Episode 43: Victory?


[NEWSREEL: Victory in the war on cars is suddenly within reach. With livable streets advocates on the march, the forces of motordom are on the run. In the European theater, the cities of Paris, Milan, London, Vilnius and countless more have rapidly deployed bike lanes and banished cars. On the western front, children frolic on the slow streets of Oakland, Seattle, Minneapolis, Calgary, while the people of Cincinnati enjoy al fresco dining in what used to be parking spots. Sounds tasty! Want to buy a bicycle? Better hurry—there’s a nationwide shortage. Meanwhile, in West Texas, shell-shocked frackers will pay you to roll away a barrel of crude. What’s that? No smog in Delhi or Bangalore? That’s right. And Los Angeles breathes easy under crystalline blue skies. Finally, no traffic on the 405 or the 10. But pockets of resistance remain as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio drives to the park in his SUV convoy. A growing chorus of citizens clamor for open streets and Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot has closed lakefront trails to people on bikes and foot. Say it isn’t so! With more work to do but victory close at hand, humanity fights on against the tyranny of the automobile.]

Aaron Naparstek: Hello, and welcome to The War on Cars. I am Aaron Naparstek, and I’m here with my co-hosts Sarah Goodyear and Doug Gordon.

Sarah Goodyear: Hey, how are you?

Doug Gordon: Hello there.

Aaron: Hey, good. How are you guys doing? Sorry. Bad question.

Doug: [laughs]

Aaron: Not the way to greet someone during the pandemic.

Doug: No, what I’ve learned is instead of saying, “How are you doing,” a good thing to say is, “It’s nice to see you.” Because then you don’t force the person to have an awkward, “Well, you know, how we’re all doing these days,” basically.

Sarah: It is really nice to see you.

Doug: Yes, it is nice to see both of you.

Aaron: It is nice to see you guys, too. And, you know, congratulations on winning the war on cars. It sounds like from that newsreel, we are well on our way to victory here.

Doug: Yeah. You know, if you disregard the tens of thousands of deaths that we’ve had in the United States and the horror show at our hospitals, like, if you look outside, the streets are actually—we’re doing okay.

Sarah: Yeah, I’m a little skeptical of this propaganda that I just heard at the top of the show, so I just want to say I’m not quite ready to declare victory.

Aaron: And that is what we want to talk about on today’s episode. You know, we are in the middle of this gigantic history-altering event—the coronavirus pandemic—and things are changing quickly and dramatically all around the world. Lots of things that seemed implausible just a couple of months ago are now a regular part of our daily lives. And one of the things that has changed, and maybe seemed implausible not so long ago, is that cities around the world are suddenly making really dramatic and aggressive moves to go car-free in response to the pandemic. We now find ourselves in the midst of this kind of remarkable experiment to create car-free open streets. I think the question to explore today is whether this is just a panicked response to a once-in-a-generation crisis, or have we reached some sort of genuine tipping point in the war on cars, something that’s gonna stick around for a while. And that is what we’re gonna talk about today. But before we get to that, some business.

Doug: Yeah, that’s right. We are supported by people who listen to this podcast. So if you like what you hear, go over to thewaroncars.org, click “Donate,” and please chip in whatever you can.

Sarah: We’ll send you stickers, t-shirts, all other kinds of good swag. You’ll get access to early releases of special episodes, and also our undying appreciation and even love.

Aaron: So back in mid-March, US cities began to close up public schools, issue lockdown orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and suddenly our city transportation departments found themselves with this job of trying to help people keep a six-foot distance on the public right of way in places where sidewalks aren’t even six feet wide, and most of the roadbed is for cars.

Sarah: Yeah, and what was weird was that here in New York, a lot of parks and playgrounds were closed, and so these big spaces were shut off from people. But at the same time, the streets were mostly empty of cars. And that was just this big empty space that was kind of waiting to be filled by people.

Doug: So as Aaron mentioned at the top, one of the first big city transportation agencies in the US that tried to take on this problem was the city of Oakland. And we spoke to Ryan Russo, who is the director of the Oakland Department of Transportation.

Ryan Russo: We were having social distancing concerns, challenges in how people navigated within the streets. Lots of folks wanting to follow all the guidelines around social distancing, people going for a run in the road to avoid folks in the sidewalk, and then families going for a bike ride and being in the street as well.

