Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
If the District of Columbia is in the midst of a war on cars, then last month was its Gettysburg. Each bit of news about the city’s streets was met with a verbal assault, as predictably as a red light follows a yellow. The 1.8 million parking tickets issued last year? “A war on the 400,000 drivers who come into the city every day,” AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II told WTOP. A proposal to allow developers near Metro stations to build as many or few parking spaces as they wanted? “A very dangerous proposal” that “threatens the future of Washington, D.C.,” Townsend’s colleague Lon Anderson told WAMU. The city’s push to promote biking, walking, and transit? “A strategy for decay and for sending future residents and businesses to the suburbs,” D.C. political gadfly Gary Imhoff opined in his biweekly email blast. An annoying traffic jam as Washingtonian national editor Harry Jaffe tried to get downtown for a meeting? “Cars losing war for D.C. streets” was the headline on his Washington Examiner column.
The “war on cars” rhetoric has been crescendoing for months, but now it’s reached an unsustainable volume. So before things go any further, let’s break the spell and say what needs to be said.
There is no war on cars.
There is no public official who wants to take away your old Camry. There is no proposal to force you to ride the Metro or bus. There is no gang of cyclists scheming to expand bike lanes until they consume the whole road. There is no plot, no conspiracy, no plan, no war.
So why are we hearing so much about it?
The idea of a war on cars is nothing new; it’s been around nearly as long as cars have. A 1902 Chicago Tribune story with the headline “Paris War on Automobiles” describes how a French politician, an “anti-semitic apostle in his grandiloquent but illogical exordium,” launched a civil war within his nationalist party by railing against the “tyranny of the automobile” and turning off his compatriots who were “fervent chauffeurs.” A year later, the Philadelphia Record told of another falling-out among former friends as the result of an “abandoned war on too speedy automobilists” led by one Constable Hoyle, “leader of the forces that intended to make it warm for scorchers,” who was accused of ditching his war on cars “only after receiving boxes of choice cigars from unknown persons.”
A year after that, The Evening News bemoaned the “war on automobiles” in New York waged by stone-throwing “bands of roughs that infest the upper and lower east sides of the city.” Then there was the 1906 Chicago Tribune article about the boycott launched against the paper by carmakers who believed the Tribune to be “making war on automobiles.” There was the 1908 Baltimore Sun piece about a Rockville Town Council resolution to authorize the bailiff to stop all cars violating its 6-mile-an-hour speed limit by any means necessary. (“Bailiff Hewitt is an excellent pistol shot and he says he will use his revolver on the tires of all machines whose drivers ignore his commands to stop. If he finds he is not a good enough shot to puncture the tires as the machines rush by, he says he will use a shotgun.”) And there was the 1909 New York Times article on Seney, Ga.’s ordinance prohibiting cars within city limits and allowing the marshal to arrest anyone entering the town in “such ‘engines of destruction.’”
Yes, in the early days of the automobile, when the technology itself was being questioned and few rules existed to govern traffic and parking, there really was a war on cars. Driving could get you arrested in some places, whacked with stones in others, and actually shot by gun-wielding police in at least one. This wasn’t a philosophical debate over parking or bike lanes. It was a real, knock-down, drag-out battle.
Once cars were well established, however, the car war largely died out. News clips show scattered uses of the phrase over the next century, mostly things like “the sheriff has declared war on automobiles found without licenses” (Milwaukee Journal, 1925) and “Sheriff Jack Dunkley declares war on automobiles without sufficient lights” (Lawrence Journal-World, 1932). No grandiloquent exordium, no guns, no blood, no real war.
Except that there was a car war. It was just in reverse: Cars were declaring war on cities across the country.
The process of suburbanization in America that’s generally attributed to the automobile actually began with public transit: first the streetcar, then elevated rail and subways, which allowed people of means to commute downtown from posher residential areas. But it was cars that sent former residents beyond the city limits en masse. Downtown property owners converted vacant buildings to income-generating parking lots during the Great Depression, then called for the construction of massive urban freeways to bring suburbanites into the increasingly congested city. These rarely alleviated traffic, but they did bring about the condemnation and destruction of entire residential neighborhoods to make way for the new limited-access roads.
