Some years ago, I wound up arguing about congestion pricing in my local cafe with a woman I’d never met before. I said that as someone who didn’t own a car I didn’t want to pay to maintain infrastructure for people who did. She responded with the usual, “Well, some of us have to have cars,” and then put a new spin on it. “I need one to get to my farm upstate.”
She clearly felt she had won the argument with that one, and I let her think that, because it was clear there was no getting through to her that evening. I grew up surrounded by farms, summer houses and weekend houses, and I can tell the difference between them. If you’re spending Sunday night in your apartment in Sunnyside, either you have a weekend house with a garden, or you own a farm but you’re paying other people to milk the cows and collect the eggs. Either way, you can leave your poseur pickup truck at the New Paltz park-and ride, and you are not entitled to my tax money subsidizing a free ride for you across the Queensboro Bridge.
Since then I’ve had similar encounters with other people, and read about many more, where someone who identified as a city resident argued in favor of maintaining free bridges, free parking, wide streets or minimum parking requirements, or opposing bus lanes or bike lanes, because they also identified as a driver. This person usually complained about owning a car in the city, either having to pay for parking or to move their car twice a week for alternate side sweeping. It seemed like they hated everything about car ownership.
The people in question didn’t use the car to commute to work, and rarely used it for shopping or to go out at night. So why did they have a car? To go to their country house (or sometimes “farm”) in the Catskills, in Vermont, in Connecticut. Sometimes they didn’t even own a country house, and just used the car to drive to short-term rentals or hotels.
It made me wonder, what if they didn’t need a car to have a weekend away from the city? What if, like me and my family, they took trains and buses to get to hotels? They could even own a house in a small town, walking distance from a bus stop or a train station.
I wrote about this back in 2009, and Alon thought we should concentrate our attention instead on getting suburbanites to move to the city. We see how well that worked out! But the reason I think it would be effective to provide more alternatives for car-free weekends is not based on absolute numbers. It’s based on the fact that so many people who are obstacles in the fight for safe streets, efficient movement, reducing pollution, bringing us closer together and providing access for everyone are people who own cars primarily to get to their country houses and weekend hotels.
If we can give those people an alternative to parking their cars in Manhattan, would they stop identifying as drivers and be more supportive of transit and walking? We can’t know until we try it. And as Bruce pointed out in the comments to my old post, the worst is that we can make it easier for a bunch of non-drivers to have a relaxing weekend away from the city. I’ll talk about some specific idea in future posts.