Episode 103: Why Does Hollywood Hate Bikes?
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Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. With me is my co-host, Aaron Naparstek.
Aaron Naparstek: What’s up, Doug? How’s it going?
Doug: It’s going all right. We’re missing Sarah today.
Aaron: I know. It’s really unfortunate.
Doug: She’s our designated survivor for this episode.
Aaron: [laughs] That’s right.
Aaron: That’s right. Well, this is the day of the Trump indictment here in New York City, so who knows what could happen?
Doug: We are recording this as everyone is descending on lower Manhattan. We are in a safe location in our bunker in Brooklyn.
Aaron: That’s right.
Aaron: No cable TV news on the screen. We’re good.
Doug: Yeah, we’re good. Also sitting with us is Nitish Pahwa, a business and tech writer for Slate. Nitish, welcome to The War on Cars.
Nitish Pahwa: Thanks, Doug. Thanks for having me.
Doug: So you are a fellow Brooklyn bike commuter.
Nitish Pahwa: Indeed.
Doug: Showed up on your bike. We’re—thank you for that.
Nitish Pahwa: Of course. Of course. Had to represent.
Doug: So the reason we have you here today is because the subject of this episode, we’re gonna be talking about bikes and cars and how they are depicted in pop culture, in movies and TV. And you wrote a great piece back in July 2021 titled “Americans Are Ready to Embrace Bicycles, but There’s One Thing Standing in Their Way.” Tell us about the premise of this piece.
Nitish Pahwa: So I started cycling more regularly around Brooklyn, I’d say in 2020, you know, during peak pandemic. A lot of cars were not around and I was enjoying the empty roadways. And pandemic lockdown was also when I was watching and rewatching a lot of pop culture from back in the day and now. And, you know, as a regular cyclist now with lots of friends who were with me on two wheels, I couldn’t help but start noticing in a lot of my favorite shows and movies that cyclists were not depicted always in the most friendly or loving light, as it were. That they seemed very infantile, emasculated in all sorts of contexts. And once I noticed it in one place, I noticed it almost everywhere.
Nitish Pahwa: So I was like, okay, what is the core of this? Obviously, this has become an accepted part of American pop culture, but how did we get here? So I talked to my editor and decided to look into it more. And yeah, it’s a fascinating story. And part of my research, incidentally, came from this very podcast. When I listened to your episode about Groucho Marx’s little Chrysler special.
Doug: Oh, wow. Yeah. “Love Affair With the Automobile.”
Aaron: “The American Love Affair.”
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, yeah. “The American Love Affair.”
Aaron: Great episode.
Nitish Pahwa: Exactly. Yeah. No, that was—that was an awesome episode. So yeah, I just was piecing together little bits and pieces from here and there, and that’s how the piece came together. And it was pretty well received for the most part. I mean, you have a little pushback from people, of course, who are like, “Oh, well have you ever considered what cycling culture does, you know, to you people?”
Aaron: To you people?
Doug: Wait, what was the pushback? Like, cyclists are jerks, so they deserve to be depicted like losers in film?
Nitish Pahwa: That was kind of the implication, you know? Like, they didn’t say it in so many words, but yeah, it was sort of like blaming the cyclist for sure. So …
Doug: Wow. America never ceases to find ways to blame the victim.
Aaron: So Nitish, can you give us, like, before we delve into this, one specific example of this trope of the bicyclist being depicted, you know, as a loser or a non-successful American?
Nitish Pahwa: So one example that really stood out to me when rewatching this movie—which I otherwise really enjoy—was the 21 Jump Street reboot with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. And I mean, this is again displayed so starkly. You’ve seen the beginning. They’ve graduated police academy.
Doug: I totally remember the beginning of this movie. Yes. Yeah.
Nitish Pahwa: They’re riding around on bikes, and they’re not very good at policing or bike riding or just about anything, really. But then, of course, as we get up to the climax of the movie, when they’re embedded in the high school and as they’re, like, actually chasing down the drug dealers and whatnot, you see them in some pretty sick car chases. And—and I say they’re pretty sick because they do look sick. They do a very good job of telegraphing those. But that’s another way you see them just on a bike they’re dorky, in a car they’re like badass cops.
Aaron: So let’s take a quick break. We’re gonna delve into a lot more examples of these and then also just try to talk about why this is happening. What is this phenomenon about?
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Doug: Okay, so first, I think even as members of the war on cars, we should probably acknowledge that cars in movies and TV shows are cool. Like, there are a lot of iconic vehicles in some of the biggest and best movies from—from my childhood certainly, from classic Hollywood and from television today. You know, the first thing that comes to mind is the DeLorean in Back to the Future.
Aaron: Oh, for me, it’s all the James Bond cars.
Doug: Yeah, the Aston Martins.
Aaron: The Aston Martin, or the car chase scenes. Like The French Connection you know?
Nitish Pahwa: Mm-hmm.
Doug: Yeah, like The Italian Job.
Nitish Pahwa: Bullitt.
Aaron: Yeah, right?
Nitish Pahwa: The urtext of that. Yeah.
Doug: Mm-hmm. Also the Batmobile in both the campy ’60s TV show, and then the various Christopher Nolan and Tim Burton iterations of Batman.
