Episode 1: Why the World Needs the War on Cars
Doug Gordon: All right. So here’s the question: why do we need a war on cars? And I guess more specifically, why do we need a podcast about a war on cars?
Sarah Goodyear: Okay, I’ll tell you, because I have to get this stuff off my chest somehow. Like, what happened to me on the way here. I was riding Citi Bike over here. It was a lovely morning. Going through an intersection, there was a little traffic because of a truck that was stopped. There was a four-way stop sign. All these cars were just blowing through the stop sign. I waited and waited. And finally I was like, I’m just taking my turn. I went to go through the intersection, and another car comes blowing through at me—an SUV with Jersey plates and this woman driving it. And I said, you know, “Stop! Like, you have a stop sign.” And she’s like, “Get your fucking self out of the street! You shouldn’t even be in the fucking street!” And it was like, why do I have to live like this? That’s why I—like, I gotta talk about this shit.
Aaron Naparstek: [laughs]
Doug: That woman probably, like, she’s like the president of her PTA. She’s, like, you know, her husband coaches Little League or whatever.
Aaron: Actually, she has to talk about this shit. I mean …
Doug: Yeah, absolutely.
Sarah: Yeah, right? She needs to go to therapy for that shit.
Doug: All right, so let’s do this. This is—this is The War on Cars. This is a podcast about —what do we think this podcast is about?
Aaron: I think it’s about cities, actually.
Sarah: Well, it’s about the way that cars are killing us, and it’s about the destruction of the social fabric.
Doug: I think for me, it’s just about getting the cars off of my street. I’m a NIMBY, but for cars.
Aaron: I think it’s about shining a light on this enormous blind spot that we have in America, which is just, you know, cars and car culture and the amount of destruction that cars do. You know, it’s just—it’s just like it’s invisible to us. And I think one of the things we’re gonna hope to do is just shine a light on that.
Doug: Expose that, yeah.
Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. I’m a transportation and safe streets advocate, otherwise known as BrooklynSpoke online. Sitting next to me is Aaron Naparstek, who is the founder and former editor of Streetsblog. Also really, really hates honking.
Aaron: I prefer to be introduced as “Transportation dilettante.”
Doug: Dilettante. Yes. Good, good, good. And also, I’m with Sarah Goodyear, a writer, a journalist who frequently writes about the subject of transportation and safe streets, and rides her bike and gets screamed at.
Sarah: Yeah. And who apparently should just get her fucking ass out of the street.
Doug: All right. So we all agree we need a war on cars, so let’s do it. Let’s talk about one, I guess, front in that war on cars, and that would be technology. Can tech save our cities from the car, or is it just gonna be we’re going to be flooded with guys on scooters, dockless bikes running old people over?
Aaron: Tech bros?
Doug: Tech bros?
Sarah: Okay, let’s talk about the scooter thing.
Doug: The scooter thing. All right. So for people who don’t know, let’s—let’s talk about, like, what are these e-scooters that are being kind of dropped?
Aaron: So there are these new companies, right? These VC, venture capitalist-funded companies like Bird and Lime.
Doug: Lime Bike. Yeah.
Aaron: And probably a couple others that are really aggressively moving into cities with electric scooters, where they just kind of roll up into the city, drop, you know, a couple thousand scooters on the street. Santa Monica, where else?
Sarah: San Francisco, Portland. They just went into Portland, Oregon.
Aaron: And people can then walk up to the scooter, use an app to pay. I think it’s like a dollar a ride.
Doug: Yeah, it’s very cheap.
Aaron: And then they’re—they’re zipping around at a maximum speed of I think it’s 15 miles per hour on most of these things, on sidewalks, on the street. And this has been jarring to a number of people.
Sarah: Yeah. And part of the reason that it’s jarring is that then when they’re done zipping around, they can just put the scooter wherever they want. And sometimes they just drop it in the middle of the sidewalk the way my 16-year-old drops his socks in the middle of the living room. And that pisses people the fuck off because—actually, there’s a funny Instagram that just shows, you know, just piles of scooters, like, around the beach area in Venice, California. They’re just—people, they’re just throwing them around like, hey, it’s a piece of tissue paper.
