“Going Car-Free” Is Only Elitist on Opposite Day

“Vegetarianism is kind of elitist.” The increasingly quotidian utterance of this phrase among progressives has sent many an egalitarian sensibility reeling. When, recently, it rolled off the tongue of a devoted vegetarian I know in the form of reluctant self-reproach, the alarms of my proverbial ‘Bullshit Detector’ began to wail.

Maybe I’m confused, but I thought elitism referred to membership in a narrow stratum of society that exerts disproportionately concentrated power to influence economic, structural, legal and spatial policies in the interest of increasing its exclusive privilege. I guess when I wasn’t looking, the concept became applicable to sacrificing convenience for a more sustainable and equitable lifestyle. Although this only makes sense in a rational world on opposite day, the idea has been disseminated throughout American cultural rhetoric to the point where even proponents of the lifestyle choices it attacks have begun to internalize it.

Though my friend was concerned with vegetarianism, her shame is indicative of the shoe that is accused to fit a variety of progressive lifestyle choices, not limited to vegetarianism, environmentalism, ethical purchasing, and the use of non-motorized transportation alternatives. While all of these can be lauded for their promotion of egalitarian values in practice, I have a special place in my heart for the latter because I belong to the 1% of the total U.S. population who rides a bicycle for transportation, and of the fewer than half as many who use a bike to commute to work. We are an elite group, indeed, if elitism is defined in numbers alone. But, the meaning inherent in the accusation is lost in such a narrow definition.

So, what is that meaning? How is elitism defined such that sustainable lifestyle advocates and adherents fall within its purview? Journalists and bloggers who bemoan what they view as the biking elite usually refer to perceived attitude and behavior, using terms such as “holier-than-thou,” “infuriating smugness,” and “urban piety.” They seem to perceive the very act of bicycling as a commentary on the ills of car culture and imagine a homogenous aggregate of power pedaled paraders on which they impute adversarial characteristics.

While the attitude of an individual bicyclist on any variety of issues is an empirical question, I’m more interested in how “one of the cheapest forms of transportation on the planet is construed as elitist” by virtue of its users’ perceived attitude, “whereas one of the most expensive and resource-intensive technologies is considered populist.”1

Enter the Auto-Industrial Complex: a network of financial and political elites, who benefit from auto and oil industry profits, wielding their power in the realms of governmental policy and mass media toward the goal of increasing profit and maintaining power. Once upon a time in these great States cars were scarce; average Americans relied on public transportation and the muscles of their Olphalanges to get from A to B. Conspiratorial and undemocratic efforts on the part of the Auto-Industrial Complex changed all that.

Thanks in no small part to Sociology professors across the nation systematically showing their classes an award winning documentary film on the subject, the General Motors streetcar conspiracy to deliberately destroy public transportation has gained some notoriety for laying the groundwork of the auto-centric infrastructure that has come to define American transit. In a slightly less famed, but equally undemocratic feat of spatial authoritarianism, the ever corporate-friendly U.S. government adopted a highway system model designed by big oil and auto that would swallow the city whole. Other models more in line with public opinion suggested high density transport inside the city, which, in turn, would exist inside of a highway network. The public was understandably resistant toward policies that would (and did) result in no less than changing their entire way of life.

Mass media obliged in the manufacturing of consent for the auto-oriented lifestyle. Big oil and auto interests poured vast amounts of money into a comprehensive propaganda campaign to equate Automobility with freedom, nationalism, economic prosperity and social status, and to concomitantly undermine the popularity of bicycling for daily transportation by associating it with childhood, deviance, and, at best, auto-pedagogy. Over the course of decades, leading into the mid-twentieth century, radios, neighborhood theatres, and then family televisions were alive with exciting representations of middle class success, replete with strategic auto-centric subtexts and images that played a salient role in igniting the flame of America’s love affair with the car.

Concomitantly, major newspapers and magazines that benefitted from big oil and auto’s vast advertising dollars filled their pages with auto industry press releases and propaganda from auto clubs. Journalists demonstrated uncritical praise for the new form of transport. There is no evidence to suggest intentional reciprocity; the obsequious nature of the press was more likely a reflection of auto-centric propaganda’s successful permeation into the American Mythos.

The Auto-Industrial Complex had non-motorized and public transportation right where they wanted it, until well into the latter half of the twentieth century when the bicycle began to reemerge as a symbol of nonconformity and an alternative to the auto-centric infrastructure that cycling advocates believe to be inequitable and, ultimately, unsustainable.

Pursuit of the auto-centric American Dream has become a nightmare for struggling middle class families. By 2010, the average consumer owned 2 cars and spent the second largest portion of his/her income on transportation, surpassed only by the portion spent on housing. Bicycle advocates are highly critical toward domination by an internally reinforcing system of auto-centric mythos and infrastructure that systematically deters Americans from considering a form of transportation that would increase opportunities for economic mobility by eliminating more than 15% of their income expenditure.

As with any force that challenges the mechanisms that allow an inequitable system of policies to operate, those who practice and advocate for bicycle transportation have been the targets of a subversive campaign to undermine their critiques. Using similar mechanisms to those that built the auto-centric mythos in the first place, the Auto-Industrial Complex has successfully disseminated the absurd notion that a practice whose very existence is inherently subversive to the system of elite control, is, itself, elitist.

Allowing their divisive labels to structure our narrative not only threatens the existence of sustainable lifestyles; it hinders the creation of a cohesive network of the 99%, because it engenders animosity between socioeconomic classes and divisive criticism among progressives. We have to deconstruct and reject the labels they use to divide us because ‘One voice’ has to be the cornerstone of any movement that could hope to dismantle the inequities of our modern day gilded age.

  1. Furness, Zack. (2010). One Less Car: Bicycling and the Politics of Automobility, p. 135. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. []

Cortne Jai Winegard lives in Columbia, Mo where she is involved in bicycle education and advocacy with PedNet Coalition. Cortne's educational background is in Sociology and Sustainable Urban Development. Other interests include movements of resistance against neo-liberal repression, especially Zapatista Autonomy and The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America. Cortne is currently involved in #OccupyCoMO in solidarity with OWS and the egalitarian principles of Democratic Socialism. Read other articles by Cortne.