Episode 15: Can Millennials Win the War on Cars?
Sarah Goodyear: All right, I’m dying to hear what you’ve got for us, Aaron. It’s been a lot of buildup for this.
Aaron Naparstek: Okay, so I’ve compiled a medley of great historic speeches in the war on cars.
Aaron: See if you can guess who this is.
[CLIP: So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is a car itself.]
Doug Gordon: Ah, yes. FDR’s famous four freedoms. Freedom from getting hit by a car.
Doug: Freedom from traffic.
Sarah: Yeah, okay. Yeah, we know that one.
Aaron: That’s a classic.
Doug: Everyone’s taught that in high school.
Aaron: Too easy. All right. This one might be harder.
[CLIP: And so my fellow Americans, ask not what a car can do for you, ask what you can do to reduce the need for a car.]
Sarah: Yup, that was JFK issuing a clarion call to take on a generational challenge.
Doug: I never knew that he sounded so much like FDR. That’s really remarkable.
Aaron: Yeah, isn’t that weird? I mean, if they hadn’t assassinated him, he definitely would have pulled us out of the war on cars. That’s why they killed him.
Aaron: You know, they knew.
[CLIP: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this urban expressway!]
Sarah: Ah, one of my favorite political figures.
Aaron: I mean, some people think that Reagan really won the war on cars with that speech. I just think that’s giving him way too much credit.
Aaron: Okay, those were too easy. Those were too easy.
Aaron: All right. Last one.
[CLIP: If you believe in science and you believe that climate change is real, join me in this fight. Let’s get people out of private cars. Let’s break the car culture.]
Sarah: Well, I was there for that, so I know who that was.
Doug: You were there for that historic speech?
Sarah: I was there for that moment in history.
Doug: You will always remember where you were.
Sarah: I will always remember.
Doug: When that speech was delivered.
Sarah: I was at LaGuardia Community College listening to Council Speaker Corey Johnson giving a historic speech, you know, about breaking the car culture in New York City.
Aaron: Our commander in chief.
Aaron: This is The War on Cars, the podcast that believes you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and you can’t make a city without breaking car culture.
Doug: You’re working really hard on that.
Aaron: I know, I’m trying. I’m trying. All right. I’m Aaron Naparstek. I’m here with Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear. And on the podcast today, we ride the subway with Corey Johnson.
Doug: Should we take a step back? We mentioned it, we should probably say again who is Corey Johnson?
Aaron: You think people don’t know who Corey Johnson is?
Doug: I mean, everybody in New York City knows. But sometimes …
Sarah: I don’t know that even everybody in New York City knows.
Doug: Sometimes we get accused of being a little too New York-centric. So Corey Johnson is the speaker of our city council.
Doug: He is amazing. I’m a big fan.
Aaron: We’re talking about him today because he just delivered a great state of the city speech. He dropped a wildly ambitious plan to completely reform New York City’s entire transportation system. He is almost certainly running for mayor in 2021. And he’s also really young. He’s the first bona fide, you know, millennial to be elected to citywide office in New York.
Sarah: And thinking about Corey Johnson, we started looking around and realizing that all over the country, there’s a new generation of politicians coming up—a lot of them millennial, for lack of a better word. They are radically honest about what needs to happen to make this country better in a variety of ways, including reforming our transportation policy and breaking car culture.
Aaron: So today on The War on Cars, we’re taking a ride on the E Train with Corey Johnson. And then we’re gonna expand beyond New York City, and take a look at this new crop of up and coming elected officials in cities across North America. And we’re gonna ask ourselves, are the millennials the generation to win the war on cars? Is there something fundamentally different happening here now in politics?
Doug: Sarah hates generational stereotypes.
Sarah: I do, but we can get into that later. First, you may have noticed that we’ve been doing more interviews, getting more outside voices on the show. We had Cam Hardy on a couple of episodes ago talking about buses in Cincinnati. The last episode, Doug went up to Boston to talk to Ray Magliozzi from Car Talk.
Aaron: I had to pay $2.75 to get on a subway.
