"War On Cars": A History

Tracing the origins of a peculiar phrase

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.

On September 29, almost as if on cue, conservative blogger Stefan Sharkansky wrote a short post about Seattle’s new mayor called “Mike McGinn’s War On Cars” and dyspeptic radio host Ken Schram aired a segment about “the war on cars.” (Sound Politics had actually used similar language as early as 2006, when a blogger attacked the previous mayor, Greg Nickels, for a “war against cars.”) The next day, Seattle Post-Intelligencercolumnist Joel Connelly leveled the same accusation with the same words.

By mid-October, Fox News had jumped into the fray. Seattle-based reporter Dan Springer led the charge with the language, generating both local and national versions of the same story, “Seattle’s War On Cars,” on October 13. A couple of days after the Fox segments aired, Ross Reynolds, a host on Seattle’s NPR affiliate, KUOW, held an on-air debate about whether “Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposed increase of parking fees amounts to a war on cars.” Not to be outdone, KING 5 (the local NBC TV affiliate) ran an October 19 segment called “Is There A War On Cars In Seattle?” On October 20, Publicola journalist Erica C. Barnett, who was featured in both the KOMO and KUOW radio segments, pushed back against the “war on cars” meme. By October 28, the ‘war on cars” was considered commonplace enough that it was used without attribution in the Seattle Times (“…a backlash from drivers and freight advocates who perceive a “war on cars” being waged…”).

So that’s the origin of Seattle’s “war on cars” tempest in a teapot: it was a low-level “meme” that circulated for a decade or so; bubbled up in Toronto; was then picked up by a few right-leaning national pundits in the US; and was then parroted by the Seattle-area noise machine.

Oddly enough, I have a bit role in the drama.  As late as November 2010, the Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based conservative think-tank, was still trying to fan the flames. In a critique of proposed parking policies on November 15, Michael Ennis referred to “Mayor Mike McGinn’ war on cars [sic].” And then again, on November 18, he wrote, “Mayor McGinn and Eric de Place don’t want to increase parking supply because of their war on cars…”

Yes, that’s me being named as an enemy combatant in the “war on cars.” Which is odd, considering that I own—and even drive — a car.

As it turns out, my casus belli against cars was advocating market pricing for vehicle storage. It’s not exactly the stuff of armed revolution. Which is why I think this whole thing is so phony.

There’s something almost laughably overheated about the “war on cars” rhetoric. It’s almost as if the purveyors of the phrase have either lost their cool entirely, or else they’re trying desperately to avoid a level-headed discussion of transportation policy.

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  1. Bruce says:

    I suspect most people who think there is a “war on cars” are too daft to know what “casus belli” means.

    • James says:

      Crass is the wrong word. Perhaps you meant under-educated, hypen on purpose.

      Sneering at those who don’t know what you know is hardly approprate. Now go get on your bike and ride off to work.

      • James says:


  2. Greg says:

    Eric,Perhaps you should focus on discovering whether there actually is a de facto war on cars in Seattle rather than tracking down the origin of the phrase. I believe it’s really a matter of how it feels for Seattle drivers, and in reading the comments from people who responded to the Seattle Times article referencing your post, it seems that the consensus is overwhelmingly tilted toward those who feel the pain. I can only speak from my experience in driving around Seattle, but the term ‘war on cars’ resonates regardless of its origin. I am no right wing conspirator and the thought of Seattle being unfriendly to motorists has entered my mind without the aid of rhetoric. Drive around North Seattle and absorb the shock of the potholes for a while if you need convincing. Or check out the price of parking at any of the Seattle hotels. ($35-$50 for less than 24 hours.) Or try parking on the streets. Or review the impact of planned projects (e.g. viaduct and 520 bridge) on future traffic capacity. (Overall capacity will be reduced.) Whether someone has officially declared war on the car in Seattle or not, the fact is that the evidence makes it seem that way and perception is reality in the minds of citizens. If driving in Seattle was a blissful experience, the phrase wouldn’t have any teeth.Cheers,Greg

    • James says:

      No kidding. Let’s talk about how misguided the war on cars is.

      Can you say j.o.b.s? And personal freedom?

      Watch. In a little bit, someone will jump in and say personal freedom isn’t a consideration, that mass transit or bikes or walking are the true way.

  3. Brenton says:

    Hotels charging exorbitant prices for parking can’t be linked to anything done by government. Calling that part of a bogus war on cars is like calling expensive drinks at hotel bars a war on drinking.

    • James says:

      Incorrect. The market is always one of supply and demand. When the city reduces parking on the streets, they make fee based parking more expensive. Hotels can charge very high prices for parking both due to convenience to the consumer, as well as scarcity of alternate parking.

  4. Erik Sandblom says:

    I think it’s interesting that car huggers use a violent metaphor to describe city streets. Wouldn’t it be nice if streets were places where people could spend time without fear of bodily harm and death?

