Episode 121: Live from New York with Bernie Wagenblast 

Sarah Goodyear: One of the best things about getting around on a bike or by walking is the feeling of moving through the world unencumbered. When it’s raining, though, things can get complicated. Fumbling with an umbrella in a windy spring storm can really throw a wrench in that free and easy feeling. And biking can get messy fast. That’s why I love Cleverhood so much. Whether I’m striding down a sidewalk in my Urbanaut trench or tootling along in my Rover Rain Cape, I’m dry and defended against the elements. I especially love the ‘hood’ part of Cleverhood, because that visor is a nice little roof that keeps my glasses dry. If you want to feel safe from whatever the elements have to throw at you, go to Cleverhood.com/thewaroncars and enter code PUDDLEJUMPER for 15 percent off all Cleverhood’s great gear. That’s Cleverhood.com/thewaroncars, code PUDDLEJUMPER. See you on the street!

Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. Back in January, we recorded an episode in front of a live audience at Caveat, a comedy theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. So this was our third time at Caveat, and it was a ton of fun. The show sold out quickly, and we were thrilled to be in the same room as so many listeners and friends. Thank you, thank you, thank you to everybody who showed up. Speaking of which, a lot of the audience was made up of Patreon supporters, which got early access to discounted tickets. So, you know, if you want a heads up the next time we have a live show and want to support the podcast, go to Patreon.com/TheWaronCarspod and sign up today

Doug: Our guest for the show was Bernie Wagenblast, the voice of the New York City subway system. If you’ve ever stood on a subway platform and wondered when the next train was going to arrive, Bernie probably told you the answer. She’s a New York City icon with an amazing personal story, and we were so glad she was able to join us at Caveat. Enjoy the show!

Announcer: From New York, it’s The War on Cars live starring The War on Cars. Tonight, join Doug, Aaron and Sarah and their guests, comedian Charlie Dektar and voice of the NYC Subways, Bernie Wagenblast. And now here’s The War on Cars!


Doug: How’s everyone doing?

Sarah: Hi! Hello!

Aaron Naparstek: All right!

Doug: All right, so you may have guessed we’ve got a theme tonight, and that is The Tonight Show. We’re old, so it’s the Carson version. Sorry.

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: Yeah. We debated which theme song people would know in this crowd. We went with Carson. Sorry.

Sarah: Yeah. Anyway, it’s what we respond to. It’s our Pavlovian responses to Carson.

Doug: But we have a really great show tonight. We have a guest, someone probably everybody here has heard but might not know. Could we play that cue?

[ARCHIVE CLIP, subway announcement: There is a local 7 train to Flushing Main Street approaching the station. Please stand away from the platform edge.]

Doug: All right, so that’s going to be pretty awesome!


Sarah: Like, it’s like a dream guest. I mean, you know, Pete Buttigieg, forget that, you know? I mean, like, this is the real stuff.

Aaron: It’s not an AI either. It’s gonna be a real human guest.

Doug: First of all, we want to just thank everybody for coming. How many of you are Patreon supporters?


Doug: All right! The rest of you should sign up. But thank you, because a lot of you bought tickets really early on, and all of you bought tickets, and we sold out tonight, so thanks.

Sarah: Yeah. Thank you so much.

Doug: We wanted to call out Josh Wilcox, who is our recording engineer. Is Josh here?

Aaron: Josh? No Josh?

Doug: All right, Josh is fired.

Sarah: Josh? Okay.

[audience laughs]

Aaron: Josh won the raffle last time.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: Yessenia Moreno? Is Yessenia here?

Doug: Oh, hey!

Sarah: Oh yay!

Aaron: Yessenia edits for us. She’s awesome.

Sarah: Yeah, wonderful.

Doug: And also watching on the livestream from Melbourne, Australia, Ali Lemer. Can everyone say “Hi, Ali?”

[audience, “Hi, Ali.”]

Doug: All right. We did this last year, I think we should do it again. Are there any former guests of the podcast here that we should recognize? Have you been on the show?

Baruch Herzfeld: I’ve been on the show.
Doug: Oh, Baruch Herzfeld!

Sarah: Oh, yes. Our most recent episode. PopWheels.

Aaron: PopWheels. If you guys didn’t catch that, it does battery swapping. Really cool battery switching project.

Sarah: And really, like, the episode that Aaron put together with that, it’s just like the full rainbow of New York, like, people from all over the world with all different things that they think and do, and united by bicycles. Amazing!

Doug: I also want to recognize, we have a very special guest here from the Netherlands, Lucas Harms. Are you here? Yeah, Lucas! Lucas is the director—now on sabbatical—of the Dutch Cycling Embassy, which is pretty cool. What do you think about riding a bicycle here?

Lucas Harms: Yeah, it’s lovely to ride a bicycle in such an iconic city.

[audience laughs]

Lucas Harms: That’s the good part, but there’s still much to be improved.

[audience laughs]

Doug: The Dutch are very polite.