Doug: Did you get a receipt to submit it to The War on Cars accounting department?
Aaron: Accounting department. Will do.
Doug: So anyhow, all this stuff, including air and subway fare, costs money. And it is your Patreon donations that make it possible for us to produce this podcast. We want to hear more voices from all over, and we know that our listeners do, too. We’ve heard from you. So help us make that happen.
Sarah: Go to Thewaroncars.org, click “Donate,” and you can pitch in to our Patreon campaign. We’ll send you a nice reward. You can get access to special bonus episodes. You can buy t-shirts and stickers. And with your help, we will continue to wage the war on cars.
Doug: Yeah, thanks for all the support so far.
Aaron: Okay, why don’t we kick this off by just playing a clip from Corey’s state of the city speech. And it wasn’t your typical, boring speech ticking off a whole list of accomplishments and policy goals. He decided to just focus and go deep on one issue.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Corey Johnson: The city’s population is growing, the city’s economy is growing, but subway and bus ridership is declining. This is a ticking time bomb. If people can’t move around, New York City can’t function. Today, New Yorkers are abandoning the system and getting into Ubers and Lyfts. Tomorrow it’s U-Hauls, and the businesses will follow. Why would they stay? We have to do something. Our future as a city is at stake. I see it. You see it. But no one is doing anything about it. Enough, no more. We must take control of our destiny. We must have municipal control of our mass transit system.]
Sarah: Okay, I’m getting—I’m getting all teared up all over again, because I was there, as I said, and it was so electric. The atmosphere of hundreds of people sitting in this auditorium and listening to someone, a politician, actually get up and say something real that we all knew was true.
Sarah: As he kept going, everybody was looking around at each other and saying, “Wait, this guy is actually doing this. He’s actually talking about something real in a real way.” It was electric.
Aaron: And listeners should understand that the idea of, like, New York City taking over its own transit system is radical, and considered politically impossible and not discussable.
Doug: But, you know, he doesn’t give a shit, right? Because I think that’s part of what we’re talking about is that there is this new crop of politicians who look at the way the world is and just say, “Why? Enough! It doesn’t have to be that way just because it’s been that way.”
Doug: For me, the remarkable thing about that speech—and Aaron you said this—is normally a politician, certainly the ones we’re used to, will get up and say, “Here’s the education part of my speech. Here’s the business and, you know, housing part of my speech, and here is the environmental part of my speech.” But Corey understands and was clear in that speech that transportation is fundamental to every issue, no matter where you live. If you can’t get to work, you don’t make money. If you can’t cross the street safely, you don’t have access to good parks. He just got it and filtered everything through that. And that was, for me, the most remarkable thing.
Aaron: It wasn’t just words in a speech, he also simultaneously dropped this 104-page plan. Like, a very substantial plan that got into some of the weeds and the mechanisms of how he would do this stuff. And it wasn’t even just about the transit system. He also talked about streets and cars and traffic. And here.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Corey Johnson: We need to think seriously about how we share space on our streets. Cars cannot continue to rule the road. It is not safe, and it is not sustainable for the future. We need to set aggressive citywide benchmarks on protected bike lanes, on bus lanes and on pedestrian space. In New York City, someone dies in traffic violence every 1.8 days. These are not accidents. Every single one of them is preventable. Smart street design saves lives. We need to make our streets safer. We need to finally break the car culture in New York City.]
Aaron: What was interesting too, is Corey in the speech really made a progressive case for fixing transit and transportation, which, you know, we have a mayor, Bill de Blasio, who’s always presenting himself as the kind of uber progressive, and yet he never makes that case. Here’s a great example. We have a clip from an interview with Bill de Blasio after he took sort of a 19-minute ride on the F train a couple of weeks ago. And it was just sort of a photo-op F-train ride. And here I think you’ll hear the difference between the way that Johnson is approaching transit and de Blasio.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bill de Blasio: All right. I have found my X. Okay. Questions, anybody?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, reporter: So what’d you hear on that train? What did you glean from your trip on the train today?]
