Episode 39: Riding Out the Pandemic

Aaron Naparstek: Guys, I bought a car yesterday.

Doug Gordon: What the hell?

Sarah Goodyear: Aaron!

Doug: You bought what?

Sarah: You know, I’ve known you a long time, but this may be it. Come on, man.

Doug: Do we have something in our bylaws? Like, this is treason, essentially, in the war on cars.

Aaron: It’s treason, yeah.

Sarah: Yeah.

Aaron: Court-martial.

Sarah: So what, you’re a turncoat?

Aaron: To ensure continuity of operations for The War on Cars‘ chain of command, I am sequestered in an undisclosed location in southeastern Vermont during this crisis, as you know. No, so I am up in Vermont right now, and I usually rent a car when we come up here. And I might be renting a car for months. So, you know, that would cost like $1,000 every two weeks, so I went and bought a car.

Doug: Well, it was good knowing you, Aaron. Thanks for your work in The War on Cars so far. We’ll be auditioning another co-host to get us through this crisis—one who doesn’t own a car.

Aaron: The war on cars, the cars have defeated me.

Sarah: All court-martials have actually been suspended for the duration of the pandemic.

Aaron: Oh, thank God.

Sarah: This is The War on Cars, the podcast where things are so crazy that one of us actually now owns a car. I’m Sarah Goodyear. I’m talking to you from my home office in Brooklyn, New York.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. I am talking to you from my bedroom elsewhere in Brooklyn, New York.

Aaron: This is Aaron Naparstek, treasonous car owner just outside of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Doug: So we have all retreated to our safe spaces, apparently, just like the rest of the country and most of the world. And I guess we’re gonna talk about all of this, the coronavirus, COVID-19, and kind of the effect it has on how we’re gonna get around, and what this means for the future of the war on cars, cities, suburbs, the country, wherever we live.

Aaron: First of all, how are you guys doing? How is everybody? What’s going on? Personal check in.

Sarah: I’m hanging in there. I’m actually—you know, I’ve been really worried about this for a long time, for several weeks, and so my alarm level has actually subsided somewhat now that everyone else is also alarmed. That’s actually been really helpful for me. I feel like less alone in my fear.

Doug: I am at crying-at-my-local-bagel-shop levels of despair, actually. So I’m kind of similar to Sarah. I’ve been very aware of the seriousness of this for quite some time, but it didn’t really hit me until I went to go pick up some breakfast with my son, and saw the owner of my local bagel shop who I know very well. And he had tears in his eyes just about what am I gonna do about my workers? I have a responsibility to the neighborhood. And I just kind of lost it. So that’s kind of where I am. I have my moments.

Aaron: Yeah. I have this weird kind of like feeling a little bit guilty that I’m not in New York City experiencing this with everybody in New York City, like we experienced 9/11 or we experienced Hurricane Sandy—though I was actually in Boston for that one. But I’m also having this feeling of, like, man, I’m glad I’m not in New York City. So that’s weird. The other odd thing for me being in Vermont right now is that, you know, people are less alarmed here, just as New York City was sort of like two weeks behind Italy a couple of weeks ago, Vermont seems to be about two weeks behind New York City in terms of, like, people understanding the gravity and the scale of what’s happening. So I’m kind of running around like some sort of prophet of doom—obviously, from, like, six feet away. We’re actually really trying not to interact with anybody up here since we’ve been in the city recently. But, you know, whenever I get a chance, I’m trying to talk to people about this thing, and just try to explain how I see it, which is that it’s gonna be here soon, too, and people need to start preparing for it and taking it seriously. So …

Doug: Yeah, I was walking around last night in my neighborhood, and it was very hard to walk around seeing everybody was doing something related to this crisis. Like it wasn’t just, oh, there are five people sitting in the coffee shop, because you can’t. The coffee shop was closed. And it wasn’t there are 10 people waiting for the bus, because very few people are taking the bus. It was like, there’s a guy with a face mask. There’s a person with a bag of toilet paper. There’s a person I can see that has groceries piled up in the back of their car. I can see this person biking with a bag full of stuff. And it’s just weird to be in the city and see everybody’s so focused on one thing. And that’s just kind of like, getting shit that they need. It’s really weird.