Aaron: Or even Vacation. Chevy Chase with that ridiculous station wagon. The car is like, it’s not cool, but it’s still cool enough to be almost its own character in the film, you know?
Doug: For sure.
Nitish Pahwa: Mm-hmm.
Aaron: It’s just like a—it’s an event.
Doug: The Cars movies. Pixar.
Nitish Pahwa: Oh, yeah. [laughs]
Doug: I mean, obviously.
Nitish Pahwa: Yes, of course. Of course.
Doug: Kids think that’s cool. Adults think that’s cool.
Nitish Pahwa: Lightning McQueen is a great name.
Doug: Yes. Doesn’t get cooler than Lightning McQueen, for sure.
Nitish Pahwa: [laughs]
Aaron: Mad Max? I mean, come on. Like, even in a future where there could not possibly be any gasoline being manufactured, they have all these cars, flame-throwing cars.
Doug: It’s really like, why aren’t they riding bicycles in Mad Max? They could have just, like, laid down their weapons. And solved everything.
Aaron: Because it’s not cool.
Doug: Right. Exactly. You can’t, like, rock out on a guitar on the front handlebars of a bicycle.
Nitish Pahwa: And look, in the apocalypse, what’s going to matter is how cool you look still.
Doug: [laughs] Exactly.
Nitish Pahwa: When we’re all feuding over water, it’s like, how cool do you look doing it?
Doug: Yeah. And speaking of cool, the thing that came to mind instantly is John Wick.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah.
Doug: You know, John Wick Four just came out. Keanu Reeves as an assassin. The entire four-film franchise is premised on his wife has died, and the last things that she gave him before she died were a puppy and a car. And Russian assassins come and they kill the puppy and they steal the car, and that kicks off his entire murderous rage through the entire series.
Aaron: Okay, but The Fast and the Furious. I mean, if we’re talking car movies, and there’s like 10 of them, aren’t there?
Doug: Yeah. Yeah.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, I think I just saw a trailer for the latest one, Fast X.
Doug: Fast X is like an Imodium or something like that that I think I would take if …
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, exactly. [laughs]
Doug: We’ve established now that cars are cool, but the problem is—and this is the premise of your piece that brought you here—you are a total loser if you ride a bicycle in a movie.
Nitish Pahwa: Mm-hmm.
Doug: So can we list some examples before we really dive into the stuff we want to talk about? I mean, the obvious one that comes to mind is Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Although I could do a whole thesis on why he’s actually—he’s the hero, right? It’s the hero’s journey, but he’s the man child.
Nitish Pahwa: It does seem to be the case that there are a lot of these figures, they’re not necessarily, like, bad people or loathsome people, but they are expressly uncool or, like, nerdy people ultimately. And they’re always suffering in some way, whether it’s in their relationships or their jobs or some other part of their life entirely.
Doug: So speaking of suffering in their jobs, Quicksilver, 1986. Kevin Bacon, he’s a—like a stockbroker, a commodities trader. He loses everything, the family fortune. And to make him completely the opposite of this high status job, he becomes a bike messenger, the lowest status job, especially in the mid-’80s.
Nitish Pahwa: Right.
Doug: In cities like New York or San Francisco.
Nitish Pahwa: When Wall Street was what you wanted to get to. And …
Doug: When there literally was a movie called Wall Street.
Nitish Pahwa: Yes.
Doug: Yes, exactly.
Aaron: One of the big ones that comes up for me was the early-2000s movie I Heart Huckabees.
Nitish Pahwa: Mm-hmm.
Aaron: I don’t know if that made it into your Slate piece or not.
Nitish Pahwa: I did mention it.
Aaron: You did mention it?
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah. Well, that was—I gotta give credit to the great Zack Furness for his book One Less Car.
Aaron: Great book.
Nitish Pahwa: Who also mentions that. Yeah.
Aaron: Yeah. So that’s like a 2004 David O. Russell movie, and the premise is that there are these two detectives played by Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin, and they’re like existential detectives, like, helping their clients discover the meaning of life. But then the Mark Wahlberg character, so Marky Mark, big, strong muscle-y Marky Mark, he is a firefighter, but he bikes around Los Angeles and is kind of this real loser-y character. And I think that one comes up for me because I think I was starting to become a really big bike commuter at that time myself. So I was like, why is this guy being depicted so—like, why is he such a clown on the bicycle here?
Doug: Streetsblog launched two years later, right?
Aaron: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Doug: So perhaps you can tie it to I Heart Huckabees. I mean, I think you were talking about being a bike commuter in LA, the best example of that, Nitish, you put this in your piece, is The 40-Year-Old Virgin, the Judd Apatow film.
Nitish Pahwa: Right. I mean, you see from jump, right? Here’s Steve Carell, here’s this 40-year-old virgin. And here’s what he does: he goes and bikes to his little tech sale job with all these other kind of like nerdy loser guys. And you see him with the helmet on, and people are always harassing him, not only, you know, when he’s going to lose his virginity, but also when he’s gonna stop riding that stupid bike.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Hey, Andy! What’s up, dude?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Hey! Hey, Joe! Hey, Sarah. How you doing?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: When are you going to get a car?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Hey, why don’t you get a car?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: I can’t afford it!]
