The name Car Free City

It actually took me a while to come around to the importance of strong slogans like “Car Free City”. Some of these arguments are arguments that I’ve had with myself over the last few years before making up my mind. But also, I have seen other people having them about various similar slogans lately.

You are going to take away cars from people who need them? How could you, all-powerful bike lobby!#

Often, on the Internet, I see people under the impression we are imminently going to achieve our goals, institute a bike dictatorship, and seize everyone’s car. In reality, it takes between one and forty years of fighting for one single safe bike route, depending on how you count it.

For decades, our society has been structured to make car ownership mandatory, and to exclude people from fully participating in society if they can’t get around by car. It’s understandable that people are alarmed at the possibility of suddenly finding themselves excluded from society, even if it’s very unlikely. But to actually build a “car free city”, subtantial changes to how we’ve built our society, including a significant re-prioritizing of public transit, walking and bike infrastructure, and maybe the development of new types of vehicles to fill the gaps. One day I’ll write up the blog post of how I see these changes potentially happening, but I don’t see any realistic way of dealing with car dependency without first making pretty big changes to society.

This is actually a pretty common false premise#

I realized when writng this that I recently made a similar argument: you don’t need to oppose free transit out of a fear that we’ll institute it tomorrow with no increase in funding, because I don’t see that happening. Right now, we underfund transit, and subsidize driving to an absurd degree. Free transit, full service, is a call to start taking transit as seriously as we do car infrastructure.

There’s also a tendency to assume that any change might be implemented in a bad way, and so we must adhere strictly to the status quo forever, rather than imagine anything could be done differently. Thus, we can’t even dream of a better world until we have a perfect and all-encompassing plan. However, the only way to come up with such a plan is to first imagine what the better world could look like, take seriously the idea of achieving it, and figuring out a concrete and good way of getting there. Tiny cautious changes have not gotten us far.

I think also this misconception is due to how people use social media. Posting about your ideal society, making fantasy subway maps, and so on, are important: it’s important to dream. But you have to follow through on those dreams. I think people, especially online, have confused the dreaming with the doing, and so they have made themselves needlessly afraid of othere people’s dreams. Of course, some people have some very bad dreams and they should be opposed at the dream stage. But if you say you support the dream but you just have concerns about a worst-case implementation, it’s best to instead support an implementation you do like.

The name alienates people and you should change it!#

Suggesting people should drive slightly slower in a school zone, or stop at crosswalks, alienates people. Suggesting making bus stops accessible to people with disabilities even if it means you can’t park blocking the bus stop alienates people. Making the Tenderloin safer for pedestrians alienates people. The fact is, anything other than covering every inch of the planet with cars alienates people. If you worry about alienating someone, you will never get anything done.

Orgs with more moderate attitudes#

Ok, should we have organizations with broader appeal, for people who support smaller goals? Yes! We have:

  • SF Bike Coalition
  • WalkSF
  • Various orgs around very specific causes, e.g. Slow Streets, etc
  • Probably like 50 other orgs

And I work with them when appropriate. Almost any actual concrete political change will involve a coalition, with groups with different goals.

I think there is this view that everyone should see themselves as the protagonist of activism, like you’re playing Sim City or whatever game the kids are playing these days, and you get to make the decisions and so you have to carefully consider all the viewpoints. You are actually the NPC who is raising the city unhappiness score (I don’t remember how Sim City works). You are free from the responsibility of rulership.

In California, cars are the biggest source of carbon emissions. If I want to ensure the planet remains a good place to live, my energies are best spent reducing car emissions (as well as the emissions related to mining the immense quantities of steel and other minerals needed to give everyone a personal two ton living room to careen around the city at high speeds). I can work with someone who just wants their kids to be able to walk to school safely. But also, I don’t have to abandon my goals because other people have other goals.

I also think it’s important to push for more ambitious goals. Part of it is to push the Overton window. Some people just have a need to be moderate, whatever “moderate” might be. If we don’t advocate for car free infrastructure, the “moderates” will be asking if making express bus lanes is a bit too extreme. If you don’t feel such a need, you should start with the absolute best case scenario you could imagine possible. You will have to compromise pretty much as soon as you try and change anything in real life, you’ll have to take less than you wanted, so don’t pre-emptively lose any fights in advance.

Why this name specifically#

It helps me connect with people with similar views to me, which is one of my main goals in posting on the Internet about this stuff. My other two goals are to help people who are already sympathetic imagine more fundamental changes than they thought possible, and share blurry pictures of coyotes with my friends. This helps with 2 out of 3 of those.

It’s true that it doesn’t help me convince people who think car dependency is good. It probably makes it harder for me to talk to them. But I find that all of my productive conversations along those lines have happened offline, so taking a harder stance in my display name saves us all a lot of time.

Also, carfree.city was available as a URL. IncrementallyReducingCarDependenciesInCitiesInAPoliticallyAchievableManner.city would be too much typing. There’s a time and a place for a nuanced essay, and a time and a place for a slogan that fits in a URL, a hashtag, or a hastily handwritten poster.

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