Sarah: Yeah. And every conversation that you hear, that you overhear, you know, I was out running earlier today, and every conversation that I overheard was people talking about the virus. You don’t hear people talking about anything else on the street, you know, trading information, theories. It’s all coronavirus all the time down here. And people are taking it very seriously. And actually things are quiet and orderly, and I don’t see anything alarming here. So it’s interesting, Aaron, hearing you say you’re glad you’re not in New York, because I’ve been thinking that I’m glad I am in New York.

Aaron: Yeah.

Sarah: Because it just feels familiar, and it’s nice to have that familiarity and to see the people I know, and to at least, like, have the framework of the city around me that’s familiar. Now that obviously can change moment to moment, but I considered trying to get out. I have a couple of places that I maybe could have gone. It would have been hard, but we thought about it on Saturday. And we decided to stay for a variety of reasons, including that my wife is going to have to physically go to work and we didn’t want to be separated for that long. So I feel okay about the decision to stay, actually.

Aaron: Yeah, I don’t think this is any kind of, like, real safe haven up here. You know, we’ve been lucky enough to own this place up here for a few years now, and we actually do have a pretty nice community in this area of Vermont. So, you know, there is a familiarity and there’s people we know, and we’re sort of tied in. So we do have some of that here. But I really do worry about this place a lot, because New York City just has this enormous government. It has so much infrastructure that, if and when New York City wants to swing into action, it feels like it can really take care of big problems. And up here in, like, Vermont and New Hampshire, there’s really strong social and community cohesion, but there’s just no government. And the hospitals are small. They’re good, but small. There’s a ton of old people. I think Vermont’s, like, the fourth- or fifth-oldest state in the country. So you can imagine places like this being hit really, really hard, and not necessarily being better places to be in than densely populated cities.

Sarah: I saw that in Norway, they’ve actually prohibited people from going to their country houses precisely because they don’t want rural hospitals to be overwhelmed. And they’re fining people who do that, because I guess it’s really common in Scandinavia for people to own summer homes. And they’re just worried that these places that go from, you know, 12,000 to 100,000 people every summer are gonna have that 100,000 people show up and get sick there and overwhelm the hospitals. So they’re actually prohibiting it.

Doug: Here in New York, the Hamptons, the season is basically starting a month early. All the businesses are reopening, people are going to their homes. The rental market is, like, out of control because people are leaving the city. But at the same time, most people I know are still here, kind of buckling down. Everybody in my apartment building, save for a couple of units, they’re all here.

Sarah: So one of the things we did is we asked our listeners to send voice memos about what they’re seeing on their local streets and roads and transit systems as this crisis develops. So we have a couple of those to play for you. People sent some stuff that’s pretty interesting.

Mike: Hi, guys. My name is Mike. I live in Washington, DC, and I’m a huge fan of the podcast. So in terms of the coronavirus and transportation, I saw somebody on Twitter say it’s safe to say that the movement to get everyone to take public transportation is dead for a generation. I think all of us in the livable streets and alternative transportation community know that this is a bad take. And I’d be happy to hear what you guys have to say about people who think this is some kind of permanent problem for public transportation. Thanks so much.

Aaron: I mean, that’s a great question.

Doug: I saw that tweet, and I saw people talking about it. And I think people who say that are telling on themselves, because nobody is saying that, “Well, I think air travel is done. No one’s gonna stuff themselves into a small tube with other people to fly to Hawaii anymore.” I think these are people who probably already hate transit who are saying this. That’s not to say there won’t be some effect, that some people will choose to avoid transit going forward. I think there’s gonna be some real trauma about being in crowded spaces for quite some time when we emerge from this, but I don’t think actually that this will be the death knell of transit. Now, you know, the finances they’re probably all experiencing due to a drop in ridership is a different story. But …

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, the way that it would be the death knell is if transit agencies don’t get the same kind of bailout that’s being taken for granted for the cruise ship industry and the airline industry. I mean, you know, they are going to need financial assistance because ridership has cratered—as it should—and they are gonna need financial help. So that’s the real risk, as I see it.