    • James says:

      When in history have city streets ever been places to spend time as a pedestrian? Streets are to move traffic, which really shouldn’t include pedestrians other than street crossings.

      • Richard says:

        When in human history? How about all of it, save the last 70 or so years since automobile lobbies successfully utilized monetary logic to alter legislative perspectives.

  5. John Sweeney says:

    I suspect the “war on cars” in Seattle relates to deleting car lanes in favor of bike lanes on major arterials. I know it’s a huge issue in our neighborhood (Pinehurst) where only the bike zealots look forward to just two lanes on NE 125th.

  6. Jym Dyer says:

    =v= Total projection. Fact of the matter is, cars are waging a war on humanity, and some of us have the temerity to agitate for peace.

    • James says:

      Those darned cars. I didn’t realize my car had taken on a life where it was doing things without my control.

  7. David Sucher says:

    My own theory is that the war on cars is fought mostly by older fatter people who are jealous of bikers and guilty about not getting enough exercise.

  8. Greg says:

    Stating that ‘cars are waging a war on humanity’ is a bit of generalization Jym. Believe it or not, the automobile wasn’t invented with evil intentions in mind. Yes, the auto and oil industries have held us captive to the internal combustion engine for too long, but people are waking up and may one day generate enough demand to make alternative fuel sources practical. Companies like Tesla Motors are living proof that the system will not stifle innovation for ideas that are economically viable. Don’t take my comment to imply that I am pro-auto, anti-mass-transit, or in the camp of any extreme viewpoint. I am for sensible solutions that maintain the economic health of our region. I have no objection to improving environmental sustainability along the way. It doesn’t work to discourage people from driving (whether it’s passively or proactively) without first having the appropriate mass-transit infrastructure in place to support it. This doesn’t happen overnight. And Brenton, hotel parking fees are driven by many factors including taxes, city planning, and overall precedent established by all parking facilities across the city. The fact is that you can park at most hotels in Bellevue for about ½ the cost which might cause people to think about where to go for their overnight holiday shopping excursion.

  9. Scatter says:

    In the UK it’s labelled the ‘War On The Motorist’ and the current government has vowed to end this mythical war that only exists in the mind of some ministers, Jeremy Clarkson and readers of the right wing press, hence the uptick on Google timeline: http://snipurl.com/whatwarThe depressing reality is that the war is in fact being waged on public transport users.

  10. John Gear says:

    The “War on Cars” and the “War on Christmas” have a lot in common: totally fabricated crises that are really nothing but ploys to enforce ideological conformity, trumpeted by blockheads who prefer slogans to thinking and who revel in being among the overwhelming majority while enjoying the feeling and anger they generate by convincing themselves that they are among a persecuted minority.Advocates for saner living can take comfort every time you hear some idiot whining about the “War on Cars” (even as we continue to pour untold general fund and property tax billions into the care and feeding of cars, which supposedly “pay for themselves” with gas taxes)—it means that we’re starting to make the autoheads worried enough about the revolution to start their reactionary memes going.

  11. pipetodevnull says:

    @Greg: a quick look at traffic deaths, health issues in smoggy locations, and recent history (read Iraq) it really isn’t much of a stretch. Certainly a better fit to say “cars wage war on humanity” than this absurd bit about a “war on cars”. (Not even to call out the right on their continual use and disgusting misuse of the word war.)I agree about finding sensible solutions. That said, alternatives to our current morass will not spring up whole, perfect, and instantly. The Puget Sound is so second-rate in transportation—but perhaps we will get to the tipping point that much sooner, and finally start making hard (but intelligent) choices.One last, can’t help myself: the other benefit to a hotel in Bellevue is a full night’s sleep, since they roll up the streets at nine…

  12. Elaine says:

    Call it what you will, there is definitely a push to remove cars from being a cheap method of transport in Seattle, and elsewhere. New living spaces are built without provision for cars, and parking fees keep on going up. Lanes are needed to keep bicyclists safe. Cars and bikes are not a safe combination. (Just don’t say that any tax funds may be needed!) Living south of Seattle, I have a two to three bus parlay to get to the UW Medical Center. This trek also takes from two to three hours each way. If I drive there, it takes at least one hour each way, using surface streets. Then there is the cost of parking. But I feel safer not having to take the bus. Riding a bike out there is out of the question, as I am disabled. Being on a fixed, poverty-level income, I am not going to be out rushing to buy one of the new green hybrid cars. Just have to “use it up, wear it out; make it do, or do without”. A “green” thought process way ahead of it’s time! The new proposed law? People need to be more courteous, obey the laws and think of someone besides themselves…be more patient and drive safer. How many idiots do you still see on their cellphones while driving?