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bill de Blasio: What I gleaned is people really depend on their subways. They need their subways to work. And they’re frustrated, because a lot of people I talked to said, “I don’t know when I’m ever going to get to work. Some days I get to work on time, some days I’m a half hour late, 45 minutes late.” You can hear the frustration and you can hear the urgency. And I’ll tell you …]
Doug: Breaking news. New Yorkers depend on their subways, and the mayor has just discovered that.
Sarah: You can hear the urgency, the urgency that has been a city of eight million people screaming at Bill de Blasio for the last two years.
Doug: No, you can hear them because they’re all underground and he’s in an SUV locked inside.
Sarah: Oh, my God!
Aaron: But it’s like, New Yorkers are like spoken of in the third person.
Aaron: These transit riders.
Aaron: “These people.”
Doug: Yeah. “People.” There’s no “We.”
Sarah: “They depend on those subways.”
Doug: “They need their subways to work.”
Aaron: I mean, it’s a little mean because he sounds like he’s, you know, when he’s being asked the question, he sounds like he’s really trying to relate. But then when you sort of think about the way that he frames it, it’s just he’s not one of them. He’s not of the transit-riding public.
Doug: Well, I don’t think you can relate when your subway rides are photo ops. And compare that to Corey Johnson, who frequently takes the subway. I think he lives in Chelsea or the Village, and just takes the subway a few stops downtown to city hall, basically.
Sarah: Yeah. And you rode the train with him. Let’s hear it.
Aaron: Let’s get on the train with the—E train with Corey.
Aaron: Now I notice you know how to use a Metrocard.
Corey Johnson: Yes. I use the subway all the time. I love the subway. When it’s working.
Doug: That’s like the biggest political test one can pass. Remember when Hillary Clinton couldn’t swipe? Or there’s even been some times I think when de Blasio couldn’t do it. I mean, look, that happens to the best of us. But, you know, he’s got good swipe action there.
Sarah: Okay. So but what did he—did you ask him about de Blasio’s SUV ride to the gym, the legendary, the infamous?
Aaron: Of course. So I tried. I knew that if I directly asked him the question, he would not answer. So I came up with a really bad way of forming the question. And here’s how he answered.
Corey Johnson: I think whoever—not just for the mayor, but I think any city official, any elected official, you need to stay in touch with what it’s like for New Yorkers. And the way to do that is to ride the subways on a frequent basis. And it’s also a faster way to get around, by and large. Sometimes when you’re going certain places it isn’t, but it’s a fast way to get around. And it’s—again, it’s where New York happens, where life happens. We’re getting on the E train. Canal Street. Stand clear of the closing doors, please. Dun dun!
Doug: Dun, dun! I love that!
Aaron: He’s so of the subway system, he makes subway noises.
Doug: That’s amazing.
Sarah: Yeah. He knows what the stops are. I mean, the guy is—he’s real.
Doug: But I love that line: “It’s where New York happens.” Right? The New York City subway to me is as vital a public space to New York’s health and identity as Central Park, as Times Square, as any of our major avenues. It is this great mixing zone of just every type of person. You know, city council speakers and, you know, busboys and Wall Street people, and every kind of person that you might encounter in New York is on the subway. And he gets that at a gut level.
Sarah: And it’s also, and long has been a primary indicator of the health of the city. If the subway is sick, the city is sick. And you can see, like, in the ’70s and ’80s when it was scary and dirty and completely nonfunctional, a lot of people wouldn’t even try to use the subway. I just think that you can tell so much about how healthy New York is as a city in a bigger way by just looking at what’s happening on the subway. And Corey totally gets that.
Doug: It’s literally the circulatory system of New York City.
Doug: And if it has, you know, high blood pressure or things are just blocked, then, you know, the city’s in the midst of a massive coronary right now.
Sarah: That’s right.
Aaron: And look, so I have other stuff from Corey to play from our subway ride together, but I thought it would be good to sort of try to open this up a little bit now. We put out a call on Twitter. We asked people if they had great local elected officials where they live who are fighting the war on cars, and going really big and visionary like this. And we got a lot of great responses.
