Op-Ed: What To Do With the ‘Devil Wagon’

A modest proposal for getting rid of cars.

Kevin Dann, happy warrior against cars, on a favorite conveyance.
Kevin Dann, happy warrior against cars, on a favorite conveyance.

Bike tour guide Kevin Dann was so angered by last week’s road rage incident on the West Side Highway that he sent us this piece…

KILL. CARS. NOW.

No, not “ban,” or “regulate,” or “decelerate.” Not “Vision Zero.” Not #BanCars.

KILL. CARS. NOW.

Once upon a time, cars killed the bicycle. Now it’s time for bicycles to kill the car.

“Auto a Necessity; Bicycle Was Not,” declared a May, 1909 New York Times editorial penned by Charles Clifton – a former bicycle salesman turned auto flack. The bicycle’s “doom” was “plainly written” at the advent of the automobile, Clifton smugly pronounced. The automobile now had become “part of our national life,” he intoned, because “it far surpasses anything of its kind we have ever known.”

Clifton’s memory failed him. Before the auto industry’s decade-long propaganda effort, the only people who liked cars were Gilded Age robber barons and their speed-happy chauffeurs, who blithely killed men, women and children right out of the deadly starting gate.

In 1904, an American farm magazine called automobile drivers “a reckless, bloodthirsty, villainous lot of . . . crazy trespassers.” In 1909, the Farmers’ Anti-Automobile League urged its members to “give up Sunday to chasing automobiles, shooting and shouting at them.”

The car-dazzled Clifton forgot that pioneer motorists – almost all of them wealthy – were pelted with stones. Farmers shot at motor cars throughout the midwest; in rural New York drivers were pulled from vehicles and whipped. Some irate citizens took to booby-trapping roads with rakes, glass, and tacks. Others strung ropes or barbed wire to teach “scorchers” a painful lesson.

But by 1916 the ailing bicycle industry (which also at that time included the “motor-bicycle” industry, which had not yet transferred its allegiance to automobiles) mounted a massive “1 Million for 1916!” advertising campaign, touting the fact that auto sales had surged from 800,000 in 1915 to more than 1.3 million in 1916.

In fact, 1916 was the signal year in turning the American mind toward automobiles

Kevin Dann, hawking his book.
Kevin Dann, hawking his book.

and away from non-motorized transport. The idea that non-motorized use of streets was “improper” went mainstream – at least among automobile-mad city planners and civic leaders. An American journalist declared: “With an automobile properly driven there is no menace to life, except that precipitated by those on foot who make improper use of streets and thoroughfares.”

Really?!

As Streetsblog has so often noted, no pedestrian (or bicycle!) has ever killed a motorist. A conservative estimate of the number of Americans killed by automobiles since 1910 – when New York City publisher Frank Doubleday’s chauffeur struck and killed a 23-year-old in Queens – is 3.6 million. Today, automobiles kill 1.25-million people worldwide annually; homicides and wars kill fewer than half a million.

The World Health Organization’s latest statistics identify the automobile as a relentless, global killer:

  • The 1.25 million people killed make an average of 3,287 deaths a day;
  • Another 20 to 50 million are injured or disabled;
  • Road crashes cost $518 billion globally, costing individual countries from 1 to 2 percent of their annual GDP;
  • Unless action is taken, traffic injuries are predicted to become the fifth leading cause of death by 2030;
  • In America, along with the 37,000 people killed by cars each year, 2.35 million are injured or disabled;
  • More than 1,600 children under 15 are killed each year.

From 1890 to 1900, the epicenter of the American bicycle industry was the half-dozen blocks to east, west, and south of City Hall. Across Park Row – in those days called “Bicycle Row” – the Potter Building was arguably the most important site in fomenting the transportation revolution that preceded the coming of the “devil wagon” — American vernacular for the automobile before 1916.

The Potter Building, a gorgeous brick-and-terra-cotta confection that still stands, housed not just tire, tube, and bicycle manufacturers and retailers.  It also held the nation’s leading cycling magazines, including Good Roads – the publication that perennially lobbied for the infrastructure we now mistakenly take for granted as meant for automobiles.

The automobile industry not only killed this lower Manhattan bicycle hub, it literally stole its design and manufacturing creativity, its administrative and political power and, ultimately, its roads. After 1916, the vast infrastructure built for pedestrians, then horses, then bicycles, became wholly monopolized by cars. The rest, as they say, is history.

That is, until now.

I am not calling for violence, but for the time-tested tactic of “the fool” – humor. Critical Mass, Times Up!, and other city civic organizations brilliantly pioneered playful mockery as a powerful weapon against the sleepy status quo. We must renew their passionate protest and engage in mirthful public shaming of the “devil wagon.”

iGeners love to think of themselves as “disruptors.” To disrupt our cities and our wounded and weakened civitas, they must KILL. CARS. NOW.