Aaron: It’s the most overt shorthand of let’s establish this character as a huge loser.
Nitish Pahwa: Mm-hmm.
Doug: It’s the first thing you know about him. The only things you know about him, and like you said, in addition to his job, also is that he collects action figures that he never takes out of the package.
Nitish Pahwa: Right. Right.
Doug: And so he’s a man baby. He collects toys, he rides a bike, and he’s never had sex.
Nitish Pahwa: Mm-hmm.
Doug: And in fact, when he is, like, slowly starting to make the moves on Catherine Keener’s character, the fact that he does not have a driver’s license and rides a bike comes into play.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Okay. What time you want to pick me up?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Oh, let’s see. That’s actually kind of a problem, because I ride a bike.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: That’s cool. Are you kidding me? I love getting on the back of a motorcycle. My boyfriend in college drove a motorcycle. So I mean, I’m cool.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Yeah. Yeah, I bet that was cool. I ride a bike—bike—bicycle. Bicycle.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Oh.]
Doug: I love that. Steve Carell’s pretty great in that movie.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah.
Doug: Another one that comes to mind, also Los Angeles, California based, is Arrested Development. And it literally is the symbol of this family, the Bluth family that’s fallen. The father has committed fraud, financial fraud. He’s in prison. And I think in season one, we establish that Michael, Jason Bateman’s character, rides a bicycle in Los Angeles. Again, that contrast of, like, the worst place to ride a bike, so that if you are riding a bike in LA, something must be wrong with you.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Arrested Development: Michael Bluth always rode his bike to work, but the recent heat wave had taken some of the fun out of it. It had also caused problems in his presentation to the Bluth Company investors.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Arrested Development: There’s no screw ups with the permits this time.]
Doug: So he’s, like, all sweaty and dripping on this slide projector and, like, ruins the slides.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Arrested Development: Tell you what. Let me get some of this—well, as you can see, the important part is here.]
Nitish Pahwa: And he usually rides on his suit, too, I’m pretty sure.
Doug: He’s in a suit.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Arrested Development: They think you’re full of [bleep]. I think it’s the sweating.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Arrested Development: Gotta get a car.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Arrested Development: Don’t worry, I told them the truth.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Arrested Development: That I rode here on a bike?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Arrested Development: That the permits weren’t filed.]
Aaron: I will say one thing that I’m noticing in our list of examples here is they all seem to be pretty Los Angeles-based. And I wonder how much of this is just like some Los Angeles view of, you know, manhood, status, transportation.
Nitish Pahwa: It is Hollywood, right? And it is Hollywood in the land of the very sprawling city/county where everyone is basically expected to have a car. So you mentioned earlier, Doug, if you have a bike, what is wrong with you? What are you doing here?
Doug: Yeah, like, if everything were centered in New York, you know, and you showed someone biking now, it probably wouldn’t convey the same low status idea that it does in Los Angeles.
Nitish Pahwa: Right.
Doug: I mean, everyone would take the subway in New York.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah. Yeah.
Doug: Unless it’s Seinfeld or …
Aaron: The ’70s.
Doug: Yeah, or the ’70s.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah. Well, the Seinfeld one is interesting because obviously, Jerry has his bicycle hung up in the back in that little hallway in his apartment.
Aaron: Oh, that’s right.
Nitish Pahwa: And then at one point I think in the final season, they just, like, allude to it. Like, “Oh, yeah. I don’t ride that thing.”
Doug: Yeah. Yeah.
Nitish Pahwa: You know?
Nitish Pahwa: But yeah, as to other New York examples, I will say I wish I had included this in my piece because I love the show, but one very positive example I would say was Broad City, where you often see Ilana and Abbi riding around on Citi Bikes, which obviously were pretty new around the time the show kicked off. So yeah, that was, I thought, like, a very wholesome, very fun way of showing them actually getting around the city with different means.
Doug: Yeah, And it’s a great example because they are somewhat low status. Like, they have all of these sort of like, really crappy jobs throughout the—throughout that. You know, like she’s working at a gym at one point, like, cleaning out the showers.
Nitish Pahwa: Right.
Doug: But—but they’re cool. They’re in their 20s making it in New York. Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.
Aaron: To me, the ultimate New York City bike movie of recent years is Premium Rush. You guys remember that one?
Doug: Mm-hmm. Yes.
Nitish Pahwa: Oh, yeah.
Aaron: It’s like, I don’t know, 2012 or so, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and he’s playing this kind of, you know, bike messenger pirate of the streets. But even there, the bicycle is depicted as this, like, tool of kind of wild aggression. He is biking around the city almost like it’s a French Connection car chase, you know? Including on sidewalks and buzzing through pedestrians in crosswalks.
Doug: Terrorizing senior citizens.
Aaron: Yeah, it’s a pretty, like—like, it’s an actual, like, terrorist tool the way he uses the bicycles.
