A Car Ban Will Improve the State of the Climate, But Is It Ableist?

The environmental movement can do better when it comes to promoting car bans.

sign of banned car against sky

Priscila Zambotto / Getty Images

Recently, I sent an appreciative tweet about fellow Treehugger Lloyd Alter’s argument for banning cars from our cities as a means to reduce the urban heat island effect. But a minute after I sent out my tweet, I noticed a Twitter friend of mine discussing some strangely familiar language. 

Car bans, she said, were ableist and marginalizing, and the environmental movement could probably do better. It was a point worthy of discussion, so I sent it further out into the world.  

Whether or not this was a subtweet of yours truly, it was a reminder that language has power. I continue to believe the core point in Alter’s article—that cars are mobile units of combustion that directly heat the world around them—is another strong reason to reduce society’s reliance on them. 

Yet this friend is someone I respect a lot. While we’ve never met in real life, she comes across as thoughtful, committed, kind, and deeply caring. (She also once wrote a positive review about my book so you could say I'm slightly biased.) So when she says something’s not right, I am inclined to listen. 

Following some interactions with Laura herself, I started digging into the online discussions her post had generated. Twitter user Ryan, for example, pointed out that not only is marginalization a problem in its own right, but it potentially deprives the climate movement of much-needed expertise. After all, who knows more about rethinking our built environments than people who have been far too often treated as an afterthought?

Meanwhile my local friend, bike mechanic, and advocate Scotty Mathess—who agreed wholeheartedly that urbanism/road safety movements need to become more inclusive—largely agreed that inclusivity is important in the discussion. But he also reminded us of why so many bike advocates use strong and even heated language—namely the physical devastation that so many oversized cars cause.

Mathess' point was far from an abstract one for him. While he was tweeting at me, he was also helping to drum up numbers for a memorial bike ride in honor of a local cyclist who had been killed in front of his family by a hit-and-run driver. Clearly, passions run high on this topic. But, being the conflict-averse person that I am, I suspected there was more agreement on end goals than the sometimes fractious online discourse might suggest. 

In a recent article about ‘ban cars’ rhetoric, Doug Gordon, co-host of a podcast called "The War On Cars," made the case that the term is less a literal call for immediate prohibition than it is an attempt to reclaim language that is disingenuously used to discredit calls for human-centered communities: 

“As a two-word summary of a complex movement, 'ban cars' is inaccurate and incomplete. Still, there’s no question that many community advocates, urban planners, and policy makers around the planet want to challenge the automobile’s current status at the top of our transportation food chain. Loosely, slightly humorously, and for lack of a better term, we might call this 'the ban cars movement,' a name that comes from reappropriating a criticism frequently leveled at those who speak truth to horsepower: ‘Silly bike people. You’ll never ban cars!’”

Yet even if the language is intended as a reclamation of bad faith attacks—“The War on Cars” is a reference to populist Toronto Mayor Doug Ford’s attacks on bicyclists—we must remember there’s often a huge difference between intent and impact. And there is no denying that many disabled folks, who have to grapple with marginalization, discrimination, and even implicit and explicit calls for eugenics, feel alienated by the language. Even if the movement insists it doesn’t literally mean ban cars, the lived experience of many disabled people leaves them deeply skeptical that their needs will be adequately considered. 

This sense was reinforced when I connected with Melissa Thompson, a disabled academic who had previously spoken out on her dislike for the "ban cars" rhetoric. She told me she believed compact, mixed-use communities where folks can get around without needing to rely on the car are the way of the future. But demanding we ban cars, especially in communities where cars are currently a lifeline for many, feels premature and marginalizing for many. She found that online discussions, in particular, tended to amplify conflict, leading to situations where disabled voices were often dismissed or belittled.

“If you’re talking to a disabled person who has been a part of these discussions, I can almost guarantee they’ve been told that the lives of disabled people are an acceptable sacrifice for a low carbon future," said Thompson. "Yet about 25% of Americans have some form of disability, and something like 12.5% of us use a mobility device. We want to be a part of the discussion.”

These conversations go way beyond transport. She recalled a recent discussion with developers in Minnesota, where a three-story building with 12 units was going up in the space of a single-family home. The building itself was being billed as "fully accessible" and yet, on scrutinizing the details, Thompson discovered there was no elevator and only the ground floor apartments had doors wide enough for wheelchair access. When the folks promoting the project were called out on this issue, she was told there’s no elevator because it’s not legally required to have one. She was even mocked by some online, with one particular troll suggesting her requests for an elevator were equivalent to demanding a "bespoke cat condo" in every unit.

