Politicians are sending mixed signals about private car ownership

THE ALLIANT ENERGY CENTRE, a stadium complex in Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, hosts all sorts of events, from exhibitions to concerts. In November it played host to “Mega Monster Trucks Live”, a three-day affair apparently dedicated to choking its attendees, mostly families with small children, with exhaust fumes. The stadium was filled with mud and two large ramps, over which five enormous cars did jumps. “I know we have some big-time monster-truck fans!” called the breathless announcer. At one point an ageing BMW was lifted into the arena for the trucks to crush. A motorcyclist roared in with a bikini-clad model riding pillion, carrying an American flag. Children in ear mufflers screamed in delight as the vehicles, with names like “Kamikaze” and “Jailbird”, each a good five metres (16 feet) tall, pulled doughnuts and kicked up mud.

At shows like this, America’s car culture looks as strong as ever. What is more American than owning a giant pickup truck? The vast car park outside the Alliant centre was filled with vehicles such as the Ford F-150, a pickup almost the same size as the M4 Sherman tank used in the second world war. President Joe Biden proudly calls himself a “car guy”, and on November 17th was photographed driving an electric Hummer, the civilian version of the Humvee, outside a factory in Michigan. The “Build Back Better” bill being debated in Congress includes hefty tax credits for the purchase of electric cars. Pete Buttigieg, Mr Biden’s transportation secretary, sings the praises of electric pickup trucks, including a version of the F-150, as a hardy alternative to petrol for rural Americans.

Two legs better

And yet American politicians are not all as obsessed with cars as they were. Madison, the liberal college city hosting the monster-trucks rally, boasts about how many of its people walk, take public transport or cycle to work. A series of city leaders elected across America have promised to nudge people out of their cars. For many owning a car is no longer the great aspiration it was. In that, America is gently following a pattern established in Europe for decades, and now accelerating. On both continents city leaders want to reduce car ownership, so as to cut congestion and pollution.

National leaders however tend to want to add to it, to help the car industry. The result is clashing policies, where people are encouraged to buy ever more cars, but find that they are increasingly unable to use them as they would like. Car ownership is becoming political.

In New York Eric Adams, the incoming mayor, though famous for flouting parking rules, has promised to implement congestion-charging in Manhattan at last. In Boston Michelle Wu, another newly elected mayor, promises to make several important bus routes free for the next two years. In Cleveland, Ohio, Justin Bibb, the mayor-elect, promises to put “people over cars”, and to encourage more people to bike and walk, largely by turning traffic lanes into protected bike lanes. Cities as diverse as Buffalo, New York, and Minneapolis, Minnesota, have begun to ditch “parking minimum” rules, which required developers to provide ample free parking at new buildings. Even in California, a state where driving is practically a way of life, state-assembly members have proposed bills to ban cities from imposing parking minimums near public transport. LA Metro, Los Angeles’s transport authority, is studying congestion pricing.

European cities have been doing this in some cases for decades. London established its congestion charge in 2003. The leading city now is arguably Paris, the capital of France. Under Anne Hidalgo, the socialist mayor, and her predecessor, Bertrand Delanoë, cars were banned from the left and then the right banks of the Seine in 2013 and 2017. On the right bank, an expressway named for Georges Pompidou, who proudly opened it in 1967 when he was prime minister, has been converted into a sort of urban park. Ms Hidalgo, who achieved this despite lawsuits led by the right, called it a “reconquest” of the city for its residents. Bars now line the open sections of the road, while families on bicycles zoom through the eerily quiet (and now unpolluted) tunnels. Ms Hidalgo has been a vocal proponent of “15-minute cities”, the idea that almost everything a person needs for daily life ought to be within a 15-minute walk or cycle.

With public transport closed or discouraged during France’s lockdown, “we did not want people to turn back to their cars,” says Christophe Najdovski, Ms Hidalgo’s deputy in charge of transport. So the city quickly opened more bike lanes. In just a few days in May 2020 they converted 50km of road to exclusive cycle lanes. Nicknamed “coronapistes” by locals, they can be less pretty than the rest of Paris; crude concrete blocks, soon defaced with graffiti, separate cyclists from motorised traffic. But they worked. When France’s first lockdown ended last summer, there were 60% more cyclists on Paris’s roads than the previous year, and the number has kept on rising. “In just a few months we did what we would have needed four or five years to do,” says Mr Najdovski.

