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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish. And now to the NPR Cities Project.

(SOUNDBITE OF VARIOUS CITY SOUNDS)

CORNISH: We're reporting on the state of cities in the urban century. And our next few stories deal with the relationship between cities and cars. It's a conflicted relationship, to put it mildly. In Seattle, Toronto, Chicago, Boston and elsewhere, some people go as far as to claim there is a war on cars.

In Washington, D.C., too. That's where NPR's Franklyn Cater has been out on the street to learn what this is all about.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

FRANKLYN CATER, BYLINE: Well, let's start with a quick tour, and some of the things that people in various cities talk about when they talk about a war on cars. I'm at the corner of 9th and I Streets Northwest, here in Washington. Ninth Street is a one way, with three lanes of traffic. And the right lane is labeled with giant letters, right on the pavement, that say "Bus Only." Now, there aren't many buses going by - just occasionally - and cars are straying into the lane.

And I've been talking to drivers at this stoplight. On the whole, they really don't like this bus lane - especially the cab drivers. Let me just walk up to one here now.

I wonder if you have any thoughts about this bus lane.

ISAIAH MUSTAFA: It makes it - squeeze the street, actually.

CATER: Makes it hard to drive the cab?

MUSTAFA: Yeah, I think so. Yeah.

CATER: What's your name?

MUSTAFA: Isaiah Mustafa.

ANTHONY COWANS: It's horrible. (Laughter) You know, there's so much traffic, why can't we ride in that lane as well?

CATER: Can I ask your name?

COWANS: My name is Anthony Cowans.

CATER: Thanks a lot.

COWANS: All right, no problem.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC)

CATER: This bus lane is among changes, in recent years, in Washington and other places. Motivated by environmental concern and a design philosophy favoring foot traffic, cities are making room for other forms of transportation, not just cars.

(SOUNDBITE OF A CAR DOOR)

CATER: OK, now let's go for a ride. We're in a Ford Explorer with Lon Anderson.

LON ANDERSON: They have an army of ticket writers out there on the streets.

CATER: Anderson is spokesman for the AAA in the mid-Atlantic, and he's showing us where he sees a war on cars - parking tickets and automated enforcement, red-light cameras, speed cameras - one of them right behind a "Welcome to Washington" sign.

ANDERSON: Yeah, Welcome to Washington, D.C. Please, just open your wallets and be charitable. And if you don't, we'll still get you.

CATER: Well, Anderson's not the only one in Washington who has cried war. Let's get back on the sidewalk.

CHUCK THIES: My name is Chuck Thies. I'm a political consultant. And we are standing on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 15th Street, Northwest. And there's a bike lane right next to us.

CATER: Your contention is, there's a war going on. What's the war?

THIES: Sure. Ultimately, the war comes down to resources. Transportation dollars are few and far between, and everyone wants them for their projects. If you're a cyclist, perhaps you want it for a bike lane, or more bike racks. If you're a motorist, perhaps you want it for more highways, or the roads to be improved.

CATER: Chuck Thies wrote about this for the Huffington Post. He says some cyclists, and others, have an attitude towards cars. Thies says he bikes himself. But get real, he says - we can't get rid of cars.

THIES: Take a look around. Right here, I see four bikes, five or six pedestrians; and I see, what, 50 cars? This is the predominant form of transportation in America. In fact, it's something that we can't live without. When you get a refrigerator delivered to your house, when someone goes to a construction site with a bunch of 2-by-4s, they don't bring it on a bicycle. They don't bring it on a Metro. They bring it in an automobile. It's easy to vilify the automobile, but it's not productive.

CATER: Well, from the other side of the front, the cyclists on 15th Street fire right back. Say the phrase "war on cars" to Brian Menifee, Tom Garnett or Martin Vieiro...

(LAUGHTER)

BRIAN MENIFEE: I mean, I just think that that's ridiculous.

TOM GARNETT: Well, that's ludicrous.

