An anti-car activist wants to get city-dwellers walking again for the sake of their mental health, wallets, and the environment

An anti-car activist wants to get city-dwellers walking again for the sake of their mental health, wallets, and the environment
Doug Gordon
  • Doug Gordon is an advocate for walkable cities and co-host of "The War On Cars" podcast.
  • He says support has "never been greater" for walkable cities and more bike lanes.

Doug Gordon hasn't owned a car for nearly 25 years — and he wants you to join him.

The NYC-based project lead for a campaign called 'Car Free Megacities' and co-host of The War On Cars podcast isn't shy about using attention-grabbing language to drive home his message.

"If saying 'ban cars' gets the media talking and people learning about the harms caused by automobiles and makes them consider solutions they might not have otherwise imagined, that's a win," he told Insider.

Gordon is among many Americans taking steps towards car-free — or car-lite — lives. A 2018 survey of over 1,000 Americans by the transportation technology company Arity found 51% of Millennials felt owning a car was not "worth the investment," compared to 47% of Gen X — Gordon's generation — and 31% of Baby Boomers who said the same.

While many are doing so for environmental reasons, a myriad of other factors are nudging them as well, including high car expenses, time wasted in traffic, and safety concerns.


Reducing car dependence promotes "notions of shared responsibility and community"

Gordon says living car-free has always had an appeal to him. Growing up in a suburb, he was drawn to New York due to the ease with which one could get around via public transit, walking and cycling.

It was around 2010 when Gordon was sent down the "car-free rabbit hole," one he has never fully come out of. Plans were introduced to install a protected bike lane along Prospect Park West in Brooklyn, and the announcement attracted significant opposition. The controversy made Gordon curious to learn more about the advocates and groups involved, and he was soon sucked in.

"I immersed myself in the movement," he says, "read a ton of books and started doing a bit of writing on the subject myself, leading me toward getting even more deeply involved and, a few years ago, starting the podcast with my co-hosts."

Gordon says that while environmental and safety concerns are discussed regularly, he also believes cars can "destroy notions of shared responsibility and community."

"When you're in your car, you are cut off from your fellow humans and see them not as individuals but as obstacles," he says.


Gordon sees investments in public transportation, sidewalks, and bike lanes as crucial to creating a car-free infrastructure, adding that congestion pricing — charging drivers a fee to access certain areas in an effort to deter more traffic — should be adopted more widely in US cities. He doesn't see electric vehicles as the answer.

"EVs may eliminate tailpipe emissions," he says, "but they do not make it safe for an 8-year-old or an 80-year-old to cross the street," he said.

It's getting more expensive to own a car

Gordon believes the goal should be to "reduce car dependency more broadly," particularly due to the significant costs associated with car ownership.

In June, the average monthly car payment reached a record-high of $712, per a Cox Automotive/Moody's Analytics analysis, driven by rising car prices and interest rates on car loans. Part of the reason Horton sold her used car last September was that it fetched such a high price — $5,000 more on the online car retailer Carvana than she would have received six months prior, she says.

A recent study by the work-focused blog Overheard On Conference Calls used census and government data to analyze commuting costs — focusing on gas prices, commute distance, insurance costs and maintenance expenses. It found that the average American driver will spend over $2,900 on their commute in 2022, a 35% increase over the roughly $2,200 spent in 2021. Perhaps unsurprisingly, gas prices were the main culprit: US commuters are on pace to average $657 this year, up from $457 in 2021.


American infrastructure doesn't make car-free life easy

Moving forward, Gordon is optimistic because support for more walkable city centers and expanded bike lane networks has "never been greater." He believes there is a "if you build it, they will come" nature to these initiatives, in that major opposition "tends to evaporate" once they are finally enacted.

He adds that embracing slogans like "ban cars" may rub some people the wrong way, he believes the pros outweigh any cons.

He's less optimistic, however, in the ability of public officials to "stand up to the vested interests of drivers, automakers and the fossil fuel lobby." With the heatwave spanning Europe and the droughts impacting the western US, Gordon believes the proper sense of urgency is lacking.

"We need to move with all deliberate speed to reduce carbon emissions," he says, calling the oft-used argument that we need parking space instead of bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, or bus services "counterproductive."

"The systems we've built to preserve a car-centric status quo don't serve humanity or the planet very well," he added. "Ultimately, it's the climate that will have the final word."