Doug: Because everyone knows the beach in Venice is otherwise free from all that clutter. It’s completely serene. There’s nothing going on there, and then the scooters get dropped in and suddenly you can’t move.
Sarah: I believe pristine is the word.
Doug: Yeah, exactly.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah.
Aaron: I guess in Santa Monica, I only saw this on Twitter, but it looks like the cops in Santa Monica did a massive sweep and just started, you know, basically rounding up scooters and throwing them in the back of a truck and getting them off the street, right? So it’s like the authorities are just sort of responding with a kind of a black and white, you know, banish these things or cap these things. It seems like there’s not a lot of subtlety in the way that works.
Sarah: So what I want to know is, like, I get why the scooters make people mad, and I get why you don’t want, like, tech bros zipping past you on crowded sidewalks and all of that but, like, what’s good about the scooters? What’s the argument for them? Because I just would like to know what you guys think. Is there an argument for them?
Doug: Yeah. I mean, if I’m sitting in some boardroom in San Francisco and I want to make the case for scooters, I guess it’s okay, I get off the bus or I get off the BART or whatever and grab one and I can be at my office in 10 minutes instead of maybe 15 or 20. And I’m saving all this time. And it’s sort of that last-mile solution that maybe you didn’t know that you needed, and now you’ve got it and your quality of life has improved because you’ve got all this extra time. I would assume that that’s part of it. You know, nobody’s gonna take this thing and commute 45 minutes to work. That’s probably not gonna work for people. But I can see that argument.
Aaron: I think with all these things, to the extent that scooters can replace cars and car trips, then they’re gonna be a good thing in cities. But what seems to be happening now is scooters and these other vehicles are replacing transit trips.
Aaron: Which is becoming problematic for transit systems. I do think there is an element here, though, when, you know, you walk around the street in New York City now and you can see these, like, little weird, like, one-wheeled skateboards and strange electric bikes that are starting to emerge. I do kind of see them as like the little furry mammalian creatures that are popping up around the dinosaurs that are cars. And I do imagine a future city in which these small, lightweight, very personal electric vehicles are a really important part of an urban transportation mix.
Aaron: So I’m actually pretty happy to see the scooters. Scooters, bike shares, all these new experiments that are in a funny way taking advantage of the fact that our streets are just a total free-for-all. Like, they’re chaotic, unregulated, free-for-all. And these VCs are exploiting that in a really interesting way to impose new ideas that city government would never do on its own.
Sarah: Yeah, I get that. I mean, I think part of the problem is that we’re fighting for these crumbs, right? Especially in the United States. In other countries, it doesn’t seem to cause quite as much controversy when these—when these modes come into use because there’s more space for people in general. And so here I think pedestrians feel so squeezed already that having another thing on the street that’s gonna be impinging on their space, that’s like one of the complaints I’ve heard is that it’s anti-pedestrian. It feels like an attack on pedestrians.
Doug: See, I see the scooter thing, as much as I find them really fun and, you know, I use Citi Bike and I use all of these options, I see them as a symbol of total failure on the part of civic government. I see them basically as the government—now certainly some governments are saying, like, “Nope, we don’t want them here. We’re gonna put a cap on them, we’re rounding them up,” like you said. But I see these mayors and governors and city council people saying, “Our budgets are really stretched thin, we can’t dare suggest that we raise taxes on anyone or charge people to drive, which we could then use to fund transit. So, hey, you know, Elon Musk, why don’t you come on over here with your gazillions of dollars and, you know, dig a tunnel?” Or, you know, “Uber, can you just drop like a bazillion self-driving buses that will carry 20 people into our cities?” And they’re never gonna be a solution for the fact that one subway car in New York City carries thousands of people, and one subway line carries hundreds of thousands of people every day.
Doug: And, you know, so the scooters are great. I think they’re fun. Like I said, I would use one. And I have used them. But, you know, the guy who’s coming in from Canarsie on the L train, he’s not getting on a scooter to get to his job near, say, Grand Central. He’s not doing that. And so as much as I think they’re fun and represent this amazing kind of front on the war on cars, I see it as a symbol of the failure of American civic government to provide for its people.