Sarah: We’re looking—we’ll be getting those notes later. Okay!

Aaron: Yeah, I like that we—this is kind of—we’re running this like a community board meeting a little bit.

Doug: Ultimately, everything is a community board meeting. Yeah, getting all the business out of the way, recognizing the dignitaries. That’s what we did last year.

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: Yeah. But let us get going. We’ve got some news we’re gonna share. Sarah, do you want to start?

Sarah: Yeah. So more or fewer SUVs in Paris. What do you think? The people of Paris, registered voters in Paris this weekend have the opportunity to vote to increase parking fees on SUVs by maybe even triple. And it’s part of a whole series of regulatory possibilities that the French are putting into place to disincentivize the creeping influx of American-sized SUVs. And so I mean, yeah, like, go Paris because it’s so influential what happens in Paris. They’ve really been on the cutting edge with all this kind of stuff. So that’s happening February 4 on Sunday, so like …

Doug: I think the remarkable thing is they charge for parking in the first place.

[audience laughs]

Aaron: Yeah, exactly. They actually enforce it.

Doug: We can’t even do that. Yeah.

Aaron: Yeah. No, since—I mean, since 2001, they had a new mayor in 2001, Bertrand Delanoë, who came in talking about, like, I am going to fight the hegemony of the automobile. You know, it’s like, can you even imagine an American mayor fighting the hegemony of anything?

Sarah: Right. Exactly. Yeah.

Aaron: No less the automobile? So I mean, it’s, like, amazing what they’re doing there.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s good stuff. So—and if Paris can do it, then we can turn around and say, “Look, we could do it too.”

Aaron: Yeah. So my—so yeah, so my big development in the war on cars comes from Scott Wiener, a state senator in California, in the Bay area. He’s an awesome guy, and he has proposed some legislation that’s really kind of a big deal, which is that all of the new cars as of something like 2027, on the street in California, will have to have a speed governor built into them. So something that would actually make it so that the vehicle cannot exceed a certain speed limit. So instead of just, you know, a sign being outside of the car, and we hope that the driver adheres to that speed limit, the speed limit is essentially built into the car. So what do we—what do we think of that?

Sarah: Well, this is not—this is not something that’s like a science fiction, impossible to imagine how it could happen because it actually already kind of exists, right?

Aaron: This is true. I mean, it does …

[audience member boos]

Aaron: Like e-scooters have to have …

Doug: I’m sorry. What was that?

[audience member boos]

Aaron: You don’t like the speed governor?

Doug: Someone doesn’t like it? Why don’t you like the speed governor?

Charlie Dektar: Because it can slow my car down.

Doug: Oh.

[audience laughs]

Doug: Well, that’s the point, right? Because we don’t want people zooming through and …

Charlie Dektar: You’re anti-car. No anti-car.

Aaron: Sir, do you understand what show you’re at?

[audience laughs]

Charlie Dektar: Can I come up and make a statement?

Doug: Okay. Come on up. Come on up.

Aaron: Why not?

Doug: This is totally not a bit that we set up before.

Sarah: We’re very inclusive. We’re a very inclusive show.

Aaron: Yeah. All about free speech.

Doug: Do you want to use the mic, sir?

Charlie Dektar: Yeah. I mean, thank you, thank you, thank you. It’s a great show, by the way. Give it up for the hosts. It’s a great show.


Charlie Dektar: I think—I think the show is great. It’s just, you know, you make fun of Pete Buttigieg on here, the Secretary of Transportation. You make fun of cars all the time. I think the people here are actually more on my side than they’re on your side. Who here would actually want to see New York more walkable, more bikeable? Like, who would really want that?

[audience cheers]

Charlie Dektar: Some of you scattered around the corners. Some of you I heard. But who here thinks we could make a little more room for the cars?

[audience boos]

Aaron: So why don’t you make your case?

Sarah: Yeah. Okay, yeah. Actually, yeah.

Charlie Dektar: Okay. Yeah. I’ll make my—I think I can win people over. I have a feeling. I have actually brought a piece with me. This is how to make New York City more car friendly. Here we go. “Every year, thousands of pedestrians are injured on crosswalks. We must remove all those crosswalks before anyone else gets hurt.”

[audience laughs]

Charlie Dektar: Those people could be drivers just walking to their cars.

Audience member: You sound like the DoT.

Charlie Dektar: Thank you.

Aaron: Damn!

Charlie Dektar: He said I sound like the Department of Transportation. I take that as a compliment. Why do we dedicate entire lanes to bicycles? Will we make lanes for skipping rope, for hopscotch? Lanes dedicated to pugs on skateboards filming viral short video content from GoPros on their collars?

Sarah: Yes.

Charlie Dektar: Sounds so silly, I think, Sarah. Climate change can hurt cars just as much as people. We all need to work together to find a solution, and soon. On the Plaza de las Americas in Washington Heights, there is Manhattan’s one stand-alone self-cleaning public restroom. Why is that there? That could be a parking spot.