Doug: So maybe we should start, though, with our own people here in New York, and then we can branch out. So that whole “breaking car culture” line, I think is really amazing. That comes from Antonio Reynoso, who’s a member of the city council who represents part of Brooklyn, not too far from where we’re recording this right now. He bikes to work. I have frequently seen him in his suit with the little City Council pin on his lapel crossing the Manhattan or the Williamsburg Bridge.
Aaron: Is he even 30 yet? I mean, he’s really young.
Doug: I don’t know, actually. Yeah, I’m not sure how old he is. But, you know, he’s young, and he also just will call out bullshit. He is really good. And he—I think when he says let’s break the car culture, he literally means, like, the whole system from top to bottom.
Sarah: Yeah. And actually, that whole calling bullshit thing is something that, you know, we’re seeing with, most notably or most famously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is just completely unafraid to get up on the floor of the House of Representatives and just say what she thinks, and say what everybody knows is true without cloaking it in all of this political euphemism. You know, I guess the question is, is that a generational thing? But there are these other young people that we came up with that we found.
Aaron: So I’ll throw out one of these. So Scott Wiener, state senator in California right now from San Francisco. I actually met him when he was—what do they call their city council members—supervisor in San Francisco? You know, I actually met him at a San Francisco Bike Coalition event, so he’s like a bike guy. He’s not that young. He’s Gen X. He’s, like, our age. He’s, like, 47, 48. You know, he’s putting forward this incredibly ambitious proposal to upzone all housing around transit in the entire state of California. And he’s got these people protesting him all over the state. And when you look at the people who are protesting him all over the state, what do they look like? They look like Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes.
Doug: Gray hair, a little older. They think the best use of that space is for parking lots. Yeah.
Aaron: And single family homes, which is what they grew up with and seemed to feel like is really sort of essential for their way of life.
Sarah: Right. Right. Right.
Aaron: But I think he’s an example. He’s like another Corey Johnson–type of elected official who’s really—like, who’s just sort of questioning, like, fundamental structure.
Sarah: Right. Well, what’s interesting to me is that a lot of the nominations we got on Twitter were not just from San Francisco and New York and the usual suspects. The one that really caught my eye—and I had to look at a little more closely was from Oklahoma City, which is not exactly where I would expect radical transportation-oriented people to come from. But there’s a woman who just won a city council seat in Oklahoma City. Her name is JoBeth Hamon. And on her campaign page, she is with her bicycle. It’s got panniers on it. She clearly rides it all the time. And as a matter of fact, she does not own a car. She lives in Oklahoma City without a car, which I just—like, I really didn’t know that that was something that could be done. And her platform: ending homelessness, improving Oklahoma City public transportation, and improving bicycle and pedestrian connectivity, those are the top three things. And at the same time, another person got elected to the Oklahoma City Council, also young, also top on his list: improving public transportation. The vision is walkable neighborhoods, shops in those walkable neighborhoods and buses and streetcars connecting people through and to those local neighborhoods. And that is James Cooper, another recently-elected Oklahoma City council member. So that just seems to me to be really surprising and really radical for a part of the country where car ownership is taken as just the price of admission to be in polite society, shall we say.
Doug: There’s also this guy from South Bend, Indiana, maybe you’ve heard of him: Pete Buttigieg.
Sarah: Oh, yes!
Doug: So, you know, everyone’s talking about how remarkable his candidacy is, a mayor of a small city.
Aaron: Right. Running for president.
Doug: A mayor of a small city, and he’s running for president. Before he started coming on the national scene and talking about things like health care and other national policies, he developed a thing called Smart Cities or Smart Streets in South Bend. And they took a bunch of one-way arterial roads through the downtown, the kind that kind of eviscerated so many Rust Belt cities and other cities in this country, and turned them back into two-way streets. And a lot of the language he was using, if you look at the website from this campaign, were things like, this is better for business. You can slow down, and actually see what’s on the street. And then they improved that even more and put in all kinds of different amenities in downtown South Bend to make a healthier city. So, you know, that’s not getting as much love and attention as some of his other …
Aaron: Well, and his whole campaign is about fundamental structural reform. I mean, he’s talking about, you know, we need to maybe add a couple of seats to the Supreme Court, because the way that we do the Supreme Court is broken right now.
