Episode 55: Mayor Pete at the Drive-Thru
Aaron Naparstek: Hey, guys. I was out walking my dog wearing my Cleverhood rain cape, and I got this great compliment the other day.
Doug Gordon: What did someone say to you?
Aaron: So they said, “Hey, that’s a nice umbrella you’re wearing.” And I was like, “Yeah.” [laughs] And I think he meant it as kind of like, you know, a little bit cutting. But I was like, “Yeah, it is a nice umbrella because I can, like, use my hands while I wear it and stay dry. It’s great, actually.” So I’m curious, like, what—have you guys gotten comments or compliments or catcalls when you’re, like, out on the street in your Cleverhood?
Doug: I haven’t gotten any compliments or comments on the street, but my children did say that I looked like Superman because my cape is red. Now if Superman had a wraparound cape and it covered his head, and he had to wear it to keep him dry, because in this version, Superman is impermeable to any and all danger except for rain, then I would look like Superman.
Sarah Goodyear: Well, and of course, I’m sure you are Superman to your kids, Doug.
Doug: I loved it. It was a great dad moment.
Sarah: Well, the thing that I like about it is that I haven’t gotten any comments, because when I’m wearing the Cleverhood and I have the hood up and especially if I have my mask on, I feel like I’m completely incognito. I’m just moving through the cityscape like a ninja. No one knows who I am. It’s really cool.
Doug: A bright pink ninja.
Sarah: [laughs] Yes, a bright pink ninja.
Aaron: Yeah. And you too can glide through the city like a pink ninja. War on Cars listeners receive a 20 percent discount off of anything in the Cleverhood store. So go to cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter code “waroncars” to get your discount.
Doug: And you don’t have to get pink. You can get whatever you want.
Aaron: Any color. Doesn’t have to be pink. You don’t even have to be a ninja.
Doug: This is The War on Cars, the podcast that received no stimulus money in the recent federal transportation bailout, and is last in line for the coronavirus vaccine. I’m Doug Gordon. With me remotely are my co-hosts Sarah Goodyear and Aaron Naparstek.
Aaron: Hey, what’s up?
Sarah: Hey there.
Doug: Okay, so in this episode, we are gonna close out this year by taking your calls, so to speak, and looking at some of the big stories that flew across our radar as we say goodbye to 2020.
Aaron: And good riddance.
Sarah: Goodbye. And I’m not even hoping for 2021 to be better necessarily, but it’s still gonna be nice to say goodbye.
Aaron: Can we actually talk about that whole trope for a second? That, like, “Oh, 2020. Get out of here.” As if it’s gonna be any better in 2021? Come on!
Sarah: Right. It’s a completely arbitrary mark on a calendar, and everything is gonna be exactly the same on January 1.
Aaron: At least the days are getting longer, we’re gonna have a new president and a vaccine at some point. So there is that.
Doug: That’s all good stuff. So there are a lot of news items that come over The War on Cars wire here at our headquarters. And, you know, too many really that we can turn into episodes, but we still think they’re important as we grapple with the place cars have in our lives, their effect on politics as we talk about on the podcast, culture, the planet, the environment. There’s just like dozens and dozens of stories sometimes per day that we are sharing with each other.
Aaron: Yeah, we should open up the Slack channel.
Doug: Yeah, public Slack channel so our listeners can see what we share with each other every day. [laughs]
Sarah: It’s pretty grim. But before we get to that, let’s get some business out of the way.
Aaron: Yep. If you want to support The War on Cars, please consider making a contribution via Patreon. Go to thewaroncars.org, click “Become a Patreon Supporter” and sign up today. You can start at just $2 per month, and we will send you stickers, and you’ll get access to exclusive bonus episodes and other treats.
Doug: Also, one of the bright spots of 2020 was the launch of our official War on Cars store. We are selling the brand new War on Cars coffee mug, because what goes better with podcasting and/or fighting automobile dominance than drinking coffee?