[audience laughs]

Charlie Dektar: It’s too sunny on the road. We need to plant more trees by the street to increase shade coverage. New York is on the verge of implementing the barbaric congestion tax coming this year.

[audience cheers]

Charlie Dektar: Don’t cheer for that! They shouldn’t be cheering for that. If they want to tax a surplus of cars, they may as well put a tax on too much tenderness, on the laughter of children, on the indominability of the human spirit. We actually—we need more lanes, so we should cut down all the trees that we just planted by the street. When we were young, mother picked us up and put us in the back seat of the Highlander, and we felt safe and warm while she scraped ice off the windshields. Why doesn’t it feel like that anymore?

[audience laughs]

Charlie Dektar: We need bigger cars that make us feel small again. We need more armored cars to make us feel safe again. We need to stay in our cars until we feel that feeling again. We have to feel that feeling again. Thank you everyone so much. My—my Tesla is double parked outside, so I gotta head out. But I really appreciate the time. And best of luck to you guys.


Aaron: Thank you so much.

Doug: Comedian Charlie Dektar, everyone.

Charlie Dektar: It’s a very exclusive podcast.

Doug: I think we might have people who work for the Department of Transportation here, because I did hear some pushback on that.

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: He makes a strong case.

Doug: Yeah. We’re gonna get to some of that stuff, I think. Let’s—before we were so rudely interrupted by a thing that we set up a week ago, yeah, Aaron, the thing is about the speed governor, what I think is really interesting is that there’s always, like, a grace period or, like, an exception, right, for drivers?

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: Like, you can only park here for an hour, but if you’re five minutes late to your car, the parking meter will not—the meter maid will not ticket you or whatever. And the same thing is happening here. It’s like you can’t exceed the speed limit—except by 10 miles an hour.

Aaron: Yes.

Doug: Right? And so this obviously has caused the lunatics at Fox News to go absolutely …

Aaron: Oh, I can’t wait to see what they have to say.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fox News: Let’s bring in the author of Domestic Extremist, Peachy Keenan. It’s great to see you. It’s been a while. I haven’t seen you. It’s great to have you back. I want to put this up on the screen. This is the San Francisco Chronicle. They said this about the speed limit bill we just talked about. Quoting here, “The bill is likely to face opposition from the auto industry and California motorists who may view the proposal as a form of state overreach.” Really? Over? That’s over? Oh, come on! They overreach on everything, and they’re saying, “Well, you know, it might be overreach.”]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fox News: Yeah. I mean, pretty soon they’re going to have a device that doesn’t let your car leave the garage unless you’re driving to, like, a Gavin Newsom fundraiser or Planned Parenthood or anything you’re allowed to go to. But if I had one of these devices on my minivan, my kids would be late to school every single day. And I think I speak for a lot of moms. Not that I break the law, but …]

Doug: So a couple things there you missed? Number one, you probably heard it wouldn’t let you leave your garage unless you were going to a Gavin Newsom fundraiser or Planned Parenthood.

Sarah: Or a Taylor Swift [inaudible].

Doug: You’re allowed to have cars in those situations. And the best part was like, “I would be late to school. My kids would be late to school. Not that I break the law.” No, lady, you do break the law. You speed. You go over the speed limit. We’re not saying you rob a bank, but you speed. You go over the speed limit.

Sarah: Apparently, in a school zone.

[audience laughs]

Doug: Yeah, with your kids. With your kids in the car.

Sarah: Yeah, with their kids in the car.

Aaron: Police, arrest her on Fox News headquarters. We got her.

Doug: I also love that she’s an expert on domestic extremism, and this is what she’s on to talk about.

Aaron: We are domestic extreme—do you guys actually think that the—can the speed governor thing actually happen? It just feels impossible.

Sarah: There needs to be much a—there needs to be a better name for it because, like, governor is just already—like it’s …

Aaron: We just passed congestion pricing. Is there a worse name than that? We made it happen.

Sarah: Good point. Good point.

Doug: I mean, I love also the observation of, like, the auto industry is against this. Yeah, no shit. I mean, come on!

Aaron: Exactly.

Doug: So I mean, the interesting thing about the auto industry being against this and the whole idea of this being like an attack on freedoms is that this is nothing new. So a hundred years ago, 1923, the city of Cincinnati wanted to do an ordinance to limit automobiles to a speed of 25 miles per hour with a speed governor, a mechanical speed governor. And this faced basically, like, the same opposition from the auto industry that she was talking about the auto industry doing today.

Aaron: Right.

Doug: They put up this big campaign, basically saying that it would build a Chinese wall around the city of Cincinnati and not let people from other cities come in, even though drivers would be welcome to those other cities. So this is nothing new.

Aaron: Right. And actually, they—you know, from the great Peter Norton book that these graphics come from, he talks about how the motoring interests actually put themselves together as ‘motordom.’ Right? Like, that was, like, where that—they were like, “We need a—we need a name for ourselves that’s gonna really help solve this. Let’s call ourselves ‘motordom.'” You know, it’s like, let’s pick something really evil sounding.

