Episode 21: WCAR: Easy Listening, Tough Questions 

[Radio jingle: WCAR, The Car!]

Desarah: Hi, you’ve found Desarah. Only on WCAR.

[Radio jingle: WCAR, The Car!]

Desarah: I am glad that you are here with me. It’s time to put aside all the headaches, all the heartaches, all the stress of biking in traffic or sitting on the bus. Put that out of your mind for a bit and find a little relief from cars! I’m not suggesting you run away and move to Amsterdam. I’m not suggesting that you break a car window with a U-Lock, but I am suggesting you take a little time for you. Time to relax and focus on how to make your city better. The phone lines are open, if you have a request or a dedication that you’d like to make. Hi. You’re on with Desarah.

Doug: Hi. This is Doug from Brooklyn, and I’m just having a really, really hard time. You know, I’m an advocate, and I keep fighting for better streets for biking, and I just—all my city keeps giving me is sharrows. I just—I don’t know what to do. I need something to keep me going, so I just want a song or something inspirational.

Desarah: Oh, honey! Oh Doug, I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. You need something to help you face the challenges out there on the streets?

Doug: Yeah, that’s—that’s what I need.

Desarah: You need something that will help you through the late nights organizing, tweeting, writing blog posts, contacting local elected officials, all while listening to moi.

Doug: Yeah, that’s what I need. Definitely.

Desarah: All right, Doug, sweetie, here you go!

Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. Your alternative to easy listening radio. I’m Doug Gordon, and no, that’s not Desarah or Delilah, that is my co-host, Sarah Goodyear. Aaron Naparstek is away this week.

Sarah Goodyear: I didn’t even know who Delilah was, but now I want to become her. I want to be her permanently. She sounds so happy.

Doug: Yeah. For our listeners who don’t know who Delilah is, if you’ve ever taken a road trip very late at night. You’re driving, there’s, like, nothing—you can’t get any station. Miraculously, Delilah will come in. You will be able to listen to her. She takes requests, and she has this very inspirational, uplifting voice. And she kind of consoles people, and it’s kind of fun to listen to.

Sarah: Well, on this episode of The War on Cars, we are also taking requests. We put the call out to listeners to send us their questions and comments, and we got a lot of great responses.

Doug: But before we get to all of that, let’s get to some business. So it is summer, and that is gonna change our production schedule just a little bit. This is our last regular episode until September, but fear not, we have a couple of special episodes that are gonna drop at random times over the next couple of months.

Sarah: To help make those special episodes possible, we need your support. Go to TheWaronCars.org and become a Patreon supporter by clicking on “Donate.” As thanks, we’ll send you stickers, T-shirts, and other rewards. And as always, we want to express our incredible gratitude to everyone who has contributed so far.

Doug: Okay, so speaking of t-shirts, we actually—one of our voice memos was about T-shirts.

[Jean: Hello, The War on Cars. This is Jean out here from the San Francisco Bay area, and I wanted to thank you for your show. I love it, love it, love it. I tell everyone about it, and it makes me feel like I’m not alone in fighting the war on cars. And number two, I wanted to call you and say thank you for ordering some different type of fitted t-shirts that might fit a woman’s body a little bit better than the unisex ones that were previously offered to Patreon subscribers like me. I know it may seem little or petty or strange that I’m asking for such a thing, but I think we should try to accommodate everyone. So yeah, thank you for fighting car blindness, and thank you for fighting gender blindness. Have a great day!]

Sarah: Yeah. Thank you Jean, because I didn’t even realize that we didn’t have women’s T-shirts going out to Patreon subscribers. I hate wearing men’s T-shirts because they don’t fit women’s bodies very well.

Doug: Right. So the way it has worked is that if you buy a T-shirt individually on CottonBureau.com, you can order it in a women’s size, but we haven’t had a lot of women who have contributed—at least in the first few months of the podcast—so on Patreon we were only offering unisex sizes. And we got some pushback on that. And I heard that, and we are going to—and we have ordered women’s sizes in T-shirts. And so if you are out there subscribing and you’re a new subscriber, we will send you the T-shirt in the body style of your choice.

Sarah: Excellent. That’s the way it ought to be.

Doug: Absolutely.

Sarah: Okay, so let’s get to the mailbag.