Sarah: Yeah, because they’re just not willing to expend the political capital to make these things happen. And that’s despite the fact that polls show that people in the United States want more investment in public transportation. So, you know, they don’t give a shit about those people because they’re not politically powerful. And the exact people who need public transportation the most are the ones with the least power. And then somebody like Elon Musk comes into a city like Chicago, for instance, and he’s like, “Oh, I can build you a thing that gets you to the airport in 12 minutes, and I’ll do it all with my own money and you won’t even have to worry about it. It’s gonna be great.” Who believes that that’s actually gonna happen?
Aaron: So right. So I think an important problem, a thing that comes up in this discussion of tech and transportation in cities is that you’ve got a set of projects and ideas and products that are frankly currently just like a fantasy. They’re just sci-fi.
Aaron: So Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, that is science fiction. That doesn’t exist. There is no …
Sarah: Yeah, but Rahm Emanuel is standing there with him.
Aaron: Right. But no, no, wait. So there’s that. So there’s—there’s robot cars, there’s Hyperloop. There’s like the flying train that I saw the other day. There’s the straddle bus.
Doug: Yeah. Yeah.
Sarah: I missed that.
Aaron: There’s this crazy—you know, the flying train. It was like this nutty, like, airplane attached to a train track.
Sarah: Oh, yeah. Yeah, sure.
Aaron: You know with, like, the—like, lift itself with drone propellers. Anyways, so there’s this whole realm of fantasy projects that people are getting totally obsessed with. And even mayors are, as you know, like standing up there with Elon Musk and being like, “We’re gonna have a Hyperloop to the—” instead of just fixing the Blue Line.
Aaron: Whenever I’m in Chicago I take the subway.
Doug: Right. Yeah.
Aaron: And wouldn’t it be nice if it were faster, you know?
Doug: Or building another subway line, another El that could get there from a different direction.
Aaron: Right. Go to more places.
Doug: Yeah, exactly.
Aaron: So they, you know—but then there’s a set of projects that are—a set of tech, VC-funded tech projects that are happening now that are real and are actually transforming our cities in a radical way that seem to get less attention than the Elon Musk projects.
Sarah: For instance.
Aaron: For instance, e-scooters, you know? For instance, bike share. For instance, car share. I mean, like, Car2Go is a radical technology that makes it possible in a city to have access to a car with there being fewer cars potentially on the street.
Sarah: Yeah, but you know, here’s the thing. It’s like, I just came back from Europe and yes, I’m gonna be that irritating person who just came back from Europe and said, like, “Guess what? The public transportation systems work in Europe.” Because though I was in three different countries, including one that’s a lot less rich than the United States, which is Spain, and in every city I went to, the trains came every four to five minutes when the countdown clocks said they were coming.
Aaron: Right. There’s no radical new technology necessary.
Sarah: And they have all that other stuff. And they have car sharing, and they have ferries, and they have scooters, and they have a dockless bike share and docked bike share. And they have all of the …
Aaron: And they have fewer private cars.
Sarah: Right, because they have a public transportation system that works. And we are—I believe that we will never get cars out of here with little scooters and that kind of stuff. We need to have a public transportation system that works. And until we can get that …
Aaron: Okay, but see, I think I …
Sarah: … you can’t expect people to just ride around on scooters.
Aaron: I think that’s not true in the United States, though. Like, look, like, we’ve all been plugging away for a good 15 years as, like, livable streets advocates or journalists in various ways, right? We’ve been, like, covering this stuff. I mean, like, even, like, going to meetings and doing activism. And, you know, we can fight for, like, 24 months to get two white stripes painted on the street as a bike lane. Like, go through all the public processes, get yelled at, like, lobby our, you know, government officials. Meanwhile, like, these companies can roll in because the United States is so fucking, you know, subservient to corporate interests and private power, these corporations are having much more success in transforming our streets than we are as activists and advocates. And I think that’s just a reality right now.
Sarah: But if the subway fails—if the subway fails …
Aaron: The subway’s gonna be …
Sarah: If the buses and the subways fail, Aaron, there’s just absolutely—it’s not gonna make any difference how many bikes …
Aaron: Of course. But they’re totally failing.
Sarah: Yes, they are.