Sarah: And I’m glad to see that the, like, anti-Chinese racist rhetoric has—you know, has also just been hanging around ever since.

Aaron: Right. And I don’t know if anyone has been to Cincinnati lately, but they did actually build a wall of freeways around, like, a pretty awesome urban core. So …

Doug: Yeah. So we should talk about the elephant in the room. And Aaron, do you want to talk about congestion pricing a little bit because that really is …

Aaron: I do want to talk about congestion pricing. And thank you for the—thank you for the Patton, the General Patton, like, background.

[audience laughs]

Aaron: Look, congestion pricing. I think we should just take a moment to enjoy it. Okay? Like, for 15 years, we’ve had to be, like, good boys and girls and, like, do all the policy things, and go to our local city council members and assembly members with a—with a—thank you for the spotlight—with the—you know, the little fact sheets saying like, look, you have, you know, 85 percent of your constituents get to work in Manhattan by transit. You have so few drivers. We did all that stuff, right? But now congestion pricing is about to happen, and I just feel like there’s a—there’s a certain amount that we should just revel in it. We should just—we should just enjoy it for a minute. We should just, like, appreciate the—we should just have some bloodlust, you know? Like, look, like, you wanna drive from Long Island to Rockefeller Center to see the Christmas tree? Pay the fee. You know, you want to, like, go drive from Westchester and go to a Broadway show instead of taking the train? Fine. Pay the fee. You know, like, you want to, like—you want to, like—I don’t know. Just pay. Like, drivers are gonna have to pay, okay? And so that’s just very enjoyable to me. It’s like—it’s like we spent 15 years hunting the bear and then we finally killed it, and now we should, like, grab its heart and bite it with blood spurting all over us, all right? So that’s all I want to say. Thank you very much.


Doug: Yeah. I mean, that would be great. That would be awesome if we could revel in congestion pricing. We can’t because there are now more lawsuits against congestion pricing than there are drivers in the Tri-State area at this point. So, you know, the state of New Jersey has sued to stop congestion pricing. These are just a handful of the reasons why congestion pricing might kill Broadway, kill actual New Yorkers, screw over teachers in Staten Island. And my favorite, really, of these lawsuits—I don’t know if you have seen this one—is one that’s happening right in this neighborhood. That’s the Lower East Side. They’re saying it will create a traffic nightmare. Fewer cars will lead to cars—I don’t know, make it make sense. And my favorite parts of this lawsuit—okay. So, like, it’s gonna increase pollution along the FDR Drive because you won’t be charged if you stay out there. If you come into the city, you will. People who need to avoid mass transit due to Covid. Okay.

Aaron: Skip—skip to point five.

Doug: All right, let’s go to the last—yeah, the second-to-last one. They’re basically arguing that Albany failed to properly assess hardship for those who maintain homes both upstate and in the Lower East Side.

[audience laughs]

Doug: Who will think of the second homeowners?

Sarah: My God!

Doug: With houses in Manhattan? They’re going to deny access, Aaron, to the Hudson Valley.

Aaron: I know!

Doug: You monster! You monster!

Aaron: That’s what we are.

Doug: I love this because I think it’s like the veil is off. Like, all of the concern about people with disabilities, people who need to drive, low-income people, et cetera, which we arguably have probably more sympathy than the people filing these lawsuits.

Sarah: Yeah.

Doug: It’s just they want to drive to their homes upstate or in the Hamptons or wherever.

Aaron: Yeah.

Sarah: Without paying that extra few dollars, because they’re too busy paying the property taxes on their second home, I guess.

Aaron: Right. But before we move on, does anyone else have a lawsuit they want to add to the mix? Any dentists from Bay Ridge or, I don’t know, dog walkers from Queens, or …?

Sarah: Okay.

Aaron: No? I think that’s it.

Doug: What about funeral home owners. Have you heard this one?

Aaron: Tell us about the funeral home owners.

Doug: This guy, Daniel Bazzetta is the owner, current owner of this funeral home that has been there since 1906—so before the Model T it’s been there, and somehow during those years was able to, I don’t know, deliver dead bodies to morgues and pick them up and that kind of stuff. So he said, “I can’t use public transit, I can’t put a dead body on a bus.” Which I’m like, have you ever ridden a bus? You absolutely can.

[audience laughs]

Aaron: By the way, have you ever been to a funeral in New York City? The worst part of it is, like, the traffic on your way to, like, Mount Hebron in Queens. I mean, it’s like …

Doug: Yeah, there’s like nothing grieving families love more than, like, am I going to make the funeral on time?

Aaron: Right. Congestion pricing will be great for funerals.