[Kimberley: Hi. My name is Kimberly from Cambridge, Mass. And I wanted to give a shout out to all the disabled cyclists out there. I have cerebral palsy, so it’s difficult for me to walk long distances, but I also really hate cars. Biking is so easy, way easier for me than walking, and it gives me so much freedom. I bike 15 miles round trip to work every day because it’s just the easiest way to get there. I fight for protected bike lanes so that I and everyone else can have the infrastructure we need to roll down the street on a trike when we’re 80. Keep up the good fight!]

Sarah: That’s a great one. I really love to hear that because I think that, you know, people with disabilities who cycle are so often just invisible, and people don’t realize that that is even a group of people that exists. And it’s actually pretty significant.

Doug: I think this is often weaponized against cycling infrastructure, that people who drive will say, “Well, not everybody can cycle, and you’re being ableist by suggesting that they can.” And look, we do need to be sensitive to that, and I wouldn’t dismiss that as a concern. But like I said, sometimes it’s weaponized. And there are plenty of people out there who absolutely have the ability to ride their own bicycle, ride a cargo trike, whatever it is, but the infrastructure is just not safe enough. And until it is, whether it’s kids, seniors, people with disabilities, those people are not gonna be out there in significant numbers. So I really appreciated Kimberley sending in that voice memo. And we really should do an episode on disabled cyclists.

Sarah: Yeah. There’s some very interesting research that’s been done in the Netherlands that I’ve written about in the past—we’ll put a link in the show notes—about people with Parkinson’s being able to ride bicycles when they can’t walk. So I think there are some very interesting things going on with cycling and disability. And like you said, if there’s better infrastructure then that might be an option for a lot of people.

Doug: I know that Portland, their bike-share system, did a pilot program offering adaptive cycles so that it wasn’t just two wheelers in their bike share program. There were cycles for all different types of people, and hopefully we’ll see more of that going forward.

Sarah: And more e-bikes might help with that as well.

Doug: Absolutely. All right. Let’s take another voice memo.

[Alex: My name is Alex Dyer. I live in Wellington, New Zealand. I wanted to comment a bit on how institutionalized the dominance of cars has become in cities. Cars have been normalized for so long that local leaders find it extremely difficult to enable healthier modes. Some council candidates invariably campaign with car-centric promises during local elections, others tiptoe around removing car parking or slowing motor vehicles because it might cost them their seat. Well-meaning leaders who want to see change can find things slow going in the face of car-dependent citizens stuck in car-dependent environments. It’d be great if the purpose of public road space, especially in cities, was somehow reformed to ensure non-dangerous road users come first. It’s so slow having pitched battles in every city where the problems of cars are so common. I wonder what key things have changed that  would give city leaders the upper hand to repel the car invasion?]

Doug: Yeah, I share that frustration. It does seem like we’re often battling just institutionalized car dominance, not just on the streets, but in the minds of politicians. There is cause for hope. I think you’re seeing a few things around—at least the United States. For example, Cambridge, Massachusetts, passed an ordinance mandating the inclusion of protected bicycle lanes in new street reconstruction. So anytime a street is repaved or maintained, if it’s part of this slated network of bicycle lanes, protected bicycle lanes have to be included in the reconstruction. And I think that’s one way to do it. If you want bike lanes to be as common as sidewalks or street lights, you just have to make it anytime you upgrade a street, you put in a bike lane.

Sarah: Yeah. And here in New York in May, the city council passed what’s called the Vision Zero Design Standards Bill. And that requires the Department of Transportation to create a checklist of street design elements that you have to take into consideration when redesigning roadways. And that includes ADA accessibility and protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks. I mean, these are design standards that are useful, but if the people in charge don’t really care about what the end result is, if they’re just saying, like, “Oh look, I’m checking these boxes,” and then they don’t want to do the follow up of making sure that that infrastructure is being maintained and protected and enforced, then it’s useless.

Doug: Well, I think to get to Alex’s broader point of changing that mentality, this is something that we referenced in our episode on millennials and the war on cars, and this younger crop of politicians who are popping up everywhere, who are starting to see car dominance as a problem and are investing in transit and at least talking about it. So I think one of the pieces of advice I would have is, you know, here in New York, there’s an organization called StreetsPAC, which is a political action committee dedicated to electing people who prioritize walking, biking and transit.

Doug: And you should start something like that. It’s a lot easier than you might think. Just hanging out a shingle, StreetsPAC Wellington, New Zealand, really can make a difference. And you get people starting to talk about that, you identify candidates who are thinking about this thing. You hold fundraisers for them and you get them into elected office. I keep thinking of Michelle Wu in Boston, who I think we referenced in that episode. She almost single handedly has changed the conversation in Boston as a local elected official, focusing more on transit and congestion pricing and all the stuff Alex is talking about. So it is possible, but it is slow going and very frustrating.