Let’s help them do it, with all the monkey-wrenching goodwill we can muster.

Kevin Dann is a bike-tour operator and author of “Silver-Wheeled City: New York by Bicycle and Camera” (Fortunatus, 2019).

  • jcwconsult

    Henry Ford was not trying an “experiment”. He was using obvious capitalist ideas to make money and provide a product people could afford to buy. Steve Jobs started a similar trend with early Apple computers. Texas Instruments showed that hand held calculators were practical and could be affordable. The Ford Tri-Motor and the DC-3 were early leaders in making flying a commercially viable means of transport.

    Things that can work in small countries like the Netherlands are rather different than things that can work in huge countries like the USA.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • TM

    Good god you’re an idiot.

    So much capitalism that built all the roads that are necessary for cars to be of any use.

    More BS and lies that America has to have cars because America is so different from anywhere else on earth. Just shut up and go back to sucking that sweet sweet tailpipe buddy.

  • TM

    Fuel taxes have never once covered the full cost of state and federal highways, and pay zero on local streets and roads, which are necessary for cars to be any use at all.
    Yeah, you did not contradict any of that.
    And you can claim to be a volunteer all you want, it doesn’t matter. Spreading misinformation about cars is your job, doesn’t matter if you do it for the money or just because you’re an ignorant old fool who can’t give up on the past. Just die already and let people that give a damn about the future of the world do some good work.

  • jcwconsult

    TM has descended into insults and is no longer worth replies.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • christie

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  • TM

    Every thing you say is an insult to people who give a damn about the health and safety of other people.
    It’s better that you stop talking.

  • Joe R.

    Add at least another zero to the numbers who die from air pollution. By most estimates it’s at least ten times the number directly killed by automobiles. Worldwide we’re likely talking about 8 figures annually. Just to put this into perspective in WWI about 30 million died over 4 years. In WWII about 60 million died over 6 years. The annual worldwide figures for motor vehicle deaths, both direct and caused by pollution, are comparable. How anyone can just accept this as the cost of doing business is beyond me, especially when we have alternative modes of transport which don’t exact these staggering costs. If we go around solely by walking, biking, and electric rail zero would die from air pollution, and the number of direct deaths would likely be four figures or less, worldwide.

  • Joe R.

    Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. History is rife with examples of trying to make things “better” for people which backfired. Has all this freedom of travel really made anyone’s life better? Henry Ford originally envisioned the automobile allowing a family to go on picnics in the country occasionally. He never thought that “freedom of travel” would eventually result in many people traveling comparable distances every single day just to get to work, with the resultant toll in pollution and deaths.

    In the same way cheap airline tickets gave people “freedom to travel”, but again is this really such a good thing? Now everyone things they’re Magellan trying to see the world. In reality the majority of people who waste resources flying end up doing the same thing in other places as they would do just staying put, namely buying crap they don’t need just to show they traveled somewhere. What a waste.

    I’ve never been more than 400 miles from where I was born and I’m not seeing that I’m any the worse for it.

  • jcwconsult

    Unfortunately rail (all types), walking, and biking serve the transport needs of only a small fraction of the trips.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe R.

    Only because we designed the built environment that way since the 1950s. A century ago those modes served nearly all trips. No reason we can’t return to that type of development.

  • jcwconsult

    Your view fits some people with their needs and desires.

    I’ve been in 49 countries, my wife in 59. I worked in Moscow for two years & Prague for a half year. She lived in Uganda for 10 years with her first husband. We find travel and experiencing other cultures to be a vital part of our lives. Has all this freedom of travel really made anyone’s life better? – for us and for a great many others the answer is yes.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    If we are willing to force people to drastically limit their range of knowledge and experiences – we could. Most will say no.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe R.

    There are practical fixes. Devote less space to roads and parking and you have more space in cities to build housing. You can also rezone areas, especially areas already near existing subways and rail transit, to allow higher density. We long ago solved the problem of space in cities by building up instead of out. We artificially restricted the housing supply via zoning laws which prevented us from increasing the density as the population increased.

    We can also enact laws prohibiting real estate speculation. Do you know a lot of luxury apartments in NYC were bought by foreign investors and are sitting there completely empty, often almost entire buildings in certain cases? And you have private homes, which were originally built to allow the average person to have their own place, being hoarded by speculators and rented. The rent covers their expenses, while they hold the house, hoping to make money on the appreciation. Restricting the supply of homes artificially drives up the price. Renting single family homes should be illegal. The owner should have to live in one of the units of 2 or 3 family homes.