Nitish Pahwa: I will say though, it still looks sick the way he, like, zig zags through everything, and also the little visual Easter egg they throw in there where he’s kind of visualizing his path in advance as he’s, like, trying to figure out …
Doug: Oh, yeah. Like a bat or something.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, exactly. Zoom through, like, a car or pedestrian on this path. I mean, I’ve had very similar situations before, so—although I’m usually not riding as fast or as aggressively as he is in that movie.
Doug: You’re not outrunning people trying to murder you, basically.
Nitish Pahwa: No.
Doug: There’s no gangsters.
Nitish Pahwa: Usually not.
Doug: Usually not.
Aaron: It did do a great job though, of depicting, like, how it can feel, like, exciting and exhilarating and kind of thrilling to bike in the city.
Nitish Pahwa: Totally, yeah. Because they are doing it in, like, downtown Manhattan. They’re all in the most congested part, and they’re still making it work for them, somehow.
Doug: All right, so another example that came up, and it’s very current, Abbott Elementary. Are you guys fans of Abbott Elementary?
Nitish Pahwa: I—I love that show.
Doug: It’s so good. There’s the character of Jacob, who teaches history. He’s, like, you know, the only white male teacher in this all- Black school.
Nitish Pahwa: Mm-hmm.
Doug: And he’s played by Chris Perfetti, who’s really hilarious. And there’s a great scene where it is implied that he rides his bike to work.
Nitish Pahwa: Mm-hmm.
Doug: And this scene, I feel like, does in just a few short lines everything you need to know about the characters involved here. Here he is talking to the character of Ava, the school’s principal, played by Janelle James.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: I, for one, loathe that we live in a surveillance state, but is there any chance there is a security camera pointed towards the bike rack?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: No. A camera is pointed at the drop off line so I can see which dads have nice cars. Why?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: A bike has gone missing.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: Who would steal a child’s bike?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: Well, maybe not a child’s, but an adult’s.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: Your bike got stolen? [laughs]]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: I saw an unfamiliar man milling about the rack this morning.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: Okay. Well, what did he look like?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: Um, I would say he had a, you know, somewhat curly and spherical haircut.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: An afro.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: Some might call it—you know what? This feels reductive.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: No, no, no, no. No, let’s get to the bottom of this. Would you describe this person as someone who might have difficulty getting along?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Abbott Elementary: You know what? It’s fine. Was it really ever my bike anyways, you know? Does anyone really own anything? I suppose I won’t be needing this.]
Doug: He then tosses his bike helmet in the lost and found.
Nitish Pahwa: [laughs]
Doug: I love that scene. It’s like, everything—also, the fact that the principal, Ava, there, like, judges the dads by what cars they drive to the drop off line. It’s just so perfect. Cars are a way of judging men, and Jacob looks like he’s 24 going on 15. Like, he’s, like, kind of scrawny, and he is a bit childish and not cool. And he rides a bike that got stolen. Yeah.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah.
Aaron: I mean, to me, this is all just—it really illustrates what we’re up against here at The War on Cars, right? I mean, like, that principal’s joke. I mean, it was excellent.
Doug: Oh, it’s so good.
Aaron: About, like, wanting to check out the dads in their fancy cars. But yeah, it just—it’s so deeply embedded in our culture in a way that’s almost invisible, you know? That the car is this thing that normal people, cool people, sexy people—like, you have to have a car if you want to be one of these kinds of people in American society. It’s just like—it’s so deep in us, you know?
Nitish Pahwa: It’s taken for granted, essentially. I mean, I grew up in Michigan, which is obviously a car state. And there’s a lot of things I love about the place, and they’ve made some pretty solid strides in biking infrastructure in certain cities. That being said, when I was growing up there, obviously the expectation was that I would drive everywhere, even though my high school was close enough to bike to and that, yeah, if you don’t have your driver’s license, if you don’t have all these other things, what are you even doing, right?
Nitish Pahwa: And there’s a part of that that, of course, is necessitated unfortunately, by our infrastructure, but it is also culturally imprinted in all of us. And that was what I really wanted to try to get to the bottom to in my piece: how did it become taken it for granted? Because you watch movies that are made in, like, Europe or even—I’m Indian-American. I grew up watching a lot of Indian movies, and there are a lot of very positive cycling depictions. You know, Bollywood song sequences, like the heroes are like, you know, little love songs, whatnot, or in French movies, Italian movies. There’s quite a bit of cycling around …
Doug: The Bicycle Thief.
Nitish Pahwa: I mean, yeah. The Bicycle Thief, the classic movie, the very sad movie, but very good movie. Yeah, it is, I feel like, a very American thing, and it ties into so much that gives us our car culture.
Doug: Did you find in researching your piece that there were early American films that didn’t have this? Because obviously the rise of cars and the rise of Hollywood sort of happens just maybe like a decade apart from each other. Are there any early depictions that you feel like, okay, like, we could have taken a different path here?
Nitish Pahwa: Well, it’s funny. I feel like there are a lot of cycles in, like, silent films, whether that’s Keaton or Chaplin or Harold Lloyd. But at the same time, a lot of those are comedies, right? And they’re very physical comedies. So if the bike is in there, it’s probably being used for a gag. However, I will say a lot of the cars in those movies are also used for gags, and so it feels a little more equal opportunity, I guess, than it is now or has been for decades at this point, really.