Sarah: Yeah. Let’s take another voice memo. This one is from Shannon in Vancouver, British Columbia. She called in to talk about our recent episode “Your Car Is Your Castle“, episode number 19, in which we had Alissa Walker, who is a writer in California who writes about transportation and housing.

[Shannon: Something Alissa Walker said in the last episode reminded me of something that happened last year in my family—specifically her comment about how homeowners in California who bought their suburban houses for $70,000 in the ’70s are about to start aging beyond where it’s safe to drive and stay in their communities. My grandma has always been a timid and terrified driver, and now that she’s very old, she refuses to go over 25 miles an hour on any street, including the four 50-plus mile per hour arterials surrounding her neighborhood. She’s gotten in—thankfully—minor accidents. She went into the DMV for her license renewal last year and completely failed the eye exam. The DMV employee told her she should probably go get her eyes checked, but then renewed her license for two years. And my boomer parents are thrilled that she can continue living independently for two more years, and they don’t understand why I was so horrified.]

Doug: I’m horrified. I mean, that’s—I’ve heard that story a lot, where people fail eye exams—at any age, but certainly seniors—and are still given their driver’s license back and renewed for whatever period of time their state allows. And it’s a pretty failed system if that’s what’s happening.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, the thing is the people at the DMV recognize that being denied a driver’s license is essentially a disenfranchisement from the society, and so they’re very reluctant to do that to people, I think, who seem like nice, responsible people because they realize that that’s just basically casting you into the outer darkness in our society.

Doug: Right.

Sarah: And it’s really sad and scary. That’s the reason that there are a lot of people out there on the road who ought not be.

Doug: And we should be clear that—I should be clear that it’s not that person at the DMV who is to blame. They’re—that’s just the tip of the spear, basically. It’s the policy that’s behind it, it’s the design of our cities. You know, like this woman is saying, her grandma would be isolated and alone if she were in her house and couldn’t drive, and that’s something we got into in that episode.

Sarah: Yeah.

Doug: Okay, here’s another voice memo. This one is from Heather in Oakland, California.

[Heather: A lot of times when I see articles about how to look more human on a bicycle so that drivers will think of actually giving you space and not killing you, they talk a lot about things like wearing skirts, you know, everyday clothes, smiling, waving. Even not wearing a helmet actually humanizes you more than wearing a helmet does. And for me as a female cyclist, I guess, who bikes to work, bikes my kids around, that feels like being told to smile, you know? And even if I do do all that performative stuff—which I sometimes do—it doesn’t—I don’t think it’s gonna change drivers’ perceptions of cyclists, because when they complain about cyclists, they’re not complaining about me, they’re complaining about their image in their head of people wearing Lycra or, like, commuters who are speeding into work, which is sometimes me, but—you know? And I think what actually needs to happen to humanize cyclists is for those Lycra guys and the speedy commuters to, like, do the smiling because, I don’t know, it’s just a lot for me to have to smile at everyone all day, you know? I mean, we should bring down cars, and I don’t have to smile about that. I’m just gonna give them angry faces. All right. Thank you!]

Sarah: That’s right. Heather. Give them angry faces. I am totally in support of that. You can hear the frustration in her voice, and it’s a frustration that a lot of people have when they’re being told to—you know, if you just look pretty and non-threatening on your bicycle, then you’re an enhancement to the streetscape, right? And just smile. And women have to do this all the time. And no, we’re not gonna do it.

Doug: There is a name for what Heather described. Some people call it the Mary Poppins effect, and it’s this idea that the nicer you look on your bicycle with a skirt or lovely flowing hair, the nicer drivers will treat you. And there may be something to that, and there have been some studies, one by Doctor Ian Walker, who’s a professor at the University of Bath in England. And what he found is basically that the amount of space given to cyclists changes depending on whether they’re wearing a helmet or not, for example. So if they’re wearing a helmet, they get less space from drivers than if they are not. One of the reasons or theories behind that is that drivers perceive them as more—if you’re wearing a helmet, they perceive them as more predictable, less likely to swerve or wobble. And in one study, Doctor Walker wore a blond, flowing wig to appear female, I suppose, and he found that drivers gave a little extra space. Now to be clear, the extra space that we’re talking about was, I think, the difference between, like, a five-inch pass and an eight-inch pass.