The District was not spared. “The idea was to get the congressmen [and] the people from the suburbs into Washington as quickly as possible,” says longtime D.C. preservationist Tersh Boasberg, former chair of the Historic Preservation Review Board and a District resident since 1964. “And since Washington was sort of dictated to by these congressmen, they didn’t give a damn what happened in the city. Nobody they knew lived in the city.”
In fact, fewer people lived in the city, period. The 1960 Census was the first to show a declining D.C. population—a trend that wouldn’t be reversed until 2010. New York planner Harold Lewis didn’t foresee that decline when he predicted in a 1956 report that the District’s population would steadily rise to 932,000 by 1980, accompanied by an increased reliance on cars until they achieved “universal use as the principal means of transportation.” (The population actually fell to 638,333 by 1980, down from 802,178 in 1950.) But Lewis’ report—with its stated goal of replacing slum-dwellers with more “sensitive and scrupulous elements of the population”—was the basis for the city’s 1958 zoning code, which mandated parking minimums and other car-focused policies and remains, with modifications, law to this day.
This was the era when slums were condemned and razed in the name of urban renewal, when neighborhoods in Southwest were wiped out to build Brutalist federal office buildings and the quadrant’s eponymous freeway. The push to replace houses with highways amounted to a declaration of war on the District—and particularly the areas around downtown that were home mostly to minorities and the elderly—by “the whole interstate highway lobby, which were basically the oil companies and the aggregate companies and people that built the highways and that sort of thing, car companies, everybody like that,” says Boasberg. Fortunately, residents and preservationists managed to stave off much of the damage by successfully protesting proposed freeways like the Inner Loop encircling the White House in a half-mile radius, the 10-lane North Central Freeway running from Union Station through Brookland to Silver Spring, and the Three Sisters Bridge spanning the Potomac near Georgetown, saving numerous residential areas and parks from destruction.
In the 1980s, with the most aggressive freeway plans shelved and Metro operating with additional construction well underway, the city made modest efforts to restore some high-speed roads to neighborhood-friendly uses. No sheriffs threatened to shoot out anyone’s wheels, but reactions occasionally did get violent. Tom Downs, who led the District Department of Transportation from 1981 to 1983 and now chairs the Metro board, recalls a particularly extreme response to his efforts to remove reversible lanes, which allowed for speedier commutes, from Reno Road NW.
“In the middle of the Reno Road reconfiguration down to a neighborhood, slower facility, somebody came into my driveway and stabbed all four of the tires on my car, and then a week later dropped a dud Molotov cocktail on my driveway,” Downs says. “Gasoline and a rag and all that.”
But even then, Downs says, nobody accused him of declaring war on cars.
So what are the fronts of today’s imaginary war?
One is the increase in parking and traffic fines initiated under the administration of former Mayor Adrian Fenty, who more than doubled the fines for some speeders caught on camera. (It came back to bite him when a camera caught his Smart Car driving over the speed limit.) The speed camera program has continued to expand under Mayor Vince Gray, with revenue more than doubling from 2011 to 2012. That’s led critics to accuse the government of extortion and setting transportation policy on the basis of revenue rather than safety.
Another: the profusion of bike lanes. AAA and others have blasted the city for promoting bikes at the expense of cars, even though most bike lanes have little to no impact on driving. The new L Street bike track has drawn heat for removing a lane that was previously used for driving during rush hour and parking at other times, leaving a measly three to four lanes for cars. According to rough figures from DDOT, there are about 85 lane-miles of bike lanes in the city, versus about 4,300 for driving and 985 for parking. Even these figures—the ones that show there are more than 10 times as many miles devoted to stationary parked cars as to bikes—understate how much of the city’s streets are dedicated to cars, since car lanes are much wider than bike lanes; all told, more than 100 times as much road space is dedicated to cars as to bikes. Yet some drivers continue to feel marginalized by the slight reallocation of road resources.
