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…

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