Sarah: It’s the perfect way to just make a strategic appearance in your office Zoom meeting. You know, a little subtle indoctrination that you can be sipping from that iconic mug.
Aaron: We’re just getting the mugs up and running, so quantities are limited right now. But keep checking back. We’re gonna add more, and it’s all available in our online store at thewaroncars.org.
Ali Lemer: I had my coffee in my War on Cars mug this morning. [laughs]
Doug: That’s our producer, Ali. Thank you. Okay, so let’s kick off this episode with our first voice memo. This is a follow up to our last episode, which was Sarah’s interview with Paris Deputy Mayor Christophe Najdovski.
[VOICE MEMO, Dave: Hi, War on Cars. Dave in New York here. This year, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo distinguished herself as a pro-cycling, anti-car thought leader. Which US politician, if any, has done the most this year to distinguish themselves in a similar way? And has an elected official in the US actually joined The War on Cars yet? Thanks.]
Sarah: Well, Dave lives in New York, so he should know that it’s not the mayor of New York City.
Aaron: Yeah. Definitely not, unfortunately.
Doug: It’s a good question, though. So I’m a big fan of Bill Peduto in Pittsburgh. And I know a little bit of this can be a bit of the grass is greener, but I’m sure activists there will have their own opinions. But he has added a lot of bike lanes in Pittsburgh, and he seems to embrace this stuff and push back against the controversy and the bike-lash pretty strongly. So, like I said, I know it’s probably not perfect, but—and I certainly know Anne Hidalgo, but I think he’s pretty good.
Sarah: Is that the best we’ve got? Because I’m coming up completely blank on this one.
Aaron: I mean, if we’re willing to expand to, you know, North America outside of the US, I mean, Valérie Plante in Montreal is amazing, and is moving really aggressively to transform streets up there. It’s on the same continent as us, at least.
Sarah: Yeah, but we can’t go there or anything anymore.
Aaron: We are locked out currently.
Doug: For now, right. We’re locked out of Canada, yes.
Sarah: Well, I literally don’t have anybody that comes to my mind. So push back.
Doug: Yeah, I can think of one more, actually, and that’s the mayor of Jersey City, Steven Fulop. They’ve added a lot of bike lanes in the last few months. They’ve actually done much better than New York City and some other big cities. So Jersey City, Steven Fulop. Again, I think, you know, local activists probably have their problems, their quibbles. But from the outside looking in, it’s not so bad to me.
Aaron: Yeah, it’s true. I mean, this idea that it’s all about political will, and a mayor can fix things by having more will. You know, we have a problem in the US with, you know, cities are fundamentally disempowered, and mayors are fundamentally disempowered in ways that the mayor of Paris, France, and the mayor of London, England, don’t experience. We have this constitutional system that enables a governor of a state to basically nullify local rules. In New York where we live, you know, our mayor doesn’t even control the transit system. Our mayor doesn’t control the state and federal highways that kind of circle and choke off the city. We have all of these systemic burdens that I think a mayor of Paris or a mayor of London or a mayor of Bogota or Taipei, these guys don’t have these same kinds of limitations. And it’s one of the things that we’re gonna have to grapple with in the coming years is the way that our system makes it hard for mayors—even mayors with political will, mayors who want to do the right thing, often can’t do it.
Sarah: So another lever that European mayors have that we don’t, is that they often have to come into compliance with climate standards for the EU. And that can be a really powerful incentive to say, “Well, we need to eliminate certain kinds of pollutants in our air, because our whole nation is trying to meet these standards that our whole group of nations is trying to meet and we have to meet them. And this is one way of conforming to those standards.” And, of course, in the US, that’s just not available to mayors for them to say that that’s a solid goal that they have to comply with legally.
Doug: So I guess we have bad news for Dave from New York, which is that there are no mayors who are on the level of Anne Hidalgo or Ada Colau in Barcelona or Valérie Plante in Montreal. And we have a lot of work to do.