Aaron: Yeah. I mean, it isn’t Buster Keaton, like—it seems like as soon as the car emerges as a kind of a mainstream tool of transportation, he was kind of just like, “All right, how do we crash this in a movie?”
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Aaron: “How do we crash one of these things?”
Nitish Pahwa: There’s The General, where he’s on a train for most of the movie, and that one is also just a great source of comedic joy throughout. But yeah, there is definitely, I think, less hostility per se. The laughs are—that you have at those movies, whatever the gags, like, they’re still, like, fun laughs. They’re not necessarily, like, mean.
Doug: All right. So to bring it back to current pop culture, Shrinking, the Apple TV series with Jason Segel and Harrison Ford. Nitish, are you a fan of the show?
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, I really enjoy it. It’s—it’s another very, like, wholesome sort of like family-style sitcom, but it also unfortunately starts out with—pretty much from the beginning with a very telling bike scene involving Jason Segel’s character.
Doug: Yeah, I was watching the show and I was thinking much like The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, where in the first three minutes of that film you know everything you need to know about Andy, about Steve Carell’s character. In the first five minutes of this show, we learn that Jason Segel’s character, his wife died—in a car crash no less—a year before. And he’s, like—he’s drinking, he may or may not be hiring prostitutes to hang out with him.
Nitish Pahwa: He’s estranged from his daughter.
Doug: His daughter just wants to have nothing to do with him. And in the very morning that, like, the show starts off, like, he’s out on the lawn saying goodbye to her as she huffs off in someone else’s car, the sprinklers go off on his front lawn and he gets doused. So it’s like, oh, look at this pathetic loser. And then he’s gotta go to work. He gets in the car, it’s empty. There’s no gas, it won’t start. And so what does he do? He hauls his daughter’s bike out of the garage, including a pink helmet, and rides again in Los Angeles or someplace in California. Aaron, we talked before we recorded this and you said you wouldn’t even watch Shrinking based on the preview.
Aaron: So I was introduced to this TV series by, like, a 30-second ad on Twitter. And the entire ad was basically just like Jason Segel kind of looking miserable, biking down the street on, like, a kid’s bike. And then a woman throws open her car door into his path and he gets doored. He just smashes into the door. And, like, honestly, I mean, that’s kind of my—like, dooring is my nightmare. Like, it’s not—it is not a source of humor for me at all. Like, I hate to be this guy, the humorless guy in this case but, like, it’s just not funny. Like, dooring his terrifying and, you know, getting doored. And then I’ve, like, literally come across, you know, a woman in my neighborhood who was doored and she fell to the side and then she was run over by a truck and killed. Like, there’s nothing funny about dooring. So I saw that Twitter ad, and I was just kind of like, I don’t want to fucking see this show. And Harrison Ford, like, as an elderly shrink? Get the fuck out of here.
Nitish Pahwa: [laughs]
Aaron: Like, I don’t need this. So it just—it actually just completely turned me off and made me kind of upset at this series.
Nitish Pahwa: I will say it has gotten to a point now too where, like, the trope is tiresome, right? Because we have seen these moments now where yeah, there’s more cycling infrastructure in cities everywhere. Like, every time I go back to visit Michigan or I’ll go to a city like Detroit or something, I see more bike shares. Or in Nashville or in other cities you would not necessarily think of as like biking cities as it were. So at this point, you’d think we’d be able to move beyond, like, leaning on that as a lazy crutch, right? But unfortunately it does persist. Another smaller example I’m thinking of, I don’t know if you’ve watched the show Girls5eva. A really fun show, a lot of, like, 30 Rock alumni, the—Sara Bareilles’s character, her husband is sort of like this very soft spoken, meek, kind of like homey guy who, like, while his wife is very ambitious, like, trying to reclaim her old stardom, and one of the big things that shown is yeah, he’s a huge cycling enthusiast. He’s always watching cycling on TV. Sometimes you see him in the spandex, and it’s just another, like, sign of what his character’s supposed to be. And it’s like, okay, yeah I get it. But like, uh, you know?
Aaron: It’s like, why can’t—why can’t the bike just be normal?
Nitish Pahwa: Right.
Aaron: You know, why can’t it just be like it’s in the background? It’s like Jerry Seinfeld’s bike on his wall, but it gets used every once in a while, and it’s not even, like, worthy of note.
Nitish Pahwa: Exactly.
Aaron: Or maybe there’s a good episode. Like, you know, the George parking episode.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah. Yeah.
Aaron: You know, where, like, there’s an entire episode built around finding a parking spot. Maybe there could be an entire episode built around, like, finding a bike parking spot. I don’t know.
Doug: That would be a very short episode.
Aaron: That would be interesting.
Doug: “Oh, wow. The bike rack’s full. Well, there’s another bike rack across the street. Great. Done.”
Nitish Pahwa: Hey, I will say Citi Bike these days, sometimes it’s a little harder to find a dock than other days. So you can make a little madcap scenario.
Doug: Yes, but you’re not going to get into a 22-minute standoff with the person who gets to the bike share station before you. You’re just gonna look at your phone and be like, “Oh, there’s another Citi Bike station, like, three blocks away. I’ll just go right over there. Go ahead. You take it.”