Aaron: Yeah, I’m a little less optimistic. I think there’s a good chance that, after this pandemic comes through, even if it does hit rural and suburban areas just as much, that there could be a really negative effect for cities, that people are going to be really worried for a substantial period of time about being in urban places, whether that’s rational or not.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s interesting. I think that what you’re thinking may be partly influenced by the fact that you’re not here.

Aaron: Yeah, could be. But I was thinking about it before I was here.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, being here, it feels like the good part of the city is really coming out, and people are doing all sorts of amazing things and being really supportive of each other. And we have all sorts of resources—human and financial—here that are not gonna be available to people in other places. And I mean, we’ll see how that plays out. I had that despair that you’re talking about earlier, and then I kind of got over it partly, I think, because I’m here, and so I’m just seeing how it is here. And my despair is less than it was four or five days ago. Four or five days ago, I was like, “Well, you know, New York’s gonna empty out. It’s gonna be like the ’70s.” I mean, there’s also something to be said about what effect this will have on real estate prices. Will it make cities more affordable again? You know, there’s so many unknowns.

Doug: I mean, I’ll probably change my opinion tomorrow because that’s kind of where I am these days, like, hour by hour I have a new thought. But, you know, if you think about the places that so far have contained the epidemic fairly well, it’s dense cities in South Korea, it’s Singapore. It’s dense places.

Sarah: Taiwan.

Doug: Right. Taiwan has done a pretty good job. Cities in China. Now some of that’s the government, right? That’s not just the urban form. But it’s very hard for me to predict what will happen. But, you know, you also think about here in New York, the original epicenter for the breakout was New Rochelle, one of the original New York City suburbs, which is now basically what they’re calling a “containment zone.” So it’s very hard to say.

Sarah: In Washington, it’s Kirkland, which is a suburb, an auto suburb, not even a train suburb like New Rochelle.

Doug: I think there’s just, like, a very American what probably should happen in the ways in which we should respond to this in terms of building, like, a robust social net, and different ways of thinking about how we live. And then there’s, just, like the psychological, traumatic scar that this is gonna leave on people which will render them incapable of thinking about this in any sort of logical way. And I think that’s sort of like what Aaron’s alluding to of, like, the suburbs as the original social-distancing machine.

Aaron: Yeah. I mean, you know, we had this insane trauma of World War II, and we saw cities getting leveled and destroyed, and we came back to the US with concerns about, you know, nuclear war and atom bombs destroying our cities. And we went and we created the suburbs in no small part in response to that catastrophe of World War II and what we saw happen to European cities.

Sarah: But wasn’t it also in response to the fact that Black people had rights in the Army, and that they came back and wanted to have rights in the city, and that was also what it was in response to? I mean …

Aaron: Yeah. No, absolutely. I actually think that’s better understood at this point than the extent to which the nuclear stuff was part of the highway buildout and flight from cities. That people were absolutely terrified in the ’50s of nuclear war. And when you look in local papers from that time, there’s just all this stuff about how, hey, we need to build this highway overpass through Boston and this freeway through the middle of the city because we need escape routes for nuclear war. And, of course, like, the racism is an underlying unspoken part of all that. I mean, who knows what’s going to happen? But I think it just feels to me like there’s gonna be a before and an after to this, and they’re gonna be very different in some way or another.

Doug: You know, but I guess to bring it back to the listener’s question about what effect is this gonna have on transit, there’s an argument to be made that this should lead to a bigger investment in transit, because what we saw in New York, for example, was our governor and our mayor saying, “Oh, if the train’s crowded, get on the next one.” Which we know is impossible due to the frequency of service and the quality of service. So there should be a big movement now to be running buses more, to be building more bike lanes. You know, we saw a 70-percent surge in CitiBike ridership because of this crisis. And I think bike trips in general doubled in New York City, and we saw big upticks in other cities as well. So, you know, I hope that our movement—people who listen to The War on Cars, and planners and advocates everywhere can really see that we need to figure out ways of moving around lots of people to give them options, and to make cities resilient during a crisis like this.