Aaron: And it’s like you almost have to go elect two Democratic senators in Georgia if you want to save your local transit system in San Francisco or New York, because those are the people who ultimately have a lot of say over your mayor, which is just a messed-up system.
Sarah: Speaking of systemic problems in our country, here’s a voicemail we got from somebody in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
[VOICE MEMO, Susan Brewster: Hello. I’m Susan Brewster, retired social worker. As I’ve watched people in cars idling in long lines for pandemic food distributions, I have a recurring thought: what’s wrong with a system in which people feel they must pay the huge vehicle ownership expenses above food for their families? I don’t blame those folks. I view them as victims of a messed-up system, a country invested so heavily in automobile infrastructure and culture that money for a car is a much more important priority than money for food.]
Doug: I really appreciate Susan having sent that voice memo in, because she said perfectly what I think I’ve been grappling with a lot, and been trying to figure out how do we talk about this on the podcast? You don’t want to make it seem like people are making bad choices or they’re being irresponsible. In this country, people don’t have a choice, and they are really, like she said, victims of a system where they have to prioritize owning a car over affording food or even affording a home. And, you know, what Susan is basically saying is a sort of manifesto for The War on Cars: that this system is messed up, and we’re sort of all at a loss as to how to fix it.
Aaron: Yeah. I mean, and I’ve been thinking of it a lot in terms of, like, you know, we have this mayoral race coming up in New York City soon. And how can mayoral candidates in New York City, which is still, frankly, pretty car choked and car dependent, how can mayoral candidates pitch this idea of fewer cars? And I think there’s something in Susan’s comment that suggests, like, you have to have a kind of empathy for the car owner and driver, even though you feel like, okay, they’re doing something destructive. But you almost have to be like, look, like, I’m a candidate for mayor of New York or whatever city, and I want to help you. I want to help you be less car dependent. I want to get this albatross off from around your neck. I want you to be able to live without the costs and the burdens and the just general huge time sink and pain in the butt of car ownership. Just starting to, like, talk about car ownership as this burden that we need to, like, throw off.
Sarah: Yeah. And instead of allowing people who advocate for more cars to own that whole idea of freedom and saying that cars are freedom, you know, to talk more about freedom from cars for the people who are dependent on using them to access pretty much everything our society has to offer, from health care to employment to housing to education, all of those things. You know, what if you didn’t have to have a car to access all those things? Think how freeing that would be. And then also the freedom from cars being all around you and making so much noise and spewing so much filth, and endangering you and your children. To take this idea that Americans are so enamored of freedom, and for us to claim that and say that that’s what we want to give you, is freedom from all of these burdens that cars impose. And, of course, you have to offer alternatives if you’re gonna do that.
Doug: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. And unfortunately, we’re probably entering an era where offering those alternatives is gonna be much more challenging. And this is gonna be a perfect segue, Sarah, to our news roundup, because I think the big news that we probably should discuss is the impending transit crisis, and the ways in which the pandemic totally walloped transit systems across the country.
Aaron: Yeah. I mean, it’s been this kind of issue on a low boil for almost the entire year now. But, you know, transit systems all across the US, big city transit systems, are really on a knife’s edge right now. And, you know, in New York City, if we didn’t get $4-billion worth of, you know, stimulus from this last round that just passed this week, we’d be looking at really major service cuts, like, enormous chunks of the transit system, basically just having to go offline. Like, thousands of workers having to be laid off. And that’s New York. New York has far and away the biggest transit system in the US. And in smaller cities, these cuts are just gonna be devastating. Like, potentially absolutely zeroing out the transit system. So, you know, if we want to give more choices and more options, we need healthy transit systems. And transit systems are in a lot of trouble right now.