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, that’s a good point. Yeah.
Doug: No one gets murdered over it.
Aaron: I can see kind of like a—like a Homeric Odyssey type of, you know, episode where somebody is just, like, going from Citi Bike dock to Citi Bike dock, and, like, different crazy things are happening in each spot.
Doug: You could definitely see Kramer coming up with some scheme where he’s just like rebalancing the bike share system himself.
Aaron: To get points.
Doug: To get points, or—and he becomes like an unofficial worker for Citi Bike, for sure.
Aaron: But so one TV series that does have a kind of some normalcy around the bicycle, a recent sort of hit TV series is Ted Lasso. And it actually shares some DNA, I believe, with Shrinking.
Doug: Brett Goldstein, who plays Roy Kent on Ted Lasso, is a producer and writer on Shrinking.
Aaron: Right. So the premise of Ted Lasso is basically this American football coach is shipped over to England, he’s played by Jason Sudeikis, and he goes over to coach a British football/soccer team.
Doug: So bikes and cars and walkability actually play a huge role in this show. And they establish character in really interesting ways. So ironically, Ted Lasso, the middle-American kind of goofball doofus, he lives in a really lovely, walkable part of Richmond in London. There are many scenes of him and his assistant coach and other people walking to his apartment on this very narrow, no cars could fit on it, lovely street. Like something out of a Hugh Grant romantic comedy.
Aaron: Right. Everybody hangs out at the pub, and it’s just that sort of idealized kind of urban village environment.
Doug: But cars play a really big role with the other characters. So Rebecca, who is the owner of AFC Richmond, she is chauffeured around in a Rolls-Royce, and there are many scenes where she is talking to someone else, like, from the back window rolled down. Like a very status oriented, “I’m in this luxury car and you are not” sort of symbol. My favorite is Roy Kent. Everybody’s favorite is Roy Kent. He drives this, like, armored up Mercedes G-class luxury SUV. You know, that kind of like military-like black vehicle. It’s totally appropriate for his character. Tough on the outside, but comfortable and warm and nurturing on the inside, because there are lots of scenes where, you know, he and his love interest, Keeley or his niece, Phoebe. He’s shuttling her around like the literal definition of a soccer dad.
Aaron: [laughs] Yeah.
Doug: And so there’s all these—so it’s very fitting. Like, tough on the outside, nurturing on the inside. So it works really well. And it’s not accidental that that is the car that they chose for him.
Aaron: And there’s a whole folding bike thing happening in Ted Lasso, too, right?
Doug: Yeah. So in season two, they bring in Dr. Sharon Fieldstone. She’s played by Sarah Niles. She’s brought in to help the team—one player in particular—get over some past trauma that’s affecting his performance. And of course, like, she bonds with Ted Lasso and helps him through his depression. But she rides a Brompton.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: Oh, that’s a cool bike.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: That’s not a bike, it’s a Transformer!]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: Yeah, she really is more than meets the eye, ain’t she? Hey, Doc!]
Doug: It’s a kind of significant scene because she’s entering the player’s lot, right? Which is where all the luxury SUVs and sports cars are parked. And I think it’s probably important that it’s a Brompton, because it’s—first of all, it’s very British, right? It’s a British brand. It’s very associated with London. And I also think, like, her character, you don’t know much about her because she’s a therapist, so she doesn’t reveal herself to the players. But we learn little secrets about her personality over a couple of episodes, and the Brompton makes her—wow, there’s like, something deeper. It’s not just a regular bike. It’s this cool transforming bike. So I kind of like that detail.
Aaron: So that’s an interesting example that is where the bicycle is for once being used to kind of, I don’t know, enhance somebody’s character, make them—give them more depth, make them cooler or more interesting.
Doug: Yeah, she is not a loser by any means.
Aaron: That’s pretty rare. That’s very—this is like the opposite of—I mean, is there any other example of that, like, where—Breaking Away, the 1980s movie? But that’s about bicycles.
Doug: Do you have anything?
Nitish Pahwa: So this show unfortunately got canceled prematurely like so many others, but I don’t know if either of you watched Flatbush Misdemeanors on Showtime.
Nitish Pahwa: Really lovely Brooklyn-centered show with a couple protagonists who are local creatives here. One of the big things is one of the characters’ dads works at a bike shop. He owns this place called Kareem’s Bike Shop. And I mean, he’s a bit of an out there guy, but he’s ultimately a very nice and very skilled guy clearly, when it comes to watching over his son or other people. And there’s a—there’s a fun promo Showtime had cut for the show where Kareem is putting on, like, a little TV ad for his bike shop, and at the very end of it, he says this great line that I love.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Flatbush Misdemeanors: We can’t guarantee life gonna be easy. But with a bike from Flatbush Larry’s at least the ride’s gonna be smooth.]
Nitish Pahwa: So that’s like one of the rare examples where it was like these characters are also still kind of lower status, like, Brooklyn working-class people, but they’re not dumb idiots. They’re part of the community and they’re …
Doug: They’re likable.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, they’re likable, and they’re in a place that is also part of the community in that lots of people come to, whether to browse for bikes or for other purposes.
