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High Gas Prices Are Revving Up This Online Anti-Car Movement

An online community questions society's obsession with automobiles.

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Midday traffic on the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles, California. 
Mario Tama / Getty Images

A few years ago, Jason Slaughter began making YouTube videos to document his family's move from Toronto to Amsterdam. That's how the 45-year-old IT professional became an inadvertent hero of the growing online anti-car movement.

Posting to his orange-themed channel, Slaughter focused on the differences between transportation in North America and the Netherlands, which he chose for its car-free lifestyle. One video details a short but treacherous walk in Houston that required pedestrians to inch over a bridge with little separating them and speeding traffic.

The 17-minute video, which was uploaded about a year ago, struck a nerve with r/fuckcars, a vehemently anti-automobile Reddit community advocating for urban design that's less reliant on driving. Members quickly appropriated Slaughter's aesthetic, rewarding new converts with an "orange pilled" badge after they've experienced an anti-automobile epiphany. (Orange pilling is a reference to The Matrix movies, in which the hero sees the truth about the world after taking a red pill.) 

"It's kind of been a wild ride ever since," said Slaughter, whose video now has 4.3 million views. The subreddit, he says, has treated him as a "goddamned messiah."

The popularity of Slaughter's videos on r/fuckcars underscores the growing anxiety many Americans and Canadians have about the way their continent is organized, a concern that has recently spilled out online. Forums are filled with complaints about surging gasoline prices and a re-examination of car-dependent suburban and exurban lifestyles. A younger generation gathers online to express support for clean energy while rejecting car ownership in favor of densely populated cities with ample public transportation.

The movement is small but growing quickly. In addition to r/fuckcars, whose membership has more than quadrupled to 283,000 members since gas prices started to spike at the beginning of the year, The War on Cars podcast, Bike Forums and the #CarsSuck hashtag on Twitter have all given voice to the frustrations over automobiles. They have helped create a vocabulary for the confinement and separation associated with North America's car-dependent culture. 

Online discussions reflect those societal concerns, as well as tie car dependency to economic inequality, an increasingly important topic for younger people. One study, conducted by the Center for Sustainable Urban Neighborhoods at the University of Louisville, found modest increases to public transportation gave more opportunities for economic mobility. Adrian Pietrzak, a Ph.D. student at Princeton who calls himself @zoningwonk on Twitter, posts frequently about cars being a tax on the poor.

"A huge concern, and that actually also ties into online communities, is the nature of community itself," said Jeffrey Debies-Carl, an associate professor of sociology at the University of New Haven who has watched the phenomenon grow.

Communities like r/fuckcars mourn the loss of an America many of the members are too young to have experienced. A common theme is that cities weren't made for cars. Instead, they were bulldozed to accommodate automobiles. 

Oftentimes, archival photos are used to make the point that even the most sprawling cities, such as Los Angeles and Denver, were once compact, walkable urban centers. As car usage grew, streets became congested and urban design adapted to new demands.

"Never forget what was taken from us," reads one post featuring a photo of midcentury Dallas that could be mistaken for Manhattan. 

Advocates for reimagining urban life say social media has been key to getting the message out. Twitter, Instagram and other platforms allow people to globe-trot from their couches to cities in Europe that are organized around bikes or megalopolises in Asia where public transportation moves people from place to place. 

"When I started my career in the '90s, if you wanted to have your thinking transformed by another city, you had to take a trip to Copenhagen," said Brent Toderian, a urban planning consultant who previously worked for the cities of Vancouver and Calgary. Social media, he said, "gave us all the ability to perceive and be inspired by those cities."

Jacob Unterreiner, 27, a student at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte, says online communities encouraged him to co-found Charlotte Urbanists, an activist group that aims to "combat destructive suburban norms." To encourage more public transportation, the group raised money online to build and install bus stop benches, generating attention that Unterreiner hopes will lead to higher-quality bus stops in the future.

Unterreiner recently ended up on Reddit's front page for a meme about the growing size of Mini Coopers over the last four and a half decades.

The post generated around 5 million views, he said, after it landed on one of the internet's most valuable pieces of real estate. "The views just skyrocket on your posts," Unterreiner said.

BMW, which owns the Mini brand, didn't respond to a request for comment about Unterreiner's Reddit post. 

Aaron Naparstek, the co-host of The War on Cars podcast, says the anti-car movement will likely have difficulty getting SUVs and hulking trucks banned from neighborhoods but can still make inroads by advocating for bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly streets.

"As cars have grown in size and power and distracting features over these last five to 10 years, there's been this kind of equivalent growth in awareness that we need to push back against the industry and the culture," said Naparstek, whose 4-year-old podcast attracts 20,000 listeners per episode.

Changing attitudes will take work, particularly in a culture that equates automobiles and the open road with personal freedom. The industry also represents a century of vested interests and is huge employer. More than 4 million Americans work in the auto industry, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Jay Joseph, who runs Honda's new energy business in the US, says investment in robust public transportation would make it easier for cities to raise barriers to cars. "You can't just make the decision to stop using personal mobility," Joseph said, "and then hope that everything works its way out." Honda is monitoring anti-car forums, he said, as well as the broader global conversation.

Ford, GM, Stellantis, Nissan, Toyota, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen didn't respond to requests for comment about the online anti-car movement. 

Slaughter, the Canadian video maker, says weaning Americans and Canadians off of car-dependent lifestyles may simply be impossible. 

Though he continues to post to his channel, titled Not Just Bikes, he's given up on change in Canada. Activism back home, he says, will accomplish little.

"These people are willfully ignorant," Slaughter said of the suburbanites back home. "They just come up with a bunch of excuses to keep the status quo."