Sarah: Yeah, and we actually got an interesting voice memo from somebody in Ireland that talks about bicycles, and the way that they’re trying to ramp up safe bicycle riding there in Ireland.

Kieran: Hi, The War on Cars. This is Kieran Ryan from the Dublin Cycling Campaign in Ireland. With the coronavirus, we’ve seen public transport services reduced. So along with the need for social distancing, we’re expecting a lot of new or inexperienced people to start cycling. One initiative we’ve taken, using our Twitter account @DublinCycling is to ask these new cyclists what their starting and finishing points are. And then we’re crowdsourcing local knowledge from the Dublin cycling community to offer suggestions for the safest and most cycle-friendly routes. We love The War on Cars over here, so keep fighting the good fight. Thanks, folks. Bye.

Aaron: I mean, I just love that. I just kept thinking, like, in lieu of St. Patrick’s Day, I love the accent. I loved hearing that we have a listener in Ireland. Yeah. I mean, I think this is a big moment for bike advocacy. You know, bikes make so much sense right now in cities. And I think—you know, I hope we’re going to see smart mayors really starting to build out bike infrastructure as a kind of emergency measure during this situation, and then people starting to adopt it in the long term.

Doug: We actually saw that in Bogotá. The mayor of Bogotá dropped 22 kilometers of temporary emergency bicycle lanes throughout the city to facilitate people getting around and social distancing, so that their transit system was not overloaded. You know, here in New York, some of the advocates have gotten together and are doing bike trains where they’re meeting in different neighborhoods, and keeping their distance, but allowing people to meet up who are novice cyclists and then riding into Manhattan to different endpoints. You know, I think—yeah, Aaron, I think you’re right, is that we don’t want to rely on the very good intentions of people in Ireland and various cycling advocates to band together every time there’s a crisis. It should just be that the system exists, and you should be able to get on your bike and get out.

Aaron: I mean, I think we’ve seen in other cases where when you give people a chance to use the bike, like when Citi Bike was introduced in New York, it just brought in a lot of new riders. And that could be a positive outcome of this situation is that just a lot of new riders come out, and then they stay on their bikes and then they demand for these changes in cities to make it safer and better for biking.

Doug: I will say that it’s been really quiet. The traffic obviously has gone down tremendously. And so I have been out biking just to get to the grocery store. I took my son to the park to get some fresh air. And so the thing I’m noticing is that cycling has never been more pleasant, actually, in a very odd and disturbing way here in New York. There’s no honking. Like, my street is completely quiet.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s true. There is no honking.

Aaron: God, you guys are really making me jealous now.

Sarah: [laughs] But, you know, I also think what you’ve seen our mayor do here—and I’m not gonna get into the mayor’s response. I really don’t want to go there. But one good aspect of our mayor’s response has been that he said he’s not gonna crack down anymore on e-bike delivery riders. And I think that the awareness that this crisis has brought to just how necessary those workers are, and also that the vehicles they use are the smartest, best, most-resilient tools for the job. I hope that’s something that will endure past the end of the crisis.

Aaron: It definitely—I have a friend up here in Vermont, Dave Cohen, who runs an organization called VBike, and they’re really promoting electric bikes for rural places, for hilly, rural places like Vermont. And it has definitely occurred to me—and I think to Dave as well—that this crisis actually might be an amazing case maker for electric bikes. Just exactly what you’re saying, Sarah. They’re just such a resilient, efficient tool for a moment like this.

Aaron: This episode of The War on Cars is brought to you by Spin Scooters. Beaudry Kock is Spin’s head of policy initiatives, and you know what that means? Every time he goes to a party, somebody complains about scooters on the sidewalk. Here’s what he says.

