Episode 114: John Bauters, America’s Bike Mayor
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John Bauters: I think political will is probably the biggest barrier. So when mayors reach out to me, I ask them what degree of political will do they have. And they’re kind of surprised. They say, “Well, I really want to do it.” And I said, “Are you willing to lose re-election over it?” And that gives them a lot of pause. And I said, “When you’ve decided the answer to that question is yes, you will be able to do whatever you want.”
Sarah Goodyear: Hello, I’m Sarah Goodyear, and this is The War on Cars. When I met Mayor John Bauters outside the city hall of Emeryville, California, he was wearing a t-shirt and shorts and a backward trucker cap that said ‘Emeryville’ on it. He had his cargo bike with him, and sitting in the bucket was his dog, a sweet white shepherd mix named Miss Reyna. She was wearing goggles.
Sarah: It wasn’t the way that mayors usually present themselves for an interview, but then Bauters is not the usual kind of mayor. Since he was elected in 2020 [correction: Bauters was actually selected mayor by his peers on the City Council (not elected by the general public) in 2021], Bauters has gained an international reputation for his work to transform transportation and housing in the tiny city of Emeryville, which is wedged between Oakland and Berkeley on the shores of San Francisco Bay.
Sarah: Only 13,000 people live in Emeryville, and it’s only one square mile an area, but it’s home to some big employers, including Pixar and several big box stores. It also has I-80 blasting through it, and it is a major hub for Amtrak, regional rail and freight rail, with dozens of trains moving through the city’s core each day.
Sarah: It’s a challenging environment in which to create a green city with a great active transportation network, but that’s exactly what Bauters has been working toward for his whole term. Along with several allies on the city council and the city staff, Bauters has made building a great bike and park network a priority, installing miles of protected cycle lanes, green space and traffic-calming solutions.
Sarah: He wanted to show it all to me, so I grabbed a bike from the Bay Wheels bike share dock outside city hall and we took off. There was a lot to see.
John Bauters: This is the southern part of the Emeryville Greenway that’s just about to open. So you can see this open segment right here.
Sarah: Then we went back to city hall and sat down so he could tell me how he gets it done.
Sarah: Mayor John Bauters, welcome to The War on Cars. We are here in your wonderful city hall in Emeryville. I’m gonna talk to you about how you became known as the bike mayor of the United States, even though you’re in this tiny city that’s only one square mile. How did you get into this job, and what were you hoping to accomplish when you ran for office?
John Bauters: Thanks. I’m pleased to join you here in the trenches in the war today. I got involved because I was disenchanted with the way government worked. I went to a public meeting about an affordable housing project where people came and they had some very pointed opinions about the project, and asked who would live here and why do we need it? And as a person who’s formerly lived through housing insecurity myself and worked with people who are homeless throughout most of my career, I decided to go up to the microphone when I had no plan of doing that and say, “You know, I would need this. I live here. Other people I know would need this.” And a council member at the time invited me to breakfast, and asked me to become involved in the city on the housing committee. And that was kind of the beginning of my journey to public service in this city. And I ran for city council in 2016 and was elected, and I have served here since.
Sarah: Tell me a little bit about Emeryville. What makes Emeryville special and what do you see as the main opportunities?
John Bauters: Emeryville is one of the most special places on the West Coast. Despite being one square mile, we are the mightiest little city you will find. We do all the work that big cities do. We’re in the heart of an urban core, wedged between Oakland and Berkeley at the east foot of the Bay Bridge, right across the bay from San Francisco. We have a daytime population of about 56,000 people between visitors and employees, and at night, residents only make up about 13,000 people. But we are a very quickly growing city.
John Bauters: We have a very dynamic economy between region and local serving retail. The global headquarters of a number of different household names between Pete’s Tea and Coffee, Clif Bar and other companies like that. We’re the home of Pixar Animation Studios, but we also have a burgeoning life sciences industry. And historically, Emeryville has been a creative community, so we hold onto our identity as a city of art and innovation with a very significant number of artists. We’re a maker community with a cultural art designation from the state.
Sarah: So we just went for a bike ride together, and you showed me a lot of really interesting bike infrastructure. And I gather that a lot of it is new. Maybe you could talk about how this bike network and the sort of active transportation network in general, what the plan is and how you’re executing it.