Sarah: Right. And even the work that’s been done over the last generation of trying to, you know, create some more transit networks, and advocates have worked so hard to present transit as an attractive option, and there have been so many people working so hard on that. And not only has all of that ground been lost over the last four years as a result of the Trump administration’s disinvestment in transit, but now with the pandemic, I mean, it’s a potentially fatal blow to transit in the United States. And without transit, there’s no way to get free of cars.
Doug: Aaron, you had mentioned this relief package. There was a $45-billion relief package for transportation and transit in the United States that passed Congress. The airline industry got $15-billion, transit got $14-billion. And that is wildly disproportionate with the amount of people that each of those categories serves. So the total passengers served per day by public transit in 2019 was 34 million. Any guess as to the total number of passengers served by day by private airlines in and out of US airports? Any guess?
Aaron: Lay it on us.
Sarah: I don’t know. 20 million?
Doug: 20 million is what Sarah says. Aaron?
Aaron: I would go with, like, five million a day.
Doug: Okay, it’s 2.9 million. So you have 34 million people who take transit, who ride a bus, who take the subway, and you have 2.9 million who are flying in and out of US airports. To put that in context, the New York City subway system alone serves 5.5 million passengers per day. And even with COVID and people not commuting to offices, and city centers shut down, the New York City subway is still carrying more people than the airline industry.
Sarah: Right. And so much of airline travel is discretionary. And, you know, so much of transit use is not discretionary. That’s the other thing. You know, for instance, business travel by air, which probably has become just a grossly inflated thing, and it’s incredibly destructive environmentally, that would be one of the good things to come out of the pandemic, is if people would figure out how to do virtual conferences instead of flying all over everywhere. I mean, I think that that would be a good thing, because airline travel is so destructive. And yet we’re bailing that out, and not bailing out people who need to take their kids to school, or kids who need to travel to school by themselves. I mean, that’s—like, the burden on parents.
Doug: It’s a huge issue. And, you know, the DC Metro—and I don’t know what’s gonna happen now with this relief package, but before this came out, they were proposing cutting train service so much that there would be no weekend service, they would close the system at 9:00, and then trains would run every 30 minutes on weekdays. I mean, that would basically render it useless for a lot of people, especially low-income people who have to be on time to work, who don’t have the luxury of flexible schedules. So, you know, transit’s in real trouble. And this $14-billion is a lifeline for, you know, four or five months for some of these systems, but certainly isn’t a long-term solution for really any of them.
Aaron: Well, and sort of similar to our mayor in New York City who commutes around in a pair of SUVs, guess how our congresspeople get to work during the week? You know, they’re all flying around the country in aluminum tubes. They don’t use transit. They don’t use buses and subways for the most part. I mean, there is, of course, our president-elect Amtrak Joe. But, you know, for the most part, the people who pass this legislation, these are people who fly all the time everywhere. And you have to think that that really shapes their view of how Americans get around, how they get around.
Sarah: So, yeah, let’s talk about Amtrak Joe. And I think we have a little hope, right? Because here’s a guy who does like trains, and that’s a good thing. And he appointed a kind of high-profile person to be his Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. What do we think? There was, like, so much reaction when Pete Buttigieg’s name came up for this on transit Twitterer or urbanist Twitter or whatever you want to call it. It was sort of split between, hey, it’s great to have somebody so high profile get this job, and oh my God, this guy is, you know, a capitalist tool, and we’re gonna just now McKinsify the US transportation system. Where do we come down on that?
Aaron: I got to say in a certain way, I was sort of pleased to just see people reacting to who the new transportation secretary is going to be. The fact that, like, it is high profile, and people care and people are paying attention, and that this pic drew attention to the job, that felt like a big advance. Because I remember in 2008 when, you know, Obama picked Ray LaHood, who was a Republican congressman from downstate Illinois. You know, I was editing Streetsblog at the time, and I wrote about it. It was like, I think I was like the only person who did any kind of writing on that pick. Nobody really cared outside of transportation wonk circles. And so there’s something about the fact that, like, this very high-profile, popular, maybe even controversial pick was made feels heartening to me in a way.