Car-exclusion zones

It is not only Paris. Britain’s government gave local councils the power to close roads to create “low-traffic neighbourhoods” (LTNs) without the usual consultations with residents that block them. Planter bollards have proliferated across England’s cities, blocking off residential streets to all but bicycles (typically, residents can enter and exit with their cars, but cannot drive through). When lockdowns started, Amsterdam temporarily banned cars from Spuistraat, Haarlemmerdijk, and Haarlemmerstraat, three central boulevards. The change now seems likely to be made permanent. As Glasgow, Scotland’s biggest city, played host to COP26 last month, city leaders announced plans to ban all cars from the centre over the next five years, in the hope of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. In New York City, as in many places, street parking was converted into outdoor dining space, so that restaurants could stay open. Chicago has unveiled plans for a further 160km of segregated cycle lanes.

Such policies work. From 2001 to 2019 car ownership in Paris dropped from 60% of households to 35%. But they are not always popular. Drivers, especially those who live in the suburbs, feel assaulted by urban policies intended to keep them out. In France, although the changes made in Paris are generally popular, a congestion charge is almost impossible, says Mr Najdovski. The national government, which would have to approve it, is still shaken by the gilet jaune (yellow vest) protests that began in 2018 against a proposal by President Emmanuel Macron to raise the cost of petrol. In New York City congestion-charging proposals have also been stalled by the state assembly and then the federal government, even though the state governor and the city’s mayors were in favour. In London, the expansion of LTNs, and a charge levied on polluting older cars, have led to protests and vandalism.

In general, for national politicians, supporting car ownership is good politics. Car owners tend to be older, and older people vote more. In America the poorest fifth of the population spend 29% of their post-tax income on transport, almost all of it on buying and running their cars, and even the richest fifth still spend around 10%. In countries with first-past-the-post voting systems, such as Britain and America, they are also more likely to live in swing neighbourhoods, such as suburbs, whereas people who drive less live in the centre of cities, which are usually politically safer.

The cost of running a car has in many countries actually been falling (see chart). Britain’s Conservative government has put off planned increases in petrol taxes every single year for over a decade. The federal government’s gas tax in America was last raised in 1993. On November 23rd Joe Biden declared he would release oil from the strategic reserve, so as to lower petrol prices, which have climbed by 55% since last year. Electric cars are likely to prove even cheaper to run.

And yet a growing number of drivers believe that there is what Rob Ford, the crack-cocaine-smoking former mayor of Toronto, called in 2010 “a war on cars”. Some of this is deluded. In America some on the right have spread the idea that a secret UN “Agenda 21” has called for a ban on private cars. In Britain Piers Corbyn, a conspiracy theorist who believes covid-19, vaccines and global warming are all hoaxes, has promoted a campaign for drivers to break London’s new rules on driving. But much is motivated by actual city policies. In Germany Bild, a feisty tabloid, lambasts a culture that is “against the car and people who rely on four wheels” . In Britain the Daily Mail has run a long campaign against LTNs and cycle lanes, arguing that they cause traffic jams and increase pollution.

Driving on the right

That may reflect the politics of car ownership. In Britain analysis of exit polls from the 2019 election showed that car owners were more likely than non-owners to vote Conservative by a margin of 17 percentage points, while Labour had a similar lead among non-owners. In America a study by Stanford University, using data gathered from Google Street View images, found that if saloon cars outnumber pickup trucks in driveways, there is an 88% probability a city will vote Democrat at a presidential election; if the reverse is true, there is an 82% chance it will go Republican. Polling for Strategic Vision, a consultancy, in 2017 showed that Republicans are roughly eight times as likely as Democrats to drive heavy-duty pickup trucks.

Car usage continues to rise, but mostly because baby-boomers who grew up with cars have taken the place of an older generation that had never learned to drive in the first place. Young people are driving less. In America in 1983, 92% of 20- to 24-year-olds had a driving licence. By 2017, that had fallen to 79%. The median age of a new car buyer is now 53. In Germany between 1998 and 2013 car-ownership rates fell for all ages under 40, but rose sharply among those aged over 65. Young people are more likely to live in cities, and to prefer public trans port (possibly because they can still use their phones).

Eventually, this may mean fewer cars on the roads. For now, however, despite automotive bosses’ fears of “peak car”, car ownership continues to rise. And as it does, the rules of the road are sure to become more controversial. Over the next two decades, the amount of time wasted in traffic in Britain is likely to increase by 50%, according to a study by the Tony Blair Institute, a think-tank, in August. But it spotted “a huge opportunity to rethink our relationship with our cars and the incentives we put around their use”. This would be the introduction of road-pricing, ie, charging tolls to use almost all urban roads. Mayors struggling with air pollution and constant traffic jams will almost certainly agree. National leaders, who need to court the older, petrolhead, vote will probably think the opposite.

This article appeared in the International section of the print edition under the headline “Car wars”

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.