War graffitiPhoto: Craig WebbCross-posted from Sightline’s Daily Score blog.

Back in October, I started noticing the accusation that Seattle is waging a “war on cars” was popping up an awful lot in the local press, and in suspicious ways.

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On its face, the charge that Seattle is waging a war on cars is pretty silly. After all, that the bulk of the city’s political leaders support two car-centric megaprojects — the 520 bridge and the Alaskan Way tunnel — that will cost in the range of $7 billion, depending on how you do the counting. And the evidence marshaled in support of the “war on cars” idea was pretty thin gruel — adding a few bike lanes here and there, and raising on-street parking rates in the downtown core. 

So I did some poking around to find out where the “war on cars” language came from. And there is something fishy — or at least fishy-smelling — about it. You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a local example of a manufactured right-wing talking point.

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Here’s the history as I was able to trace it.

The phrase “war on cars” has been around for a while. See this 1998 Slate dialogue for example, or this Wall Street Journal editorial from 2005. During the aughts, the phrase was trotted out periodically in objection to congestion pricing, particularly in London. (See, for example, this 2002 piece in The Economist, this 2004 article in the London Evening Standard, or this Chicago Tribune piece circa 2007.)

But a review of Google’s news archives shows that, until 2009, the phrase was used infrequently. And even today, the phrase is seldom used outside of just two locations: Toronto and Seattle. 

In the spring of 2009, a few months after officials in Toronto rolled out “The Big Move” — a 25-year, multibillion dollar transportation plan that aimed at reducing per capita driving, reducing congestion, and increasing transit use — the meme rocketed into prominence. On May 17, 2009, the Toronto Sun, a populist conservative tabloid-style paper, fired what appears to have been the opening salvo, with a lengthy article called “Toronto’s War On Cars.” Five days later, the staid Toronto Star, Canada’s highest-circulation daily newspaper, ran an editorial by Denzil Minnan-Wong, a city councilor with a decidedly pro-car perspective. He wrote: “The city’s undeclared but very active war on cars is really a war on people … “

The phrase ricocheted around the Toronto media through most of the rest of the year, with conservative media outlets leading the charge and local officials denying that any such war even existed. On May 25, the phrase appeared in the mainstream press again, this time in the first sentence of an editorial at the Sun written by a bicycle advocate playing defense. Also playing defense was then-Mayor David Miller, whose performance at a press conference earned him the May 28 headline “No ‘War On The Car,’ Toronto’s Mayor Insists” in the right-of-center National Post. Just a few days later, on June 4, Toronto Star editorial writer Bob Hepburn weighed in with a heated column under the banner “Time To Stop the Nutty War On Cars.” And in September of 2009, on the occasion of a proposal to reduce speed limits in the city, the Sun followed up with an article called “War On Cars Continues.”

It was about this time that the “war on cars” meme began to percolate in earnest in Seattle (though it had been used used occasionally before). In June 2009, Seattle’s pro-road activist Elizabeth Campbell was quoted in the online Seattle PostGlobe saying, “I think there’s a war on cars and I don’t support it,” in reference to a mayoral candidate forum. Later that summer, in a humorous city council candidate forum, the candidates were asked whether they supported “the war on cars.” (It seems that all of them answered “yes.”)

By the autumn of 2009, however, things had quieted down, with no major mentions in either Toronto or Seattle. The sole exception to the calm was a January 2010 anti-Obama hit piece titled, “The War Against Suburbia,” written by Joel Kotkin and published by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. It ruffled the blogosphere briefly and then died away.

But by the spring of 2010, with Toronto’s mayoral election on the horizon, the phrase began to re-emerge. For example, on April 15, Bob Hepburn’s editorial for the Star kicked off with, “Bikes, cars and people — the war heats up in Toronto.” And on June 8, mayoral candidate Giorgio Mammoliti was quoted in the Star using the phrase.

