Op-Ed in 11 Tweets: The Hypocrisy of Car Culture

Former Aussie national bike planner Tony Arnold punctures all the contradictions that car drivers don't even realize they spew.

Not a legitimate road user! Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Not a legitimate road user! Photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Tony Arnold
Tony Arnold

It hasn’t always been this way.

In the early days of motoring, the automobile was treated as an interloper on city streets that were otherwise dominated by human activity. To ensure the safety of the people, “red flag laws” were enacted in the U.K. and U.S. requiring a walking chaperone to wave a red flag or carry a lantern in front of every automobile to warn others of the approach of these “horseless carriages.”

Now the automobile is calling the shots. Some changes have been major, such as the recasting of the legal act of “walking across the street” as the criminal act of “jaywalking.” However, most changes have been gradual. Just a little bit of footpath shaved off to allow a road to be widened over here. Or a newspaper headline blaming a pedestrian for being killed by an automobile over there. Soon, like a frog unwittingly boiled alive in a pot of water, we found ourselves in a hostile, car-dominated environment.

The most significant change to our environment has not been the physical territory that has been won by the automobile, although these territories are vast. Instead, the most significant change is the dominant position that the automobile has won over our psychological territory. This process has occurred so gradually that few have noticed, but the depth of change over the past 100 years is profound. Without the dominance of the automobile in our psychological territory, it would be impossible to overlook the negative externalities imposed by automobiles on society and to welcome their dominance in our physical territory.

Today, the majority of the population is so heavily subscribed to the constructions of “car-culture” that they are unable to recognize its obvious contradictions and hypocrisies. But this car-culture hypocrisy (or “carpocrisy”) affects attitudes to cycling. Let’s examine it in a few tweets:

Perhaps by recognizing this carpocrisy, we will take the first step towards improving our cities: admitting that we have a problem.

Tony Arnold is director of Transportology, a transportation design firm. Arnold was responsible for coordinating the Australian National Cycling Strategy between 2013 and 2018.

  • Bluewndrpwrmlk

    If you click on the Transportology link, you’ll see:

    “Tony is currently studying a PhD at the University of Sydney on the future impacts of automated vehicles on walking and cycling, examining contrasting environmental conditions and attitudes in Australia and the Netherlands.”

    Maybe all these tweets are part of his doctoral thesis.

  • Joe R.

    I especially like these two:

    Driving a car without a helmet is perfectly safe, but a a person riding a bicycle without a helmet has a death-wish.

    Slowing cars to 30 km/h will impact on productivity, but bicycles travelling at 30 km/h are speeding irresponsibly.

  • djx

    I’ve had other cyclists spout #1 to me. Many many times.

  • Joe R.

    Same here, more times than I care to think about.

  • If people want to fear me and my 20 lb Univega death and destruction machine, what do I care.

  • Frank Kotter

    Because they vote.

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  • jcwconsult

    Travel by car became dominant because it is: usually faster, affordable to most people, private, convenient, more comfortable, available 24/7/365, & more flexible on routes.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • djx

    And the costs – in terms of congestion, pollution, risk to pedestrians, and streets designed for cars as opposed to people.- are partially externalized.

    Don’t forget that. If drivers paid full costs for what they do to society, they’d drive less in the US. Certainly much less in cities.

  • Travel by car is heavily subsidized, but in your world economics don’t matter?

    Personal helicopter is also faster and more convenient, but for some reason nobody does that.

    Explain that?

    Edit: Oh, actually you did say cheaper, which is clearly not true, even for users, transit is cheaper, but transit is also less subsidized.

  • jcwconsult

    As I have stated many times, the NMA supports proper user fees for the roads. Fuel taxes are the fairest & the least expensive to collect at about 1% of revenues, plus they encourage fuel efficient vehicles.

    Transit is HEAVILY subsidized in all but a few routes in the northeast, often by 70% to 90%. And I have never seen transit proponents suggesting raising the fare box to cover the real costs. It is perfectly fine for area residents to subsidize transit via their local taxes – and I have voted twice in favor of bus system millages in my town.

    Almost everyone would realize personal helicopter travel is exorbitantly expensive. I said car travel is affordable to most people.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Tony Arnold

    There is no doubt that cars offer advantages to people INSIDE the car, particularly with all the subsidies and special treatment provided (parking is mostly free, public space is reallocated for exclusive car use and there are almost zero repercussions for the road deaths, noise and air pollution etc generated by cars).

    The article never tried to argue that using a car is unpleasant for people INSIDE the car. It argues that cars have embedded themselves so deeply into our psychology that we happily overlook the negative effects of car use on people OUTSIDE the car (i.e. the externalities). At the end of the day though, the people inside the car are not immune to these costs. We all pay for the marginalisation of walking, cycling and public transport through poorer health, unpleasant cities and the high cost of subsidising cars. We just don’t realise it when the cost of operating a car is so artificially-low.

  • jcwconsult

    I live in a very pleasant city, Ann Arbor. Parking in or near downtown is paid until 6 PM. We have a decent bus service which I voted twice to support millages to improve and expand. Noise and air pollution could be sharply reduced if the US transitioned over about a decade to mostly Yield or Give Way protocols as much of Europe does – instead of our idiotic fetish for unnecessary stop signs and many traffic lights at intersections which increase air and noise pollution plus wasted fuel – intersections that would be better and safer if controlled with modern roundabouts. The NMA supports proper user fees with fuel taxes, but the gutless federal and some state legislators refuse to require them. MANY things could be done to improve safety for pedestrians & cyclists if authorities would end enforcement rackets for profits aimed at mostly safe drivers and instead concentrate on enforcement for safety versus the small percentage of drivers that are doing something hazardous.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Tony Arnold

    I agree that much more could be done to price road use and fuel use, so it is great that the NMA supports increased fuel taxes.