Sarah: Right. And also, he is an incredibly ambitious person, and his drive to do things that perhaps might warm up the progressive side of the party which has been so resistant to him, you know, I could see that being part of his strategy for building a firmer base from which to launch his future plans for grandeur.
Aaron: Absolutely. I like that about him, too. You know, I also like the fact that I mean, if you recall, like, his presidential campaign, he was one of the only candidates who was really focused on systemic issues that the Democratic Party needed to deal with to have any hope of having any sort of long term majority in the country. Like, he was talking about reforming the Supreme Court and making Washington, DC, a state, and really starting to dig into some of these really hard, systemic constitutional issues that we have around governance in this country. And I feel—I mean, we’ve just been talking this entire episode about systemic problems, you know, that make it hard for us to have a functional transportation system. So if he’s that kind of thinker, I think that could be good.
Aaron: On the other hand, like, on the McKinsey front, you know, even in his introductory speech, Pete was talking a little bit about, you know, the US has to be an innovator, and we should be the leader in transportation. And that kind of talk sometimes worries me a little bit, because we actually really don’t necessarily need all that much innovation in transportation. You know, we kind of need to go back to, like, what worked in the 1890s. Bikes, trains, those things worked fine. Walking. Walking’s great. So I do worry a little bit when I hear Mayor Pete starting to talk about leadership and innovation. That scares me a bit.
Doug: And also, we shouldn’t oversell it. You know, the transportation secretary can only do so much, but I think being an excellent communicator is a lot more than we could have hoped for when you think of other potential people in this role, the history of this role. So it’s not a bad thing to have such a high-profile person doing this job.
Aaron: Yeah. I can’t think of any previous secretary that’s like him, really. I mean, there really haven’t been communicators or public-facing people for the most part.
Doug: And the first openly gay cabinet secretary. So that’s not nothing.
Sarah: And he can get booked on cable television at the drop of a hat. So that’s good. So yeah, we’re going to—I think we’ll wait and see, somewhat optimistically.
Doug: But can he get booked on The War on Cars at the drop of a hat?
Aaron: Yes, he can.
Doug: Pete Buttigieg, come on The War on Cars. We want to talk to you about your new job.
Sarah: I interviewed Ray LaHood back in the day. So, you know, I’m ready to serve, ready to interview this guy.
Doug: So Sarah, in an earlier episode, you had remarked that cars have become the ultimate PPE or personal protective equipment.
Sarah: Right, right, right.
Doug: Well, you should have trademarked that phrase, because there was an interview with Bill Ford, the CEO of the Ford Motor Company, the great grandson of Henry Ford. And here’s what he said in an interview with the New York Times. He was asked, “What do you believe will be the lasting impact of the pandemic on your business?” And this is what he said. He said, “One of the things that we certainly hadn’t thought about back in March, was the fact that cars and trucks in some way are the ultimate personal protective equipment. So people who hadn’t owned a car or truck and were reluctant to get into either public transportation or shared type of transportation, decided they really wanted to have their own vehicle.” And basically, he was saying that when the pandemic started, they thought they were gonna really take it on the chin and the auto industry was gonna be hit pretty hard. And he said other than a couple of tough months, sales have been kind of through the roof, and it wasn’t something they were expecting.
Sarah: Yeah. And I think that not only are cars emerging as PPE, but they’re also emerging as what people like to talk about as this third space. There was this big thing about oh, coffee shops and restaurants are the third space where people are having their social lives and this public realm. And now I’m seeing cars. Cars are the third space. Cars are your voting booth, cars are your dining room. You can’t go inside to dine, but you can get takeout and sit in your car. And there’s this ad this Christmas season, one of those horrible, horrible Christmas car ads, which I hate so much. And it’s this mom who drives up to her fabulous house in her Lincoln Aviator. She opens the door and it’s, you know, Christmas morning mayhem with—her kids are flying drones, her daughter’s on her phone and the dog is barking. And it’s all so chaotic and horrible. And the mom just looks at it and says, “Oh, God, no.” And then she goes back to her Lincoln Aviator and hits the recline button on her seat and says sort of “Ah!” in her perfect sweater. And, like, this idea that the car, it’s a controlled environment where you can be in control in this world that’s so out of control. But you can have your private space. You can be happy in your car.