Doug: Right. So, you know, here in New York, most of our sidewalks are pretty narrow. And certainly if you have two or three people passing each other, there’s no room to really socially distance. I mean, it’s very unlikely that you’re gonna pick up the coronavirus just passing someone on the sidewalk. There isn’t a whole lot of evidence that outdoor transmission is a thing that happens. But still, you know, people are—their nerves are pretty frayed, and there’s always a difference between what the data says and how people feel. So if there’s this giant roadbed just to your right or left as you’re walking around, it kind of makes sense that you might start to look at that and say, “Hmm, maybe we could start to do something about that.”

Aaron: Yeah, so in Oakland, their solution was this program called Slow Streets. And what the city basically did is they marked off 74 miles of streets that were basically places where kids could play, joggers could jog, people could walk and bike and do whatever they wanted. And fast-moving motor vehicle through traffic was essentially not allowed. So here’s Ryan again explaining how they set that up.

Ryan Russo: Oakland’s Slow Streets looks to find neighborhood streets that allow travel to essential services, grocery stores, pharmacies, and accommodate them in the street in a way that allows for the social distancing. And the safety part is putting in soft closure treatments, barricades, two signs, one “Road Closed to Through Traffic,” and a second warning the motorists that are not the through traffic that there are more bicyclists and pedestrians on the road than you would normally expect. And hopefully you act very cautiously on those streets.

Doug: I think the really interesting thing about what Oakland kind of kicked off is this idea of, like, a soft closure that I think usually when we talk about reapportioning street space, it’s a very binary thing, that we either give the street to people on bikes and people walking, or it’s just a total rat run of cars, basically. And in this model, it’s a little mixture of both. You can still access the street if you’re driving, but you just have to be more aware that there are people on it. And I think it’s a rather foreign concept to a lot of Americans right now.

Sarah: Yeah. And it actually recalls some of the things that you see in Europe, the concept of the woonerf, or however you pronounce it in the Netherlands, which is like a shared street in which you’re not relying on traffic lights or signs or whatever. You’re really just looking at the people around you, whatever mode they’re using, and trying to navigate in harmony with them. I think that the streets during the pandemic have been much more like that.

Aaron: So, you know, the Oakland project—especially when it came out in mid-April—was sort of ambitious for US open streets projects. And some cities are doing much more ambitious things than even what Oakland is trying. I don’t know. Have any caught your eyes in particular?

Doug: Well, I think that we have all had our eyes on Anne Hidalgo in Paris for quite some time. And she was already a superstar before this began, and in fact, ran for re-election on a platform of increasing space for cycling and for walking in Paris. And then the COVID crisis hit, and they announced, I think something like 300 or 400 miles of temporary bikeways to help people get around, especially as things would start to lift, and lockdown orders would be a little less restrictive. So they have probably the most ambitious plan I’ve seen. You know, they’ve banned cars from the Rue de Rivoli, which is essentially like getting rid of cars from Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Fifth Avenue in New York City. I don’t think you’re seeing anything nearly as ambitious anywhere else, even though there are some incredibly impressive plans happening.

Sarah: Yeah, and a temporary bike lane in Paris, we are learning from photographs, is more impressive and well-built than a permanent bike lane in New York City, I would have to say.

Doug: And in most of America, for sure.

Sarah: But I also am hearing from people I know who are in Paris that there is a lot of resentment and negative pushback on Mayor Hidalgo for her efforts. So the way it’s being received over there is mixed. It’s not like everyone is just throwing their berets in the air in happiness.

Aaron: The mimes aren’t out rejoicing? [laughs]

Sarah: But she did just get reelected, and this has been her platform for a while. So even if there’s pushback, clearly there’s a majority of people who are invested in seeing this approach continue.

Doug: But I think that hints at something interesting, which is that, in the past, that kind of pushback would be very—it would be given a lot of oxygen, because there was time and there was the luxury of debate and trying to figure stuff out, and trying to appease people who might be resistant to this stuff. But now you see mayors like Hidalgo or Sadiq Khan in London basically saying we have a very limited window in which to do this. Our people need to move around. We’re worried about the cars coming back. Sadiq Khan in London had said London’s future can’t be clogged with cars. And so they’re just taking very aggressive action without the normal hand-wringing about stakeholders and consultation and community buy-in, and they’re just doing stuff. So in London, they’re banning cars in the city of London or the financial center of the city, because they know that people will be hesitant to take the tube or take buses. So they want to make more space for people to walk and cycle there. And so you’re just seeing really fast action everywhere, without the yelling and screaming that normally accompanies the pre-installation of anything like this, even a fraction of the size.