Doug: So I did look this up and I thought, like, well, will a $15 fee just, like, be too onerous for grieving families, people in these just dire, terrible moments where they’ve lost a loved one? And the answer is no. I mean, so there literally is a website called Funeralocity, which is like the worst travel website you’ve ever seen. They have by state and down to, like, the city level, the average cost of funerals, cremation, et cetera. And New York isn’t really even an outlier in this regard. Funerals are pretty expensive, like $6,000 or so. We’re, like, a little higher than a few other places, but not by much. I just doubt that you’re like. “$8,842?” “Sorry. Actually, it’s $8,000—” I can’t do math—”It’s $15 more.” And you were like, “No, we’re just—we’re gonna dump the body in the East River instead.”

Aaron: Yeah. Cremation.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: Yeah. Well, I mean, I guess, you know, we’re just gonna have to—we’re gonna have to eat the bear heart after the lawsuits have been gotten through, though. But …

Aaron: I don’t think the lawsuits can stop it. I mean, I think—I think we won, but it literally took 50 years to even get to this point.

Doug: I think you just have to hope that whatever judge hears the New York—the New Jersey lawsuit didn’t drive to work that day. That’s what I think.

Aaron: And they parked on the sidewalk.

Doug: Probably, yeah.

Aaron: But no. I mean, honestly, it is one of these things where it’s like—to me it’s like if the MTA just took all the money and just piled it up in Times Square and lit it on fire, it would still be—like, even if all the policy points fail, it’s still just like making drivers pay. Like, the fact that we’re doing that is like, it’s just such a—I mean, the core concept of car culture is like—right? Like, it’s like, “I have my car, and therefore I get to do things for free and everyone around me pays for it,” right? Like, individuals pay for it by getting run over. Towns and cities, they pay for it by having traffic. The planet pays for it by, you know, becoming a melted, burning hellscape. So, like, just the fact that we’re making the drivers pay is just so friggin’ satisfying.

Doug: I feel like this June or July when congestion pricing goes into effect, we’re gonna be seeing you, like, swinging by a road from the cordons, like the toll readers with your shirt off just, like, screaming.

Aaron: Yeah, we’re talking about, you know, retiring to the congestion pricing zone.

[audience laughs]

Doug: Hopefully it will expand. Should we bring out our guest? We should bring out our guest.

Sarah: I think we should.


Doug: All right, so you may know our guests from your daily commute—if you still make one. Since 2009, she has been the voice of the New York City subway. Also a veteran traffic reporter, a transportation reporter, done traffic reports for WABC 1010 WINS, hosts a bunch of podcasts. Bernie Wagenblast, welcome to The War on Cars!

[audience cheers]

Bernie Wagenblast: Great to be here. Thank you!

Doug: That was “Downtown Train” by Rod Stewart in case you didn’t …

Aaron: It didn’t stick.

Doug: Yeah, I needed acknowledgement.

Sarah: Just faded out as he got the downtown train.

Doug: All right, so I want to start just real fast. We will obviously turn it over to you as much as possible. My wife is here. Many, many years ago, you guys remember the taxi announcements when they had, like, sports figures and music stars reminding you to buckle up your seatbelt. So my niece was here, she was four or five years old, with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law. They were putting her into a taxi, and she hears, “Elmo says, ‘Put on your buckle or seatbelt!'” And she, like, looked around, like, “Elmo’s in the cab with me!” And when we spoke via Zoom to set this up, that’s how I felt.

Sarah: [laughs]

Bernie Wagenblast: I’m Elmo now!

Doug: You’re Elmo. As excited as a four-year-old was, this transportation nerd is very excited to welcome you to The War on Cars. So Bernie, thank you for being here.

Bernie Wagenblast: Thank you so much. Great to be here.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s really amazing to have you here. And I feel like you not only have this iconic place in the minds of New Yorkers, in the sort of in our—you’re embedded in our consciousness because of the announcements, but also you have been covering transportation as a journalist for so long, and so you have, like, this incredible perspective on the issues that we cover. And you also—you live in New Jersey, right?

Bernie Wagenblast: Mm-hmm. So I’m suing.

[audience laughs]

Aaron: Thank you.

Sarah: I didn’t want to ask. [laughs]

Doug: How did you get here tonight?

Bernie Wagenblast: New Jersey Transit and the subway.

[audience applauds]

Sarah: But I guess, like, one thing that I did want to ask is, you know, how is sort of the transportation scene changed since you started reporting on it? Like, what do you see as some of the—like, the big shifts that have happened in the way New Yorkers view transportation?

Bernie Wagenblast: I first started reporting traffic on the radio in 1979, so it was a much different world. First of all, the idea that there would even be a company to supply traffic information was kind of surprising that there would be enough interest in that. And when we started, we only did it during rush hours. That was the only interest in traffic information was Monday through Friday during drive time, like, from six in the morning ’til nine o’clock, and then back in the afternoon from four to seven. And now it became a 24 hour thing. You know, when we were first starting out, we were using CB radios. So we would get—we had remote controlled CB radios, like along the Gowanus Expressway that we could get in contact with via a touchtone phone and say, “Hey there, good buddy. How’s the traffic looking on the—on the Gowanus?” And they would think that we’re another trucker or something like that. So that’s one of the ways it’s certainly changed. Obviously transit has changed. When I first was doing traffic, the Metro-North was not really running yet. It was still being run by Conrail. And the same thing in New Jersey. You still had the private railroads when I first started doing traffic, like the Erie Lackawanna and the Penn Central and things like that. So those are just—there’s so many changes we could go here all night.