    There are lots of things to do to lower urban housing but the powerful real estate interests fight them tooth and nail because they’re profiting handsomely from the current situation.

  • Joe R.

    I’ve found very few people benefit by traveling and seeing other places. Eventually things like telepresence should make physically traveling to see the world unnecessary. The problem is travel in its current form enacts a huge toll on the planet which is no longer sustainable. That’s especially true of any mode which burns fossil fuels, or uses them indirectly. Even if we electrified all cars, the roads they drive on still require huge amounts of fossil fuels to build and maintain. That’s why I favor rail. It’s a lot more ecofriendly, and can give people just as much mobility as car travel when combined with bikes and walking.

  • Joe R.

    If we did it right, we wouldn’t limit people as much as you think. Your problem is you can’t see beyond what currently exists. A lot of the people posting here can.

  • jcwconsult

    Fix the housing supply and costs and more people will come. But remember that many families want single family homes with yards for their kids. It is MOST unlikely to ever make them illegal. They find high rise apartments and condos to be unacceptable living styles.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    I respectfully disagree about the benefits.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    People that do not want the broader horizons of knowledge and experiences that freedom of travel can provide do not have to explore them. We’ve had experiences that only travel can provide – and particularly independent travel “off the beaten path” to some of the most beautiful and interesting parts of the world. We’ve also used tours to explore places like the Serengeti Plain and the Sahara Desert – both including stays in tented camps. We agree our preferences are not everyone’s, but they are very important to my wife and me. In July, Portugal will become her 60th country to experience and my 50th.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe R.

    Your preferences are very niche relative to the population, who typically only hits tourist traps when they travel. I can see some value in going to places off the beaten path, but it’s not something I’ve ever had the time or money for (or the companionship, for that matter). Most people have a job which they go to 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year. They lack the time and money to make trips like you’ve made, except perhaps in retirement. Consider yourself lucky.

  • Joe R.

    We have a single family home with a yard, but it’s on 1/10th of an acre. Homes on plots that size or smaller are compatible with urban living but still offer the owners a nice place to relax outside. Most people don’t need a house with a plot of large the size of a small park. Even in cities, we do have parks if you live in an apartment. Back when I lived in a housing project there was plenty of space to play outside:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@40.7545296,-73.9095615,3a,75y,209.45h,93.37t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1spd3GkaqV6Eih8dVVRQ9LmA!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

    I didn’t feel like I was missing anything compared to relatives who had a house in the suburbs. Also, I was getting around independently on subways from the time I was 13. Most kids in suburbs depend upon their parents to drive them everywhere at least until they’re 18, often later if their parents can’t afford to buy them a car. They also need to get a driver’s license to get around independently. I didn’t. In fact, I never got a driver’s license. Just never saw the need for it.

  • Lincoln

    “Today, automobiles kill 1.25-million people worldwide annually; homicides and wars kill fewer than half a million.”

    This is clearly false.
    A subset of a type of incident cannot occur over 2.5 times as much the size of the total.

  • LinuxGuy

    Maybe someone should ban bicycles and pedestrians who violate the law with impunity? I wonder how bikes will be delivered without vehicles?

  • jcwconsult

    We feel we helped make a lot of our luck by seeking out jobs that paid decently (never richly) and worked hard to keep the employers satisfied with our work. And we took advantage of savings plans so that now we can enjoy life with more free time than when we were working full time.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • jcwconsult

    My house is in town and not on a huge lot. It is a tragedy of serious proportions that kids are driven almost everywhere after playing much of the day on their electronic gadgets – and then we “wonder” why so many kids are obese. I went to a safety forum and learned in our area only about 15% of kids walk or bike to school – and I do NOT live in a dangerous area.

    I walked to my elementary school including crossing a busy four lane collector street. The safety instructions were simple: look left, look right, look left again, and NEVER try to occupy the same space as a moving car. I biked most of the time to my middle & high schools, and to my recreation activities before age 16. I never lived in a major metropolis with really good transit and close locations for things, so getting my drivers license at 16 provided mobility without needing my parents help. My father was a skilled driver and taught me to be one.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe R.

    Keep in mind one thing. When you were young traffic levels in suburbia were much lower than now, cars weren’t as fast as now, and the level of driving competence was much higher. You came from an era when people actually took pride in their driving skills. Now you have people who say they’re a great driver, and then with a straight face they say they only got in 5 accidents in the last 3 years. All those things made walking and biking a lot safer back then. I’ve even noticed the difference in NYC. When we moved here 41 years ago traffic levels were low enough that it was pleasant to bike even on weekday afternoons, as well as all day Sunday. Now traffic levels are so high before about 9PM as to make biking unpleasant and dangerous. Hence, I ride late nights exclusively now. Driving skills are also way down, with drivers using overpowered cars to do all sorts of stupid, dangerous maneuvers just to gain one or two places at the next red light. I might also add it seems cycling skills are going down as this mode becomes more mainstream. I take pride in my cycling skills. In 41 years I never collided with a car or a pedestrian. I had one collision with a bike, at low speed, but we were both on the sidewalk. Last October I had a minor fall after hitting a pothole, but that was the first fall I had in over 22 years. I see way too many cyclists nowadays not paying attention, or who have poor bike handling skills. I didn’t see as much of this 30 or 40 years ago.