Doug: I want to bring it back to Ted Lasso because they’re—in the new season, it’s very explicit how much cars signifies status. So there’s the character of Nate, who’s the former kitman for Richmond, very low status job. He becomes the assistant coach, and then he goes to the rival team to become the coach, West Ham United. And he shows up to the stadium and enters what’s called the prestige lot. And he’s riding—yeah, which to us I think probably seems like a really cool car but, like, this kind of puke green Mini. And not even a new one, like an old one. And he’s parked in between a Ferrari, a McLaren, a Bentley, all the players’ cars. And basically the idea that they’re playing with here is Nate just knows he doesn’t belong. He’s out of his league in many ways. And there’s a really pivotal scene later between him and the club’s owner, the very odious Rupert Mannion. And it plays out over this green Mini.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: Mr. Mannion, the car is being removed from the lot as we speak.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: Ah, good.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: Security thinks one of the new cleaners must have parked in the prestige lot by accident.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: Hmm. Yes. And accidents have repercussions.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: Just yes, that’s my car. Sorry.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: Is it really?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: No. Well, yes. I mean, it’s one I drove here in, but is anything really ours?]
Doug: It’s kind of funny because the Abbott Elementary, they make the same joke.
Nitish Pahwa: Right.
Doug: And I’m not accusing anyone of plagiarism, but it’s like both characters want to deny that this thing that is theirs is actually theirs. It’s like, “Oh, no, no, no, that’s—that’s not mine. You can’t judge me by my association with this thing.” But I think it’s pretty funny.
Aaron: But in Abbott Elementary it’s the bike rack and in this it’s the prestige lot.
Doug: Yeah, it’s all about parking.
Aaron: Yeah. [laughs]
Doug: It’s parking all the way down. Every—every issue.
Aaron: Every episode.
Doug: But then this is settled by the end of the episode, Rupert gives Nate a brand new silver Aston Martin, So he finally fits, he finally belongs among the elite and their fancy cars and, like, this, really awesome—I think it’s a Beyoncé song that plays at the end of the episode and it’s like, they’re really amping up okay, now he fits in, now he’s cool.
Nitish Pahwa: Another facet of pop culture, not necessarily movies or TV, where you see that sort of thing a lot, you know, car as status and bike as, you know, sort of a thing to grow up from is rap music. You know, you have so many videos past and present in which bikes are featured, sometimes negatively, sometimes not often, but it is always kind of like a growth thing. I’m thinking about old school Busta Rhymes, Leaders of the New School, when he was in that group, their song “Sobb Story,” You see him at the beginning of his verse, he’s riding a bike along with some of the other members, and it’s about him figuring out that he needs to really step his game up, earn some money, get a job.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, “Sobb Story”: It was a fidgety burn. And then I said, “Wait, I got pride. It’s time to get my own ride.” I came up with the scheme and got paid. I had no other choice but throwing dollars at trade.]
Nitish Pahwa: And then you later see him in this pretty nice car.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, “Sobb Story”: ‘Cause I got my cherry Pathfinder . Now I’m feeling good because I’m off my feet. Men and little squalid dogs running up from the street.]
Nitish Pahwa: And then all of a sudden he’s talking to women. So it’s a classic path, right? Although I will say one rapper who tends to buck this trend a lot, I think, in a very wholesome and aspirational way, I would say is Tyler the Creator. He often is seen riding just like a simple bicycle, especially in a lot of his latest music videos. And I mean, he looks like he’s having a great time, so I hope the rest of us can as well.
Aaron: And he’s so, Tyler the Creator is like, so cool and kind of—yeah, I feel like that’s part of the persona there, too, is like he’s a little bit different from—I don’t know, he’s doing something kind of special, like, off kilter or something like that.
Nitish Pahwa: Right. Totally. It’s very colorful. It’s very kind of out there. But it seems like the kind of space you’d want to inhabit.
Aaron: But, you know, I wonder I often think about how how much of this is—it’s like a chicken and egg problem, right? So, like, how much of this is if you had these pop cultural figures and, like, these very popular TV shows and movies, if they did depict, I don’t know, riding the bus as something cool, would then the rest of our culture kind of tag along? Or is this just something that’s being led by—unwittingly by policymakers and highway builders and city planners? And, you know, we create this environment where the automobile is inevitably necessary, and if you don’t have one, then you’re not a fully functioning member of society and therefore you can’t take, you know, women on dates or whatever. Whatever the cool thing is. So which is it? Do we need the culture makers to make this change, or do we need the policymakers to make this change so that the rappers can ride the bus and be cool riding the bus?
Nitish Pahwa: I’d say it’s a little bit of both, but I do think the—yeah, there is a lot that really depends on policymakers actually not only making it so cycling around is a more conducive way of getting around everywhere in the States, but also so that people feel safe doing it. Because I know one thing I talk to a lot of friends who live in California or Michigan or other states, and they’re like, “Yeah, I mean, my number one thing is I don’t want to get hit.” And I’m like, “I completely understand that.”
Doug: Not an irrational fear.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I was just hit last week. I mean, I’m fine, but yeah, like, it is very much a thing. So yeah, I think there needs to be more from both federal and state and city governments to really set up the biking infrastructure and make it safer. And then, yeah, there should be some reflection in pop culture I think too, of let’s see more people on e-bikes these days.