Aaron: Bernie, one thing I think about is, like, you know, how the MTA has changed, you know, since—I’ve lived in New York since the early ’90s and, you know, we saw it improve a lot in a variety of ways. And also and more recently, it feels like it’s fallen apart a little bit in a variety of ways. But, you know, the communications seem to be a bright spot lately. Like, we have, like, real time train information and, you know, good announcements, you know, with your voice. But I’m curious if you have any—like, having worked with them, like, do you have any insight into, like, what the deal is with that organization?

[audience laughs]

Aaron: Like, how can we make it better? Why does it suck in the way that it sucks?

Bernie Wagenblast: I am not an MTA employee. Let me say that up front.

Aaron: Yeah, that’s why I was gonna ask.

Bernie Wagenblast: I think, again, technology has allowed a lot of things that you couldn’t have dreamed of when I began. Like I say, I started doing traffic reporting in 1979. I did it for about five years, and then I went off, actually worked briefly for New York City DoT in the mid ’80s when they were setting up their communications center in Long Island City. And then I went over to the Port Authority and worked for an organization which was again setting some—some new precedent called Transcom, which first of all, maybe they knew something about me when I went and got a job there—it was called Transcom that I wasn’t even aware of at the time, but that could have been something. But the idea behind that was to try to get all these different agencies to share information. So we were trying to do good government, I think, in terms of getting them to cooperate. And you got to see how the different agencies operated. They—just like people, different agencies have different personalities. So that was one of the things that I think was very noticeable then.

Aaron: It was very—I noticed you did not really trash the MTA.

[audience laughs]

Bernie Wagenblast: [laughs]

Sarah: We didn’t find out what those personalities were. [laughs] Okay, I’m gonna admit to something, which is that as a native New Yorker, and I’ve lived here most of my life, and I’m 60 years old, and so I’ve lived here a long, long time, and when they said they wanted to change to the automated voices, the automated announcements, I really was very resistant to that. I thought that that was gonna—was gonna ruin everything. It was gonna ruin the whole vibe.

Bernie Wagenblast: [laughs]

Sarah: And it’s like, in retrospect, it’s so—it sounds so stupid, but I think that there is—you know, there is this persistent thing in New York that sort of we can’t have nice things, we can’t have things that actually work and, you know, announcements that are intelligible and trains that run on a regular schedule, without somehow losing our edge. And I just wanted to say that, like, I really am glad about the announcements that I can understand now. Like, I came to understand that, like, it’s better to be able to understand the announcements. It’s cooler, actually.

[audience laughs]

Sarah: So I just wanted to say, like, thank you for—and I’m glad that I had the time to process all of that.

Doug: You’re not a real New Yorker unless you can understand, “The next train is [garbled]. Power outage [garbled] on the [garbled].

Aaron: I still think that, like, 17-year-old Sarah would just be so bummed at what 60-year-old Sarah’s saying.

Sarah: She would, yeah.

Doug: She’s so uncool now.

Sarah: She’s a sellout. She is. It’s true. [laughs]

Aaron: Sold out for…

Sarah: For the big—the big bucks of The War on Cars.

Bernie Wagenblast: [laughs]

Doug: So Bernie, so you have been really open about sharing your personal story, and there was a big story in the Times about you coming out and everything. How has that—well, we’ll get into a little bit about your voice because that is how we all know you.

Bernie Wagenblast: Mm-hmm.

Doug: But how has that changed your perspective of, like, walking through the city? You know, we talk a lot on the podcast about the different experiences that people have depending on their background, their gender, their everything, their identity. How has that changed your perspective of taking transit itself?

Bernie Wagenblast: Well, I think it’s certainly made me be more aware of my surroundings. I only transitioned socially a little over a year ago—January 1 of last year.

[audience applauds]

Bernie Wagenblast: And the first time I came into the city on the NJ Transit train, I was very nervous, needless to say. I think almost anybody would be. You know, are people going to be pointing at me, laughing at me? Am I gonna be in any danger when I come into the city? And I have had zero problems. One of the most surprising things, though, is because of a lot of the media coverage that I’ve had, even though my voice is well known in New York from both the radio and the subway announcements, nobody knew what I looked like. But all these stories have photos in the paper, they’ve got video on TV, and it’s been very strange as I go around the city and sometimes in the subway, people will come up to me, say, “Oh, excuse me, are you this the subway announcer?” And if it looks like they’re safe, I will say yes. And then they’ll take a selfie with me. [laughs]

Doug: That’s awesome. That’s great.