Beaudry Kock: You know, every time there’s a scooter parked on a sidewalk, it’s the greatest advert for improved infrastructure that there could possibly be, right? Because people don’t, I think, intrinsically want to ride on the sidewalk, but you’re not going to ride on the street 40, 50 miles an hour, four or five lanes wide on any vehicle that isn’t, you know, an F-150. Scooters are sort of just an artifact that, because there are lots of them on the street, they’re simply ramming home a point that bike advocates, that ped advocates and some government officials have tried to make for years, which is that our street infrastructure is vastly inadequate for human-scale transportation. Every time there’s a complaint about a blockage of a sidewalk, well, what it says to me is, “Yes, see? Infrastructure does not meet our needs.”

Aaron: Spin Scooters is a proud ally in The War on Cars. Learn more about the work Spin is doing to support safe, just and livable streets at Spin.app/streets. Again, that’s Spin.app/streets.

Sarah: Okay, so we got another voice memo from Becky in Ontario, and she has a kind of a sweet and uplifting take on this.

Becky: Hi, War on Cars, this is Becky from London, Ontario, Canada. I have been staying home, working on my dissertation, trying to get my family to socially distance from everybody else. And I’ve noticed from my bedroom window that there are a lot more kids on bikes biking around my neighborhood. The bus that passes my house is almost always empty, and there are a lot less cars in the street than normal. I hope the kids continue to bike and find a joy in biking. I’m trying to get my own teens on their bikes, but so far I have been unsuccessful. Thanks, bye.

Sarah: My teen is out on his bike right now, as a matter of fact. So that is a nice thing. I feel like people now have this new appreciation, not just of bikes, but of just being able to go outside, like, something that people have seemed to kind of want to avoid for a long time. Like, now we understand the preciousness of being able to go outside.

Doug: And also as a parent of younger kids, we’ve been avoiding playgrounds. I think actually, Brookline, Massachusetts, and other cities have closed playgrounds because they don’t want kids sharing germs and then bringing them back to grandparents. So a bike ride for me and my kids is just like a very nice way to get out there. And actually, a weird historical reminder that playgrounds are kind of a product of the automobile age. You know, they are a way to, like, corral children off the street into a safe place. And so now we’re actually okay kind of biking around and up to the park just to get some fresh air.

Aaron: Yeah, it’s funny. I mean, and we’re up here in this, like, beautiful, rural place where there’s a lot of space and great outdoors and everything. But I mean, we’ve just been really careful about—you know, we’ve just been in the city less than a week ago. We do not want to bring the plague to Vermont. And, you know, we’ve just told the kids, like, look, like, we’re just on our own for at least a week, maybe two weeks, like, not interacting with anybody. So yeah, they can go outside and it’s nice, but the social isolation is real.

Sarah: You know, I mean, I guess that kind of gets to something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time, but that this crisis certainly brings into sharp relief, which is the ideal in the United States obviously is this individualistic, do it yourself, self-contained, you and your family unit, you in your castle kind of ethos. That’s the American way. That’s what we idealize. And in a lot of other societies around the world, that’s just not the way they think of things. They think of things as people and society work together. And it’s just a baseline thing in a place like Japan or even a place like Finland where I just was, that people depend on each other inherently, and that you can’t really get out of that. You can’t escape that. And I do feel like this pandemic is bringing out the shortcomings of the American way, because nobody in this country can just single-handedly say, like, “I’m gonna fight the pandemic on my own.” Like, you can’t fight a virus on your own—not one like this. And the way that more collectivist societies are handling it, whether they be communist or capitalist, so far seems to be more efficient than the way that really individualistic Western societies are combating it.

Doug: Not to mention the fear of knowing that you might not have health insurance if you’ve just lost your job, or you didn’t have health insurance to begin with. There’s that individualistic fear that’s happening in the United States. So yeah, I think hopefully this is a different kind of death knell, and that’s to market-driven solutions to every last little problem.

Aaron: One of the things that I hope will come of this is a real re-evaluation of governance in the United States, and how we want to be governed, and how we want to govern ourselves. You know, I feel like this is the culmination of 40 years of this ideology of, you know, we need to drown government in the bathtub. We need to deconstruct the administrative state. We devalue and degrade all of our public assets. We treat everything from transportation to health like it is exclusively a private concern and not a public good. And this crisis really seems to be—in the starkest possible way—highlighting the limitations of that hyper-individualistic form of governance. And I hope that is one of the changes that comes out of this, is that we see those limitations more clearly, and we act a little bit more like these Asian nations and city states, places like Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, that are doing a much, much better job of getting a handle on this.