Aaron: He’s not afraid to talk about that stuff.
Sarah: I want to go back to something I said about the choice to own a car or not to own a car in a place like Oklahoma City.
Doug: By the way, Oklahoma City may be the city that we’ve pissed off now, because I bet we’re gonna hear from lots of people who don’t own a car.
Aaron: Well, and they’ve actually been doing a lot of really interesting stuff for the last 10 years or so. I mean, there’s stuff happening in Oklahoma City.
Sarah: But actually, I got called out on Twitter by Anna Zivarts about saying things like, it’s a choice to not own a car, or there are only certain places that you can live without a car. And I just want to say that part of why this is so important is there are a lot of people for whom driving is not a choice, right? There are young people and there are older people, and there are people with various disabilities, they cannot own cars and they are living in all of these cities. There are many, many people living in places like Oklahoma City or Cincinnati, or any of these places that we say, “Oh, you can’t live there without a car.” Well, there are plenty of people living there without a car. And it’s really important to realize that those people need to be served, and they need to be able to be citizens of those places. And it’s not a choice for everybody. And I just wanted to get out there and say that because that’s really important.
Aaron: And that’s why Scott Wiener’s stuff is so interesting in California, because he’s really making the direct link between affordable housing or the lack of affordable housing and driving and sprawl. The lack of affordable housing is actually a climate issue. You know, it forces people to live further and further out into the ‘burbs, which means they have to drive further and further to get to their jobs. And he’s really making those links explicit between housing and transportation and energy.
Aaron: If this is a generational thing, you know, it would be interesting to make a counterpoint between some of these politicians who are a little bit older and more traditional and how they’re approaching this stuff. And the first one that comes to mind is Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington. I love this campaign that he’s running for president. It’s completely focused on climate change. But then you kind of go back and look at what he’s been doing as governor. And one of the things is he’s proposed a $12 billion highway plan for the state of Washington.
Doug: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things with the older generation of people, when they consider fighting climate change, they look around the world as it is and say, in the future to fight climate change, we’ll have the world exactly as it is, but the things that power it will be green. So we’ll build this massive highway, but the car you drive on it will be powered by electricity generated by solar. You know, your house will be plugged in to a solar grid. But they don’t actually think about these things like land consumption and sprawl, and just the cost of all of this stuff. It’s greening the status quo. And I think that is really what separates some of these older 50s-, 60s-age politicians from the younger crop in their 20s, 30s and early 40s.
Sarah: I’m sure that we could come up with examples of people who are older who get it.
Aaron: For sure.
Sarah: Although I can’t think of any right now. [laughs]
Doug: Bernie Sanders, would he work?
Aaron: We’re older and we get it.
Doug: Yeah. No, we’re the invisible generation. We’re—you know, I’m Gen X. So, like, they don’t—nobody gives a shit.
Sarah: Nobody cares.
Aaron: We’re just, like, moping in the corner.
Sarah: Right, exactly. But that’s—as I have said, that’s what we always wanted. We always wanted to just be left alone in the corner to make smart remarks and be ignored. And that’s what we got, kids.
Aaron: No, but another one that comes to mind in this vein is John Hickenlooper, who was actually a pretty great mayor of Denver, in a lot of ways. Like, he really rebuilt the downtown, got new transit systems up and running, but then became governor. And now it’s just like he’s really pro-sprawl. He’s widening I-70 through the middle of the city. He’s doing all this stuff with the oil and gas industry. There’s, like, a giant brown cloud over Denver right now.