    I can see why new cyclists want protected bike lanes in this environment. They weren’t needed 30 or 40 years ago. The higher traffic levels have also resulted in a proliferation of traffic signals which, if obeyed strictly, make cycling or walking a slow, stop and go chore. That’s why cyclists and pedestrians go through red lights when they can. The best answer is to get rid of traffic lights, but we can’t do that until we reduce motor traffic levels.

    The bottom line is the streets have a limited amount of space, and at least in cities, we’re going to have to devote less space to cars and more to other modes if we ever want to get more kids walking and biking, like they did when you were young. That will also solve the obesity epidemic you mentioned.

  • Joe R.

    People will always break laws which make no sense. If you’re on a bike or walking, you’re not going to sit there at an empty intersection waiting for the light to go green when you can clearly see that it’s safe to proceed. If the laws were to account for this rational behavior, then you wouldn’t have all these violations. Basically, a stop sign or a red light should be a yield for a person walking or biking. If they fail to yield to traffic with the right-of-way, then they can get a ticket, but not if they go through when nothing is coming.

  • LinuxGuy

    By your logic a car should do whatever then also, right?

  • Joe R.

    No because you’re in a padded metal box with poor visibility, and even poorer ability to hear sounds. In many cases you can’t ascertain if it’s safe to proceed without your vehicle sticking ten feet into the intersection. A cyclist or pedestrian can make that determination before entering the intersection.

  • jcwconsult

    @ Joe R
    I understand the differences and want to work for solutions that can accommodate all road users with safety and efficiency. There are many good contributions to the right solutions, NONE of them include enforcement for profits versus safe drivers.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • TM

    Sure, let the car do whatever it wants. My guess it will sit motionless forever because it has no wants or desires. This is the ideal thing for a car to do.

  • TM

    Have fun driving to Portugal.

  • TM

    As if visiting other countries is in any way similar to driving to work and the grocery store every day.
    Filling our cities with highways is not “travel” you incredible moron.

  • TM

    What the example of the Netherlands shows isn’t that the Americans can’t be like the Dutch, but that the Dutch realized they can’t be like America if they want to have livable cities. They started down the same car dominated path, but realized it was a mistake, and have spent the last few decades correcting it. We must do the same, or continue killing ourselves with cars.

  • jcwconsult

    Europe deals with this issue by using more roundabouts which tend to reduce accidents by about 50% and serious/fatal accidents by around 80%. Many countries in Europe use VERY few STOP signs – replacing them with YIELD or GIVE WAY protocols which means you do not have to stop if the way is clear.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe R.

    And that’s exactly what I’ve been advocating. Roundabouts are one of the solutions which make things better for everyone. Also, the Netherlands often plans bike routes in such a way as to just avoid major intersections. Sometimes they’ll use overpasses or underpasses. They systematically remove the need to stop from bike routes in order to make cycling safer, more pleasant, and more efficient.

  • alvera

    Only one yr ago I decided to discontinue my previous job and I am very joyful at this time…. I began doing work through the internet, for a corporation I found online, for several hour or so regularly, and I make definitely more than I actually did on my office workplace job… My pay-check for last 30 days was 9,000 US dollars… The most important thing on this is the additional free time I acquired for my little kids…and that the single requirement for this job is simple typing and also access to broadband… I am capable to spend quality time with my family members or buddies and look after my kids and also going on vacation with them really frequently. Don’t avoid this chance and be sure to take action quick. Check it out, what it is about… xnarecipe.and-you.de

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Fun With Numbers (Or: The PlaNYC Index)

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  Number of times each of the following words or phrases appears in the PlaNYC chapter on transportation: congestion: 105 bus(es): 157 bike/bikes/biker/bicycle/bicycles/bicycling/cycling: 53 bike lane: 3 pedestrian: 9 sidewalk: 16 crosswalk: 2 safety: 7 pedestrian safety: 1 drive/driver(s)/driving: 58 car(s)/auto(s)/automobile: 27 truck(s)/truckers: 24 enforce/enforcing/enforcement: 15 speeding: 3 struck/injured/killed/fatalities: 0 Photo: faz../Flickr

The Weekly Carnage

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