Doug: It’s kind of a remarkable ad, because usually in car ads you see people driving in conditions that they would never experience in real life. And going fast and turning a corner is the draw. It’s, we’re gonna show you how awesome this car’s handling is. In this case, this ad, driving is not at all the focus. The car is parked in the driveway. It doesn’t move except for when she pulls up to the house at the beginning. And what is sold is just this cocoon of this sanctuary where she can be relaxed and get away from it all. It’s car-as-spa.
Aaron: Yeah. And what could be more appealing, you know, after nine months of everybody just being trapped in their homes with their families? I mean, that’s it. That’s probably what a lot of people are actually using their cars for right now.
Sarah: Yeah. That you just can get in your car and drive away from the people that you’ve been jammed together with for all this time. And cars representing not just safety from the virus, but also a kind of personal space where you can have privacy again.
Doug: Yeah. I mean, and not just drive away from people. I know people who are having phone meetings in their cars, in their garage, in their suburban homes. It is a quiet space. I mean, if I had to record the podcast and my entire family was home right now and I had a car, I might consider doing it in the ultimate sound booth: my SUV.
Aaron: You know, and it’s not just cars and car companies that are retooling in the pandemic, it’s also the fast food industry is completely reconfiguring itself for our socially-distant era. An interesting news clip popped up just this week on how restaurants like Burger King and McDonald’s and Chipotle are starting to close their indoor dining spaces, and they’re designing new buildings with a focus on cars, and catering to drive-through customers and online orders, and a future where a restaurant experience is basically done via automobile.
[NEWS CLIP: They used to have table service in this huge McDonald’s. It’s a flagship. Well, that’s not doing them much good right now. But the drive-through is saving not only McDonald’s, but other folks as well. Take a look at this poll that was done. 74 percent of people say that they are using the drive-thru either more or just as much as they used to, while not going as much to their neighborhood restaurants. And, you know, that’s saving some of the fast food business. And McDonald’s is a prime example of that. Other companies are getting into drive-throughs, but haven’t been—yeah, hi. Could I get maybe just one more Sausage McMuffin with egg, please? That’s all. Great, thank you. That’s the 16th one.]
Sarah: Honestly, I feel like this pandemic is just systematically destroying every single thing that I love and that makes life tolerable for me. It’s just—it’s really just so sad.
Doug: It’s really disconcerting to think that the longer this goes on, the more likely it will be that all we will be left with are chain stores and the places that have the capital to ride this out. You know, your local mom and pop business cannot install a drive-through suddenly and level the building next to them and put in a larger parking lot. But McDonald’s can, you know? Burger King can. The big thing about this too, we were talking about, you know, these third spaces that people go to, McDonald’s is a huge third space for people, you know, elderly people, low income people to come and just sit and have coffee and talk. And if it requires an automobile and a smartphone now to access that, first of all, that’s gonna just make it inaccessible for a lot of people. But you lose the social interaction, the places where people can just check in on each other, even at fast food restaurants.
Sarah: Yeah. Now I’m like—I’ve been reduced to feeling sad. Like, we need to, like, preserve McDonald’s. We need to preserve McDonald’s! I mean, this is what I’ve been reduced to in 2020. It’s really …
Doug: I mean, you joke, but actually in a lot of small towns, McDonald’s really is the only place for some people to come together. Like, it is an important place for people to gather. And it is a real shame that, you know, even in the absence of the mom and pop discussion, that even these places are gonna be retooled to just keep actual people out of them.