John Bauters: So Emeryville has, for natural geographic reasons, a lot of reasons to be a place where active travel is the desired mode. It’s geographically well-situated to support those types of things, both being flat and along the bay, but also just between all these other major metropolitan cities around it.
John Bauters: The city has always been tacitly supportive of active travel, and began some of its earliest work with the very northern segment of our Emeryville Greenway about 20 years ago. But it didn’t make a lot of what I would call, like, ambitious progress on these types of projects until the last probably five to seven years when we really kind of dug in and said, “Okay, what are we going to do to create greater equitable multimodal transit opportunities for people, to create access to amenities and services more equitably to create, and improve safety in our community?” And the active transportation plan was one of the most immediately available and best vetted community tools we had.
John Bauters: We have a very active bicycle pedestrian advisory committee. We are blessed to have excellent advocates here in the East Bay that support the political demand for this type of infrastructure. And I think politically, you know, it takes leaders who use systems like bike lanes and active travel to really understand not just the importance of it, but the need to do it expediently.
John Bauters: And in 2016, I was elected alongside other people who had those same values, and we really leaned into accelerating progress on these types of projects and bringing them online. And the response in this community has overwhelmingly been supportive and almost an insatiable appetite for us to do more. And so for all the times people tell me Emeryville looks totally different than I remember it from 15 to 20 years ago, they have no idea what we have planned for the next five years. We are really aiming to blow the top off of it and really transform this community into what could be a model livable community.
Sarah: You’ve said that a lot of other mayors from other parts of the country are coming to you and saying, “Hey, tell us about your plan,” and learning from you. So what are some of the things that you feel like other communities can learn from Emeryville?
John Bauters: I think one of the things that is always helpful is first to touch base with and really be connected to the advocates who are on the ground. There’s no substitute for subject matter expertise from people who are living and working in these spaces every day. That goes also true for people in planning divisions, too. There’s a lot of people who went to school to get public planning degrees, urban planning degrees, and they have a lot of good ideas and expertise, but too often elected officials don’t realize that they get in the way of those visions and those skills. And they want to negate the public process and the community engagement because there’s a certain stakeholder or a loud stakeholder who’s telling them that this is going to be a catastrophic investment or change. They decide to, you know, drive the dump truck over their staff in a public meeting because it politically saves them face, and they don’t have to own the challenge of doing change.
John Bauters: And I think that while that’s not the reason and not the situation all mayors and elected officials do reach out to me, a lot of them really want to do this, but they have unique circumstances on the ground or unique players in their situation, and they want thought partners on how to engage in this. And for some of them, there are no other people on their council to do that with.
John Bauters: And for years I was blessed—I’m gonna give her a shout out now—former Councilwoman Ally Medina was—we called ourselves Team Transportation. We shared a brain on this issue, and I didn’t need to go it alone on these types of projects and issues because she was always on the same page. And having multiple people in leadership with a shared voice reflecting what the community is asking for and needs, reflecting best practices on safety, and then empowering their staff to use their skills to bring that design into a 3D space in your city really is great. And so today we are the envy of other cities in the East Bay.
John Bauters: We—people come to our city professionally from other cities saying, “I just want to work in a place where I know you will really do these things.” And so in the last seven years, I’m most proud of the culture we’ve created around this. And I get the emails from total strangers in the city just saying, “I love everything you’re doing. Please keep doing it.” A neighbor of mine said, “We moved here from a different city here in the East Bay because we want to raise our kids in a community like this.”
John Bauters: And so there is a desire for this. It is the future of urban living and sustainable living. And I think when other mayors call me, it’s because they see the excitement and the palpable support we receive. Some of them say, “Well, that wouldn’t be supported in the community,” and immediately go to what will be bad. And that would imply that we haven’t had people here oppose the things that we do, that we haven’t had people say those same things to us. We do experience those things, too. It comes down to relationship building, learning where to start in your city, you know, managing the expectations, but really, like, being committed and leading.
John Bauters: And I think political will is probably the biggest barrier. So when mayors reach out to me, I ask them what degree of political will do they have. And they’re kind of surprised. They say, “Well, I really want to do it.” And I said, “Are you willing to lose re-election over it?” And that gives them a lot of pause. And I said, “When you’ve decided the answer to that question is yes, you will be able to do whatever you want.”