  13. sam goater says:

    eric you might like thishttp://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/georgemonbiot/2011/jan/04/war-on-motorists

  14. Greg says:

    Wow John, that’s a lot of name-calling and divisive language wrapped into one post. I think you will find that most people who need to drive somewhere are not blockheads, idiots, or autoheads, but are simply trying to get through their day-to-day lives. Similar to how the majority of our society doesn’t subscribe 100% to red or blue ideology. Personally, I am fortunate enough to live close to my workplace and sometimes even choose to bike to work, but there are others such as Elaine (above) who don’t have that luxury. I appreciate the spirited discussion. I will post no more.

  15. Raymond Parker says:

    This barmy phrase has sprouted legs (or perhaps a V-8) and is turning up in Vancouver—in response to that city’s recent surge in bicycle infrastructure—and the British Columbia capital Victoria, where car advocates are demanding bigger better roads to ease congestion on highways enabling commuting from outlying suburbs, into the city.Victoria City Council recently unveiled a plan to commandeer one traffic lane to install light rail on a major downtown corridor. This announcement caused immediate howls of outrage–“It’s a war on cars!”– from poor, downtrodden car commuters.

  16. Raymond Parker says:

    This barmy phrase has sprouted legs (or perhaps a V-8) and is turning up in Vancouver—in response to that city’s recent surge in bicycle infrastructure—and the British Columbia capital Victoria, where car advocates are demanding bigger better roads to ease congestion on highways enabling commuting from outlying suburbs, into the city.Victoria City Council recently unveiled a plan to commandeer one traffic lane to install light rail on a major downtown corridor. This announcement caused immediate howls of outrage–“It’s a war on cars!”– from poor, downtrodden car commuters.

  17. Dan says:

    For most people, driving isn’t a choice they make. It’s the only option they have, thanks to federal policy and funding that have created the monoculture that exists across most of America. We’ve spent 60+ years ingraining the belief that driving should be, and always will be, FREE!But it’s becoming obvious that we can’t afford this auto-only transportation system we’ve created. The costs to society are too great, the cost of existing infrastructure has grown past our ability to maintain it, and the wisdom of continually expanding roads and highways is increasingly challenged.So changes are happening and humans generally don’t like change, even if it’s for the better in the long run. The media and activists on both sides of the issue like controversy, so the militant language suits their various purposes nicely.

  18. ThomasC says:

    Seems silly to me, there might be a war on cars, yeah, so what, some places need a war on cars. Long ago, before Seattle and the subburbs became what they are today, long before Gatestown, if someone said, “whoa there, we better not build there we’ll need that for a parking lot later”, or “better keep a wider right of way on the road for future traffic”, “better preserve that wetland, it provides valuable ecological services” they would have been laughed back to L.A California. It’s a total lack of our society to have vision and plan ahead, don’t want any of that stinking liberal social engineering crap. Now you have long long commutes, traffic jams, air pollution, polluted streams and Sounds from stormwater runoff, and my gosh, we’ve created a mess, what do we do?!!.Huh, hey I got an idea, lets plan better, and be a bit mroe reasonable about how we go about development and things. Take Europe for example or Sydney or other places where the car is the least desirable option and plan and build for it. man.I tell you not a shred of hope until it’s a crisis ..then it costs 10 or 100 times as much or its just not feasible. People should really stop complain about how much it costs to make things better, and work towards making things better now. Heritage, and Cato that so-called conservative approach to society (which is BS really, driven by corporate greed) those folks are a dead end branch, don’t listen to them. It is possible to be conservative, and have some common sense and buy into making our world a better place.

  19. David L says:

    It is precisely the lack of restrictions on autos and drivers that characterizes the worst American social problems. Crying victim is simply clever rhetorical bluster. I recommend Peter Norton’s book about how motordom proactively launched a war on pedestrians and the social use of the streets back in the 1920s. Fighting Traffic: http://www.amazon.com/Fighting-Traffic-American-Inside-Technology/dp/0262516128/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_1

  20. poncho says:

    The car has been waging war on human beings and their habitats for 100+ years. Our society straight up cares much more about the welfare of automobiles than human beings. Just because a motorist has to travel less than 45 mph on a few streets or has to apply their brakes to let some children safely cross the road, all of a sudden its a vast conspiracy against the car. God forbid a car have to slow down to 20 mph or even, gasp, stop before making a right turn. Its about time we take back our communities from the ravages of unchecked automobiles running amok.Lets see, you can run a pedestrian or cyclist over and kill them, accidental or not, and not only do you not get any jail time (so long as you stop and havent been drinking) but you dont even get a slap on the wrist. If you took the life of a person, accidentally or not, ANY other way, you would spend serious time in jail.

  21. Richard says:

    It is absurd to think there is a “war on cars”. It is typical of the media to way over dramatize anything to do with the automobile.There is no evidence to suggest there is a war on cars, it is not the cars that are being killed. If there is a war on anything, it is a war on people by cars. Around 1.2 million people are killed every year by automobiles. Maybe it is time people started fighting back. Lets stop the war on people.