Sarah: And not only that, I feel like this study is often cited. I’ve heard it cited many, many times, and I don’t think it’s been replicated. And I think anyone who is a woman and who has biked around with her skirt flowing or her hair flowing knows that you can get passed closely just the same, and trying to look pretty and appealing on a bicycle can often have the effect of then people start hitting on you. You know, it’s just the same crap that you put up with as a woman all day long when you’re walking, when you’re taking transit and when you’re biking. And, you know, I think that’s an interesting thing to think about too, is that, you know, a lot of women feel safer driving a car because it protects them from that kind of catcalling. And when you’re a woman on a bicycle, you’re really, really exposed.

Doug: Yeah. And also the thing is about those passes, what they found, I think what Doctor Walker said—he did some subsequent studies—was basically, like, one to two percent of the passes were so close that it didn’t make any difference, right? Like, the way I would look at it is that if you’re passed 200 times by drivers and nothing happens, fine. Great. Whether it’s five inches away, five feet away, who cares? But it is the one or two times that the driver really gets too close and strikes you or causes you to fall off your bicycle that matter. And what he and his team wrote is that—they said, “The optimum solution to the very closest overtakes will not lie with bicyclists themselves, and instead we should look to changes in infrastructure, education or the law to prevent drivers from getting too close to cyclists.” And I think really, that’s what it’s about. So when someone says to you, “Oh, you should just wear this” or “You should just wear that,” it’s like, no, you know, the city should just put in protected bicycle lanes. And, like, that really is what is going to keep you safe on the street. And, you know, harassment and all of that other stuff is a different ball of wax, but in terms of how drivers are going to perceive you, hopefully you’re going to be riding on streets where you’re far enough away from them that it doesn’t matter.

Sarah: One thing I think we could agree on is that you should probably not wear your Lycra cycling gear to a community meeting.

Doug: Right. So that is the one exception to the rule. I would say that if you’re worried about what you’re gonna wear, don’t worry about it while you’re on your bike. If you show up to a community meeting to advocate for more space for bicycling, don’t look like a quote-unquote “cyclist.” Look like a resident of the city in which you live. Because I do think those are the times when you can humanize yourself and other cyclists and just look like, you know, like the Halloween costumes, “I’m a psycho killer. I look like everybody else.” Like, you should just wear, like, jeans and a T-shirt or a jacket and tie, or the dress you wore to work or whatever it is, so that you just look like a normal, regular member of the community. No helmets at community board meetings.

Sarah: Okay.

Doug: They’re pretty safe.

Sarah: That’s a good rule.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: All right, let’s take another one.

[Stefan: Hey there, The War on Cars. It’s Stefan here from a currently slightly sunny southwest of England. Just a question about cycling etiquette, or maybe a way to show our solidarity in the war on cars. I made a New Year’s resolution to myself that I would say hello, good morning, good afternoon to every cyclist that I passed. And although on my morning commute, I probably get a 50 to 70 percent return rate on that hello, it drops to nearly zero percent when I’m riding through Bristol, say. I just wondered whether you have any thoughts about how we show and share the solidarity that comes with cycling together, and then also whether it’s just a uniquely British phenomenon, and down to our famous reserved and withdrawn attitude, or whether there’s a similar situation on your side of the pond. Grateful for your thoughts. Thanks ever so much. Bye.]

Doug: [laughs] I love this call. I love this call so much.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s hard not to love that.

Doug: It’s—I mean, first of all, great! Let’s all smile and wave at each other and put a little more friendliness out into the world. There’s nothing wrong with that. The New Yorker in me says that would never work here. If I went around smiling and waving at every cyclist I saw, I’d probably fall off my bike because my hands would be off my handlebars so much. I think it’s probably really dependent on where you live.

Sarah: Yeah, I think so too, although I made a similar resolution a couple of years ago when I was doing a regular commute, and I didn’t smile and wave at every person on a bicycle, but I did try to smile and say hello and thank you to every pedestrian that I encountered and that I yielded to. And that actually paid off really well. But in any bigger place, you’re just not gonna have the time to—I mean, you gotta get from point A to point B, so there’s only so much smiling and waving you’re gonna do.

Doug: But again, I appreciate any effort to put a little more joy and friendliness into the world.

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. All right. We have time for one more.

[Dave: Hello, this is Dave from Toronto. My question is: after many mostly joy-filled years of cycling downtown, last year I joined my local ward advocacy group—shout out 32 Spokes—and a larger citywide advocacy group called Cycle Toronto. I also became quite active on cycling Twitter. While I’ve learned a lot, now that I see what is possible and hear so many good ideas about infrastructure and smart mobility, my frustration level while cycling has greatly increased. I can’t unsee all of the problems. So my question is: how do you keep your joy for urban cycling, while at the same time fighting a war on cars? Thanks again, and I’ll hang up and listen.]

