California’s Anti-Car Culture
Outside a few conspiracy theorists, no one believes the COVID-19 lockdowns are a test run for eventually shuttering economic sectors to mitigate global warming. That said, the climate alarmists have surely been watching the public’s reaction, and they will use the stay-at-home restrictions to insist that government-imposed limits aren’t so bad that we can’t live with them.
This comes to mind after noticing that San Francisco, following “Oakland’s lead,” says the San Francisco Examiner, is closing a dozen or so streets to through traffic “to allow walkers, people on bikes and other wheeled-gadgets more space to socially distance amid the COVID-19 pandemic.” They will reportedly remain open to local traffic.
“Oakland’s lead,” by the way, is the April 11 closure to “most traffic” of about 74 miles of roadway.
Limiting traffic gives pedestrians more room to distance themselves from each other. Rather than crowding the sidewalks, they can spread out and walk in relative safety in the streets. Not necessarily a bad idea.
But there’s little doubt that “slowing” streets in Oakland and San Francisco now will make it easier to fully and permanently close them, and others, later, after the lockdowns have been lifted.
After all, drivers by then will have grown accustomed to having fewer options.
By now it should be clear policymakers in California, which could just as well be the Car State as the Golden State, because of its car culture history, are at war with automobiles.
It’s been a long war. Nearly 45 years ago, the New York Times wrote about Los Angelenos’ car habit and the challenges policymakers faced in trying to break it.
“To get people out of their cars in an effort to cut down on pollution and traffic jams, state officials here recently turned over one lane in each direction of California’s busiest freeway to buses and carpools,” said an October 1976 story.
In the 2000s, the weapons of war have been the “road diet”; an aggressive push to herd as many Californians as possible into mass transit (which has created a health hazard); a vanity high-speed rail project; and, says Pepperdine economics professor Gary Galles, the diversion of “transportation funds raised from drivers” as well as increasing traffic congestion “for the vast majority who planners already know will continue to drive.”
In 1976, when real pollution was more of a problem than it is today (non-toxic, necessary-to-all-life carbon dioxide is now the villain), Californians bristled at policymakers’ efforts to manipulate them. Motorists demanded politicians be recalled, said the Times, and “filled local newspapers with letters assailing the scheme citing it as evidence of an ominous trend toward government by Big Brother.”
Furthermore, “newspapers campaigned against the project. Bumper stickers, petition drives, and leaflet campaigns to kill the project flowered.”
Today, the combatants have changed alliances. Letters to the editor, newspaper editorials, and media coverage in general are far more likely to support policies for reducing the number of cars on the road. The war on automobiles has become a joint effort of elected officials, bureaucrats, everyday Californians, and private interest groups that want us all crammed into buses, subways, and trains.
It would be a mistake to assume the war is being waged only on vehicles with internal-combustion engines. Yes, California peddles hybrid and plug-in electric cars harder than any other state for emissions reasons. But an electric vehicle still provides its owner with a luxury the progressive movement doesn’t like: freedom of movement.
This is not a controversial statement. Or at least shouldn’t be.
“The very reason people love cars — personal freedom — is also why regulators can’t stand them,” says “car coach” Lauren Fix in a 2017 Prager University video.
“Government at all levels craves control. And when it comes to your car, they want you off the road.”
The war might also be stoked by an elitist attitude similar to that of the Duke of Wellington, who, “when railroads were first being developed in the 1800s,” writes Sam Kazman for the Atlas Society, “declared that they would just encourage common people to move about needlessly.”
Kazman continues: “Once the car was developed, the disdain was not much different. In the early 1900s, one member of the British Parliament claimed that the car was a luxury that would degenerate into a nuisance.”
How many in deep blue California have an outlook similar to that of tireless left-wing scold George Monbiot, the British activist who once announced in the Guardian to be “struck by the amazing variety of ways in which cars have ruined our lives,” and believes that while automobiles can be at times and places “useful” and even “essential,” they have become “become our master,” spoiling “everything” they touch?
Our final piece of evidence: This state is overflowing with policymakers whose objective is to build ever-larger government, and its architects and engineers prefer a dependent people rather than a free people. Forcing Californians out of their cars clearly makes them more dependent on the state.
It might seem like a long, meandering drive to get from the closure of a few streets in the Bay Area to losing our cars. It admittedly seems like a stretch. But that’s how liberty is lost: in small increments, or a couple of boulevards, at a time.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.