Sarah: Yeah. So, like, what all of these things have in common is that they have really well-funded constituencies that lobby for those things. They have the construction unions, and they have the oil and gas industry, and they have the real estate industry that wants to build more and more subdivisions farther and farther out. And I think that some of these people who might think that—you know, they might be inclined to do the right thing at the beginning, but then they get up into office, and there’s all these people with deep pockets who want them to build another highway interchange so that they can build another development, so they can build another shopping center. And so, I mean, you know, I think that’s just the reality.
Doug: Well, compare that to Pete Buttigieg who I think just signed the no fossil fuels pledge, and is not going to be accepting any fossil fuel money for his presidential campaign. And I think that’s kind of what we’re talking about, is that the older crop of politicians say, “But this is how the system works. You have to take money from these people because you have to earn their votes, and it’s expensive to campaign.” Versus the younger politicians who are saying, “No, I don’t have to. Actually, I can do this with tons of small donors. And as long as I just get on the debate stage, I can make the compelling case for why I should be elected.” It’s a real stark difference.
Sarah: Let’s name some of these people that got submitted to us, just so that we can then later hold them to account and keep them from …
Aaron: And let’s put them in the show notes, too.
Sarah: Okay, yeah. Absolutely.
Doug: Yeah, we’ll put links to their, you know, campaign pages or their actual government website pages.
Sarah: All right. Michelle Wu of Boston and Lisa Bender of Minneapolis.
Aaron: She’s great.
Doug: Yeah. Mike Bonin of Los Angeles.
Aaron: Mitra Jalali Nelson of St. Paul got mentioned a few times.
Sarah: Bowinn Ma of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Doug: Yeah. Bowinn Ma.
Sarah: Bowinn Ma.
Doug: I don’t know if that’s how you pronounce her name, I apologize. But she had an amazing—there was an amazing video that got put up of her explaining induced demand to her fellow council members in Vancouver.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bowinn Ma: It’s now well demonstrated in transportation demand management research and practice that you cannot build your way out of traffic congestion by building roads. And in fact, the opposite is true. The more freeways and car lanes you build, the more people drive, and the more congestion and other negative results there are.]
Doug: You don’t see somebody dive into a complicated and sort of counterintuitive topic like that in any meaningful way in politics. It’s usually very simple. It’s widen the road, get more parking. But she went into it and said, “This is not the way we can do it anymore.”
Sarah: That’s great. We’ll put a link to that tape on the show notes.
Aaron: Jason Dozier of Atlanta got a couple of name checks.
Sarah: Robb Dooling of Washington, D.C.
Doug: Tommy Vitolo, who’s a state rep in Brookline, Massachusetts.
Sarah: And then Cam Hardy, the bus activist we had on from Cincinnati, named P.G. Sittenfeld and Tamaya Dennard, who are on the Cincinnati City Council. He said they’ve been instrumental in keeping fares down and protecting service there.
Aaron: One thing that was definitely noticeable in this list of politicians that came through on Twitter—and there were about 100 names—was how many of them were not old, straight white guys. I mean, speaking as an old straight white guy.
Doug: I mean, that’s the elephant in the room, isn’t it? that …
Aaron: Are you calling me an elephant, Doug?
Doug: [laughs] I’m calling you the elephant in the room. No.
Aaron: Not inaccurate.
Doug: No, but that’s the other part of this switch too, and that’s really interesting. It’s new perspectives. It’s new, lived experience. It’s new voices bringing something different to bear on politics. And that’s really important.
Aaron: Well, and so—and the best part of my E train ride with Corey was really just when he just started talking about himself. And, you know, we had, thanks of course, to our, you know, completely failing transit system in crisis, we actually had extra time stuck in the tunnel.
Aaron: Actually, the crisis is working out well for me right now because the subway is stuck and I’m getting a longer interview than I thought I would.
Corey Johnson: We’re in the tunnel on the E train and passengers are staring at us, which is a good thing. Hi, New York.
Aaron: So yeah, taking advantage of the stuck subway and your extra time.
Corey Johnson: We’re in between Canal Street and World Trade Center.