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, this question of political will, I think, is at the heart of the transformational change that needs to happen in our society on so many levels. And I think that when people see you on social media or in conferences standing up and saying things, it’s kind of shocking to them that somebody who holds elected office would be willing to say those things. You’re the first mayor who’s come on The War on Cars because our name is such that I think a lot of politicians just don’t want to be associated with it. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you have built your own political will and what it’s made out of and why it’s important to you.
John Bauters: I mean, part of it is just who I am. I’m a very independent-minded person insofar as I don’t feel beholden to anything other than my values. And among my values are to be transparent, to be accountable, to be compassionate, and these are things that guide the decisions I make beyond bike infrastructure. They guide the decisions I make as a leader. And I really think that when we talk about building political will, it starts with a question of, like, why am I doing this? Right? Like, why did I run for office? What was I trying to accomplish?
John Bauters: In my case, it wasn’t about bike lanes. A lot of people here will say, “I don’t remember you running on a campaign to build bike lanes.” And I nod and say, “I never did. I did say I was going to make our community safer, I was gonna make it more livable. I was gonna ensure that everybody here who wanted to be here could belong here.” And when you think about those things as values at a higher level, bike infrastructure is one of just a number of policies that I have supported in my time here that do those things, right? It creates a safer community, a more inclusive community. It gives people meaningful choices. It’s more equitable.
John Bauters: But it would be easy to look at that and think of me as just the bike mayor, and not see that I have supported publicly funding a city-run child care. We’re one of only three cities in California that runs its own child care center. We have the highest minimum wage in the United States. We have a fair work policy for all the people who work at all the retail employers around our city to ensure that they get predictable pay and paid family leave.
John Bauters: We’re building hundreds of units of housing for people experiencing homelessness, foster youth aging out of foster care systems that don’t have families, families that are low income or on working wages, and seniors who are living on fixed incomes. We’ve adopted environmental policies that have put us eight years ahead of our climate action plan goals already. Those are all livability issues. Those are all safety issues. Those are all sustainability issues.
John Bauters: So I’m kind of known for bikes and bike infrastructure because it’s at a personal level, something that brings me immense joy, but it is just one of many things that is guided by my values. And so when I when I think about it, when I’m confronted with a challenge or a decision, I just simply go back to, like, well, what are my values, and how do I articulate in a way that does not lecture, demean, criticize or devalue the values of the person who’s confronting my proposal or who’s questioning, you know, what I’m doing?
John Bauters: You know, classic example is our street-paving program. This last year we put in protected bike lanes around all of our schools, and we put protected intersections in. And I got an email from a parent who said, “These concrete islands, you put them out in the intersections here, and I have to slow down to an almost stop now. And you have this big, wide separated bike path in front of the school, but when I pick up my kids, I only saw 12 bikes parked in front of the school. And I don’t know if you ever enlisted a civil engineer to even design this. It’s totally stupid. Why did you do this, and did you really even talk to the parents about why we want the pick-up car lane in front of the school as opposed to where it was moved to to provide for bike safety?”
John Bauters: And my email begins, “Dear constituent, thank you so much for noticing and contacting me about our Safe Routes to Schools Program. The protected intersection that you are now navigating is designed by a licensed civil engineer employed here at the city of Emeryville, and meets all safety codes and standards for design. And did you know that over 60 percent of children who are hit and killed in a crosswalk in Alameda County die at an intersection within a block of their school? I am not interested in putting a teddy bear memorial up in front of the school so their classmates can walk past that every day as a reminder that it’s not safe near my school. I can prevent that. I can provide safety, I can provide livability, I can provide sustainability choice by doing this today.” And I said, “And I’m very happy to hear that it’s working exactly as it was designed to do.” I don’t usually get responses from those replies.
John Bauters: Time and again I have found that one of the most important jobs I have with—you know, in terms of political will, is engaging and educating the public—not from a professorial top-down approach, but one in which I simply share my values and articulate the reasons behind why we do things, so that people have time to sit with that for themselves and evaluate it. I’m not looking to slam dunk on anybody. People often say, you know, “You’re trying to get me to give up my car.” No, I’m not. I’m trying to give other people who are curious about and want to experience the joy of cycling the opportunity to do that on their own time. People will change their minds if you give them the spaces to do that, and I really believe that.