Even more contentious is a proposed rewrite of the zoning code, the first in 55 years. Among other changes, the update would remove parking minimums for new buildings within half a mile of a Metro stop or a quarter of a mile of a high-capacity bus route, allowing developers to build as many or as few off-street parking spaces as they think the market will support. It’s a relatively minor change, but that hasn’t precluded howls and war cries from AAA and residents who fear that cars will spill out onto the streets and make it harder for them to park in front of their houses—or, in more extreme iterations, that the city is trying to make life impossible for car owners and convert everyone to bikers, transit riders, and car-sharing users.
“I don’t think the ‘war on cars’ implies that there are forces trying to eliminate the automobile,” says D.C. political consultant Chuck Thies, author of the 2011 Huffington Post column “The War on Automobiles.” “I believe there are people who would like to see life made as difficult as possible within the framework of the law and within the framework of reality for motorists and for automobile owners. Their objective is to make it difficult to own an automobile, whether that is in a manner that is inconvenient or a manner that is costly, and that will in turn reduce the number of automobiles on the road.”
The loudest criticism tends to come from a group of about half a dozen Upper Northwest residents, who not only raise a stink on neighborhood email lists and at community meetings and D.C. Council hearings, but also trekked resolutely to meetings on the zoning update in nearly every ward to make their voices heard. (All of them declined to be interviewed for this story.) Sometimes their objections are well thought out; other times, they’re wildly hyperbolic. One opponent riled her neighbors up on an email list by alleging that the goal of the parking minimum change was “to extract people (meaning me and thee) from cars and get them to walk vigorously to a Metro stop.” One claimed at a Council hearing that the pint-sized Car2Go Smart Cars were making it impossible to find parking; another said at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission meeting that a single Zipcar on Wisconsin Avenue would thoroughly disrupt traffic. People occasionally get carried away by their emotions on the parking issue: When the Tenleytown ANC considered supporting a variance that would allow a building on Wisconsin Avenue NW to go up without parking, one resident accused the commissioners of not having a brain, and another was moved to shriek, “The emperor has no clothes!”
Perhaps the most dogged general in the war on cars is AAA’s John Townsend, a 62-year-old grandfather from Alabama with slicked-back white hair and a patient and genial demeanor—until you bring up David Alpert, who runs the “smart growth” website Greater Greater Washington, an unabashed proponent of policies that would make the city’s streets more multimodal. Then the venom starts to fly.
“He is a nerd,” Townsend says. “I think that he’s developmentally retarded.”
Townsend believes that Alpert dishes out criticism from the protected space of his blog that he wouldn’t dare speak in person. “It’s almost like the Klan hiding behind the white masks,” Townsend says.
AAA doesn’t respond to Alpert, Townsend says, because he’s “not worthy” and it would be “like shooting a gnat with a bazooka,” but Townsend himself is not above lashing out at Alpert. “I’ve told him to his face, ‘You’re a little ninny,’ and he ran out the room like a schoolboy,” Townsend says.
Alpert contends that’s not exactly what happened; according to his version, the two of them were at a speed camera task force meeting last year when Townsend left to talk to a TV reporter on camera, leaving Alpert frustrated that Townsend wasn’t participating in the conversation. “I said to him after, I was disappointed that that happened, and he got this enraged look on his face like he was about to hit me, and he said, ‘You know what, you’re a ninny,’” Alpert recalls. “And I didn’t want to either a) get in a fight, or b) get in a shouting match with him. So I just walked away to give him a chance to cool off.”
Alpert questions why Townsend volunteers himself as the bully in the schoolyard metaphor, but Alpert’s been accused of some transportation-related bullying himself. Last month, when news broke that the Examiner would be shutting down its daily paper, Alpert sent out a series of tweets—the most extreme of which he later apologized for and deleted—accusing the Examiner of stirring up car-war hate and calling it “a bile-spewing, hateful rag that waged war against us.”