Aaron: And the MTA—and the whole idea that we’re gonna, like, just give more money to the MTA, like, do you think that’s a good idea? It’s a completely dysfunctional organization. And I think where we’re headed, you know, to some extent, I really think whether we like it or not, like, these companies like Uber and Lyft, they’re buying transit systems next. Like, they will be your …
Doug: Yeah, that will be the next front.
Aaron: That’s where this is going, you know? And I …
Doug: I mean, I just find this so depressing, though, right? Like, it’s—to me, it’s like the health care debate, that it’s like we’ve got these big corporations that can and do deliver good outcomes for some people. But you have a majority of Americans who, you know, if they get cancer or if they get even a mild respiratory disease or whatever, it can be just like—it can bankrupt them. So, you know, Uber comes in and it’s gonna buy the transit system. And now suddenly, instead of $2.75 or a discounted pass that you get from City Hall because they fund fares for low-income people, it’s suddenly $4, you know? And they have to answer not to me, the person who takes it, but to a boardroom of venture capitalists located in some other city that’s not here.
Aaron: But who does the MTA answer for now? They suck.
Doug: Well, but that’s the thing. It’s like, the stuff we’re talking about, the solutions that we need to fix this stuff are so not sexy. Okay, make the buses go faster. Okay, reform the MTA or abolish it and have it go somewhere else. These aren’t sexy things, but then you dangle these baubles, these shiny things in front of the press, like a bus that has a panda face on the front. And suddenly it’s like, “Can panda-face buses save our cities?”
Sarah: Yeah. Exactly. Because …
Doug: You know? And that’s really frustrating to listen to.
Sarah: Yeah, because that gets clicks. I mean, having written these things myself, like, you know, yeah, you get clicks with this—a panda-face bus.
Doug: To me it’s like, you watch television in Europe and you know what you don’t see are pharmaceutical ads. You know, you don’t see that. But here you do. And to me, it’s very similar. It’s like we’re all just …
Sarah: And it’s the education system. It’s the same thing with the education system.
Sarah: Oh, look, you know, charter schools can, like, deliver good results for kids in the inner cities. And then it’s a great excuse for politicians to say, like, oh, you know, look at this. We can—we don’t have to spend money on the education system. Are we just going to dismantle the public realm of our—of our society in favor of privatizing everything from prisons to transportation? You know, maybe we are, but like, I don’t think it’s gonna work. I don’t think it’s gonna result in a humane society.
Aaron: Look, I mean, it’s interesting to me that a lot of the people who are now going over to these VC-backed, you know, urban mobility companies are actually people who are sort of stars in the livable streets world about three, four or five years ago. So Caroline Samponaro now runs all of the …
Doug: Formerly of Transportation Alternatives here in New York City.
Aaron: She runs the bike program at Lyft. Scott Kubly who is the star DoT commissioner in Seattle.
Doug: Yeah, but I still find it a little depressing.
Aaron: He’s running Lime Bike.
Doug: I’m gonna play the devil’s advocate of, like, okay, but, like, all these former Obama officials are now, like, working at health care companies and predatory lending companies, you know? And I love all these people that you’re mentioning, and I think they—I’m glad they’re fighting the good fight kind of, you know, in this territory. But there is part of me that, you know, look, it’s not either we go full-blown, like, every piece of transit is socialized or we go full market solutions. Somewhere in the middle is healthy. But there is part of me that’s like, we are heading down this road like I think Sarah was alluding to where, like, you’re gonna take your Uber bus to your Lime scooter to visit your friend in the, like, SunTrust-sponsored hospital.
Aaron: I honestly don’t—I don’t care who runs the bus. I literally do not care who runs the bus as long as it runs. Like, if there were—I just want a bus that runs every five minutes down my local avenue.
Doug: Yeah, but what if that bus company, Uber or whoever buys it says, “Okay, our shares are down three percent this week. And, you know, Peter Thiel, our biggest investor, is really upset that his stock has tanked by $1,000,000,000. So you know what we gotta do? That fare for your bus that was $3, now it’s—we gotta raise it to $6.”
Aaron: Right. Well, that’s what they’re gonna do.
Doug: Who do we shut out?
Sarah: Or, you know, what kind of, you know, restrictions on the type of people who are gonna be able to ride the bus? Like, what does that mean for, you know, people with—are all of these things gonna be fully ADA compliant? Or what if a homeless person gets on the bus and smells?
