Cars and Classism

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 left wing 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.

Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler are authors of just released Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Environmental Decay. Anyone interested in organizing a talk as part of a book tour please e-mail: yvesengler [at] Read other articles by Bianca Mugyenyi and Yves Engler.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on September 10th, 2010 at 10:12am #

    So, finally, an impriosned city-folk, able to freely walk and breathe cleaner air.
    And, as espected, creme de la creme says: how dare they; we decide what goes on and not servants.
    For, if it hadn’t been for our millennial guidance over primitive, vulgar, ignorant tillers, shepherds, fishers, housewomen over millennia this lowlife would still be eating one another, commiting incest, killing each other, remain irrreligious, barbarous, uneducated, etc.
    And this is then thanks for our service and good intentions. U keep it up or else we call in tanks and then u’ll see who’s da boss! tnx

  2. Charlie said on September 12th, 2010 at 1:22pm #

    The authors certainly understand elitism–they just don’t see how they are guilty of it. The article drips with the condescension of the “haves” telling the “have nots” what’s best for them. Not surprisingly, the haves think that helping the haves is the best idea.

    The article basically asserts that we best help the poor by making the urban middle classes more comfortable. We force those unsavory lower-class types to keep themselves and their nasty junk cars over on the congested (and soon to be more congested) streets away from our yuppie-ville bike paths, walking trails, and cozy mass transit systems. After all, we’re students and artists in a “hip, politically progressive area.” We have to set an example for those po’ folks who live in those, oh, what do we call them, uh, slums or ghettos or oh whatever.

    Oh heaven forbid that we should help the poor directly by doing anything in their neighborhoods. It’s so much more important that we start with people who can already afford cars before we address the problems of those who can’t. As the authors say, we’ll use “a form of class war, but one that works in the long-term interests of the poor and working class.” Yes, let’s go for the long-term interests. If the poor are hungry today, for example, we’ll build a grocery store in a mostly white middle-class hip neighborhood to solve the problem.

    I lost my job in 2004. After being unemployed and desperate for a year (a year of macaroni and cheese and powdered milk), I was able to find work 30 miles from my home in a small rural town, which made for a long commute compared with the 5 miles I had been driving/carpooling. I could not, at first, afford to move any closer to work. If only this article had been printed then, I would have learned the revelatory secret of changing my life: “Shoes. . .are. . .cheaper than a car “. I could have walked to work and saved a fortune.

    I have no problem with transitioning societies away from automobile-based transportation systems, despite the overwhelming challenges of that noble goal. The social, environmental, and economic benefits would be revolutionary. But if the authors want to make the transition a form of class warfare, then they would do well to remember that class-based revolutions start at the bottom of society, not the top or middle. The Czars, Kings, and Emperors didn’t overthrow themselves. The peasants did it for them.

  3. rosemarie jackowski said on September 12th, 2010 at 1:39pm #

    Where I live a car is an absolute necessity. I cannot even get drinking water without a car. I wish it wasn’t so. I do NOT live in the boondocks. I live just a couple hundred feet from a major interstate highway where the municipal water line is. Politics will not allow us to hook on to the system. The politics of who gets water and who doesn’t exist even here in the US.

  4. Deadbeat said on September 12th, 2010 at 4:02pm #

    I’ve seen two article here on DV lately talking about cars and class. The biggest problem that I have with both articles is that there is no mention of affordable housing. Housing affordability is main determinant of where people live.

    Leaving close to work today (if you’re lucky to have a job) is an unaffordable luxury. Perhaps the writers of these articles have secure jobs and transportation to and from work and home are their primary issue of concern. But for many workers they have to live miles away from job centers in order to find housing.

    The question of class is why do people have to borrow large sums of money from banks for shelter or have to pay a landlord for the “privilege” of having shelter.

    In addition, a lot of home “value” comes from public infrastructure projects. This is clearly a transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy property owners.

    When I start seeing writers advocate the total elimination of commodity based housing; elimination of landlords and housing “debtorship” then I’ll be ready to listen about cars and transportation. IMO this topic is ass backwards.

  5. teafoe2 said on September 12th, 2010 at 4:48pm #

    Urban Desigh, Land Use, Zoning. Elimination of functional mass transit, undercut railroads, eliminate electric trolleys in favor of gas busses.

    Automobiles are made indispensable by the locating of Homes here, Worksites there, Supermarkets as few and far between as possible, Post Offices, even mailboxes ditto in spades.

    So first lessen the need to drive, not only to get to work but to do every little thing.

    It is this kind of stuff the Oil/Automobile/Real Estate complex is guilty of. These recent “wars” were pushed by a different set of interests.