Sarah: I’m really interested in the way you talk about preventing traffic deaths and not reacting to them. And a lot of the other policies you mention as well strike me as grounded in—not in reaction, but in action. If you have affordable housing, then you have fewer unhoused people. And so many things that are wrong in our world it seems like would really benefit from this idea of preventing the problem to begin with, you know, and not dealing with the pain and misery of the aftermath. But it does take standing up and taking accountability, and as an elected official, obviously, the ultimate accountability is at the ballot box. And so a lot of politicians want to be reelected. How do you deal with, like, “Okay, I’m gonna do this, and that might mean that I get voted out and things get reversed after I’m gone?” How are you future-proofing what you’re doing now?
John Bauters: Yeah. I mean, I think democracy is a messy contact sport. And if you want to be a leader, right, you have to choose to engage that. And you have choices as to how you engage it. A lot of people engage it as you kind of described: they get elected and then what happens to them is it almost becomes a piece of their identity. It’s almost as if they can’t separate themselves from the idea of being elected. They really become almost beholden by the office or the title and the power associated with it, perhaps.
John Bauters: And I guess for me, I have detractors like anyone else. I have some very loud people who have projected onto me over the years. You know, “He does these things because he wants to run for Congress or he wants to run for a higher state office, or he does these things because he’s padding his resume or something.” I will be really clear. If I didn’t win reelection, I go back to having the same life I’ve had through this process. Like, I have a full time job. I am a policy director at a nonprofit that works on trauma services for crime victims. I have a whole life, and I have a whole bunch of things that are as equally interesting to me and better define me than my role as the bike mayor.
John Bauters: I have always been of the belief that if the public feels I am doing a bad job, or they feel that someone else could do the job better or for other reasons, there are other priorities perhaps that the town wants to invest in through someone else’s leadership, that is what democracy is. I am very comfortable with that.
John Bauters: And so people are surprised when—I get people who have said to me, “If you vote this way, I won’t vote for you.” And I’m like, “Okay, that’s okay. Like, that’s your choice.” I’m up for reelection next year. If I run and this city wants to vote for someone else, they can have someone else’s leadership. And I’ll—it doesn’t define me. There are other ways I can still lead. I can still be a change agent. You don’t have to be mayor to make change. I made change in my professional life and my personal life for years before I was ever elected, doing the hard work of working with communities, and without the political pressure of what will somebody dangle over your head?
John Bauters: And I definitely have people who say, “We’re gonna spend money on your opponent, and we’re going to this and that.” And oil companies are among them, and they have spent money on digital ads against me and #StayMad. I’m, like, not really worried about it. [laughs] So I’m not—it’s not gonna—at the end, it’s not in my values list. So it doesn’t—it doesn’t faze me.
Sarah: So maybe you could talk a little bit about—speaking of hashtags, how you use social media, and what kind of connections that has made for you globally.
John Bauters: So the very funny thing is I have never had a Facebook page. I don’t have Instagram. I don’t have anything except Twitter, which is just a terrible thing right now. But I get constantly asked if I have a secret recipe to doing Twitter. I don’t have any consultant, nobody does it for me. I just share what I—I share my views are, and I try really hard to stay within that space and not be everywhere, right? Like, share what I know and not all the things I have opinions on that aren’t really well informed or I’m not the best person to give that opinion because I’m not closest to the issue, recognizing where my space is.
John Bauters: And it has taken over how I engage with people in the sense that everywhere I go I get stopped. I go to speak places, I—people come up to me, “I follow you on Twitter. You’re my favorite person to follow on Twitter.” Staff at agencies I work at say, “Everybody here follows you. They just love what you post.” My first day ever in Houston, Texas, I was on a bike stopped at a crosswalk, and someone came over and said, “You’re the mayor of Emeryville.” And I almost shit my pants! I was like, “How the fuck does this person know who I am?” [laughs] And they’re like, “I follow you on Twitter.” I went to my high school reunion. I hadn’t been back to Ohio for over 20 years, and somebody stopped me on the sidewalk and said, “I’m a city planner in the city of Cleveland. We follow you in the city planner’s office.”