Aaron: Well, and one of the interesting facets here is that the critique of these open streets projects has kind of evolved into something more like what—and I’ll just read a tweet from a New York City journalist and opinion editor, great guy named Errol Lewis, who was sort of critical of these open street efforts. And he said, “NYC has nearly 40,000 in hospitals and over 15,000 dead, with hundreds more perishing each day. It takes a special kind of selfishness to insist that closing streets to car traffic should be a top priority right now.” And, you know, this has come up in a number of places, so I think it’s worth addressing that the critique now has kind of become a sense of, like, hey, you open streets, you livable streets advocates have been grinding this ax forever, and now you’re just being opportunistic in this crisis and pushing your agenda. What’s the response to that?

Doug: You know, we used to hear all the time back in the normal times, like, “Why are you putting in all these bike lanes when we have crumbling school buildings, or homeless people sleeping on the street?” Cities can walk and chew gum at the same time. And just because they’re doing this open streets thing doesn’t mean it is a top priority. It means it is among a number of things that they’re doing to help citizens cope with being cooped up in their apartments, or not having access to basic things like parks, playgrounds, movie theaters, all the stuff that’s kind of shut down right now.

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s really legitimate to look carefully at whether or not we are being opportunistic, or whether we’re really meeting a need. I think it’s going to be more and more evident that—and you see it on the streets of New York certainly, that people are using bicycles for transportation because they don’t feel safe going on the subway or on buses. And a lot of people are using bicycles for transportation. And we need to make that safe. And I think it is meeting a need, and it’s also meeting a real mental health need, and a need for parents to have places where their kids can run around outside. And I do think this is meeting a real need, because people need space.

Aaron: Oh, did someone say space? Let’s take a break for a word from our sponsor.

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Aaron: All right. So space. So in the US, you know, we often have this cultural barrier to overcome when we start to try to reallocate street space away from cars to pedestrians, bikes, whatever non-motorized user there is. And I thought Ryan Russo at the Oakland Transportation Department had a really interesting comment about that.

Ryan Russo: The sort of threshold question for us was, can we endorse people—including children—on the roadbed at the same time we’ve let some motor vehicles into that space. But there’s actually a situation where that happens all the time: suburban parking lots. When you park hundreds of yards away from the destination, you walk on asphalt while other cars are driving to their parking spots. We accept that in that context. That was the leap that we took. What’s exciting to see is that people did feel comfortable on the roadbed, families felt comfortable, and then cars were there getting to their local destination.

Aaron: So Ryan Russo, to sell this idea, in a way he had to sort of explain to people, hey, you know how to do this because you’re so car-oriented, you know how to walk in a parking lot, so you can also do this on your neighborhood street. It’s like a weird twist on it that plays to our car-centric nature.

Sarah: I have to say that I’m seeing this in a really different way. Our car-centric nature is what’s disturbing me, and what I’m worried about, because I see people starting to use cars as PPE, as the ultimate form of protection against the virus. That they’re, you know, “Forget the mask, I’m gonna put on a car, because if I do that, then I’m sure to be safe from the virus.” So I’m really worried that there’s gonna just be this rush to get—for people who didn’t previously have cars, to buy cars, for people who didn’t used to use cars for everyday errands, to use them for that. I see people—anecdotally, I see people doing this. And it really worries me that once we start getting back to more economic activity and more people going back to work and shopping, that there are gonna be people running around, wearing their cars instead of wearing masks.

Doug: Did you guys see the news that the New York Stock Exchange basically said it would not allow people who took public transportation to come to work? That you’d have to drive there? Now most people know the New York Stock Exchange is on Wall Street in lower Manhattan, and the idea of the majority of their employees …

Aaron: Yeah, where are you gonna park? What even is that?

Doug: Driving there. Right, it’s impossible. But, you know, we’re on the verge of a real tragedy of the commons situation where if every company, every organization thinks like that, or if every individual thinks like that, we’re just gonna see levels of traffic we haven’t seen in this country forever, perhaps.