Doug: But to bring it back now to all of our issues, and what this means for The War on Cars, you know, I think this is just an episode that we threw together rather quickly with makeshift equipment. And Sarah has a blanket, I think, behind her covering up so she can get a sound booth, essentially. This won’t be the last episode we do on this, for sure, and I’m wondering what we think we’re gonna be covering from here on out.

Sarah: Well, I like Aaron’s idea of looking into really specific historical parallels, and what we can learn from them. Like, I just have been finding during this crisis, that thinking about history is very helpful because as you have your own personal panic that I think everybody in this country has experienced, or most people, and many people in the world have experienced it in the course of this, thinking back on the things that people have lived through over the course of history has given me comfort to understand just how strong and resilient not only people, but cities and societies can be when really the worst happens, when they lose everything. And they still come growing back. And so I really think that maybe we can do some episodes where we’re looking at historical events that somehow parallel this situation, and shed some kind of light on it.

Aaron: Yeah. I mean, I do worry that, like—and I feel this even on a good day, no less during a global pandemic, that sometimes it just feels like, oh, we’re, like, fighting about bike lanes, and there’s so many bigger problems and issues we could be focused on. Even though obviously I feel like fighting over bike lanes is very important. And so yeah, I kind of worry that geez, like, what are we gonna focus on as The War on Cars here? This is clearly, you know, it’s such a rip in the daily fabric of what we think and talk about. But I think clearly, you know, some of the issues we’re gonna face during this global health crisis are clearly relevant going forward to how cities are organized, and bigger issues like climate change, for example.

Doug: Yeah, that’s the one I think I want to cover the most, in some ways, you know? I think, not that you would want our response to be as haphazard and economically devastating as this crisis has been, but we have seen the ways in which people are making rapid shifts to cycling. Peter Flax, who is a writer for Bicycling Magazine, he lives in Los Angeles. He posted some images of air quality index maps. And out there, usually they’re a sea of, like, red, orange and yellow, and it was all green. Here in New York, the air quality has been amazing. Again, this is not how we want to achieve good air.

Aaron: [laughs] Right.

Doug: But I think it would be very interesting to see the kinds of systems that we can …

Aaron: It’s the—Doug, that’s the Thanos method of, you know, climate mitigation.

Doug: Yeah, basically. Exactly.

Sarah: We definitely don’t want to be Thanos. [laughs]

Doug: No, no. And we cannot wait for The Avengers to come save us either, you know? So yeah, I think we’re seeing—it relates to everything we’ve been talking about. Like, collective action now to solve this pandemic has to translate into collective action to solve climate change. And actually what I think I’m optimistic about, we’re seeing that people seem willing to do that given a crisis. Now we just have to perhaps express that climate change is as big a crisis.

Sarah: On that uplifting note, I think we’re gonna wrap up this episode of The War on Cars, a sort of makeshift, DIY episode that is the beginning of the new normal for a while. And we’re gonna keep putting out more episodes, no matter what happens.

Doug: We want to thank all of our listeners and supporters no matter where you are, no matter where you live, please stay safe. Take care of yourself. We want to thank our top sponsors, including Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, and Huck and Elizabeth Finney. And also a big thanks to Spin Scooters.

Aaron: As always, you can help people find us by rating and reviewing us on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. We always want to hear from you. If you have questions, comments or even just a stray idea, thought, feeling, please record a voice memo and email it to us at [email protected].

Sarah: Yeah, we’d love to keep hearing from listeners around the world. As we undergo this collective experience and trauma, it’s great to connect with other people, and thank goodness we can do that.

Aaron: This episode of The War on Cars was recorded under our blankets in our home studios. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Designs. I’m Aaron Naparstek, just outside of Brattleboro, Vermont.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon, in my bedroom in Brooklyn.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear, in my home office in Brooklyn. And this is The War on Cars.