FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Cars and Class

A new political party, which won office in Montréal’s Plateau Mont-Royal borough last November, has begun to widen sidewalks, add bike paths and close some streets to traffic.

By doing so, critics have accused them of engaging in class warfare.
In a much discussed La Presse opinion piece, Luc Chartrand denigrated the “supposedly enlightened urban planning” measures as “nothing but a strategy by the wealthy to grab territory in a centrally located district… to the detriment of the general interest of the City.”

This is just one more example of the Big Lie. Call black white, say war is peace, claim the media is leftwing and argue urban space dominated by cars is good for poor and working-class people.

The truth is that these “traffic calming” measures will make a relatively bike- and pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood more so, and they will make it more difficult for suburban commuters to use the area’s smaller side streets to avoid the main north-south arteries. Over 650,000 cars travel through the eight square-kilometre district daily, with more than 80 per cent headed elsewhere.

Making life difficult for cars could be, in fact, described as a form of class war, but one that works in the long-term interests of the poor and working class.

Even superficially, the critics’ argument makes little sense. While the Plateau is not Montréal’s most affordable neighbourhood it’s far from its most expensive. Many students, artists and working-class people live in this hip, politically progressive, area.

Chartrand’s claim is common among North America’s most extreme auto proponents; any move to curtail car domination is an attack against the little guy because automobiles give everyone equal access to mobility. In a Wall Street Journal opinion article, Stephen Moore captured the essence of this argument. “The car allowed even the common working man total freedom of mobility — the means to go anywhere, anytime, for any reason. In many ways, the automobile is the most egalitarian invention in history, dramatically bridging the quality-of-life gap between rich and poor.”

The car’s proponents invoke class even though all other forms of land transportation are eminently more accessible. Shoes, a bike, or a metro pass are all cheaper than a car with its gas, insurance and upkeep needs. According to the American Public Transportation Association, individuals who get around with a bus pass instead of a car can save a whopping $8,368 annually.

When the automobile is used as the primary mode of mass transit, the poorest are hardest hit. In 2008, for instance, the poorest fifth of Americans spent 13 per cent of their income on gas. The top fifth spent 3 per cent. In Highway Robbery: Transportation, Racism and New Routes to Equity, Robert Bullard notes: “Those earning less than $ 14,000 per year, after taxes, spend approximately 40 per cent of their take-home pay on transportation expenditures. This compares to 22 per cent for families earning between $27,177 and $44,461 annually, and 13 per cent per year for families making more than $71,900 per year.”

Nearly three-quarters of U.S. households earning less than $15,000 a year own a car, and in an extreme example of auto dependence, tens of thousands of “mobile homeless” live in their vehicles.

The poor purchase cars because there is no other option in a society built to serve the needs of the automobile. If you want to work you need a car. If you want to visit your friends you need a car.

Car-dominated transport eats up a disproportionate amount of working-class income. At the same time, the automobile is an important means for the wealthy to assert themselves socially. A luxury vehicle lets the whole world know that you have arrived, both literally and metaphorically. “The automobile’s a credit card on wheels,” writes Heathcote Williams. “It’s pushy to tell people how much you make, so you tell ’em through your automobile.”

Over a century ago, cars grew to prominence as technological toys for the rich. By the turn of the 20th century, New York City’s Automobile Club had more millionaires than any other social club in the world. “No American Sport,” noted the Washington Post in 1902, “has ever enlisted so much power and money.”

Those living at the dawn of the Auto Age often viewed it as an obtrusive and “particularly ostentatious display of wealth.” Farmers and the working class were incensed by their presence. A 1904 edition of the U.S. farm magazine, Breeders Gazette, called automobile drivers “a reckless, bloodthirsty, villainous lot of purse-proud crazy trespassers.”

In 1907, rioting broke out in a working class Lower Manhattan neighborhood after two-year-old Louis Camille was run down and killed. The automobile sparked dozens of other similarly violent protests.

One reason the car was popular among the wealthy was because it strengthened their dominance over mobility, which was slightly undermined by rail. Prior to the train’s ascendance in the mid 1800s, the elite traveled by horse and buggy, but the train’s technological superiority compromised the usefulness of the horse and buggy. Even for shorter commutes, streetcars became the preferred mode of transport by the late 1800s. With respect to mobility, the train and streetcar blurred class lines. Unlike the train and streetcar, which were more available to all classes of society, the automobile provided an exclusive form of travel.

The automobile’s capacity to create social distance appealed to early car buyers. In a car, one could remain separate from perceived social inferiors (blue-collar workers, immigrants, blacks etc.) while in transit. Prominent auto historian, James J. Flink remarked that, “the automobile seemed to proponents of the innovation, to afford a simple solution to some of the more formidable problems of American life associated with the emergence of an urban industrial society.”

The different ways in which the private car strengthened wealthy people’s grip over culture and mobility have largely been forgotten. At the same time, the immense financial burden cars place on the working class seems of only passing importance to its critics.

The largest source of capitalist profit over the past century, the automobile has shaped landscapes, culture and the environment in a host of harmful ways. It’s time for a class-focused challenge to private automobility.

Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler will be published in early 2011. Anyone interested in organizing a talk as part of a book tour please e-mail: yvesengler (at) hotmail.com

Yves Engler’s most recent book is Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid.

Bianca Mugyenyi works as the Campaigns and Programming Coordinator at Concordia University’s Centre for Gender Advocacy.

More articles by:

Yves Engler’s latest book is ‪Canada in Africa: 300 years of Aid and Exploitation.

February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
Rob Urie
The Green New Deal, Capitalism and the State
Jim Kavanagh
The Siege of Venezuela and the Travails of Empire
Paul Street
Someone Needs to Teach These As$#oles a Lesson
Andrew Levine
World Historical Donald: Unwitting and Unwilling Author of The Green New Deal
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Third Rail-Roaded
Eric Draitser
Impacts of Exploding US Oil Production on Climate and Foreign Policy
Ron Jacobs
Maduro, Guaidó and American Exceptionalism
John Laforge
Nuclear Power Can’t Survive, Much Less Slow Climate Disruption
Joyce Nelson
Venezuela & The Mighty Wurlitzer
Jonathan Cook
In Hebron, Israel Removes the Last Restraint on Its Settlers’ Reign of Terror
Ramzy Baroud
Enough Western Meddling and Interventions: Let the Venezuelan People Decide
Robert Fantina
Congress, Israel and the Politics of “Righteous Indignation”
Dave Lindorff
Using Students, Teachers, Journalists and other Professionals as Spies Puts Everyone in Jeopardy
Kathy Kelly
What it Really Takes to Secure Peace in Afghanistan
Brian Cloughley
In Libya, “We Came, We Saw, He Died.” Now, Maduro?
Nicky Reid
The Councils Before Maduro!
Gary Leupp
“It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby”
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail