Episode 117: Fixing America’s Car Culture with David Zipper 

Doug Gordon: We have been getting a lot of rain this winter, so I’ve been using my Cleverhood gear more than ever. I have the Rover Rain Cape, which I love for how simple it is to slip over my head, and for the way it keeps not just me, but whatever I’m carrying dry. I also have the Urbanaut Trench. It’s not only the most stylish raincoat I’ve ever owned—seriously, everyone is always asking me questions about it, and I love it. It’s also the most practical. It’s woven with 3M reflective yarns that keep me visible, I stay dry and I just enjoy wearing it around my neighborhood. Aaron, Sarah and I are big fans of our Cleverhood gear and we know listeners of The War on Cars are too. Now through the end of January, you can save 15 percent on everything in the Cleverhood store. Go to Cleverhood.com/WaronCars, and use the code CLEVERNEWYEAR. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/WaronCars, code CLEVERNEWYEAR. We thank Cleverhood for supporting the podcast and for having us covered—literally.

David Zipper: We’ve been telling Americans for decades, look out for protecting yourself inside a vehicle, and we’re not actually doing anything from a regulation perspective, unlike a lot of other countries, to force them as consumers or as car designers to think about the broader safety implications. You end up with a sort of national fleet of cars getting bigger and bigger and bigger because people are looking out for their own self-interest, even if overall we would all prefer to be in a country with smaller cars. That’s just not how we’re set up to drive.

Sarah Goodyear: This is The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear, and with me are my co-hosts, Aaron Naparstek and Doug Gordon.

Aaron Naparstek: Hello!

Doug: Hey there.

Sarah: We’ve got a great show that we’re gonna be doing for you today with a guest that we’ve wanted to have for a really long time, David Zipper. And we are gonna get to that in just a minute. But first, we have some business we need to take care of.

Doug: If you like what we do at The War on Cars, become a Patreon subscriber. If you do, you will get access to bonus content, we will send you stickers, we write handwritten thank-you notes, and we send them out to everybody. And we really depend on your support, so go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and sign up today.

Aaron: And we’re gonna be doing a live show at Caveat on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on Wednesday, January 31. Tickets are on sale now. We’re gonna put a link in the show notes. If you want to come, if you’re in the New York City vicinity, you should get your ticket soon, because we are expecting the show to sell out.

Doug: Even if you’re not in the New York City vicinity. We had people come, I think, from pretty far away the last time.

Aaron: That is true.

Doug: Yeah.

Aaron: The show is gonna be streamed, so there’s also online tickets that are a little less expensive and you can get those too, but definitely check that out. The shows are really fun, and we’d love to see you there.

Sarah: So with all of that out of the way, we can get to David Zipper, who is somebody that, as I said, we’ve wanted to have David on the show for a long time. You may be familiar with David from his writing at Bloomberg CityLab, where he relentlessly covers road safety, climate change, the future of micromobility and the connections among public transit, municipal policy and rideshare. David’s take on all this is informed by his experience as someone who has worked inside city government, as well as in venture capital and as a startup adviser. For several years, he’s been a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, where he examines the interplay between transportation policy, technology and society. David Zipper, welcome at last to The War on Cars.

David Zipper: Thank you. It’s good to be here.

Sarah: So we could talk with David about anything and everything because he writes about everything that interests all of us, but I wanted to start by asking about this package of TV segments that you were part of in Dallas, Texas. A local NBC affiliate did a series of reports on road safety in the Dallas area.

Aaron: Okay, let’s hear a clip.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Crossley says the state has long designed roads to accommodate speeds much higher than the posted speed limit. This is what’s called the “designed speed.” He says TXDOT designs have often prioritized wider traffic lanes on massive freeway corridors, and six-lane state highways running through urban pedestrian neighborhoods, designed for moving traffic fast, he says, more than keeping speeds at the safest levels in congested areas.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: At some point, you have to make a choice of whether it’s more important to save lives or to facilitate fast car traffic.]

Sarah: So David, maybe you could talk about how a city like Dallas balances those priorities—this trade-off between speed and safety, and what is wrong or right about the way they do that.

David Zipper: It was kind of an unexpected turn of events. That whole project sort of started randomly with an email in my inbox, and it was from this NBC affiliate in Dallas that said, “Hey, we’re trying to understand road safety. Can we talk to you about it?” And when I spoke with the main investigator, I was excited because a lot of the time when you see crash coverage—and you guys know this—the crash coverage is focused on, you know, why are drivers so crazy, or why are people not obeying the rules they should be following when they drive?

David Zipper: And from the beginning, I was intrigued because these investigators with NBC in Dallas wanted to understand why is their city the worst in the entire country around road safety. And they’re asking the right questions. They’re asking about road design, they’re asking about vehicle design. And I had a couple of calls with them. I live in Washington, DC, I’d never actually been to Dallas. I made it very clear to them I know nothing about your specific city, but I’m happy to help if I can, because I’ve frankly never seen a really good video investigation in American news into American road safety that reaches a broad audience.

David Zipper: And they eventually flew me out, and they drove—it was kind of funny. They drove me around Dallas, and would bring me these, like, terrible roads. Like Buckner Avenue, if anyone knows Dallas in the East Dallas, it’s in a lower income, largely Latino neighborhood. They’re like, you know, it’s just like the classic stroad where you’ve got a bus stop across this stroad and people are, like, running across it because the nearest crosswalk is a half mile away. And they’d be like, “Well, what do you think of this?” And I’d say, “It’s terrible.” What do you think? Of course it’s terrible! This is designed for danger.”

David Zipper: And I didn’t know what was gonna come from it, and it was a few weeks later that I saw the series that they put together, which I was so impressed by because they included not just a few snippets from myself—I mean, I’m just one of a bunch of people, they included, they went all the way to Edmonton, Canada, to look at how road safety could be done much better with sort of bulb-outs and with much better leading pedestrian indicators and things like that. And they also cornered the head of TXDOT and sort of grilled him about the 85th percentile rule, and how he was using that or his agency uses that to set speed limits too high.

Sarah: That to me was like such a great moment to see that style of journalism deployed that way. But maybe you could also explain what the 85th percentile rule is, and why it’s such a messed up way to set speed limits.

David Zipper: Yeah, so the 85th percentile rule actually was, like, developed as a concept in the ’30s, and the idea there was to figure out how to set speed limits in rural areas, but it just sort of got stuck. It ended up being plastered all over sort of state DOT policy rules for cities too, and that’s been a huge problem. What the 85th percentile rule is to basically say—it’s pretty simple, it’s like just go to a given street, record 100 speeds of drivers, and then it doesn’t matter how many crazies you have that are blowing past that street far faster than is safe for anybody not inside a vehicle, regardless, you just basically pick the 85th person out of 100 and they set the speed limit for the entire street. And that ends up basically making it very difficult to lower speed limits to speeds that are safer for particularly the road users or street users who are outside the vehicle. That’s what it is.

Sarah: And the reporter confronted the head of TXDOT on this. Can you describe maybe a little bit of what happened there?

David Zipper: Sure. Yeah. And I myself wasn’t there for this, but I did—I was asked about it in the studio, and I said I don’t really understand how TXDOT says they want to build safe streets, but they’re literally lifting the speed limit in some major roads and highways in Dallas, which invariably will make those streets and roads more dangerous. And the reporters for NBC had concluded speed was gonna be sort of like the main topic or the main sort of like pillar of their argument for why Dallas streets are so dangerous. And they wanted to talk to the TXDOT director—TXDOT being the Texas Department of Transportation—and he kept avoiding them. The press office was just, like, putting up a wall. So eventually the reporters just went ahead to a public meeting where TXDOT was gonna be speaking, and they just confronted the director and they forced him to talk to them, and they asked about the 85th percentile rule and he said, “Oh, we’re moving away from that. We’re not using that so much anymore.” And then the reporters, to their credit, investigated a bit and found TXDOT documents that clearly were using the 85th percentile to set the speed limit in Dallas. So it was a bit of a gotcha moment that frankly I enjoyed. [laughs]

Doug: It’s like going to a hospital and asking them why they’re still using leeches.

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: Totally.

Doug: Like, it’s this thing that was set in the 1930s, and I think very similar to our Donald Shoup episode where he talks about minimum parking requirements, it’s just like this thing that was set and nobody’s ever really questioned, and it’s a sort of pseudo science that still guides the design of our city.

Aaron: It’s even crazier than leeches because it’s like the drivers are doing something illegal and dangerous—they’re speeding—and we’re basically saying, like, “Okay, you guys who are doing something illegal and dangerous get to sort of determine …”

Doug: Yeah, you set the pace.

Aaron: You set the pace. Like, we’re gonna base the whole system on the 85th percentile of this illegal thing you’re doing. It’s just so nonsensical.

Doug: But David, I’m so glad that you were on that piece because sort of like you were saying, a lot of news, especially local news, will focus on, like, crazy drivers. And Dallas being as bad as it is, worse than Houston, worse than Phoenix, worse than Los Angeles in terms of road fatalities, does Dallas really have crazier drivers than Phoenix? Does Dallas really have crazier drivers than Houston in the same state? Seems unlikely. What they have are worse roads.

David Zipper: Yeah. And frankly, Dallas, I would argue, probably has marginally worse roads than some of those other places. Like, Las Vegas is incredibly dangerous, too. So is Phoenix. So is Houston. It’s not like they’ve solved the problem there. But for me, part of the reason why I was happy to, you know, spend a couple of days in Texas with the reporters and be part of the story—and I didn’t know what it was going to turn into. It turned out, frankly, like, far more powerful and better than I expected. I was happy to do it because, you know, I have the privilege of living in Washington, DC, which is a very expensive city, and not coincidentally, it’s one of the handful of places in the US like New York, where walking and biking as a main mode of transportation, along with transit, really is possible. Most of this country is more like Dallas, and I try to always hold myself accountable and try to remember that, you know, most of the United States doesn’t look like the city where I live, and if we really want to address the road safety problems that we have and solve our transportation issues, frankly, we have to think about the Dallases of the country first and foremost.

Sarah: Yeah. And that is what makes, I think, seeing this kind of thing on a mainstream news outlet so interesting and encouraging to me. I mean, you write for a lot of different publications, do you think that these issues are getting a different or better kind of coverage from the mainstream media than they used to? And what effect do you think that that might have in the long run?

David Zipper: I think it’s starting. Like I think it’s—we’re at least asking some questions now that should have been asked a long time ago about the 85th percentile rule, about right on red, which is insane. I know you don’t have it in New York, but most of the country does. And it was introduced in most of the country in the ’70s when we had a gas crisis as a way of saving gas. We don’t have a gas crisis anymore. We haven’t had it for decades. We still have right on red in this country.

David Zipper: I’d like to think that I’m playing a role in that process of elevating some of these issues. I think media is gradually coming around, but I actually think what’s really most encouraging when I look to the future and look at how narratives are shifting, it’s not so much how the media is changing, it’s actually what I see among young people. You mentioned, Sarah, about my role at Harvard over the last several years in the Kennedy School. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of sort of, you know, bright, energetic, often—not always, but often progressive 20-something year olds. And—you know, and I would have like hopefully counted myself among that sort of a cohort. I spent some time in Cambridge myself in my 20s. Nobody was really talking about cars, nobody was really talking about transportation. It wasn’t cool. It wasn’t that interesting. But now when I go and I give a talk about, you know, road safety or mobility as a service, Vision Zero, whatever it is, you know, there’s a lot of people who are super excited and asking, “How can I be a part of this campaign?” I mean, you see that if you look at like the Reddit Fuck Cars community. It’s what, 450,000 people or something insane like that? It’s—I think there’s something happening generationally, at least with a subset of younger people, that I find really encouraging. I think that’s going to eventually permeate media and a national discourse in a powerful way.

Aaron: I mean, David, one of the things I really love about your work is that, you know, we’re talking about this issue right now as road safety, but you actually focus a lot of attention on the cars themselves, you know? So it’s not just about street design, it’s not just about the 85th percentile or whatever. You’re really focusing on the size of vehicles, the design and engineering of vehicles, the actual products that the auto industry is putting on our streets. They’re clearly not setting out to kill people, but their vehicles, their products seem to keep getting more and more dangerous. So what is going on with the automobile industry? What do you see happening there?

David Zipper: So this is a long term trend. In 1977, 23 percent of new cars in America were SUVs or trucks, and now that’s over 80 percent. It’s just a stunning shift. And in part, this is due to some federal regulations like the CAFE loophole that allowed SUVs to be treated as light trucks, and there are some other federal rules, but a lot of that is due to the car companies trying to figure out how to make more money from a given sale. SUVs and trucks are more expensive and more profitable than smaller cars, sedans and station wagons. That is a big part of it.

David Zipper: And I was talking recently with a woman who spent many years as a product developer in one of the big car companies. I was asking her, like, how do you actually think about the models that you’re designing? Because it’s not, by the way, just that SUVs and trucks are taking over the car market, it’s that they themselves are getting bigger and bigger and bigger, right? And what she told me I thought was really interesting, she says, “Well look, you know, we all sit down at the beginning of a model refresh process and we ask, you know, like, how—like, how do we actually differentiate ourselves from our competitors?” And the first thing you turn to usually is maybe we provide more leg room, maybe we provide a little more power, maybe we provide a little more trunk space. And if that’s where you’re starting from, you’re naturally gonna end up with a bigger, likely, heavier vehicle. And you just iterate that over 30 years, you can end up with cars becoming much bigger and much heavier than they were, you know, in a prior generation.

Sarah: But the problem with these increasing vehicle sizes is it’s not just about having more space in your trunk, this has become an arms race on the road where people feel like they need to be in bigger and bigger cars. And you actually wrote an article for Slate titled “The Road Safety Feature That Kills the Other Guy” Now I don’t know if you wrote that headline, but it’s pretty accurate that these ever-larger SUVs that everybody’s like, “Oh, I’m so safe in my SUV,” that is the exact thing that’s making pedestrian fatality rates go up or contributing to that. So it’s not just cosmetic, it’s life threatening.

David Zipper: I think that it’s—that’s the other side of the coin of what this woman who worked in an automaker for many years was saying, because she basically was saying effectively like nobody really cares about the safety impacts when they’re making these decisions. She didn’t put it in those words, but that’s the flip side of her point about, you know, trying to figure out ways to get a leg up on the competition. The safety issues for those outside the vehicle just don’t factor in. And you’re right, Sarah, that story that I wrote in Slate, I think was my attempt to really highlight these gigantic blind spots that emerge as a result, leading to the problems with car bloat.

David Zipper: But what I was trying to really argue is that we sort of set ourselves up in the United States for this problem that we now have with car bloat because of two problems that have come together now. One is that we have always in this country associated road safety with car occupants. That’s what Ralph Nader wrote about in Unsafe at Any Speed. And that’s what we’ve always considered road safety to entail is like how do we keep you safe on the road? That’s the basis of our crash test ratings, that’s what we have set up our entire infrastructure at NTSA to care about for decades and decades.

Aaron: Right. It’s a consumer safety framework, right?

David Zipper: That’s right.

Aaron: A consumer is the person who bought the product, bought the car. It’s not the people outside the car. They’re not consumers.

David Zipper: Including, by the way, people in other cars. They don’t matter. It’s you looking out for yourself. And then on top of that, Aaron, the second point is that we have a road safety regime that is real—especially the last 30 years has, much to Ralph Nader’s frustration, sort of moved away from regulation and towards education. The idea of informing people with a crash safety rating, how it—like so the Stars for Cars program, or even with, like, you know, programs that we probably like, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, where we basically say, like, who is your designated driver? These are ways of sort of encouraging you to do the right thing as opposed to actually regulating. So you just sort of let that dynamic play out for a while, and we’ve been telling Americans just for decades, you know, look out for protecting yourself inside a vehicle. And we’re not actually doing anything from a regulation perspective, unlike a lot of other countries, to force them as consumers or as car designers to think about the broader safety implications. By extension, it’s intuitive you end up with a sort of national fleet of cars that’s going to be getting bigger and bigger and bigger because people are looking out for their own self-interest, even if overall we would all prefer to be in a country with smaller cars. That’s just not how we’re set up to drive.

Doug: Okay, David, I want to push back on something you said a little earlier—and I’m doing this in the friendliest way possible. You said that you didn’t think people in the car industry were evil. And I think that’s generally true, right? Like, I don’t think anybody comes out of design school, you know, thinking, “How can I kill the most people possible?”

David Zipper: [laughs]

Doug: They love cars. They think cars are cool. They grew up with, like, working on their dad’s Mustang or something like that.

David Zipper: Right.

Doug: But once you are in an industry and you find out that—you know, you’re working at the widget factory, and you find out that widgets are the leading killer of children in this country, or that 40,000 people die from using your products every year, what responsibility then do those people have to quit the industry—go find something else to do—change it from within, or be a whistleblower, let’s say? You know, I think it relies on an interpretation of evil as like a Snidely Whiplash sort of character, when in reality it’s more of the evil that we’re sort of seeing in government overall, right? And not just in corporations, but a sort of like going along with the status quo, never questioning it because there’s money to be made. I mean, talking about looking out for ourselves, we’re doing it in our cars, but we’re also doing it in our livelihoods as well, right?

Doug: I know you don’t want to burn bridges with people that you’ve, you know, cultivated in the auto industry. And you are a sharp critic of those people as well, and have gotten into it with them. I’ve seen some of that. But I think, like, we have to maybe reframe the idea of, like, what it means for someone to either be or not be evil, right? If I were working in that industry and I found out that, like, frontover crashes were going up as a result of the design that I created, I might reconsider my place in that industry.

Doug: Or, you know, we confronted the Dodge folks at the International Auto Show and said, you’ve got this awful marketing that is just basically like a middle finger to everybody else who’s out on the road. And worse than that, like pointing a gun at everybody else who’s out on the road. And what responsibility do these marketers have for kind of pulling back? Granted, they’re not going to if government’s not gonna force them to. But I don’t know, when I hear, like, “Oh, people aren’t evil,” I’m like, “No, I don’t think that’s true either, but they’re not great actors either.”

David Zipper: Yeah. So I just would caution against painting everybody who works at a car company with a broad brush. In the article I worked on for Slate about car bloat, I quoted the CTO of Stellantis who said, like, “It is a huge problem that our cars are getting ever heavier and ever bigger. We need to do something about this as an industry.” And you know what? I really appreciate that, that sort of that kind of candor. And on the flip side, Doug, and you’ve probably seen this, I get pretty pissed off when I see car executives spouting bullshit, which does happen, to be clear.

Doug: There’s a little bit of that, like, “I think you should leave hot dog” meme of, like, we’re all trying to find the guy who did this when they said, like, “Yeah, I think this is a huge problem,” right?

David Zipper: [laughs] Yeah. No, there’s that. And then you get the people who just sort of obfuscate and say, “Oh, bigger SUVs and trucks isn’t a source of people dying on roads, it’s street lighting,” which was something I heard from an executive. You might have seen—this was on Twitter—a fight a couple of months ago. That’s ridiculous. And we should call that out as being the baseless stuff that it is. But I will say, Doug—and this is maybe where it’s weird. I don’t normally find myself in the position of defending cars, but I think that tobacco, you could argue, is a product that really did nobody any good. It was just like we could have—we could get rid of tobacco completely and we’d be better off as a society. The unfortunate reality of the United States right now is if you just sort of—poof—remove all the cars or you don’t create any new cars, a lot of people in New York would be just fine. I’d be just fine in Washington, DC. I’m a bike commuter. I use transit and I walk a lot. But the reality is we’ve built up a country now where most people are going to see a serious decline in their quality of life if they cannot have access to a car. And that’s a very unfortunate reality, but it’s real.

Doug: Yes. I literally just said to someone, like, the most vexing part of this problem when people do compare it to cigarettes is that nobody ever rode a cigarette to work, right?

David Zipper: Exactly.

Doug: That made it much easier, but that doesn’t absolve the—just because people need a means—a personal mobility device, as my co-host Aaron would say, to get their groceries, to get their little old lady grandmas to the hospital, to get to work, doesn’t mean they need like the Child Crusher 3000 to do it, right?

David Zipper: That’s right.

Doug: So I’m not saying that the CEO of Stellantis should be like, “I’m quitting and I’m gonna join the priesthood, and I’m getting out of this business altogether.” I’m saying, like, what responsibility do they have to design a better product?

Sarah: And that it’s just this sort of cognitive disconnect when the guy running the corporation is like, “Yeah, I don’t know. Like, how are we ever gonna change anything?” I mean, you run the company that does it, my friend. And I understand that you have to answer to shareholders and all of that, but if not you, then who?

Doug: It’s almost like we need the reverse to happen compared to what normally happens. Normally people leave government regulation jobs to go work for private industry, to help private industry get around government regulations. We need these people to, like, have their come-to-Jesus moment and leave private industry to get into government regulation, basically.

David Zipper: I just don’t see it happening. Doug, I’ll be honest with you. Like, yeah.

Doug: No, of course not.

David Zipper: I guess this is part of why I’m thinking through the questions that you posed, and I’m struggling a little bit because having talked with so many people in the car industry, I think a lot of them would like to do what you and I would say is the right thing, which is design smaller cars, but their back’s against the wall in their own minds for a few reasons. One is, like, you know, Sarah just mentioned it, they are publicly-traded companies, so they have to be responsible to their shareholders. And relatedly, they are spending a ton of money on R&D right now on electrification, and they need that money to come from somewhere. And by the way, they also just signed these new labor deals that are going to increase their labor costs.

David Zipper: So this is the other sort of like tough nut to crack with the car bloat problem is that SUVs and trucks are way more profitable than smaller cars. It’s actually a whole other way of building a car when you are building sedans or smaller cars, because you have to build, like, for quantity as opposed to, like, having smaller runs with higher prices and more variation and fun add ons. It’s really hard for them to make that kind of a shift.

David Zipper: In my view, the only way that really happens is not because they have this come-to-Jesus moral awakening. It’s not gonna happen, I don’t think. I think it’s gonna happen when regulation forces them to, which is why I talk a lot about state and federal regulations. Or you have a popular backlash, a broad popular backlash like what happened in the early ’60s, partly because of the blowup over Ralph Nader’s book, but also because of a whole variety of a number of Senate investigation hearings, which we’ve sort of forgotten about by, I believe, Ribicoff was his name, this senator, that were transformative. Those are the two directions. Like, grassroots work and popular pressure or federal regulations. I don’t see a sort of, like, moral reason for automakers to change.

Doug: Oh no, I don’t see it either. And I think it gets back to what you were saying earlier, which is that—not to offload every bit of responsibility to the younger generations, but they are maybe going to be part of this popular uprising that hopefully changes a little bit of what we’re talking about.

David Zipper: Yeah, I hope so.

Sarah: Okay. So things are not gonna change because somebody has a moral epiphany and wakes up and devotes their life as the former CEO of Stellantis to—to changing the world and the way that cars work in it. I mean, if things are gonna be solved by policy, what kind of policies are out there? What kind of policies do you see? I know you’ve written about the possibility of speed governors, you’ve written about weight limits. You know, where do you see positive policy change happening that’s scalable?

David Zipper: I’ll tell you what I’m most excited about are the innovations I see at the state and local level, as a growing number of elected leaders and transportation officials just get frustrated with what we’re all frustrated here: the lack of action from Congress and from NTSA, right? So Sarah, you just alluded to a couple that I think are quite powerful. One is in New York City. I think it was a really smart move last year to launch a pilot with basically intelligent speed assist, which is sort of like a smart speed limiter that adjusts to the speed limit, on 50 vehicles within the city’s fleet. If the results are strong—and they’re doing research with the Volpe Center, a major research arm of USDOT—Mayor Adams said he wants to spread it across I think it’s 30,000 vehicles in New York City government’s fleet that are not emergency response.

David Zipper: And the reason why I’m excited about that is because I don’t see the US government adopting speed governors anytime soon, as insane as it is that we are able to buy cars that can go 40 miles over a speed limit. It’s just no one needs to go 120 miles on a public road ever. But if you focus on public fleets, they can provide an outsized benefit because not only are those cars going the speed limit or right around the speed limit, they actually slow down everybody behind them, or they prevent them from—maybe not slowing them down, they prevent them from reckless speeding. So you don’t actually need every car to have a speed limiter to have a major improvement in street safety—hopefully. That, at least, is the aspiration. So that, Sarah, is a policy idea, fleet-based speed regulators, I think is potentially really exciting, and I’ll give New York City credit for being the tip of the spear on that one.

David Zipper: So another one that I really like—and I’m gonna take credit for this one because it’s my city that went first—is weight-based car fees. Because if NTSA won’t do anything about the car bloat and the risks it creates for everybody else on the street, then that’s a challenge. But states and cities can potentially find workarounds by playing with their registration fees or even parking fees to make them dramatically scale on the basis of car weight.

David Zipper: And the District of Columbia, where I live, adopted weight-based car fees that actually had a 7x differential between how much it costs to register like a Hummer. I think it’s $500 a year versus a small sedan. I wrote a story for CityLab about this, which was “A City Fights Back Against Heavyweight Cars.” That is the headline I did write. Sarah, you were asking about another headline I did not write. This one I did. And that story went nuclear. And it was exciting to see because it showed me just how much enthusiasm there is in the US, far outside of the District of Columbia, for tangible ways of pushing back against car bloat. So DC now does this, New York has a bill doing it, Colorado’s proposed a bill, California’s studying it. And it strikes me as a very smart way of potentially addressing the car bloat issues that our federal government just seems uninterested in tackling.

Doug: So David, we’ve been talking a lot about cars and car design, but I want to take a detour to Peachtree City, Georgia, which is one of my favorite stories of yours.

David Zipper: Thank you.

Doug: You went down there, and you’ve written a lot about micromobility and, you know, electric scooters and shared bicycles and things like that. Let’s talk about golf carts for a little bit.

David Zipper: [laughs] So Doug, can I tell you a secret about Peachtree City? I have a special source there.

Doug: Oh, sure.

David Zipper: Here’s something nobody knows, you can share it with your your audience. My girlfriend grew up there. [laughs]

Doug: Well, there you go.

Sarah: Oh, my God. That’s so cool.

David Zipper: So she’s been singing the praises of golf carts for a while to me, and I’ve obviously gone down with her. And I was just fascinated by it because I don’t know about you guys, I would guess, like, before I wrote that story, what was the town that would—if you guys talked about golf carts in the US, what did you think about, first of all? I’m just curious.

Doug: You’d think of The Villages in Florida.

Aaron: Oh, I think of what is it called, Biscayne Bay?

David Zipper: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s interesting. You mentioned The Villages. That’s often what people say. I’ve also heard a lot of examples of, like—of basically like resort towns like Catalina Island and stuff like that, and, like, coastal places.

Aaron: Yeah.

David Zipper: What was so intriguing to me about Peachtree City is that it’s neither a sort of like resort area or a retirement community. It’s just an American suburb of, you know, 40-some thousand people with high schools and shopping malls and whatever else. And that’s why I was really curious to sort of—you know, I was already spending time there because that’s where my partner’s family is from, but to actually just, like, sort of learn about how life revolves around these vehicles. And so yeah, I spent some time down there, Doug, to say, like, what’s different?

David Zipper: And it’s really kind of inspiring, actually, to hear the stories about how people’s lives have been enhanced. You talk to the high schoolers who are like 15 years old and are 14 years old and they’re like, “Yeah, now I can go out and see my friends, and we can go to the mall or go wherever we want without a parental chaperone. And I feel so much more free. And also I feel like I’m a better driver in a car when I start doing that because I had the experience with a golf cart.” And parents don’t have to pick up their kids from after school activities in ninth grade or something because they can get home on their own.

David Zipper: Or you talk to older people who are retired. I talked to one gentleman who had a big operation on his leg. I think this—I can’t remember if this got cut from the story I did for Bloomberg Businessweek—but he said, like, “Look, I couldn’t fold myself into a car to drive, but I could sit in a golf cart. And it helped me, like, maintain my social connections and get to the store.” And of course, people are saving a lot of money. That’s another issue, too. It’s like for those who have limited incomes, it’s great in that way. But I think the most inspiring part of that story was just talking to families who said, like, “Yeah, like, we still drive into Atlanta or we drive to our job at the Atlanta airport because Peachtree City isn’t far from it, but when we’re at home, you know, we have this network of golf cart pads—” which is really the sine qua non of the whole system there—”And when I’m with my family, and we’re going to go out for a meal or go to a park, we never take a car. We always get in the golf cart, and it’s so much nicer. And we get to know our neighbors so much more and it’s just so much better.” So I don’t know, I hope you enjoyed that story, Doug. I’m glad you said you did.

Doug: I love that story for exactly that reason, because it put mobility as a sort of tool, and you’re using the right tool for the job. So like you said, if they have to go long distances, they break out the SUV. Fine. But for the trip to the grocery store or to see their friends, they’re just hopping in this little electric golf cart.

Aaron: And when you go to a city like Oslo, Norway, and I believe you were there, right, David?

David Zipper: I was.

Aaron: So you see cars on the street because they’re doing a lot to encourage electric cars for better or for worse. But you do see vehicles like the Renault Twizy, which I’ve often fantasized about. Like, man, it would be nice to start a Twizy dealership in Manhattan. It basically is a golf cart. It’s like a very fancy little golf cart. You know, it like kind of looks cooler, but it’s almost the same form factor. And I mean, is there any way that you can imagine policy where cities are able to encourage and incentivize those kinds of vehicles replacing these big, bloated, crappy, dangerous, dirty auto industry products? I mean, they could still be auto industry products, just a different kind of product.

David Zipper: Yeah.

Doug: Parking spots that are only six feet long.

Aaron: Well, that’s interesting, Doug, because I imagine on-street parking might be the best lever we have.

Doug: Yeah.

Aaron: I don’t know, what—like, what can cities do, David, to, like, start to discourage big, dirty, dangerous auto industry products, and start to replace those products with lighter, cleaner, less expensive, more socially responsible personal mobility devices?

David Zipper: Skip the subsidies, because golf carts like e-cargo bikes are already way cheaper than a new car in America. Like, it’s so unbelievably expensive to buy a new car in this country, and instead …

Aaron: But what do you mean? What do you mean skip the subsidy?

David Zipper: Like, that’s not the place to focus. The place to focus, if you really want to move the needle on golf cart adoption, in my view, is to build safe places to use them, separated from our behemoths of full-size cars. That could mean golf cart paths, ideally, like you have in Peachtree City. But that’s not gonna be feasible in a big city or even a built out suburb where they would have to do a retrofit. What you do there is you build a network of slow speed streets that are 25 miles an hour, so that the golf cart users can get wherever they want to go, even if they’re not using every street or every road in the whole region, they can get wherever they want to go without having to share a lane with an SUV that weighs, like, three times as much and is traveling three times as fast. That’s what we need to do.

Aaron: So you think we can’t really force change on the auto industry? We can’t say, like, “Hey, you guys need to change your products to meet these specifications,” like lighter, cheaper, cleaner, safer. Instead, the onus goes on us, the public, the city, with our stretched municipal budgets, we have to go and transform our city, like pour concrete, put up bollards, do all these—like, build a whole new transportation infrastructure for the kinds of vehicles we want. It feels a little bit like, you know, you’re sort of letting private industry off the hook. Like, you guys go continue to make your bad products, we’re gonna go bulletproof our city. We’re gonna armor it up and create this separate safe space in the hopes that, you know, these other products flourish.

David Zipper: I don’t know, Aaron. I guess I would say that it’s the right thing for cities to do regardless, is to build safe places to travel that—where no vehicle is going faster than 25 miles per hour, not just to encourage golf carts, but so that people who wanted to use a bicycle or an e-bike or a cargo bike don’t have to worry about being clipped and struck and injured or killed by the passing SUV.

Aaron: But in what scenario? Like, we still have cars. We still have these—so we’re out there on bikes as we are now here in New York City, and it’s like how we all get around. And we’re mixing with, you know, 5,000-pound SUVs that can go 0 to 60 in four seconds. Like, why should that product, why should that personal mobility product be allowed to be used in our city? Like—and how is it okay to encourage more of us to be biking and being out in golf carts when these incredibly dangerous products are on the street too?

Doug: But couldn’t the cities do something that doesn’t cost them a lot of money about that? For example, we have congestion pricing coming, so using DC’s example of a weight-based fee on parking or registration, let’s say, couldn’t you say like, “Okay, the congestion pricing fee is $9, but if your car weighs more than 6,000 pounds, it’s $50.”

David Zipper: Yeah.

Doug: Like, there are things that we could do that aren’t gonna cost the city money, and ultimately will be cheaper for preventing the death and destruction and infrastructure damage that these larger cars are doing.

Aaron: And I think you can do that with parking, too. You could be like, if you want to park a behemoth on—you know, the on-street …

Doug: It’s $2 an hour for everybody except for you and your behemoth, it’s $17.

Aaron: But David, it just—I just feel like so—and I don’t mean to criticize you because I feel like this is the set of policy proposals. You know, we sometimes have called ourselves a livable streets movement. We’ve been very focused on streets. It just feels to me like after 20 years of this, like it’s not working that well. Like, I don’t feel safer on the street, on my bike. I’m not super comfortable with my kids biking still. And it’s because we don’t really focus on the cars and the car industry products, and they keep getting more dangerous. So it’s like, I really want a set of policies that does something about that. So give it to me! Give it to me, David! [laughs]

David Zipper: I mean, there’s no single policy that’s going to fix this sort of like deep hole we’ve dug ourselves into with ubiquitous cars that are often too big and too powerful and too dangerous in this country. It’s a matter of biting off little pieces of the puzzle. And those solutions are gonna be partial, and they’re also going to depend on the environment in which we’re talking about. Like, Peachtree City is a wonderful example that could be emulated by new suburbs that are being built from scratch and master developed in, let’s say, like the exurbs of Phoenix or Orlando or something like that. I don’t know that Peachtree City has a lot to tell us about what to do in Brooklyn. [laughs]

Aaron: Right. It’s very different.

David Zipper: To be totally honest. [laughs]

Sarah: But I think what Aaron is saying is, you know, we were talking about Ralph Nader earlier and, you know, the impact that his work had on road safety was just so tremendous, so out scale. It wasn’t little nibbles here and there, right? Because …

Aaron: We got seatbelts, we got airbags. We got—like, saved thousands of lives a year.

Sarah: And we did that by sitting down in front of the United States Congress and making it crystal clear to the members of Congress and also to the American public that there was a product safety problem that was at least in part motivated by corporate greed, right? And an unwillingness to put the money in to do these safety improvements without being forced. And I guess I mean, we’ve been talking about this …

Aaron: Well, it’s like we need a Ralph Nader for the people outside the car.

Doug: That’s David.

David Zipper: [laughs]

Aaron: And I always thought it would be—I actually do think—I would sometimes read your stuff and I’m like, “Oh, David could be the Ralph Nader for the people outside the car.” But it’s like, what, you know …

Sarah: So have you been invited to testify in front of Congress? You know, but …

Aaron: Are you going to run for president in 2024?

Sarah: Is there some scenario in which you could see yourself testifying in front of a committee—you know, you or somebody else—and really just opening people’s eyes to these products are unsafe at any speed.