Aaron: So I’m really interested in your style and the way that you’re doing this job. Why do you feel like you have permission to do this job with the way you’re doing it? You know what I mean? You’re, like, kind of creating a different style, if you like.
Corey Johnson: I don’t know. Last night I went and I saw Bohemian Rhapsody, and, you know, my whole political path comes out of the LGBT activist model and movement. And I feel like, you know, I’m openly HIV positive. I feel like so many gay men were not used to being accepted, had to be who they were and take it or leave it. And I feel like for me, I grew up in public housing. I came to New York at 19 years old with two bags, knowing one person. I was never part of a political dynasty or cabal. I wasn’t picked out of a lineup and said, “You’re running for city council.” I’ve worked really hard my entire life and career, and I’m just going to be who I am, you know? It’s like—you know, it’s what they said in La Cage aux Folles. I am who I am and that’s what it is. And that’s who I’m going to be. And that’s it.
Sarah: Oh, my God. I just …
Doug: It’s a Broadway reference, too. Come on!
Sarah: I can’t be cynical.
Aaron: He’s very lovable.
Doug: He is very lovable.
Sarah: He really is very easy to love, yeah.
Aaron: I actually appreciated the La Cage aux Folles reference too because he reminds me a lot of that mayor of Paris from the early 2000s, Bertrand Delanoë, who came in and he made these, like, incredible statements similar to the break car culture. He said, you know, something about like we are going to defeat the hegemony of the automobile. And he really came in promising to fundamentally change the city’s relationship to the car. And it feels very much like what Corey is talking about now.
Doug: But also that La Cage reference to me embodies a New York-ness about Corey that to me, I always think about the thing about being a New Yorker is we are a city of people from every corner of the globe, every part of this country. You can tell that he just always wanted to be here and be a part of that New York feeling. And I think in each example that we cited, I just sense this great love of where they’re from. You know, I follow some of these people or have heard about them, and every single one of them just seems to absolutely love where they come from, and that is why they ran for office. As opposed to I think there is a certain generation of people who you feel are just in it for politics and for the game. And, you know, if they see a seat open somewhere and that is the thing that’s going to be the next step to them getting the next step to them getting the higher office that they want. As opposed to, I think, like a Michelle Wu in Boston or other people that we mentioned who just love where they’re from, want to make it better, and so they run for something.
Sarah: Maybe this is one of the good things about the crisis that our political system has come to in the last few years, is that the idea that you can somehow work this system and game this system is becoming just laughably antique. And there’s this new awareness that the real way to really make things happen is to be real and to say real things and to be authentic, and to just cut through all of that stuff. And that’s what a sense of crisis will bring to you. And I think the climate crisis is part of what’s driving that as well.
Aaron: And I think that the question that this leaves is, can politicians like this win? You know, because you need to win the contest to be able to govern. And so Corey and I got off the subway and started walking to city hall and I asked him about that. You know, like, can he win? Is he going too far, too fast? Is his message going to appeal?
Corey Johnson: You know, we’re just—you have to do what you think the right thing is, and sometimes if you do it in an authentic way, if people feel like you’re not just peddling bullshit and you’re doing it in a way that you believe in and that makes sense for the city, then, you know, you’ll be okay. You know, you can’t predict these things. There’ll be ups and there’ll be downs, they’ll be good days and bad days. You just have to kind of go with your heart. And that’s what I’m trying to do here.
Sarah: There’s a song in there somewhere. [laughs]
Aaron: [laughs] It’s like, if he doesn’t win mayor, he will be a Broadway show.
Sarah: Yeah, this is the grand finale, right?
Doug: Go With Your Heart: The Corey Johnson Story.
Aaron: All right. So what do we think? Are the millennials going to save us?
Sarah: Like, can we just, instead of expecting them to save us, can we, like, help them? Come on!
Doug: Yeah, we all have to save each other.
Aaron: Yeah. I think it’s a bad approach. I think there’s a lot of that right now, though, right? Like, oh, these kids they’re gonna save us.