Alpert and other critics of the war rhetoric are frequently frustrated when reporters turn to AAA for input on transportation stories simply because they’re sure to get a zingy quote. It’s a formula, Alpert says, that distracts from the issues at hand.
In an effort to take the conversation back to the issues, I hopped in Townsend’s white Ford Five Hundred for a spin around town and a tour of where, exactly, the city has been declaring war.
For a man whose job is all about cars, and who drives downtown from Mitchellville, Md., every day, Townsend is a surprisingly bad driver. He runs a red light in front of Union Station—he claims he just missed the yellow, but it really wasn’t close—and nearly gets in an accident. He gets turned around on Capitol Hill and drives in a big circle while trying to find I-295. And he seems a little paranoid of the speed cameras he regularly assails, sometimes driving more than 10 miles an hour under the speed limit and annoying nearby drivers.
Townsend’s beef with the cameras is actually quite minimal. His gripe is with the city’s messaging; he wants greater transparency on what, exactly, you can get ticketed for—on DDOT’s website, say, or on signs.
So why the “war on cars” language? At first, Townsend says he doesn’t use the phrase, and that he recently told a television reporter who did, “I don’t like that term. I think it’s a misnomer. I think it just inflames the rhetoric.”
But when I present Townsend with several instances in which he invoked a “war on cars,” he says he was simply responding to a reporter’s use of the same term, and that he now wishes he hadn’t used it.
“I regret the rhetoric sometimes,” he says. “Because I think that when you use that type of language, it shuts down communication with people who disagree.”
But he stands by the sentiment. “We represent motorists,” he says, “and I have to represent my constituents.”
The question of representation irks Alpert, who argues that Townsend really doesn’t represent AAA’s 80,000 D.C. members. “They don’t vote for him,” Alpert says. “They don’t join AAA because they agree with the lobbying agenda. He’s employed by a towing, insurance, and travel discount company.”
Representative or not, AAA is not alone in its regular invocation of the war on cars. But if no such war exists, why are we bombarded with references to it? There are lots of theories, but any explanation has to begin with a fundamental truth: The war on cars isn’t really about cars. It’s about a rapidly growing and changing city.
The District’s 50-year population hemorrhage has given way to dizzying growth. The city is now gaining more than 1,000 new residents per month, and along with them a seemingly never-ending stream of new restaurants and bars and high-rise condo buildings. The boom has been accompanied by a drop in crime and an increase in income-tax revenue—a boon for a city that’s constrained by height limits and the inability to tax commuters—but it can still feel threatening to, say, Upper Northwest residents accustomed to the car-dominated, suburban feel of the their part of the District.
“I think that in general, change is a scary thing for anyone at any age,” says Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning. “And we probably have seen more change in transportation than in any other area of city life. And for some people that’s somewhat alarming.”
In other words, the changes on our roads are simply the most visible manifestation of a broader metamorphosis in the District. If you live in a house in Cleveland Park and commute to Capitol Hill, you might not notice the skyrocketing rents for Columbia Heights apartments or the hours-long wait for a table on H Street NE. But you will notice the biker who cuts you off on Connecticut Avenue, or the pyloned-off cycletrack that changes traffic patterns on L Street, or the white flash that catches you running a red.
The city isn’t so much masterminding the change in transportation uses as responding to a generational shift in who lives in the densest parts of the city and how they get around. The people flocking to the District recently—more than 30,000 just since 2010—are largely 20-somethings who don’t see car ownership as a top priority. Some are children of the recession who simply don’t have the money for a car, preferring Metro and bus. Others started driving in the Zipcar era and see no need to own a car when they can rent one on demand. Close to 40 percent of D.C. residents don’t own a car, compared to 8 percent nationally, according to the Office of Planning.
Logically, it’s great news for drivers if more people are turning to Metro and Zipcar and bikes—that ought to mean more parking spaces and less traffic. But some people are inclined to see our transportation mix as a different kind of zero-sum game, one in which a gain for bikers is a loss for drivers.