Doug: You know, it’s funny because I work in television, not in fictional stuff, more like documentary-style stuff, but I was thinking, like, okay, if I’m a producer of The Bachelor and I want to get my secret bike agenda on that show, I think what I should do is let’s have the bachelor at home in his apartment, and we take all the women—and we can we can flip this for genders or however you want to do this—and we say, “Okay, the prize today is gonna be like, you move on to the next round if you are the first person to show up at his apartment. And you can drive there, you can bike there, you can take the bus or you can walk.
Aaron: That’s great. I love where you’re going with this.
Doug: And, you know, you’ve got, like, 10 women and you drop them off, like, at the Port Authority or something like that, and say, “Go.” And they’ve gotta get to Williamsburg or wherever he lives. This is the very New York-centric version of this show, I admit. You just, like, get one of the ladies on an electric Citi Bike and boom, she wins the challenge and that’s it. And the person in the car, maybe they show up first, but they’re still looking for parking and they lose.
Aaron: Yeah. TV producers, if you’re out there listening to this, you know, Doug is coming up with some great ideas here.
Doug: We also need more product placement, more, like, Brompton product placement in television shows.
Aaron: Well I mean, I really do wonder how much of this is about actual product placement. I mean, this is something that the automobile industry obviously does, is they use pop culture overtly as a marketing tool. So a lot of these cars that you’re seeing on shows—like, there was an example on, you know, if you guys are watching Succession.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah. Yeah.
Aaron: So Succession is the story about this powerful Rupert Murdoch-like, you know, media family, and they’re all battling for control of the media empire. It’s actually quite meaningless, you know? It’s like, no larger context to their battling, it’s just like who’s gonna control the TV company? But in the trailer for season four, I noticed that they have this incredibly sleek electric vehicle that shows up. I had to Google it, but it’s a car called a Lucid Air or something like that. And it’s got, like, over a thousand horsepower. It can go, like, 168 miles per hour. It’s very sleek and modern. And—but so in that, the electric car is depicted as the symbol of, you know, luxury and wealth and power. And I also just wondered, okay, did they, like, pay to put the Lucid Air in Succession? Because that seems like the perfect spot for them. There’s just a lot of money going into culture making.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, it’s a little harder when it’s something a little more subtle. Like, yeah, you see the car brand just pulling up in a TV show, whereas, like, a cycle brand may not show up as prominently. As I mentioned, when it comes to Flatbush Misdemeanors, there are a lot of, like, bikes and brands you could see hanging off the wall but yeah, overall it’s just not—not as much of a thing that you get. And whether that’s a question of ad budgets or just overall assets, I think it also comes down to the very fact that the car, whether electric or gas powered or hybrid or whatever, is seen as, okay, this person has money and that is a good thing, that this person has money and is established. Whereas if you’re a cyclist, you probably do not have money. And that is bad because you don’t have money.
Aaron: [laughs] Right.
Doug: And on that note, that is it for this episode of The War on Cars. Nitish Pahwa, thank you for joining us. Where can people find you? Obviously, at Slate.
Nitish Pahwa: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Doug: How about elsewhere?
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, you can read my work at Slate. You can find me on Twitter for however long it continues to last.
Aaron: Twitter/Doge. Dogecoin social media network?
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah. If you’re still logging on there, you can find me @Pahwa_Nitish. I’m on Instagram too.
Doug: We’ll put links to everything in the show notes.
Aaron: Are you on Mastodon yet?
Nitish Pahwa: I am on Mastodon, yes. You can find me at [email protected].
Aaron: Oh, nice.
Nitish Pahwa: I think that’s the first time I’ve ever given a Mastodon plug. Very exciting.
Aaron: I’m slowly migrating over there.
Nitish Pahwa: Yeah, it’s a nice—it’s a nice place.
Aaron: If you want to support The War on Cars, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us“. Join today, starting at just $3 per month. You’ll get access to exclusive bonus content, we’ll send you stickers and lots of other goodies. And thanks to everyone who has signed up on Patreon, including our top supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vacarro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, Martin Mignon and Mark Hedlund.
Doug: And we mentioned this before, but we have partnered with the folks at Micromobility.io. You can save 20 percent on tickets to their conferences in Amsterdam this June and San Francisco this October by using the link in our show notes. If you go, you’ll get to ride the latest e-bikes and small EVs. You’ll get to meet industry leaders and journalists from around the world. You can head to Micromobility Europe—that’s in Amsterdam—and Micromobility America—that’s in San Francisco. Again, check the link in the show notes and you’ll save 20 percent on tickets.
Aaron: Special thanks to our sponsors Cleverhood. The coupon code this month is APRILSHOWERS. Go to Cleverhood.com/war on cars, enter coupon code APRILSHOWERS for special discounts on all of their great rain gear. Also special thanks to Rad Power Bikes, again especially URL RadPowerBikes.com/waroncars. All kinds of discounts available at Rad Power Bikes.
Doug: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Doug Gordon.
Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek. And this is The War on Cars.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ted Lasso: That’s not a bike, that’s a Transformer!]