Watch Out for These 3 Examples of Pro-Car Rhetoric

The “war on the car”, a phrase popularized by former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, is an infamous example of the use of rhetoric in the transportation world. These four simple words have polarized people to one of just two imaginary sides, each digging further into trenches and preparing for battle. They’ve incited anger and provided an outlet for motorists for the countless frustrating hours spent stuck in traffic. To this day, this phrase continues to provide ammunition for any politician looking to shut down a bike lane or transit priority project.

rhetoric: speech or writing that is intended to influence people, but that is not completely honest or sincere

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

But the “war on the car” is just one of many examples of rhetoric used to reinforce the dominant position of the automobile on our streets. Every day, rhetoric is subtly employed to deemphasize the road safety responsibilities of motorists, to justify more spending on roadway expansions, and to resist the reallocation of road space to other travel modes.

#1: Road safety is a shared responsibility

Read any news article about the death of a pedestrian or cyclist today and the article will invariably include a quote from a law enforcement officer or politician reminding everyone of the “shared responsibility” of all road users in creating safe streets. Pedestrians are asked to be visible, while drivers are asked to make turns carefully and yield the right of way.

“Road safety and pedestrian safety is a shared responsibility, and we want the first day of school to be a safe day for everybody,” says Constable Bamford.

CTV Barrie, August 2018

The premise of road safety being a “shared responsibility” stems from the mindset that all road users – pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike – have an equal ability to control their own actions and are thus equally responsible for creating a safe environment for all. If any road user shirks that responsibility and acts recklessly, such as a pedestrian crossing mid-block, or a driver running a red light, they put others, not just themselves, at risk.

In a high-rise apartment building with 100 residents for example, if a single unit catches fire, every resident’s safety is compromised, and thus it is in all residents’ best interest to do their best to prevent fires. But imagine now that one of the apartment building residents is a firebreather in the circus frequently likes to practice at home. Would you consider them to be “equally responsible” for preventing fires in the building as other residents?

The rhetoric of shared responsibility excuses the fact that motorists have far greater potential to cause harm than other road users. A pedestrian who is hit by a car while crossing the street, whether they were jaywalking or crossing legally in an intersection, is far more likely than the motorist to be injured or killed in the collision.

So is it really fair to say that pedestrians are equally responsible for preventing collisions? The reinforcement of an equality of responsibility actually reduces the burden on the motorist and the motor vehicle for preventing road fatalities, allowing society to shift criticism away from speeding and instead towards the “distracted pedestrian” or the “reckless cyclist”.

If motor vehicles are more likely to cause harm in the event of a collision, motorists should bear a higher burden of responsibility to prevent them. And if transport trucks are even more likely than cars to cause harm, then their responsibility to create safe environments should be the greatest of all.

What if instead of pushing for equal responsibility when it comes to road safety, we strived for equal protection for all road users? Cars protect motorists from the consequences of their mistakes with airbags and crumple frames, of which pedestrians have neither. Promising equal protection of all users, for example, would require us to reduce the motor vehicle’s potential for harm through improved vehicle design and to design streets that offer more protection for pedestrians.

#2: Drivers pay for the roads

The belief behind this rhetoric is that motorists pay a majority share of the costs of maintaining and expanding the road network, and are therefore more entitled to road space than other road users. In a similar vein, people riding bikes are often criticized for not contributing financially to the cost of roads, and are labeled as “freeloaders” as a result. 

In the early days of the automobile, motorists actually did directly fund some road projects. Many rural roadway expansions were paid for with gasoline taxes collected by governments, and motorist associations influenced the projects to which these funds were allocated.

In modern cities though, these fees make up a fraction of the total cost of operating and expanding streets. An analysis of the mid-sized Canadian city of Hamilton found that at the municipal level, revenue collected from motorists (parking fees, gas taxes, etc.) covers just a quarter of roadway operating costs and a third of the costs of constructing new roadways. The remainder of these costs are paid for by everyone, mostly through property taxes.


This rhetoric is dangerous, because in paying service to this fallacy, we risk giving motorists a disproportionate say in the design of our transportation system. It also ignores the fact that motor vehicle transportation costs society more than other modes. For example, The City of Copenhagen reports that while each additional kilometre cycled in the city generates positive social value, each additional kilometre driven by car costs society 5.28 DKK ($0.78 USD).

In conclusion, everyone pays for the roads, regardless of their mode of travel.

3: The bus lane is empty!

The premise of a bus lane, or a reserved transit lane, is simple: public transit is a more space-efficient way to move people, therefore transit vehicles should be given priority on streets. A bus stuck in traffic moves as slowly as the single-occupancy vehicles surrounding it, which fails to make public transit a competitive travel option. By giving transit vehicles a dedicated lane, buses can travel faster than cars through a congested stretch of roadway. This makes transit more desirable, drawing more people to transit and improving the people-moving potential of the street.

Dedicated transit lanes are highly productive. According to NACTO, dedicated transit lanes can carry up to 4,000 to 8,000 people per hour. Compare that to mixed traffic lanes with frequent buses, which range from just 1,000 to 2,800 people per hour, and lanes carrying only private motor vehicles, which cap out at 600 to 1,600 people per hour. The implementation of a transit-priority corridor on Toronto’s King Street led to reduced transit travel times and an increase in daily transit ridership from 72,000 to 84,000 in less than a year. New York City’s 14th Street Bus Priority Project showed similar results, with ridership increasing up to 30% and travel times falling by the same amount within months of the project’s implementation.

Unfortunately, for all their worth, transit lanes suffer a problem of poor optics. Because transit vehicles carry so many people in such a relatively small space, and because the lanes allow transit vehicles to move father than congested vehicle lanes, bus lanes often appear mostly empty.

It is the poor optics of “empty” bus lanes that have led critics of Toronto’s King Street transit priority project to call the street a “ghost town”, and led the City of Hamilton’s council to cancel its own King Street bus lane pilot project before the end of its pilot year, despite the lane carrying nearly as many people as the two adjacent vehicle lanes and the project causing an incremental delay of just 5 minutes for motorists during the afternoon peak.

“The lane added about five minutes to the stretch during afternoon rush hour … and carried nearly as many people as the other two lanes.”

Hamilton Spectator, January 2015

The “empty bus lane” rhetoric implies that empty road space is unproductive. For the motorist stuck in traffic, the optimal road configuration is one where motor vehicles can occupy all of the road space and any seemingly empty road space is bound to draw ire. If congestion is so bad that a motorist must be delayed, then so should the transit user. It is this same mindset that has historically led to sidewalks being whittled down to embarrassingly narrow widths to carve out more space for motor vehicles to occupy for the sake of “productivity”.

A road full of cars however, regardless of whether or not they are moving, is simply not the most efficient use of space. Taking away a motor vehicle lane and dedicating it to buses might actually make motorists worse off, but that’s the point – incentivize one mode and disincentivize the other at the same time. After people are given time to adjust their travel patterns to modified street priorities, the resulting increase delay for motorists, usually meticulously measured, is often found to be close to nil.

So why should we care about rhetoric? Left unchecked, wild rhetorical claims have the potential to alter the course of history, and in this case, the future of our transportation system. Pro-motorist rhetoric, compounded over decades, has helped strip public streets of precious space for people, take the efficiency out of transit, and absolve motorists of much of their responsibility to creating safe streets for all. It’s time we called these false claims out for what they really are.

Header image credit: Zachary Rynew via Twitter @Ciclavalley

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