MARTIN VIEIRO: You know, if you ride your bike around the city enough, you'd feel like they're at war with you, opposed to you at - being at war with them.

CATER: Who are the casualties here? some ask. Cast about in North America and in nearly any city, you'll find some version of this heated rhetoric. In Toronto, the mayor pledged to end a so-called war on cars. In Seattle, that phrase - war on cars - has been aimed at all kinds of city plans, including lowering speed limits; in Chicago, at bus lanes and a congestion fee; in Boston, at a proposal to turn parking spaces into tiny parks called parklets. And some accuse the U.S. government of waging a war, with money that helps make these changes.

But the war on automobiles is not just a 21st century phrase. It's nearly as old as the car itself. In 1909, the New York Times wrote about a Georgia town waging a war on automobiles by banning them. To get some perspective, I went in search of that so-called war - a century ago, when cars were the insurgents. I drove to Charlottesville, Virginia.

PETER NORTON: Hi, I'm Peter Norton. I'm a historian of technology at the University of Virginia.

CATER: Norton wrote a book about the dawn of the motor age, in the American city. He says America eventually did welcome the automobile, but it was not an instant love affair.

NORTON: Today, a lot of people think it makes sense that cities made space for cars - because streets are for cars. But the attitude then was no, streets are for everything except cars. Mothers told their children to play in the streets, at that time. And when a child was struck by a car - at that time - people didn't blame the parent. They blamed the motorist. So as a result, there were efforts to restrict cars.

CATER: Norton says people had to be retrained before motorists were given right of way. That took a public relations offensive. Among the tactics - people who walked in the street were ridiculed; they were called jaywalkers.

NORTON: In a number of cities, they had clowns dressed up to look like uneducated, rural people; with sandwich board signs that would say things like, "I'm a jaywalker." And they would walk around, looking like idiots. In a parade in New York City, they had one of these characters repeatedly rear-ended by a Model T - over and over again - to the delight of onlooking crowds.

CATER: And what does Peter Norton make of the 21st century battle?

NORTON: To me, when I watch that, what I'm seeing is a rediscovery of debates that were happening 90 or 100 years ago; only people don't recognize it, because the success of the automobile age vision of the city street was, really, complete for a few decades.

CATER: So let's head back to Washington. War or not, that history is central to the way that D.C. officials see their goals these days.

HARRIET TREGONING: For decades, the mode of transport that cities were concerned about, were automobiles.

CATER: I'm on Pennsylvania Avenue with Harriet Tregoning, director of planning for Washington D.C.

TREGONING: We've begun more than a decade-long effort to rebalance our transportation system; in part because we just don't have the capacity in the city to accommodate everybody who wants to be here, to work or to live, if everyone was always in an automobile for every trip.

CATER: City officials say they're trying things out. They don't always work. But those bus lanes are supposed to move lots of people, not just cars. Automated tickets, they say, are about safety. Bike lanes give people another choice. And choices, says Harriet Tregoning, enhance street life for city residents - not just suburban commuters.

TREGONING: People are using these other transportation modes. And it's making it possible for restaurants, and other businesses, to open in all kinds of neighborhoods throughout the city.

CATER: And this phrase, "the war on cars"?

TREGONING: You know, I'm not aware of such a war. You know, I love cars. I own one myself. But, you know, it's also great to get out of them, every once in a while.

CATER: Well, are people getting out of their cars? That's tricky to measure. Tregoning points out, D.C.'s population grew in the past several years, while the number of vehicle registrations shrank. The number of cyclists is up. A bike rental program, which began two years ago, just celebrated its 2 millionth ride. And right now, the city estimates half of trips in D.C. don't involve a car. The city's goal by 2030, is for 75 percent of trips to be made without one.

At 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, Franklyn Cater for the NPR Cities Project.

CORNISH: And you can go online, to learn how people commute to work in different communities around the country. There's and interactive map at NPR.org/nprcities.

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