Aaron: This feels like, you know, if this is the sort of way that companies and organizations are gonna respond to this crisis by essentially abandoning transit and forcing employees into cars, we are so screwed.

Sarah: But at the same time, there are a lot of people turning to bicycles. There’s a bicycle shortage in the country right now. I mean, you see places like Jacksonville, Florida, say that they don’t have enough bicycles to sell to people, because there are so many people wanting to ride bicycles. So I think what’s shaping up is actually an intensified version of the fight that we’ve been fighting for all this time. But it’s gonna be much harder for advocates, I think, to dismiss the concerns of people who want to use cars, partly because some of those same advocates are using cars. You know, there’s no question that I’ve seen people who normally would never use a car talking about buying a car. And you may have seen that, too, in a Vice article in which Doug Gordon was quoted—or there were other people. There were other …

Doug: Wait, wait, wait.

Aaron: What?

Doug: Who’s this Doug Gordon fellow? What an asshole! He’s thinking of buying a car?

Aaron: Well, Doug, it’s been great having you on The War on Cars. We look forward to your new podcast.

Doug: Yeah. Sarah, you have to fly solo now, because if two of the three co-hosts of The War on Cars purchase automobiles, it’s over. So you’re just a—you’re a one-woman show. No, I mean, look, I would not buy a car for my daily commuting needs and for buying groceries. For that, I still have my two legs and my bicycle.

Aaron: I mean, your daily commuting needs can be done in your underwear and slippers right now. So …

Doug: Exactly. Yeah, I’m not wearing pants right now, by the way. So but look, my wife and I are thinking, in a city with no beaches and no playgrounds and no movie theaters and no museums, all the things that we like to do during the summer with our children, well, how do we get around? And we don’t really want to take public transportation if we don’t have to. So the thought of renting or buying a car has crossed our mind. We will post a link to this article of which Sarah speaks. And you can send me hate mail, [email protected].

Aaron: Good. There are gonna be a lot of people arguing, as Sarah has put it, that the car is personal protective gear now. And the quote unquote “War on cars,” that makes us kind of the bad guy. You know, if you’re talking about trying to get people out of cars and move people into transit, I think there is going to be this real sense of, like, we’re asking for some unjust thing in asking for a less automobile-dominated city. I’m pretty worried about that.

Doug: Except I think that—like, I think it speaks to a tactic that advocates really need to reckon with, which is that shaming individuals has never been really that effective, but we can shame institutions and political leaders and say, “You have no plan.” So I think advocates really need to take this moment as well and say, “What’s gonna work for us going forward? If we want to build cities like we see being built in Paris, in London. You know, Milan is building 22 miles of bike lanes because their mayor has said we just can’t have a future where our roads are completely congested and the pollution comes back. That’s not what we want. And so I think advocates have to point their sights at mayors and figure something out.

Sarah: And also, I think that there is a growing coalition of people who will benefit from more open streets that advocates should be really trying to nurture. And that includes restaurant owners who could get back into business with outdoor seating if the space is available. That’s what’s happening in Vilnius and Berkeley. And it can happen in New York. It can happen in every city, especially ones where, you know, there’s good weather, which there is pretty much everywhere in the summertime, I guess. Except for some of the really hot places. So I think that there are coalitions to be built, and there also is—I hear this from a lot of people who are not advocates, this new appreciation for the peace and quiet that we’ve experienced without a lot of traffic, and also for the clean air. And it’s not just clean air. I mean, in New York, you really can—like, my plants outside have less schmutz on them because there are fewer cars.

Aaron: Like the photos coming out of, you know, Indian cities, cities where you can literally sometimes see the smog in your house. The photos that were coming out of Los Angeles and the Bay Area a few weeks ago were amazing. And you do have to think that this glimpse at what we can have with a car-free city, you know, we can have clean air, we can have quiet streets, we can have buses that function and safe, convenient biking. And even though all this stuff is happening in the context of, like, really a terrible public health crisis, total, you know, economic devastation, maybe enough people beyond just the usual suspects, beyond just the usual bike advocates, are seeing the benefits that people will still call for more of this once we start to come out of the pandemic.

Doug: And, you know, I know I’m gonna get hate mail from people in Cincinnati, Ohio, but the thought that that would be one of the epicenters of real forward thinking, creative ideas about how to use our street space is really quite something. So Cincinnati has transformed the parking lanes and a few streets in their Over-the-Rhine neighborhood into outdoor eateries, right? So we’re looking at Midwestern cities, cities that aren’t New York, LA, Chicago. Your sort of, like you said, sort of usual suspects of places.

