Against against cars Contents

Written April 2022 | Posted 20 May 2024


  1. Disclaimer
  2. Public transport can be unsafe
  3. Public transport can be unsafe for minorities
  4. Public transport can be inaccessible (physically, sensorily, executive function / timeliness–wise & for parents)
  5. Public transit is not suited for every task
  6. Car culture is independence culture


I like public transit! I like being able to get places without driving, and I agree that the environmental and public health (e.g., car accidents) impacts of cars are harmful. I have also sometimes gotten on a bus and immediately desired universal love and transcendent joy toward everyone on it. However, anti-car sentiment overlooks the value of cars, especially to particular groups whom society sometimes also overlooks. While I could be convinced that the costs of cars outweigh their benefits, this is far from a foregone conclusion, and there’s not enough discussion of the benefits of cars, especially from a utilitarian point of view, so I’m writing this to contribute to the small amount of literature that’s been produced lately on the case for cars.

Public transport can be unsafe

Being around large numbers of unknown people is an experience that can be inconvenient or even dangerous. The start of the Covid-19 pandemic was a perfect example of this—when we didn’t know the characteristics of Covid, or if we were to have a virus more dangerous than Covid, having no options besides sharing a space with other people could be very dangerous.

Public transport can be unsafe for minorities

To the extent that it is hostile, public transport is probably disproportionately hostile to women. Some studies report that many women say they have experienced harassment on public transport. People who don’t want to be harassed or assaulted might decide to drive to work instead of taking the train every now and then, but banning cars would take that option away from them, as would making it difficult in practice for cars to get through some portion of the route. (Fixing harassment is probably a hard enough problem that, even without factoring in the other concerns in this article, “when we fix harassment, then we can get rid of cars” isn’t a very good argument.)

Racial minorities are also vulnerable to incidents of racism on public transit; the more you’re around more people, the more opportunities there are for racism, and, furthermore, public transit can often be a low-trust environment where you don’t know most of the people you’re sharing a space with. This raises the relative likelihood that incidents of racism will happen to people on public transit compared to other settings.

In general, if someone is perceived as a minority (this includes other categories I haven’t talked about—e.g., trans people who can be clocked), ey’s vulnerable to harassment on public transit the same as ey is in any other environment, and many people want to make tradeoffs to avoid such harassment.

Public transport can be inaccessible

Public transit can be inaccessible for people with disabilities, as well as people who have traits that don’t necessarily qualify as disabilities.

Physical: Some people can’t walk very far, use wheelchairs, &c., and bus stops—not to mention train stops—can be fairly spaced out; if someone lives far (or even several blocks) from the nearest bus stop, it might not be feasible for em to walk to that bus stop every day, and moving would probably be untenable for a number of reasons. Additionally, transit vehicles themselves can be inaccessible, although according to the law many in the US are mandated to be accessible. Physical constraints are especially relevant for elderly people.

Executive function: Some people might have a hard time making it to the bus stop / train station on time—maybe because they’re dealing with executive function issues or maybe because they are students who are supposed to wake up very early for school but have a hard time getting up that early. For these people, public transit isn’t very convenient, and there is an inherent competing access needs problem because, while it would be useful for them if the bus kept looping back and waiting 10 extra minutes, it’s not at all obvious that it would be good on net—e.g., if someone else has to get to work on time and doesn’t have a lot of leeway, accommodating the late person hurts the person who needs to get to work. (Making sure I get on the bus when it arrives, and then getting off at the right stop, feels like a task it’s very possible to fail, and I’m surprised I almost always manage to do it.)

Sensory: Public transit can be crowded[citation needed], loud[citation needed], and full of unpredictable people[citation needed]. This can be very unpleasant for people with sensory sensitivities (e.g., one can’t control other people’s perfumes or smoking on city streets, and the noise is of course an obvious factor).

Parents: Being a parent is not a disability[citation needed], but being a parent or parent-to-be makes public transport both physically and logistically harder to use—herding a toddler while carrying an infant and trying to scan a bus pass is probably difficult; being pregnant is physically trying and probably makes it harder to walk to bus stops and the like (see the section on physical disabilities above); getting children out the door in time to catch a train that comes once every half hour can be a difficult logistical problem.

Public transit is not suited for every task

It is inconvenient to do several common tasks using public transit, such as transporting large items such as furniture (they take up space, and are not fun to carry if you have to walk to the bus stop, but hiring a moving truck is probably inconvenient) or large but reasonable amounts of groceries.

Similarly, if you consistently own a car, you can store things in it for later use, whereas you can’t really store cough drops, tissues, spare change, ... on a bus, and so anything you want with you will have to be carried on your person... all the time. These are likely smaller concerns, but having a mobile “home base” in the form of a car is probably load-bearing for some people, especially if there are particular items you really need access to.

Car culture is independence culture

For all the complaints about car culture, car culture is based on reasonable principles. Specifically, it is rooted in individualism and independence. There are real advantages to having one’s own private means of transport (bicycles and walking/wheelchairs/&c. are often also similar, but they are far more limited in range). You can go anywhere you are physically able to at any time you want. No matter if the buses aren’t running at 1 am—you can get that midnight pizza if you’d like. You can reduce your risk of being late for important events due to events outside of your control. You are less reliant on other people and there are fewer ways for something to go wrong. You don’t have to conform to other people’s schedules (cf. midnight pizza). Mobility is restricted if you’re dependent on public transit—e.g., if buses aren’t running late at night, you can’t be out late at night, especially if, like many women, you’re particularly cautious about the possibility of harm.

In general, I am in favor of more options. Having the choice between walking, biking, public transit, and cars is one example of having more options (the reason why we don’t allow people to have transportation that runs on the tears of orphans is because we think the harms outweigh the benefits; to convince me cars shouldn’t be an option, you must convince me that the harms outweigh the benefits). Having the choice to do things using a car that you can’t, like traveling without having to stick to someone else’s schedule, where and when you need or want to; transporting large items; and getting midnight pizza is another example of expanding the options available to us. Having your own private vehicle that lets you avoid other people and their pathogens, avoid being harassed, avoid unpleasant environments, and make your own choices without being too subject to the whims of local government is another expansion of options. Better public transit also gives us more options—but public transit remains public, and it fundamentally cannot have all the same benefits as cars do. Thus, do not take “against against cars” to be against public transit. Rather, it is for all net-positive forms of transit, because no form is fully fungible with any other.