  22. Mocha says:

    Another source of ‘war on cars’ concern is in The Vanishing Automobile http://www.demographia.com/db-vanish.htmSeems like they’ve become an endangered species – who knew?

  23. Lloyd Skaalen says:

    If you think the war on cars has started in Seattle, have a look at what is now happening in Beijing, China where they are obviously taking a page out of the transit problems that Singapore had and corrected in the same fashion: restrict the number of people who can have cars and charge them dearly for the privilege! “Want a new car in Beijing? Sorry, there’s just too much traffic”. – Yahoo! Newshttp://ca.news.yahoo.com/want-car-beijing-sorry-theres-just-too-much-20110105-064154-608.html

  24. John Nles says:

    I remember becoming aware of the “War on Cars” from a couple of books issued in the last century: Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back by Jane Holtz Kayhttp://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520216204Driving Forces: The Automobile, Its Enemies, and the Politics of Mobility by James A. Dunnhttp://www.amazon.com/Driving-Forces-Automobile-Politics-Mobility/dp/0815719639More recently, this caught my attention: At a get-out-the-vote rally held by http://washingtonbus.org/ in summer 2009, virtually all of the candidates for Seattle City Council were present on stage, and most definitely all those who were eventually elected were there. When the master of ceremonies announced, “All candidates who support the war on cars, cross the stage,” the entire group walked to the other side of the stage.Even as one who as a third grade child was run over by a car (1948 Plymouth) in a guarded school crossing, and as one who lived for two years recently without a car, I hold the opinion that the benefits of cars far outweigh the costs. At same time, I applaud the efforts locally and worldwide by many people to make cars less dangerous and more benign to the physical environment. I also advise pedestrians to be very careful crossing streets.

  25. Ulrich Nehls says:

    You might be interested to know that a similar phrase as ‘war on cars’ (“Autofeindschaft”) was used by nazi propaganda during the German ‘3rd Reich’. As researcher Dagmar Hochstaetter puts it in her book ‘Motorisierung und “Volksgemeinschaft”‘ (Munich, 2005): “Das Gespenst von der ‘Autofeindschaft’ war ein Phantom, das von Hitler, Goebbels und Hühnlein bewusst eingesetzt wurde, um die NS-Motorisierungspolitik in einem glanzvolleren Licht zu präsentieren”.(‘The spectre of “hostility against cars” was a phantom used deliberately by Hitler, Goebbels and Huehnlein so as to put nazi motorization politics into more brilliant light’)Huehnlein was the leader of the nazi drivers organization NSKK (Nationalsozialistisches Kraftfahrkorps.)Parts of the book are available (in German) at books.google.de

  26. John Niles says:

    Can we all agree that this is NOT an example of the “war on cars?”Tacoma News Tribune headline: “Sound Transit to clamp down on illegal parking at stations, park-and-ride lots.” Read more here.This is more like a “war on bad habits of train commuters who drive to the station and can’t find a legal spot to park.”

  27. Paul Loesch says:

    @John Sweeney and to make the obvious but oft overlooked point:If someone is on a bike they are not in a car. People are getting where they need to be, no difference. If someone is on a bike they are not in a car clogging up your lane. Bike lanes ease traffic.If someone is on a bike they are not in a car.

    • James says:

      If someone is on a bike they are not handicapped.

  28. Lee L says:

    War on cars? Definitely. It is driven by people who have accepted that social engineering is ESSENTIAL or the planet will die.
    Talk to me about Europe? Ok how bout Copenhagen, the darling of the bike greens. How DID Denmark get people out of all those cars? Fantastic bike infrastructure? Maybe North America should copy that!
    Ok lets go!!.. then be ready for this:
    You want to buy a little HONDA CIVIC at $16,000. You pay 25percent sales tax so it becomes $20,000. Oops now you pay 180% registration tax on both the car and the VAT tax so you pay another $36,000 so your Honda costs $56,000 bucks which is more than twice as much tax as the car itslef cost before tax. Then you must pay Green tax, and fuel tax. In HOLLAND they are going ahead with a scheme and charging you by the kilometre to drive. It is called Road Pricing..and you require a government mandated and recorded GPS that tracks your car and its movements 24 hrs a day. They have looked into this in Oregon.
    Anyway..you can see why the Danes ride bikes. They have been socially engineered and BLUDGEONED OFF CAR USE by massive taxes. And that is what I call a war on cars.

  29. Jerome says:

    The car as a means of transportation was definitely a crazy idea. Stinking, ugly and, most of all, noisy. The noise! Whenever I cross a busy street, I feel as if I am about to lose consciousness. I definitely envy people who had the pleasure of living in a car-free world.

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