Except that there’s no way for the District to build enough car infrastructure if the current population boom continues and every new resident brings a personal vehicle. “If everyone comes of driving age with a car, then it’s game over,” Tregoning says. The people screaming about the war on cars think the D.C. government is trying to make driving inconvenient, but the government has nothing on their fellow drivers on that front.
Notably, Townsend also says he’d like to see more people ride Metro. But he argues that life can’t be made harder for drivers—even if his threshold for hardship is so low as to include a new bike lane here and there—as long as Metro is underfunded and unreliable. “You have to stand and four or five trains pass at rush hour before you can get on one,” Townsend says of the Metro experience. “Or if you want to get on one, you have to stand, and a guy can pull his johnson out and set it on a woman’s booty, as this molester was doing. I mean, it’s just outrageous, some of the stuff that goes on on Metro.”
Townsend agrees that a generational change is responsible for the evolving approach to transportation, but he sees it as the product of “arrogance” inherent to young people who think they can reinvent the world. “It’s not changing the world; it’s reinventing it because you’re experiencing it for the first time,” he says, waxing a bit poetic. “Nothing wrong with that. So: ‘We’re having the best sex ever. We’re drinking the best wine ever. We’re watching the best movies ever.’ Because none of this mattered that came before. None of it matters, until you wake up one day and discover there’s a gray speck in your beard and you’ve lost a step.”
Critics of the city’s transportation policy regularly accuse the government of “picking winners and losers,” of favoring younger, bike- and transit-using residents over longtime, car-reliant ones. But the measures espoused by Fenty and Gray and Tregoning can perhaps better be viewed as an attempt to strike a different kind of balance when it comes to who’s served by the District’s transportation infrastructure.
The policies of the 1950s were focused largely on suburban commuters—government employees who wanted easy access to their place of work. The assumption then was that everyone would flock to the newly developed suburbs, heading to the city only for jobs. (Planners didn’t spend much time thinking about the needs of the mostly black city residents who couldn’t move to the suburbs.) But now, 30 years into home rule, District leaders are trying to make policy for Washingtonians themselves. Fewer than 40 percent of workers living in D.C. drive to their jobs. A few additional bike lanes, higher fines for speeding, and the elimination of some parking minimums may bother some drivers—but it’s hard to argue that they’re anything more than a slight adjustment to the overall balance of power on the city’s roads to better reflect the realities of the present-day District.
Fortunately, in time, the war rhetoric that’s dominated all the recent debates will likely seem overblown and eventually be forgotten. Just ask Travis Parker, who led the zoning rewrite charge for the Office of Planning before leaving to become planning director for the Denver suburb of Lakewood, Colo., in 2011. He recently passed a “much much more progressive” zoning ordinance in car-dependent Lakewood that included limits on how much parking could be put in new buildings, and yet there’s been little in the way of complaint, and certainly no accusations of war. “Once it’s passed, nobody notices,” he says. “That’s the thing about zoning changes. All of this could’ve passed five years ago, and it’d be off people’s radars.”
After all, the real war on cars, that one with the flying rocks and shooting bailiffs a century ago, didn’t end with a bang; it fizzled out when people got used to cars. They figured out how to drive them, how to dodge them, how to regulate them. The same will happen with bikes, and with bike lanes and bus lanes, and with transit-oriented development.
The belligerent language already seems to have calmed down a bit. A few weeks after my drive with Townsend, WTOP ran another story full of quotes from him, this time on the 700,000 speed camera tickets D.C.’s on pace to issue this year. He was critical of the policy, of course, but stuck entirely to numbers and analysis. No talk of attacks or assaults or war.
I ask Townsend what accounts for his change in tone. He credits his general desire to move away from antagonistic language—and our conversation in his car.
“I think my conversation with you was very sobering and eye-opening, so I give you credit for that,” he says.
If only we could pile all the planners, the AAA spokesmen, the Greater Greater Washington urbanists, and the furious neighbors of Upper Northwest into a car together, or onto a Metro train or a giant multiseater bike, and ride around for a few hours, the so-called war on cars might end tomorrow.
Photographs by Darrow Montgomery