The New Fight for Mobility Justice

On April Fool’s Day 2022, r/place returned to Reddit. First released in 2017 and an instant Reddit sensation, r/place allows users to place colored squares onto a collective canvas. For better or worse, r/place downloads the consciousness of the “front page of the internet” into visual form, and the result is exactly what one would expect: grotesque images, turf wars between dueling Subreddits, and astonishing works of art. But this year, amongst the logos and video game characters, a message appeared, “Fuck Cars.” Reddit is Reddit, and “Fuck Cars” could have unfortunately referred to a variety of things. Maybe a disgruntled Redditor worked with a team of friends to channel their edginess into a public image. Maybe the collective Reddit community made reference to a notorious post from years past. But, quite surprisingly, the answer is the most obvious of all, Reddit really hates cars. “Fuck Cars” is a reference to the well-trodden Reddit community, or Subreddit, r/fuckcars.

As of August 2022, r/fuckcars has over 313,000 active users with 3,000 online at any given time. Its stated purpose: “​​Aspiration towards more sustainable and effective alternatives like mass transit and improved pedestrian and cycling infrastructure.” r/fuckcars channels society’s collective dissatisfaction with a car-dominated world into an online community where Redditors can share memes, funny videos, and at times, envision a brighter future.

And as a testament to the power of community, even online communities, the “Fuck Cars” movement has not remained isolated to the caverns of Reddit, but is rather a real movement spearheaded by activists and organizers. While “Fuck Cars” was the way Reddit verbalized its discontent, the movement is called “mobility justice,” and it represents a coalition of nonprofits, activists, politicians, and community organizers working together to envision a safer and more accessible future. While the rest of society is driving their Fords and Toyotas, activists from a wide array of socioeconomic backgrounds, urban environments, and ethnicities have coalesced into a burgeoning movement to curb the influence of cars and their vested interests. But, the diversity of interests within the coalition has simultaneously created a diversity of aspirations and tactics. Much like the Reddit community battling against others to retain “Fuck Cars’” position on r/place, the mobility justice movement faces a variety of both internal and external challenges in its goal to usher in a greener more accessible future.

The term, “mobility justice” was first popularized by The Untokening, “a multiracial collective that centers the lived experiences of marginalized communities to address mobility justice and equity.” Founded in 2017 and expanded in June 2020, The Untokening is a response to the white NIMBYism that has infiltrated urban planning across the United States. The Untokening works to center the voices of those forgotten in society’s rampage to expand highways, parking lots, and commercial centers, primarily BIPOC residents of low-income communities. But, The Untokening is just one of the many organizations working to bolster public transportation and undo the decades of car-centric urban planning that has wrought havoc on both the environment and urban landscapes.

As Executive Director of America Walks, Mike McGinn works to build a grassroots movement in favor of walkable cities and public transportation. As Mayor of Seattle, Mike McGinn was a staunch opponent of the proposed bore tunnel replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, a piece of car-centric city infrastructure that reshaped traffic patterns in Seattle. To win his election, McGinn assembled a diverse coalition of voters, especially those that would otherwise be viewed as political outsiders including millennials, environmentalists, and musicians. And yet, in many ways, McGinn deploys tried and true methods of activism. He works to sway public opinion by working in local communities and campaigning in favor of or against proposed legislation. In 2021, America Walks expressed support for a wide array of legislation, including the Transportation Alternatives Enhancements Act.

For McGinn, the diversity of his experiences is the driving force behind his activism: “I’ve been an advocate and an organizer, and a mayor of an American city. Ultimately, the root of all change starts with public demand. And so building and trying to generate public demand around what you care about is usually required.” But for McGinn, the challenge is not in persuading the public to support investments in public transportation infrastructure, but in overcoming those with a vested interest in our car-laden society, “You really need a mass of people because there’s a whole bunch of folks who are determined to maintain the status quo, and they often have the resources to do so. So if you want to overcome dollar power, you’re going to have to figure out a different source of power.”

While America Walks has invested deeply in American communities through its Walking College and Community Change Grants, when it comes to inducing demand for public transportation, The War on Cars is making headway. With nearly 8,000 followers on Instagram and a devoted listener base on Spotify, The War on Cars is spreading its central message far and wide: “Cars ruin cities.” In the words of its hosts, Aaron Naparstek, Sarah Goodyear, and Doug Gordon, The War on Cars is a biweekly podcast about “the epic, hundred-years war between The Car and The City.” The War on Cars has covered the rise of Uber, teen climate anxiety, and everything in between. Their tactful mix of wit and hard-hitting facts has captivated an audience desperate for a counterfactual to their car-filled reality. With a primarily Gen Z and Millennial listener base, The War on Cars channels the anxieties of a generation that according to Doug Gordon, “[is] less interested in the status quo, largely because the status quo isn’t working for them.”

For Gordon, “In an age when young people are questioning many of the systems that govern their lives, it seems only natural that they’d question the costs of living in a car-dependent society as well.” But, this questioning has also turned into action. Millennials and Gen Zers have formed their own organizations and taken direct action to protect themselves from an ongoing epidemic of ‘traffic violence,’ a term coined by Streetsblog in 2013 to emphasize the systemic nature of so-called “accidents.” In Los Angeles, Crosswalks Collective LA has amassed a national following for painting needed crosswalks on the streets of Los Angeles. While Crosswalks Collective LA couldn’t be reached for comment, their Twitter feed and website make their politics clear, “The city of Los Angeles doesn’t keep us safe, so we keep us safe.”

Theia Chatelle is an FGLI student at Yale University, studying English. She currently works at A Public Space.