Aaron: Well, I mean, so—and, you know, you were so—you are so known for your voice, and as part of this transition process, your voice changes. So was that—I don’t know, was that challenging for you? It’s like you have this iconic voice and now you’re changing it? It’s kind of a big deal.

Bernie Wagenblast: That is one of the toughest things for especially an older trans woman to do, because even though I’m very familiar with my voice, obviously having used it professionally for so many years, you have to start using muscles in your throat that you were never aware of. Like, how do you raise your larynx? And that has taken a lot of practice to try to do that, and to change the resonance from my chest into my head so that it sounds more feminine then the old voice sounded like. But the other thing that will be surprising is I’m not ashamed or upset when I hear the old voice. That doesn’t bother me. And in fact, if I am doing something, I will switch into that voice. “The next Downtown Number 2 will arrive in two minutes. Please stand away from the platform edge.”

[audience applauds]

Aaron: God, you’ve still got it!

Doug: I’m telling you, that’s why I felt like a four-year-old.

[audience laughs]

Doug: I still feel that way right now.

Aaron: But that—so okay, with the voice, like the subway—there is a way in which it sounds—like, the first time I heard it on the train, I was like, “Oh, is that an automated voice? Is that a—” you know, because it sounds like sort of simultaneously kind of chipper and human and officious, but also sort of like maybe it could be computer generated. I don’t know, were you going for that? Were you trying …?

Bernie Wagenblast: No. Well, when I just did it, I was trying to imitate that.

Aaron: Okay.

Bernie Wagenblast: But the way the actual recordings were, I did about a thousand recordings back in 2009 of things like “uptown,” “downtown,” “two,” “three,” “first,” second,” all these different words. And the computer puts it together, and that’s why it sounds so staccato, because the computer is taking each little recording and putting it together. So the only thing that I get to say in a full sentence is, “Please stand away from the platform edge.” Everything else is just a little segment.

Sarah: But it really sounds so much better than, like, truly mechanical voices, robot voices like they have in the BART in San Francisco, and I think they have it in Metro in DC. And that’s, you know, really eerie. It does sound human and warm, and I’m not surprised that people once they, like, identify you as a human being, that they—that they have a warm feeling about you because, I mean, I think that’s the thing about the subway, right, is that those of us who dare to ride it, you know, really, like, love it so much. And we recognize that it’s—that it’s what makes the city function. And it really in many ways is the thing that makes New York, New York, and so everything associated with it takes on this kind of shine. And you have that shine.

Doug: [laughs]

Sarah: It’s wonderful.

Bernie Wagenblast: Well, thank you. Thank you. I tried—you know, it’s hard to put much personality when you’re just recording an individual word, but I’ve always tried to have a smile in my voice because it’s not just for the New Yorkers who take this every day and don’t really need to know the information, but I’m thinking of the people who are visiting from another country who don’t know English. Maybe they know Dutch, for example.

Sarah: Oh, they all know English.

Bernie Wagenblast: [laughs] Well, I was thinking of our guest from The Netherlands—that you want to be as understandable and as friendly as you can. And in addition to the subway, I also do the AirTrain at Newark Airport. So that’s another place where you have a chance to again, you figure there’s a lot of people who are there from around the world, and you want to be as friendly and as reassuring as you possibly can for something like that. And you talk about computers. I originally was the voice on the AirTrain at JFK Airport, but I got replaced by a computer. [laughs]

[audience boos]

Doug: That’s why it costs $100 to get off at Howard Beach or something. Yeah.

Sarah: I know what the Port Authority’s personality is.

[audience laughs]

Aaron: They don’t deserve you, Bernie.

Bernie Wagenblast: Well, I’m still at Newark Airport, so …

Aaron: All right.

Doug: Do you know Julie from Amtrak, and can she be on the show next year?

Bernie Wagenblast: I actually am friends with her on Facebook.

Doug: You are?

Bernie Wagenblast: Yes. [laughs]

Doug: I was just kidding. That’s amazing! I actually thought she was automated forever, yeah.

Aaron: Do all the transit voices know each other and hang out?

Doug: Hang out at a bar?

[audience laughs]

Bernie Wagenblast: Actually, I do know—I know the guy that did a lot of the announcements for the T up in Boston. I don’t know Metro. I’m very familiar with the person that does the voice on PATCO, which runs between South Jersey and Philadelphia, because that’s me.

[audience laughs]

Bernie Wagenblast: But I also have just connected with the voice of the Berlin subway metro, because I found out—I did not know this until recently—that she is also trans. So we have a little, very small community of two people. [laughs]

Doug: You should start the most niche podcast ever.

[audience laughs]

Sarah: No, no, no. This is a new Marvel franchise.

Aaron: I think it’s like a buddy film. It’s like Thelma and Louise, but you’re, like, on a train. You know, you’re on EuroRail. Something like that.