John Bauters: So I have become recognized. I get stopped regularly on the Bay Trail and the Greenway. So to your question, like, what has it done for me? Like, it made me really self aware of how much power social media has to do good, but also to do harm. And so how—how responsible we have to be and accountable we have to be with it. And I’ve really tried my best to always as much as possible use positive framing, positive messaging. There’s a lot of things in the world that are really terrible right now, and it’s not that we should avoid them or ignore them or not engage with them, but I’ve really, really tried to use my space to model how I do things here, how I message things here, how I create values here, how I support people here. I’ve tried to really model that, and the response I’ve got is 99 percent overwhelmingly positive.
John Bauters: I’ve had a whole bunch of people who follow me, and what I realized was if there’s planners in Cleveland and people walking their dog in Houston, and all kinds of places who see this and find value in it, perhaps I’m reaching other people, too. And so I realized that the power of doing what I do in this one square mile city and just modeling like you can build the community you want is reaching people way beyond the city. And so I—I don’t create my content, or I don’t post things to influence them, but I create it knowing that it will influence them.
Sarah: You know, you talked before about transparency being one of your core values, and it strikes me that there’s just a huge appetite for transparency and honesty in this world, in this media environment. Like, just really saying the honest things out loud. I don’t really like generational politics or generational categories necessarily, and yet I recognize that objectives of different generations are different. And I wonder how much you think about generational issues. Do you think that there’s, among people of your generation, sort of more of an interest in just living authentically and seeing where that leads?
John Bauters: So first on the generational part, if there’s anything I have learned in the last six years through all the connections I’ve made through and with social media, is it would be a big mistake for us to archetype people into generational groups. I will be honest and transparent about the fact that, you know, for a long time I definitely felt that—especially because I worked in the housing space, older people don’t like housing, new housing, right? That was a very common experience I had serving on a committee with older people who didn’t want tenant protection ordinances before I was elected and didn’t want new apartment buildings. You could very easily be like, “Oh, this is an older—” or as some people will say, “The boomer thing.”
John Bauters: But I will tell you that some of the most eye opening and life-changing experiences and conversations I’ve had on this journey in office have been with senior citizens. At the Bikeways Academy we hosted at Alameda County Transportation Commission, I sat next to a woman named Sharon from Pleasanton, who is 75. She bikes to everything she does. And there are people in this community, in Emeryville, who live car free. I have literally fielded emails from people in neighboring cities saying, “My wife and I have retired. We are in our late 60s. We want to live a car-free retirement, and you seem to be the person who’s building homes for people like us. Where should we look in your city if we wanted to move there?”
John Bauters: I have had those conversations with people, and so while I do think there are paradigms that people lean on, it would be a mistake for us to archetype people by age. Now I am a Generation X child of the 1970s, and my parents sent me to my first day of kindergarten on my bicycle. I credit just the fact that I was afforded a lot of independence early in my life, I was afforded the ability to make mistakes and to learn from them. I was entrusted with, you know, the trust of my parents to come home from school and let my siblings in, and sometimes to watch my siblings as young as nine years old. Like, I was entrusted with a lot of things. And I made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I was given the grace to learn from them. And I those are values I have.
John Bauters: I really believe that people make mistakes, and we need to be an inclusive community and give people second chances. I really believe that people aren’t defined by the worst thing they did in their life. I really believe that it would be a mistake to believe that people can’t change to be better, and to punish people, you know, by kind of holding them to something that was perhaps a view they once held. You have to leave space for people to be better. If we give people the space to change, and we don’t judge them or punish them for a view they’ve held perhaps when they had less information, when they had a different life viewpoint, when they had, you know, fewer choices sometimes, it really affords us the opportunity to be a better community.
John Bauters: And so I don’t believe that people who are older are, you know, incapable of changing. And again, that’s why I believe in creating spaces for joy, because people-oriented spaces allow people like—who are retired, who are like, “This is a cool new thing, and I never had this growing up. Maybe I should try this e-bike thing.” And lots of people do, and then they find out they love it. Or they rediscover something that they left behind for years.
