How Critical Theory Helped Me Understand Cars, Pedestrians, and Urbanism

Marx-inflected analysis in no way requires one to embrace Marxist solutions

When I first began following urbanist Twitter, I noticed something that alarmed my right-leaning sensibilities: some folks seemed to adopt a vaguely Marxian mode of analysis, with pedestrians and cyclists taking the place of proletarians, and motorists taking the place of capitalists. It was easy, having grown up hearing New Urbanism or Smart Growth or mass transit likened to communism, to wonder if this confirmed that cantankerous old right-wing characterization.

However, as I learned more, it became clear that whatever their rhetorical framing and style—which, being Twitter, sometimes goes overboard—the folks who used this kind of analysis were pointing to something true and real, which I, as a suburbanite and frequent driver, had never really thought about. I realized, as my mind simultaneously took in a new area of inquiry and floated back to college, that what I was seeing was a novel (to me, anyway) application of critical theory.

Hold on now. Critical theory is Marxism, right? Well, not exactly. There’s Marxism, the failed economic-political-historical theory. And there’s Marxism, the analytical tool, which uses class, group, and power to elucidate something about the world and human relations that an individualist frame might miss. As one of my professors once said, all theories are wrong, and some are useful. Yes, sometimes even this one.

In one sense, this analytical Marxism is “critical class theory.” Similar, a certain variety of feminism is critical gender theory. And of course, there’s the one about race. Along these lines, you could call that “communist” stuff about motorists and pedestrians “critical mobility theory.” (Here’s a Twitter thread by grad student Abigail Lewis that intersects some of these theories, arguing that transit is designed towards male, rather than female, travel and trip preferences. I couldn’t tell you if it’s correct, but it’s interesting.)

It’s true that this type of analysis tends to be the province of the left. It’s also true that many on the culture-war right are invested in painting it with a broad brush and ensuring that it is simplified and misunderstood. Nonetheless, I have found, as someone firmly on the center-right, that critical theory has helped me understand urbanism and urban issues more fully.

To totally reject this mode of analysis, as many conservatives try to do, denies that there are inequalities or injustices that fall along group lines. It denies that power imbalances between groups exist, or if one acknowledges that some exist, denies that they make any difference. This is absurd, and every bit as ideologically determined as the view that power imbalances are all-explanatory. They aren’t, but they’re part of reality. It’s not all or nothing. And a conservative should be invested in seeing reality as it is, not as one wishes or as an ideology suggests.

As Rod Dreher once put it, “The business of a conservatism with integrity is not to impose an idealistic ideological narrative on reality but rather to try to see the world as it is and respond to its challenges within the limits of what we know about human nature.” In my experience, critical theory can help us do that.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. In this photo essay I wrote for Strong Towns, I walked three miles of Fairfax Boulevard, or U.S. Route 50 in the City of Fairfax, Virginia. This is far from the worst pedestrian experience you can find in America, but it is typical of what urbanists call “car-oriented” landscapes.

At one point, I came to a crosswalk at a wide point in the highway. Cars were everywhere. The walk light went on, and I crossed at my usual brisk pace. I barely made it across before the light changed back:

Imagine carrying things, or crossing with one or two small children, or pushing a stroller, or being an older person, or using a wheelchair. If the rule is “only cross the street while the walk light is on,” it is impossible for a large number of people to follow the rule. Such “unfollowable rules,” along with hostile design, produce a perception in many motorists that there is a problem with other road users’ behavior. But expecting everyone to impeccably observe such car-centric rules is like expecting a gambler to always beat the house.

On a similar note, consider Strong Towns president Charles Marohn’s recent article, “Design Speed is a Value Statement,” in which he, an engineer, argues that traffic engineers prioritize car speed over any number of competing values, and without community input. Certainly not any input from people who don’t drive or have cars.

If your response is that the individual simply must work harder to cross the crosswalk in time, or that a majority of people drive so deal with it, well that’s barely an argument at all. This is what the critical theory lens reveals. The primacy of motorist convenience is not a given. It is a consciously chosen, policy-driven inequality. There are value judgments and power structures baked into traffic engineering and road design. Perhaps you think those values are correctly chosen, and that motorists deserve priority. That is evidently what many think, and that’s their prerogative. But don’t pretend that crumbling three-foot-wide sidewalks along deadly highways are the state of nature.

Or consider philosopher André Gorz’s 1973 essay “The Social Ideology of the Motorcar.” Gorz uses a Marxian lens to analyze the effect of widespread adoption of the car on traditional cities. For example:

The cities and towns have been broken up into endless highway suburbs, for that was the only way to avoid traffic congestion in residential centers. But the underside of this solution is obvious: ultimately people can’t get around conveniently because they are far away from everything. To make room for the cars, distances have increased.

A common retort is that we chose this, and so to critique it is to question our society’s collective preferences, effectively pitting a boutique left-wing ideology against the broad preferences of Americans. But that’s exactly the point. “We” did not choose it. The woman pushing a stroller across a wide intersection with a timer that’s impossible to obey did not choose it. The late-shift service workers in Washington, D.C. who have no affordable way to get home because housing in the city is too expensive and ride-share is prohibitively expensive and the subway stops at 11 p.m. because it’s primarily for 9-to-5 commuters and tourists, not the workers who support affluent urban lifestyles. The husband and wife in Maryland, killed by cars five years apart on the same highway, did not choose it.

It is wrong to treat equal things unequally (that’s the core moral argument against racial discrimination, for example). But it’s also wrong to pretend that unequal things are actually equal. Pedestrians scurrying across a crosswalk are not equal to motorists piloting 2-ton hunks of steel. You may believe these are equal. But that is a belief, rooted in the fantastical notion that power differences cannot exist or that they cannot matter.

Recognizing this does not mean gleefully demolishing the suburbs or banning cars or whatever left-wing hyperbole you might find on online. A Marxian-inflected analysis does not require a revolutionary solution. But to craft a solution, we must first acknowledge there is a problem. And if critical theory can help us to see those problems, God bless it.