Doug: [laughs] I love that he said, “Thanks again. I’ll hang—like, I’ll take my question off air. Thanks.” I really love that. Dave, I share your—your frustration. You can’t unsee it, can you? And that is the hard thing when you’re out there just biking from point A to point B and you love it, and maybe you get a little frustrated now and then, but you mostly can just kind of keep it out of your mind. But once you go down that rabbit hole of cycle advocacy, of biking Twitter, you cannot unsee all of that. And it can depress the hell out of you.

Sarah: Yeah. And then you feel like a personal responsibility, like you have to be part of the change sort of every minute that you’re riding. I sometimes feel that way. Or that you’re collecting information all the time. And I mean, unfortunately, part of what we try to do with this podcast is to create exactly the effect that you’re talking about, where we want it to be that you will never look at the street the same way again, that you will never be able to unsee the cars and all the damage that they’re doing to our streets, our society, our people. So sorry about that! [laughs]

Doug: [laughs] Yeah. I guess our apologies. Yeah. No, I have this same problem because I live and breathe this stuff. I write about it all the time. I talk about it all the time. I’m constantly looking at social media and seeing both the very frustrating and difficult things that are happening in my own city. I mean, here in New York, we’ve had a very terrible spate of people killed on bikes, and that’s caused a lot of frustration and anger to rise up. At the same time, I’m looking at videos and links and photos from my friends in other countries where things are going much better. You know, I think the trick for me is to always remember why I like to bike. That’s a big thing, and just to try to stay in that place. I also go on bike rides with my kids a lot. My son is six, and he’s just finally been able to complete his own lap around Prospect Park here in Brooklyn, which is quite an accomplishment. It’s over three miles.

Sarah: And it’s hilly.

Doug: It’s a huge hill. And so the joy on his face when he does that, and we rode home and, you know, went for burgers and got French fries and a milkshake and whatever, no amount of frustration is gonna take away from that feeling that I felt at that moment. So that’s the advice I would have is look for those moments of joy. I mean, I think the really great thing about bike Twitter or cycle advocacy is there are a lot of great people that you get to meet.

Sarah: Yeah, that’s true.

Doug: And so I’ve become really good friends with many of the people that I’ve met doing the work that I do.

Sarah: Hey, I think that you and I met that way.

Doug: I’m sitting across from one of them. Yeah.

Sarah: [laughs] Yeah.

Doug: And so really great things can come from the shared frustration, and joy can grow out of that.

Sarah: I would just say Dave, go out on a nice day and coast down a hill, and let the wind, you know, fly through your hair and you’ll feel good. I mean, it’s just a good feeling to be on a bicycle.

Doug: Yeah, it is a great feeling. And I also think you can train your brain to look for the good things. You know, like when you’re walking around at the end of winter and you see the first crocus poking up through. You know, like, I see a kid riding on their bike or, like, a mom with a cargo bike with three kids in the front. And I think I never would have seen that a few years ago. And those are the moments that I try to really remember, like, that’s why I’m doing this. Yeah.

Sarah: All right. That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thank you to everyone who sent in voice memos. Thanks for all the great accents. If we didn’t use yours this time, we’ll hopefully be able to include it on a future mailbag episode.

Doug: And I think we’re both very humbled by the geographic breadth and just the passion with which people sent us their feelings. It was really nice.

Sarah: Yeah. I actually am really moved that people listen to the show, and it makes it feel like it’s a real living thing. And sometimes, you know, when we are in the studio, it’s hard to remember that. And then you hear those people out there, and it’s just—it’s really—thank you so much. I’m profoundly grateful to all the people who are listening.

Doug: And if you want to send in a voice memo, send a short one, 30 seconds or so to TheWaronCars(@)gmail.com, and we will hopefully be able to use them in the future. We’d also like to thank our big sponsors. They include Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the Law Office of Vaccaro and White here in New York, Huck and Elizabeth Phiney, and also Lee H. Herman Jr. Thank you very much for your generosity. If you want to support the podcast, go to TheWaronCars.org, click on “Donate,” and you can support us at Patreon.

Sarah: And you can help people find us by rating and reviewing us on Apple Podcasts.

Doug: This episode was produced by Matt Cutler, and recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. I’m Doug Gordon.

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