Europe’s War on Cars

How Europe is waging war on private commuters and what it may mean for drivers here in the United States. Read this assessment and share your thoughts on the HVA Website.

Rising fuel prices, increasing urban population densities and environmental concerns—these are just a few of the reasons urban planners and elected officials are urging people to kick their “automobile habit” and jump on board the public transportation bandwagon.

On the surface, it’s hard to argue with a policy that promises an end to traffic congestion, a reduction in road and parking facility costs and improved public health. But what’s not talked about are the serious implications these types of policies could mean for our ability to own and use our vehicles.

In the debate about public transportation policy, many believe that the environmental and cost incentive rationales amount to nothing more than a false, but seductive, logic capable of re-directing billions of tax dollars into an agenda aimed at getting us out of our cars and onto bike paths and commuter trains.

Europe Stifling Drivers

If this sounds like ideological fear-mongering—if you think this couldn’t possibly happen in the great car countries of the world—consider this recent article in The New York Times.

Last month, reporter Elisabeth Rosenthal focused on a growing trend to stifle automobile ownership in Germany, England and other European countries all in the name of health, safety and cost efficiencies. Anti-car transportation policies in Europe have already led to the closing of many streets in popular cities such as Vienna, Munich and Copenhagen. Hefty “congestion fees” in London and Stockholm are leveled on motorist who want to drive their vehicles downtown.

One of the worst offenders of all—accused of purposely tormenting private commuters, according to the report—are Zurich traffic planning officials who have added closely spaced red lights on roads leading into town. According to the report, Zurich officials have also removed pedestrian underpasses and allow operators in the city’s ever-expanding tram system to turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach; thus, causing stop and go traffic conditions that result in driver “angst and delay.”

“Driving is a stop-and-go experience,” one Zurich city planner is quoted as saying. “That’s what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”

What’s most disturbing is that these troubling conditions are not simply the result of haphazard local policy. These actions are, in fact, all in line with the larger transportation goals of the European Union Transport Commission, which earlier this year introduced a plan that would ban all conventionally fueled cars from European cities by 2050 and move most passenger travel to trains in the same time-frame.

Here At Home

The public transportation debate in America, thankfully, has taken a slightly different path for now. Major U.S. cities have yet to take as direct and hostile a stance as some in Europe. However, federal policies seem to be signaling a more troubling trend for drivers.

Consider federal and state gasoline taxes. While many of the highways and bridges in the nation are crumbling, a growing amount of fuel taxes paid by American motorists are being diverted for alternative transportation measures such as bike paths, high-speed rail and Amtrak.

Rising gas prices already serve as a disincentive to drive. But in May, The Hill reported on a new hindrance that came in the form of a draft plan by the Obama administration. The White House tried to distance itself from the controversial proposal, which suggested that cars be taxed by the number of miles driven, but many car enthusiasts believe the administration had simply shown where it stands on the issue of private vehicle ownership.

So what can we do?

As social and environmental trends push us farther away from the internal combustion engine and lawmakers continue to respond with policy initiatives aimed at building and supporting an infrastructure built for public transportation (not the automobile), the HVA will be right there, every step of the way, fighting for our right to own and use our cars. The mobility provided by the car is one of the greatest freedoms enjoyed by Americans and is the envy of many around the world. Once lost, this freedom may never be gained back.

What do you think about the European trend stifling automobile use? Share your comments below.