, to strengthen your cause. I've realized recently that the reasons for defending car subsidies fall into three groups, and each group requires different counterarguments.

The first defense is Denial. You've got a reason why people should stop using cars, and they don't think it's a problem. Global warming? Peak oil? They don't exist, or they can be solved with technology. Bowling alone? They're really happier that way. Car crashes? Unavoidable accidents. Obesity? It's a moral failing. Poor people can't get to work? Just buy every rider a car. Education is the key here, showing them why it is a problem. But they probably won't listen to you, so they need to hear it from a source they trust.

The next defense is Not Our Problem. They're insulated from the problem (by having enough money to pay for car expenses, or by never walking beyond the parking lot), or they don't think it affects them (asthma, bowling alone), or they don't think it will affect them (car crashes, obesity), or it's far in the future (global warming, peak oil). These things happen to other people, usually people they don't know, so why should they care? Not much you can do with these people. Empathy implants? For some circumstances, you can show them that it does affect them or their loved ones, and that may change their minds about one factor.

The third defense is You Can't Do That Without a Car! It's a favorite of the Very Serious People who want to reassure the world that they're not really (gasp!) anti-car. You can't pick up a chair on the subway! You can't transport two kids on the bus! You can't move an apartment by bike!

The key, as Carla Saulter and Clarence Eckerson know, is to keep showing that you can do that without a car. The supposed convenience of cars and the supposed independence of cars are illusions: the convenience is entirely dependent on the infrastructure, and transit and pedestrian infrastructure have the same capacity to make things convenient and to set us free.

The fact is that there's nothing you can do with a car that couldn't be done some other way, given the proper infrastructure. It may be that cars are the most efficient way to do them, but that's not always as obvious as you may think. We need to show all the You Can't Do That Without a Car people that you can. That's how we'll get them over to our side, because they're the most promising allies of the three.


Jonathan said...

Nice post, but in responding it's easy to drift off in a different direction, away from the thumb-on-the-scale issue of car subsidies.

The Group 3 folks, who believe that you need a car to do everything, only believe that because their autos and auto habits are subsidized. I get along without a car in the city, and people can understand that, because they understand the expense and hassle of car ownership in New York (or at least I've become a good exponent of those expenses and hassles). But the suburbs are no different, it's just that government has gone to the trouble of making up for the expenses and hassles of car ownership with a host of automobile-related subsidies. Two car garages in every house! Strip malls at every intersection! Highways to nowhere! Cheap gas! Express drop-off at kindergartens!

You could take all those subsidies away and then the people in the suburbs would be the ones explaining the expense and hassle of car ownership. What you don't see is people saying, "I only have a car because the government in myriad ways makes it ridiculously simple for me to have one."

Cap'n Transit said...

I agree, Jonathan, but sometimes you just need to show that it's possible to do something without a car. Then you can move on to whether or not it's easier to do with subsidies, and without them.

Brandon said...

The last one is easily solved by Zipcar. Cars ARE a great tool, but as Jane Jacobs pointed out, our mistake is in using them to do the work of one horse rather than many horses.

I still think most people just dont think outside of the box (ironically the same people who said years ago "we have streetcars that go everywhere, fast and cheap. why would anyone buy an expensive and unreliable car for themselves?"), and will give up cars in due time when the subsidies no longer keep up, or actually decline depending on what happens with government policy in the next few decades.

ant6n said...

I really like supermarkets with delivery service. You shop in your local store as if you had a car, and at the cash register it gets put in a big cardboard box or two which get delivered an hour or two later. Only costs 0-4$ dollars, depending on the place and how much you spend.

axel said...

what is bowling alone? i dont get it

Cap'n Transit said...

Brendan, Zipcar is an improvement over private cars for everyone (especially storage thereof). It would have been great when I lived out west, and it's a great way for someone to wean themselves off car dependency. I don't see it as a complete solution to any of the problems caused by cars.

Axel, this is Bowling Alone.

Anonymous said...

Are you knocking Klein and Goodyear? Seems like they're allies.

Cap'n Transit said...

I know and like Sarah, and I have a lot of respect for her. I don't know Klein, but I've often been annoyed with his Very Serious Person attitude towards car use.

As I said, the You Can't Do That Without a Car people are promising allies, but they're not reliable allies as long as they keep such limited worldviews.