Doug: At any size.

Sarah: [laughs] At any size. Right.

David Zipper: Yeah. I mean, Nader’s book was transformative for thinking about product safety of cars, right? And how cars were endangering people inside of them. Although I will add one thing, Sarah, to the little history you shared there: when Nader’s book first came out, Unsafe at Any Speed, it was not immediately a hit. I think it’s important to keep this in mind. It was like, you know, some people read it. It was okay, it was fine. You know what turned it into the sort of like breakthrough bestseller transformative book that we know of it, it’s because General Motors hired detectives to sort of clumsily look for dirt in Nader’s background, like, trying to, like, hook him up with prostitutes or whatever. Got nowhere, and then this—then this news got out, and when that happened—you guys know this story?

Sarah: No.

David Zipper: Oh, you don’t know the story? Yeah, yeah.

Doug: I knew that they tried to dig up dirt on him. I don’t know …

David Zipper: They found nothing. They found nothing. Like, Nader is, like, squeaky clean. The news of this investigation got out, and now you have—I think the technical term is a “shit show.” And GM—this is actually a really fascinating moment in American history. GM backpedaled. It was just one of the biggest corporate self-owns in American history, I would say. And General Motors did a big payout to Nader, who then used that money not to buy himself a new house, but to actually fund these consumer advocacy organizations that basically made him a national hero.

David Zipper: So first of all, I just think the story is fascinating. It’s why I bring it up. But also, I just want to be clear: it wasn’t simply like Nader published the book and everything changed. Nader published a book, it did okay, it built on some momentum that’s already coming along. And then General Motors just shot itself in the foot in the biggest way possible.

Doug: So David, you need to write a book. Stellantis needs to, like, see if you’ve got any skeletons in your closet.

Aaron: Try to entrap David.

Doug: And then you’ll ride that Streisand effect to banning SUVs. Done! Problem solved.

David Zipper: Yeah, exactly. No, but the broader point you were making, which—which I didn’t address yet, which is like, how do you actually get the policymakers to care? I mean, I live in DC. I’ve actually spoken with congressmen and representatives and, you know, people in power about this. And, you know, it’s interesting. Like, I was talking with Earl Blumenauer. You guys may know him. He’s about to retire, the congressman …

Aaron: We’ve had him on the …

Doug: He was a guest on the podcast.

David Zipper: That’s awesome. Friend of the podcast. Great guy, right? Like, a hero for people who like biking in particular. And I asked him, like, you know, what’s the deal with car bloat and with cars? Like, you know it’s a problem. Is there any interest among your colleagues to do something? And he basically was like, they’re scared shitless of doing anything like that, even if they know it’s a problem because there’s this conflation of cars and freedom in the American mind, which automakers have really built up with all of their ads and so forth and so on. And he was very candid with me sort of saying like, look, there’s gotta be a public push to force us to do something.

David Zipper: And this is a guy who wants to do something. He’s like, there has to be a groundswell of support. And that’s, you know, just to bring in a full circle, like you were saying nice things about me, I’ll say—and I appreciate that, but I’ll say, like, look, I think you guys and podcasts like yours play an important role because even if you are—like, a lot of people you’re reaching I think are already on the team—not everyone. I think there’s some who learn about the problems with cars through it, but we really need deeper, stronger, broader organizations like this to sort of create the cover for elected leaders to make the decisions that they’re just not making right now in Congress, and also in a lot of state governments. That’s what I would say.

Sarah: I think that’s a pretty good place to wrap it up.

Doug: Yeah, David. We really appreciate, you know, your output. I think, you know, you’re writing so many of these, and every now and then something breaks through to Dallas local TV news. So we really—we really appreciate it.

Aaron: Your pen is a sword in the war on cars.

Doug: Absolutely.

Sarah: Yes. And I think you’re right. We just need to build a much, much bigger team. And you’re a great part of that. So thank you so much for coming on The War on Cars.

David Zipper: No, it’s my pleasure to be with you. I mentioned a few of my articles, and if people are listening and are curious to find them, they’re all available on my website, which is DavidZipper.com.

Doug: We will put a link in the show notes, for sure.

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. We would love to hear what you thought about the conversation we had with David Zipper. Get in touch with us at TheWaronCars(@) gmail.com, or you can find us on social media platforms and let us know what you think.

Aaron: And if you want to tell us what you thought about this episode in person, we are gonna be doing a live show at Caveat on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on Wednesday, January 31 at 7:00 pm. We will put a link in the show notes where you can get your tickets. If you can’t show up in person, you can also get tickets for the online show, so check it out. Be great to see you there.

Sarah: And in February, from the 22nd to the 24th, we will be in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, for the Winter Cycling Congress. And that is going to be a super cool event. Maybe you would like to be there too, and we will have a link to that in the show notes.

Doug: If you like what we do at The War on Cars, please become a Patreon supporter. You can go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us“, and starting at just $3 a month you will get ad-free versions of regular episodes like this one, bonus content just for supporters and stickers.

Sarah: Special thanks to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the Parking Reform Network.

Aaron: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Aaron Naparstek.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear, and this is The War on Cars.