Doug: Well, I think you see that with, like, every demographic group, these other people are gonna save us. And I think really the lesson to me from this episode is not, will these other people save us? But what lessons can we, people who are interested in changing the system—because all three of us are interested in our own way in doing that and have seen the dysfunction for years—what lessons can we learn from that authenticity, that directness of just calling stuff out when you see it? And even if it isn’t the politically expedient thing to do, not walking into a conversation, you know, already compromising, already understanding, or being afraid of the political difficulties.
Aaron: A takeaway that I have from this episode is, you know, listening to Corey’s speech and just talking to him, you start to realize that what he’s proposing right now in public as a citywide official is basically the kind of the most radical livable streets agenda from about 10 years ago. Like, it’s the stuff that, like, kind of crazy activists were pushing for 10 years ago.
Doug: That was my reaction to his speech. I think I tweeted like, “This is a dream come true. Some of us have been saying this for 10, 15 years.”
Aaron: And so it’s really easy to get discouraged. I get discouraged all the time, like, oh, this city’s not moving fast enough, nothing is changing. But then you see, like, a young citywide official like Corey step up and say this stuff, and you realize, oh, wait, this stuff works. Like, you just keep kind of grinding away, you keep presenting new ideas in different ways, you keep organizing, you keep doing activism, and eventually your city starts to change.
Sarah: Yeah. And also the thing that I just keep going back to in my mind is what it was like to be in that auditorium listening to him give that speech. And I looked around and I saw, like, the beautiful array of New Yorkers there. It was just an incredibly, incredibly diverse crowd that looked like a New York City subway car: every color, every nationality, every age, every kind of person you could imagine. And we were all having this experience together of listening to somebody who believes in this city, and I would say by extension, this country as a place where everybody can come together and make things happen. And I just haven’t felt that enthusiastic and idealistic in many, many years. Certainly not when listening to a politician. So, like, the idea that somebody could make me feel that way was so—it made me so happy. And I walked out onto the streets of the city just feeling like, yes, this city is worth fighting for, this country is worth fighting for, this planet is worth fighting for. Let’s fight for it, kids! Come on, let’s do it!
Doug: Let’s go, people. Let’s go! [singing] Do you hear the people sing?
Aaron: It’s very Friday Night Lights, I feel like.
Doug: It’s very good, yeah.
Aaron: All right. So that’s it for today. Thanks everyone for listening.
Doug: Buy some war bonds on Patreon. If we’re going to keep going with this thing, right, we might as well just nail it. We’re all in this together. Go to our website, thewaroncars.org, click “Donate.” We want you.
Sarah: And you can help people join the fight by rating us and reviewing us on Apple podcasts.
Aaron: In the unfortunate event you get hit by a car and you need an attorney in Portland, Oregon …
Sarah: There’s gotta be a better segue.
Aaron: C’mon, these are the big donors here. Call Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon. In New York City, call the law offices of Vaccaro and White.
Doug: We need a Midwestern personal injury lawyer. Who’s someone in the middle of the country? We’ve got the coasts covered.
Aaron: And if you run an ambulance-chasing law firm somewhere else, call us.
Doug: If you have questions, ideas for future episodes, comments, complaints, anything you want to tell us, email us at email@example.com.
Sarah: Or you can tweet us @thewaroncars. This episode of The War on Cars was produced by the fantastic Mr. Curtis Fox. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Designs.
[CLIP: And a very special thanks to Steve Ross for his presidential impressions.]
Aaron: And special thanks to Gersh Kuntzman, a national treasure, editor in chief of Streetsblog, for the use of his Bill de Blasio tape. I am Aaron Naparstek.
Doug: I’m Doug Gordon.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear. And this is The War on Cars.
Corey Johnson: The subway, just so folks know, we’re at World Trade Center, and we got off the train and all you smell is urine. Do you smell that, Aaron?
Aaron: I do. I smell the pee. But I got to say, like, I think I like it better than the diesel I was smelling on 6th Avenue.
Corey Johnson: Yeah. I mean, these are the choices we make in life: diesel or urine.