Doug: I will say that actually, having recently taken the Berlin Metro, The S-Bahn/U-Bahn, I felt somewhat comforted because as a Jewish person, being screamed at in German is probably not the best thing. But I actually was like, “Oh, that sounds like a really nice, pleasant voice to listen to.” So that’s sort of—tell her I say hi.

Bernie Wagenblast: Will do. [laughs]

Doug: I mean, I guess I do want to say, in your capacity as somebody who lives in New Jersey, I mean …

[audience laughs]

Bernie Wagenblast: Please don’t hold it against me.

Sarah: No, like, you know, I support you in that, but, like, can they stop suing us? Like, how are we gonna—how are we gonna get Phil Murphy on board with this? Like, if anyone could do it, maybe it’s you.

Bernie Wagenblast: I don’t know that I have any great connections with the governor, but … [laughs]

Sarah: Because but really, like …

Aaron: I think we’re gonna have to get rid of him.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I guess it just—I hope that there are more people in New Jersey who really get it. Like, this is good for people from New Jersey too, right? I mean, it could be really good for communities that already have a lot of traffic going through them, maybe will get less. And also, if you really need to drive into New York, the whole point is that it’ll be easier. Anyway, can you talk to the folks out there? [laughs]

Doug: Bernie, before we finish up, I thought we would, since the theme of tonight was like a talk show, we are gonna have the top 10 New York City transportation announcements we The War on Cars would like to hear, as read by voice of the subways Bernie Wagenblast. Bernie has not seen this list. I did promise her it wouldn’t get her fired.

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: So here you go. I’ll read the numbers, you read …

Bernie Wagenblast: Okay.

Doug: … obviously.

Aaron: But before we start, could we just have one subway door ‘bing bong’ from the crowd?

Doug: Yeah.

Aaron: Bing bong. Ready? One, two, three.

[audience, ‘bing bong’]

Doug: All right, here we go. Number 10.

Bernie Wagenblast: “Please park clear of the curbside bike lane.”

[audience laughs]

Doug: Number nine.

Bernie Wagenblast: The next open Citi Bike dock is five blocks away.

[audience laughs]

Doug: Number eight.

Bernie Wagenblast: Attention, motorists: Brooklyn-bound traffic is delayed due to Brooklyn-bound traffic.

[audience laughs and applauds]

Doug: Number seven.

Bernie Wagenblast: Due to an earlier incident of disinvestment and car-brained politicians, trains are running with delays through the end of this century.

Doug: Number six.

Bernie Wagenblast: Attention, MTA passengers: there’s another train directly behind this one because come on, what else did you expect directly behind a train that runs through tunnels on tracks? A boat?

[audience laughs]

Doug: Number five.

Bernie Wagenblast: Drivers, please refrain from honking. How’d you like it if I screamed inside your car? That would suck, right? Jerks! So thank you for shutting the fuck up.

[audience laughs]

Doug: Number four.

Bernie Wagenblast: Due to motorists whining, the congestion pricing charge is now $75. Do I hear whining? Now it’s $100.

[audience laughs]

Doug: Number three.

Bernie Wagenblast: Free parking is theft.

[audience cheers]

Doug: Number two.

Bernie Wagenblast: Hello, everyone. The New York City Department of Transportation would like to remind you that SUVs and other large vehicles are subject to random traffic delays that are in no way the fault of pedestrian plazas, bike lanes, outdoor dining structures, bus lanes, or other things that aren’t giant metal boxes on wheels.

Doug: Right. And the number one transportation-related announcement we at The War on Cars would like to hear as read by Bernie Wagenblast is …

Bernie Wagenblast: Cars ruin cities.

[audience cheers]

Doug: Thank you.

Sarah: Thank you so much!

Doug: All right. So—okay, that was awesome. Thank you. And that’s a great place to end the show. We want to thank Caveat, Cody and the crew.


Doug: Yeah! And all of you—and Bernie. Thank you so much. And Charlie!

Aaron: Charlie Dektar. Thanks for coming out.

Doug: That is it for this special live episode of The War on Cars. Thanks to all of the listeners and our Patreon supporters who joined us at Caveat. A big thanks as well to Bernie Wagenblast—this show would have been nothing without her. We also want to thank comedian Charlie Dektar, as well as all the good people at Caveat for helping to make our show a success.

Doug: A special shout out to Cleverhood. We actually gave away a Cleverhood War on Cars anorak during the live show, and that was a lot of fun. If you want one or any of Cleverhood’s excellent rain capes and jackets, visit Cleverhood.com/thewaroncars. Enter code PUDDLEJUMPER for 15 percent off now through the end of March.

Doug: If you want advance tickets to future live events, as well as exclusive access to bonus content, ad-free regular episodes, merch discounts, free stickers and more, become a Patreon supporter of the podcast. You can sign up today at Patreon.com/TheWaronCarspod. Thank you to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and the Parking Reform Network.

Doug: This episode was recorded live at Caveat in New York City on January 31, 2024. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. On behalf of my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, I’m Doug Gordon, and this is The War on Cars.

Bernie Wagenblast: Cars ruin cities.