Aaron: It’d probably be better than the MTA. The MTA’s horrible with ADA compliance.
Sarah: All right. So you think it would be better than the MTA?
Aaron: No, I don’t—I don’t know that. But look, I’m just saying, like, we have such a failed system right now, and the most exciting and transformative thing that’s happening is actually happening in this realm of VC-backed urban mobility services, which are also massively fucking up cities by, like, adding more cars. So there’s huge problems. But what I’m saying, and what I think, like, we often fail to do with this stuff, is we should just—we should leverage them. Like, that is where, like, the energy and the money is. Uber is about to put $1,000,000 into advocacy for congestion pricing, which is a—you know, it’s a policy that is desperately needed in New York and other cities that advocates have been fighting, you know, 20-plus years to try to get some form of, and have been completely unsuccessful. And I think we need big corporate power to start fighting for these kinds of policies. And we need to channel that energy and money in the right direction.
Aaron: And it’s one of the things that’s been missing is like, we don’t have—Albany, you know, state capitals, state legislatures, you kind of have to bribe them. They’re corrupt, shitty political bodies that are imposing their will on cities. And it’s actually pretty easy sometimes to get them to do what you want: you just bribe them. And a company like Uber can probably do that.
Aaron: How much is it gonna cost? Just tell us.
Doug: And to play the other side of it too, I think that part of the good thing about this stuff that’s happening, as it’s happening right now, is that it’s getting people to start saying like, “Oh, so, you know, 20 scooters can fit in the space of one car.” And sure, it was a private company that put them there, but at least now we’re starting to say our streets can be used for different things, and we need to start fixing them. So there is that side of it that I think these private companies are forcing the government’s hand to say, “Hey, wait a minute. That one person who has their car on the street and they move it twice a week for alternate side parking or to make a run to the grocery store once every couple of weeks, that’s not great use for that space. We can use it to a much better effect and help more people.”
Doug: But that part of me is like, great, I’ve been trying to—you know, it took me two, almost two years to get bike parking for eight bicycles at my daughter’s school. Almost two years.
Doug: It was a ridiculous process. But yeah, like, if Lime or Uber came along and said “We want, like, a branded place where we can park our dockless bikes, that would probably happen in two weeks.”
Sarah: Yeah. And the other thing is it’s helping people to see the street differently.
Doug: That’s huge.
Sarah: You know, it’s actually, like, illuminating some of these issues and making people aware of stuff that they had no awareness of before. But I guess I’m still skeptical that it’s gonna add up, and as, you know, like Elon Musk implodes or whatever or, you know, what happens …
Aaron: All these, or a lot of these VC-backed companies are gonna implode.
Aaron: They’re running on VC money right now.
Sarah: Right. And then, like, what’s left, you know? Then …
Aaron: Degraded transit systems, for sure.
Sarah: Right. And …
Doug: Stranded, stranded people.
Sarah: People who have become dependent on forms of transportation that just vanish overnight. And then no …
Aaron: And one or two companies like Uber and Lyft, and they’ll own all of the stuff. I mean, I really think that’s kind of where it’s headed, right? It’s like a bunch of—it’s just how any startup ecosystem works is like a bunch of companies jump in, and then a couple of big ones remain, and they’re like the power players.
Sarah: Well I mean, obviously the New York City subway system was also a startup.
Doug: I was about to say the same thing. It was all private companies.
Sarah: Yeah. So I mean, do then—Uber and Lyft, then by analogy become, you know, government?
Aaron: The government? Maybe that’s where this is heading.
Doug: Well, that’s what I was thinking. Like, so Motivate owns many of the bicycle share systems in the country, and Citi Bike is one of them. Let’s say Motivate went out of business tomorrow and now there are still 10-12,000 bicycles that people are really dependent on for their commutes now, they’ve become part of the fabric of New York City, do those get taken over by the city and just become socialized?
Aaron: Well, Lyft owns …
Doug: Well, yeah, but let’s say that, like Lyft, everybody, they all go out of business. Does the city say, “Hey, wait, we see this as a public good, and we take this on and we throw tax dollars at it?”
Sarah: Too big to fail.