“If you’re not putting in a $30,000 elevator into an expensive building like this, then you’re doing it because you don’t want to—not because you can’t," Thompson tells Treehugger. "And you are actively causing harm to disabled people. You are telling us that we don’t matter, and we’re an acceptable sacrifice for the future you want to see.” 

I guiltily confessed to Thompson that even my own recent article on inclusion within car-free communities made zero mention of disabilities, and I’ve gushed about walkable communities more times than I can mention. She was gracious and understanding, but also not at all surprised.

This was perhaps the most compelling takeaway from my conversation with Thompson: There is, for very good reason, a huge deficit of trust within the disabled community as to whether systems and institutions that prioritize non-disabled folks will take disabled peoples’ needs into account. So even when calls for a "ban" are couched with reassurances of exceptions and special permits, disabled people are right to scrutinize carefully who will be the arbiter of which car use is necessary and permissible, and which should be banned.

Pointing out that the much-celebrated Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is both deeply flawed, and poorly enforced, Thompson urged those looking to move beyond cars to think more inclusively about the language that is used. 

“Don’t just advocate for the end result that you eventually want. Even if our shared goal is to have as few cars as possible, it may not make sense to start the conversation there—especially in communities where cars are so entrenched," says Thompson. "Start with the accessible infrastructure: sidewalks, plentiful public transport, accessible buses, etc. We’re going to need to see those things before you can start advocating for any bans on cars.”

In many ways, this reminded me of the importance of societal context in all advocacy. Flight shaming makes more sense in Sweden, where trains are readily available. Criticizing car drivers has very little effect where streets are dangerous, and when alternatives are scarce. So too banning cars will only become politically feasible in communities where a car-free or car-light future feels tangibly in reach, and where all citizens, with all different needs, are included in the discussion about what that really means. 

As I was working on this article, I reached out to Alter—a writer who has called for a ban on cars many times, but has also written thoughtfully about the need to move away from ‘walkability’ as a metric, and to design our cities for the needs of elderly people and disabled people. He agreed that the movement has too often done a terrible job of creating truly inclusive conversations:

“There are a lot of people who have reacted negatively when I say ‘ban cars,’ and then I have to go back and say ‘of course I don’t mean every car.’ But what we have now is basically drivable cities–and everybody else is marginalized," says Alter. "That includes many people who are physically unable to drive. It is fundamentally a very difficult conversation, but it’s one that’s made more difficult by the hegemony of the motorcar. Currently, the amount of space we give to cars means we can’t have both wheelchair ramps and adequate sidewalks in some cities—meaning either wheelchair users or the visually impaired will suffer.”

I asked Alter whether he would continue to use the term, given folks’ objections. He hesitated.

“Now that you’ve brought this up, I do think I would think twice. It is of course an oversimplification and an act of rhetoric," he says. "It can be effective in forcefully capturing attention, and pushing people to rethink their assumptions that cars are the default that we design around. But there’s no denying it’s hard for people to grapple with. If you say to an American suburbanite you want to ban cars, it’s just too big a leap. What we’re really talking about are ban cul-de-sacs, or single family zoning, or all these other more complex topics.”

Ultimately, I suspect this is less about specific language and more about showing up—in good faith—and demanding that the needs of disabled people are central to the conversation. We can choose to reject the notion of sacrifices or winners and losers.

Having started my teenage environmentalist activities amid the no-more-roads movements of early '90s Britain, I remember being awed by the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network, which built strong alliances with other protest groups in pursuit of a shared, common goal.

When I interviewed cycling advocate Chris Bruntlett for my book, one of the first things he told me was that the fastest growing group of cyclists in the Netherlands was folks with various forms of physical disability. Not only were new, adaptive bikes helping increase mobility and personal freedom for many, but separated bike lanes and other car-free infrastructure were making life easier for mobility scooters, wheelchairs, and other such devices. But for the benefits of a low-carbon, low-car future to be shared as widely as possible, the conversation needs to be as wide as possible too. 

The goal we are striving for is human-centered design. And that means all humans. Given the need to listen to disabled voices on this topic, I’ll leave the last word to Thompson: “Creating communities that involve far fewer cars has the potential to make things better for everyone, including folks with mobility devices. But I’m not always great at telling when folks are engaging in this discussion in good faith. Universal design helps everybody, and harms nobody—so why is it not the default?”