John Bauters: I took a 75-year-old former president of the AC Transit board, a bus operator, we hosted the state Secretary of Transportation and his team here for a bus and bike ride around Emeryville to talk about all the work we’re doing here. And I asked everybody to join for the bike ride and she said, “I haven’t biked in 25 years, John. I’m—I’m not really sure I can do it.” And I was like, “You can do it, and I will help you find whatever bike will make you the most comfortable doing it.” And she came early, and we tried different bikes, and she found a bike she was willing to try and a 76-year-old woman biked the whole hour tour around the city with us, and I have her on video biking behind me, laughing at the top of her lungs. And it was one of the most well-liked videos.
John Bauters: And it’s like, don’t—both don’t assume that people of her age or generation can’t or won’t do this, but also to people of her age and generation, don’t assume you can’t do it either. And when people say, “I can’t do this,” it’s like, well, what are your abilities instead? Because the physical limitations or mobility issues that a person might more commonly have in the 70s might be the same that a person in their 20s with a physical disability might have. And so there isn’t an age issue there, right? This is an ability issue. It’s a comfort issue. And what I find is that when you make spaces safe and people oriented, most of those distinctions go away, and there’s space for everybody and everybody can participate equitably in what we’re doing.
Sarah: As you’re talking about people are not the worst thing that they’ve ever done in their life, I found myself thinking of Emeryville itself as being like this city that has this enormous freeway blasting through it. Here’s these railyards that have traditionally carried a lot of toxic materials and, you know, this land that’s been just sort of scraped over and neglected and treated as a wasteland for so long. But that’s not all that Emeryville is, and that’s not all that Emeryville can be and will be.
John Bauters: I really appreciate you saying that. Its nickname is “The Rotten City,” and Chief Justice Earl Warren in a Supreme Court decision referred to us as that. He had tried for years in the 1920s and ’30s to shut this city down. It was a—it was a haven for vice and gambling, and it has a very seedy and corrupt history and reputation. and it was an industrial wasteland. But I take stock in something that we’re gonna do this coming week. We’re gonna open a brand new city park along our Greenway, complete our Greenway. And the park’s name is Huchiun, and that is the original Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone name for the land here in the East Bay that they were the original inhabitants of. And they had 425 sacred burial grounds, and the largest of them was here in Emeryville. And it was destroyed by white businessmen and colonizers, you know, over a hundred years ago to build these industrial factories. And we find human remains all the time when we are doing work here, and so we’re in a regular relationship with them. And we had the opportunity to name this new park, and I was pleased to recommend and make a motion to name it Huchiun, because as I said in that meeting, we might not have the ability today, and it may not be—it’s private property—we may not have the ability to physically give it back to the status it had as a sacred space, but we can give it its history back, and we can give it the dignity it deserves and the recognition it should have for the place it holds in history here.
Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thank you so much to Mayor John Bauters for the excellent tour of Emeryville, and for all the time he spent with us. We will put plenty of links in the show notes for you to learn more about what he’s up to and how to find him on social media. Thanks also to Miss Reyna for riding along. She is a very good girl.
Sarah: Exciting news about the Winter Cycling Congress, which will be happening next February 22 to 24 in the city of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and The War on Cars is gonna be there. You can find out how to register at YEGCyclingCongress.ca. That’s Y-E-G Cycling Congress. ca. We’ll put a link in the show notes.
Sarah: You can support The War on Cars on Patreon by going to TheWaronCars.org, clicking “Support Us” and enlisting today. Starting at just $3 a month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content, plus we’ll send you stickers and a personal note.
Sarah: Special thanks as always to our top Patreon sponsors: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the Parking Reform Network.
Sarah: Also a special thanks to our friends at Cleverhood for sponsoring this episode. For 15 percent off all Cleverhood gear, use code CLEVERCITY at checkout.
Sarah: This episode was produced by me, Sarah Goodyear, and edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. On behalf of my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Doug Gordon, this is The War on Cars.
Sarah: Well, I’m gonna hold the mic. And I’m just gonna hold it like this.
John Bauters: To test it.
Sarah: Yeah, but I need to, like, get a level.
John Bauters: I only eat breakfast on Saturday and Sunday.
Sarah: Okay. So what are you planning to eat later today? Do you—do you eat at all or do you just subsist without nourishment?
John Bauters: I eat NIMBY tears. [laughs]