Doug: Right. Maybe. Do we—yeah, do we bail out the bicycle share companies? Is that where this is headed?
Aaron: The thing that I think about a lot with advocates is, like, we have an—and especially I think people on the left maybe do this more, where we have this kind of, you know—everybody does this. You have this response where you see kind of like Uber coming into the city and adding more car traffic, but also, you know, having an appealing service that people, at least people with money seem to like and they use it. And we sort of decide, okay, you know, this is bad, we need to regulate Uber. You know, we need to, like, put a cap on this. We need to stop this.
Aaron: And I’m hoping we can come to some place where there’s a more holistic view where, like, okay, Uber is putting more cars on the street. The problem is more cars on the street. We need to cap. We need some sort of limit. Like, New York City, big cities in general have a—there has to be some limit to the number of cars a city can hold. And when I look at my street, I’m much more worried about the cars that I see, the private cars that I see parked at the curbside all day, all week, maybe moving like once a week. Basically sitting there for 95 percent of the time, hogging up street space that could be used for dedicated bike lanes, could be used for dedicated bus lanes. And what I’d like to do is I’d like to start getting these companies like Uber to start to fund, like, take money from those guys to fund the stuff that we really need in cities, which is better biking, better buses, better walking.
Doug: It just has to be done in a way that is—if that is done, it has to be done in a way that’s sensitive to the idea that they are not going to invest in places where they don’t see customers. So here in our neighborhood in Park Slope, in Brooklyn, in gentrified areas …
Aaron: We’ll have tons of this stuff.
Doug: … we’ll have tons of that stuff. And great, Uber spends $400,000 to build a few miles of bike lanes or whatever. But say, in Brownsville, where they’re not getting as many customers, those people will be screwed.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, you guys are depending on, like, a big capitalist company to do the public-spirited thing. I just have never seen that.
Aaron: No, I’m saying regulate the fuck out of them. I’m saying, like, make—like, impose. Basically just be like, “Your cars, you know, we’re limiting the amount of space in the city for cars, and we’re taking money from you to fund public transit. And we’re gonna put it—you know, we’re gonna put it in dedicated lanes that your cars can’t use. And that’s gonna be the—and you have to pay our workers properly.”
Sarah: Yeah, I’d love to see—let’s watch Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo fight over that. Like, you know, I just—I don’t …
Aaron: Well, this is the problem, right? None of those guys are gonna—but this is the thing. It’s like …
Sarah: Like, there’s no political will.
Aaron: But also there’s no—I don’t feel like we’re advocating for this stuff to happen. Like, our advocacy community, like, we don’t really know what policies to push for yet, except for just like, Uber’s bad, fucking get them out of the city. Like, bad capitalist traffic congestors, get them out.
Sarah: So that’s what the war on cars is for. I mean, that’s partly what we want to do here, right? Is to advocate for better policies, and for …
Aaron: Figure out how to make this work.
Doug: And to get deeper than the “Ooh, shiny! Look at these scooters rolling out.”
Doug: But to really talk about what does it mean when yeah, the tech bros are rolling around your city on scooters, but meanwhile, people who live 30, 40 minutes outside of the city are stranded on a subway platform because there’s a meltdown and a signal failure and they can’t get to work. So …
Aaron: They need the Hyperloop.
Sarah: No, no, no. But, like, the future of our cities, the future of the economy of our nation depends on us making the right decisions now. And that’s why what we’re talking about here is important, and that’s why I care about doing this.
Doug: And I think, Sarah, that is a great way to sum it up and say that is why we need a war on cars and why we need perhaps this podcast. I mean, the way that we were actually at war with each other, I was almost gonna say we should take this outside, really shows …
Aaron: Really? That bad?
Doug: Well, we’re three—like, we’re three mostly like-minded people, and even we can’t really agree on the best tactic, the best way to do this.
Doug: All right. So this has been The War on Cars.
Aaron: Just the first battle in the war on cars.
Doug: Just the first. This is the Lexington and Concord of the war on cars.
Aaron: These are the opening shots.
Doug: Exactly. This has been The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon.
Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek.
Sarah: And I’m Sarah Goodyear.
Doug: We are produced by Curtis Fox. And the music you’re hearing is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Thanks very much. We’ll be back with more.