Cars & Car Owners Are Not Evil

The #Seattlesqueeze or #viadoom: two nicknames given to the transition period between the closure of the Alaska Way Viaduct and the new, infamous tunnel built underneath downtown for State Route 99 here in Seattle. It was supposed to be hell on earth, but it kinda wasn’t that big a deal, perhaps vindicating former Mayor Mike McGinn’s long-standing opposition to the tunnel.

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My Subbie: Ubi

Because these things are ubiquitous around here.

Full disclose: I just leased 2019 Subaru Crosstrek. So am I defending myself from the automobile asshole label? Maybe. But factually-speaking, cars and car owners are not evil—congestion, greenhouse gasses, particulate matter, and pedestrian/cyclist casualties are.

Policy needs to address those bads directly. Enough with the moralizing about transit, we need to get practical about it.

The reality is that cars are built into American society at every level, and our transition away from them will take quite a bit of nudging and encouragement that will likely take a generation to fix. Even then, a utopian vision of our current car-centric world suddenly stripped of cars doesn't make much sense.. Would you really be opposed to autonomous, safe, emissions-free, carbon-neutral cars freely flowing around town?

So what to do? We must reframe the conversation.

Bike lanes can get people out of cars.

Bike lanes can get people out of cars.

Medellín’s commuter gondolas.

Medellín’s commuter gondolas.

Smart road designs saves lives.

Smart road designs saves lives.

We need to change the green perspective from “cars are the worst so lets ban them entirely” to “how can we reduce the bad they impose on society?” We need to reduce the use of single occupancy vehicles, especially at peak times, curb greenhouse gas emissions, and eliminate road deaths and harmful particulate mater.

But instead of anti-car tirades, we need policy designed to nudge away the bad aspects of cars.

Here are some ideas, many of which I’ve collated from other sources:

  1. Congestion pricing: Congestion is bad, so let’s make it cost money to clog up streets. No it’s not a “Seattle Use Penalty,” it’s simply covering your car’s imposition on the road system when space is limited. Stockholm has had great success—though Seattle doesn’t have comparable public transportation.

  2. Carbon tax: This just has to happen. I strongly prefer we offset other excise taxes for a revenue neutral approach. While carbon is harmful, energy is opportunity. I have no idea why so many liberal environmentalists are so opposed to the idea of solving the climate crisis without burdening working people from paying more to get to work. If carbon costs money to emit, we will emit less.

  3. Electric buses and BRT are fantastic. The streetcars are not. They each seem to cost $180M or more to replace a bus route. Expensive crappy fake “rail” that sits in traffic is a gross misuse of public money.

  4. Toll the draw bridges too…the boats, dummy (which sadly isn’t a straightforward issue). I get that we have a maritime culture, but disrupting transit and car flow across the city should cost money. It might be illegal federally, but it’s something we should push for. Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray claim to be environmentalists after all—let’s hold them accountable.

  5. A good use of congestion pricing revenue would be to help fund our Vision Zero initiative. Streets need to be designed to get people to slow down, to shelter pedestrians, and protect cyclists.

  6. I still think a gondola, like they have in Medellín and Bogotá, that connected SLU/Downtown to the top of Capitol Hill could make this city many times more livable. It’s been proposed, but it might be a pipe dream for the time being. Our city is hilly and rainy, and a little gondola ride could make our town much, much more livable.

  7. Requiring parking for upzoning is insane. I don’t think cars are evil, but they should not be subsidized or made easy to use at the expense of cheaper rent or more walkable neighborhoods.

Five points of order:

  1. If you bike around the city, good for you (I certainly do), but you’re not a better person. Stop acting like you’re the second coming of Jesus, you’re not.

  2. Drivers, my God, watch out for cyclists and respect the bike lanes. Check your blindspot, loosen your sphincter, and don’t use bike lanes as loading zones, or drive in bus lanes like this guy does.

  3. Pedestrians…put your phone down when crossing intersections…or maybe in general. There is a whole world out there to experience as you walk about, but, bottom line, protect yourself and stay alert.

  4. I’m not commenting on light rail expansion in this post. Quite honestly, I want to study it more. My initial reaction is that it’s both expensive and being slowly built—but still probably a great idea in the long run. My hunch is that we could probably get more for less—we’ll see.

  5. Time to let the tunnel go. It exists. Maybe it really shouldn’t. But it does. Let’s move on.

Come to think of it, everyone needs to stop virtue signaling with their transportation choices. If you wrap your identity around how you get about, you’re blocking constructive policy making.

Furthermore, as we invest billions in rail, we have to keep in mind that the last mile issues with rail in areas not quite dense enough could be solved by cars that don’t pollute or congest. Cars could very well be a crucial part in solving the Puget Sound region’s congestion cluster, but we have to discourage their bad aspects: carbon, pollution, accidents, and congestion. Maybe changing these aspects will kill cars, maybe it won’t. I don’t care, so long as we end the harm they cause.

Now, the execution of such changes is a whole other ball of wax. America is bad on infrastructure, and that will slow progress on every front.

Nathan Chaffetz