Aaron: I mean, Tampa Bay is like a leader in this right now.

Doug: Right. So I think all of these cities of different sizes, different locations are thinking creatively. And maybe it’s a very American thing that the thing that is going to get us to rethink our street space isn’t people’s personal happiness or their health, but their economic bottom line. You know, so if a restaurant can’t operate at 100 percent capacity indoors, maybe it can operate at 75 percent capacity outdoors and have some chance of surviving if it uses the parking lane for seating.

Aaron: So I think one of the big questions here is whether or not these changes are going to stick, or if this is all just a unique, unprecedented moment, and we’re gonna snap back to the status quo of automobile dependence as soon as we can. An urban planner named Mike Lydon, who runs a firm called Street Plans in New York City, has been maintaining a detailed, running list of all of the world’s cities that have reconfigured their streets in response to the pandemic. You can find Mike on Twitter, we’ll post a link, and he actually hashtags a lot of it as #Covidstreets—not the best name, maybe. But here’s what Mike said about the extent to which whether or not this stuff is gonna stick around.

Mike Lydon: You know, cities have scaled up pretty quickly these measures. More and more cities are taking on multiple measures, and I think some cities will revert back to status quo at some point. But more and more, I’m starting to be convinced that citizens and political leaders will not want that, actually. That there’s going to be a lot of positive change that is the result in terms of the spatial reallocation on our streets. And so I’m hopeful that many cities will start looking at time of day, day of week type changes that can be operationalized and embedded, and eventually supported with more infrastructure long term. But for any of that to happen, it’s going to require much stronger political leadership in cities to carry this forward.

Doug: I mean, I think that Mike’s hitting on the political leadership is 100 percent of the equation. So all of the cities that we have been talking about, also Val Plante in Montreal, they announced, I think, hundreds of kilometers of new bikeways and they’re pedestrianizing more streets, all of these political leaders who are taking bold actions, those are the places where it seems like change will be permanent. And in places where they’re just tweaking around the edges a little bit, it seems much more easy for things to go back to the status quo. So I will say that getting back to a little bit of the advocacy thing with an eye towards making this stuff permanent, one of the benefits of this is I was just up on one of our open streets up near Prospect Park, and the street was just filled with children. It was just kids on scooters, on tricycles, doing chalk on the ground, riding around in circles, playing tag, their parents all standing off to the side. And it was incredible. And, you know, these are not—eight year olds and six year olds are not coming to community board meetings and rallying outside city halls to advocate for permanent change. So I think the benefit of what we’re seeing now, like Mike said, is people are getting a taste of what it can be, and they might just be more willing now to say, “Hey, we want this.” And there’s incredible value in all of that. So hopefully, something good can come out of that, even if our political leadership is kind of dragging its feet.

Sarah: And I do think that there is a new awareness that will linger for a while of some of these really existential questions of what is government supposed to be doing for people? How is government supposed to care for people? And the idea that government can play an important role in people’s health and that public health is a thing worth supporting. I mean, there’s a lot of evidence that air pollution is a contributing factor to bad outcomes from the coronavirus. You know, is that going to be part of the discussion going forward? Because it ought to be. And we really need to ask our leaders to continue forward with this idea that government can make a positive contribution to people’s lives if it looks at citizens in a caring and compassionate way, which I think we’ve had a taste of that in this terrible pandemic as well.

Aaron: So I think that’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thanks always for listening and sticking with us.

Doug: Don’t forget to rate and review us on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have questions, comments or suggestions, we love hearing from people. Email us at [email protected] or find us on Twitter @Thewaroncars.

Sarah: As always, we’d like to thank our top Patreon sponsors: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White here in New York City, and Huck and Elizabeth Finne. If you’d like to become a Patreon supporter, you can go to Thewaroncars.org and click on “Become a Patreon supporter.

Aaron: This episode was recorded by us in our quote-unquote “home studios.” If you hear some noise on my track, that was my kid unloading the dishwasher. But that’s great. He’s unloading the dishwasher. I can’t complain. This episode was edited by Ali Lemer. I am Aaron Naparstek.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And this is The War on Cars.