Soon afterward, the “war on cars” language really caught fire, thanks in part to the right-wing Heritage Foundation. On June 17, writing for Heritage, Wendell Cox criticized Transportation Secretary Roy LaHood in an article called “Washington’s War On Cars and the Suburbs,” which circulated widely. (Interestingly, Cox had tried on this language with Heritage as early as 2004, when he attacked the EPA‘s “war against cars and suburbs.”) Cox is a prominent player in the organized and well-
funded anti-smart growth movement. He is affiliated not only with Heritage, but also with the Heartland Institute, the Cato Institute, and more than a dozen other conservative think tanks, including two in Canada and one in Washington state. He is uniquely well placed to push out talking points into right-leaning media.

Two months later, in August, car blogger Ronnie Schreiber (who boasts affiliations with right-wing media productions like Pajamas Media) began a popular series called “The War On Cars” at the automotive site Left Lane, in which he attacked LaHood, Seattle, and Toronto — in that order.

By the next month, September, Toronto’s front-running mayoral candidate Rob Ford had made “ending the war on cars” a centerpiece of his campaign when he released a YouTube version of his transportation plan. The “war on cars” phrase was repeated prominently in coverage by CBC and the Star, while the Sun‘s reporting was headlined, “Ford Declares War On The Streetcar” and the National Post trumpeted “Ford’s Plan Aims To Stop ‘War On Cars.'” (Ford went on to win Toronto’s mayoral election.)

The September explosion of the meme in Toronto seemed to spark imitators in Seattle. 

On Sept. 29, almost as if on cue, conservative blogger Stefan Sharkansky wrote a short post about Seattle’s new mayor called “Mike McGinn’s War On Cars,” and dyspeptic radio host Ken Schram aired a segment about “the war on cars.” (Sound Politics had actually used similar language as early as 2006, when a blogger attacked the previous mayor, Greg Nickels, for a “war against cars.”) The next day, Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Joel Connelly leveled the same accusation with the same words.

By mid-October, Fox News had jumped into the fray. Seattle-based reporter Dan Springer led the charge with the language, generating both local and national versions of the same story, “Seattle’s War On Cars,” on Oct. 13. A couple of days after the Fox segments aired, Ross Reynolds, a host on Seattle’s NPR affiliate, KUOW, held an on-air debate about whether “Mayor Mike McGinn’s proposed increase of parking fees amounts to a war on cars.” Not to be outdone, KING 5 (the local NBC TV affiliate) ran an Oct. 19 segment called “Is There A War On Cars In Seattle?” On Oct. 20, Publicola journalist Erica C. Barnett, who was featured in both the KOMO and KUOW radio segments, pushed back against the “war on cars” meme. By Oct. 28, the “war on cars” was considered commonplace enough that it was used without attribution in the Seattle Times (” … a backlash from drivers and freight advocates who perceive a “war on cars” being waged…”).

So that’s the origin of Seattle’s “war on cars” tempest in a teapot: it was a low-level meme that circulated for a decade or so; bubbled up in Toronto; was picked up by a few right-leaning national pundits in the U.S.; and was then parroted by the Seattle-area noise machine.

Oddly enough, I have a bit role in the drama. As late as November 2010, the Washington Policy Center, a Seattle-based conservative think tank, was still trying to fan the flames. In a critique of proposed parking policies on Nov. 15, Michael Ennis referred to “Mayor Mike McGinn’ war on cars [sic].” And then again, on Nov. 18, he wrote, “Mayor McGinn and Eric de Place don’t want to increase parking supply because of their war on cars … “

Yes, that’s me being named as an enemy combatant in the “war on cars.” Which is odd, considering that I own — and even drive — a car. 

As it turns out, my casus belli against cars was advocating market pricing for vehicle storage. It’s not exactly the stuff of armed revolution. Which is why I think this whole thing is so phony.

There’s something almost laughably overheated about the “war on cars” rhetoric. It’s almost as if the purveyors of the phrase have either lost their cool entirely, or else they’re trying desperately to avoid a level-headed discussion of transportation policy.