    Traffic lights and stop signs help pedestrians to cross the road by forcing cars to stop, so converting to Give Way intersections is really just another way to make it difficult to get around unless you are in a car. Maybe some emissions could be reduced by converting to Give Way signs, but I don’t know of any evidence that suggests that this would make a meaningful difference. Traffic noise would also not go away just because we add Give Way intersections, as most traffic noise is road/wind noise at higher speeds anyway.

    Cars obviously have their place, but we have reached the point where people won’t (or perhaps can’t due to the design of their streets) walk or cycle to even pick up a loaf of bread. Do you agree that something is wrong with that? Surely it doesn’t make sense to design cities and transport systems that ensure that we become unhealthy due to lack of exercise and so that we have to dig oil out of the ground and burn it to create climate-changing emissions to move a 2000kg vehicle, when we could have just walked if given a suitable environment.

    Personally, I enjoy Dutch cities, where there is much less traffic noise/danger in cities and where most destinations are a short walk or cycle from a train station.

  • jcwconsult

    I have driven a lot in Europe and other places. In July Portugal will be my 28 major world country with driving experience.

    The US does a poor job in most places of providing cyclists good paths SEPARATE from the main collector & arterial streets to avoid mixing high traffic roads with many cyclists. I have seen well marked cycle paths on wide sidewalks in France, Germany, Iceland, & other places. Using bike lanes on more minor streets roughly parallel to the collectors & arterials makes perfect sense. Well designed pedestrian precincts are common in Europe – with appropriate nearby (sometimes expensive) parking provisions. I see a lot of comments that people are “afraid” to walk on sidewalks alongside busy urban collectors & arterials that operate with 85th percentile speeds of 40-45 mph, as they were designed to do for efficiency. I don’t find those fears to be credible in most cases.

    My wife is British and they use the Give Way protocol or roundabouts at a very high percentage of intersections. Note that modern roundabouts reduce vehicle speeds sharply which aids pedestrian crossings. In three successive visits of over 1,000 miles each, we kept track and found one Stop sign about every 800 miles. They were used ONLY where the sight lines did not permit a safe evaluation of conflicts as you approached the intersections. Yet Britain is a very crowded country, ~65 million people in the same area as Michigan with ~ 10.5 million. It is a walking & transit culture with a fatality rate well below ours.

    Car emissions tend to be greatest on cold start and on start up from complete stops.

    Walking is wonderful in densely settled urban areas where the distances are modest and transit systems are good for those that live inside the central areas. I lived and worked in Moscow for 2 years where that system worked very well. But that does not account for the high percentage of suburban commuters and visitors to US cities that live well outside the densely settled central areas. Most of them will drive because it is a far better deal for them.

    The biggest danger I experienced in Amsterdam were the Kamikazie bike riders that didn’t give way to pedestrians. 🙂

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • GRY

    Many cities have a complete life infrastructure within a small area. Grocer, baker, hardware store and clothing stores, offices, workplaces and factories all in walk-able or bike-able area.
    Most US big cities do not. That drives the needs for personal vehicles more than anything.

  • GRY

    Not sure about transit being less subsidized. Cars generate a lot of taxes (gas, license fees, sales tax, etc) and some (but not all) of that is spent on roads. Mass transit only has Fare Box Recovery, and that generally pays a single digit % of the overall cost to operate, and nothing toward road maintenance.

  • SayNo2Caging

    Faster & more flexible on routes getting you from jobs in the City to homes on the outskirts of town in gated communities and no outlet subdivisions that were purchased by people living there so they wouldn’t have to deal with the pollution, noise, and litter produced by traffic. As a bonus you get safe neighborhood streets you can cross where you wish without going a mile out of your way to a crosswalk for fear of being killed and then getting blamed for it. This is not a shot at the NMA. Simply another hypocrisy of the car culture I thought of after reading your post.

  • Cars generate some revenue, but the cost of roads is enormous. Of course, the cost of roads is tiny compared with the costs of parking (Donald Shoop, the High Cost of Free Parking) which is also tiny compared with the social costs of driving. Asthma alone probably costs more than the government earns in gas tax revenue.

    Driving is enormously subsidized.

  • Driving is subsidized far more than that. I’m sure your agency does not support billing for the actual costs of driving.

    And yes, subsidizing transit makes sense because it provides more benefit to society with less harm. Driving is a tragedy of the commons type problem, individually it makes sense, but in aggregate, everyone loses.

  • jcwconsult

    We just fundamentally and respectfully disagree on the issues, their costs, their fairness, etc. and are most unlikely to ever materially change our positions. You seem to see high level private car use as overall negative to society, I see it as overall positive for the overwhelming majority of users who gain so much from the freedom of travel.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • GRY

    One of the reasons cars are valuable to many is that it vastly expands their employment, and housing, opportunities. The ability to take jobs that are not on mass transit routes, or beyond an easy bike commute, means that 80% MORE jobs are possible and available. This economic reality seems lost on most.

  • TM

    Cars have killed more Americans that every war we’ve even been in combined. You have to be a sociopath to see them as a net good.


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