Aaron: So this was another item that came across The War on Cars news desk that we were all chattering about. “But the fact that the owners and operators of more than half a million diesel pickup trucks—I’m reading from The New York Times now—have been illegally disabling their vehicles’ emissions control technology over the past decade, allowing excess emissions equivalent to nine million extra trucks on the road, a new federal report has concluded.” So people are tampering with their diesel trucks on purpose to make them pollute more. Which is just like, what is wrong with us?
Doug: USA! USA! Yeah, that’s bad.
Aaron: Oh my God.
Doug: So in a way, this is basically like the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal, but not at the corporate level, at a total individual level, right?
Aaron: Right. So I’ll continue reading this New York Times story. “But in this case, no single corporation is behind the subterfuge. It is the truck owners themselves who are installing illegal devices which are typically manufactured by small companies. That makes it much more difficult to measure the full scale of the problem, which is believed to affect many more vehicles than the 500,000 or so estimated in the report. The EPA focused on just devices installed in heavy pickup trucks like the Chevy Silverado and the Dodge Ram 2500, and about 15 percent of these trucks appear to have these defeat devices installed in them.” So it’s a lot of trucks and truck owners are doing this. It’s so fucked up. It’s just like, it’s so demented and weird that this is our culture, that people are choosing to do this.
Doug: Yeah. So it’s nuts, too, because Volkswagen was fined almost $3 billion dollars, right, for this diesel-cheating software that they were installing. And that was just in the US that they were fined this. But in this case, what are you gonna do? Like, go after all these millions of car owners? Go after the companies that are selling these little tampering devices, these things that basically just tell the emissions inspectors, “Oh, no. The car’s fine.” I don’t know how you solve this problem.
Sarah: I guess you could make it illegal to manufacture these devices or to sell them. That would be one thing. But, you know, freedom is always the answer to that. I mean, right?
Aaron: Yeah. I mean, we have, you know, every vehicle in the US, to be licensed, you have to go get it inspected once a year. So if we had a legitimate motor vehicle inspection process on the state level, they could presumably find these devices and remove them and make the car illegal to drive. You could also go to, you know, Amazon and find the guys who are selling these quote unquote, “diesel tuners,” and just, take them offline, take them down, treat them like they’re criminals and racketeers and they’re destroying the planet.
Sarah: That’s what they did with bump stocks, right? Which is sort of like the—it seems kind of like an analogous thing to me. And let’s not underestimate just how deadly air pollution is. This is one of my things that I feel like people do not understand, and actually probably it’s just too painful to think about. But air pollution kills hundreds of thousands of people in the United States every year. We don’t really even know how many, because a lot of them die of cardiac problems or lung problems. You can’t tease out how much of that is from air pollution, but a significant number of people are dying from this.
Sarah: And that’s another news story that I wanted to bring in. In the UK, the first person in the world to have air pollution listed as a cause of death on her death certificate—and this was a huge thing. This was a nine-year-old girl named Ella Kissi-Debrah. She lived in London, very close to one of the busiest roads in the capital, the South Circular. And she died in a hospital in February of 2013. And this is from a CNN story. “She suffered a cardiac arrest from which she could not be resuscitated. The girl suffered from severe asthma that caused episodes of cardiac and respiratory arrest and frequent emergency hospital admissions over three years. Her medical cause of death was listed as acute respiratory failure, severe asthma and air pollution exposure. The coroner’s conclusion was that Ella died of asthma contributed to by exposure to excessive air pollution.” This is a landmark case in the UK and in the world, really. This beautiful little girl, you know, her life cut short because she was exposed to air pollution that exacerbated or probably even caused her asthma, and she died because of that.
Sarah: And I just wish that we could—that everyone in every part of the world could realize these—you know, tinkering with your diesel output so that you can have better performance, it is killing people. It’s killing your own children. It’s beyond sociopathic. It’s really, really horrifying. And I just am very angry about this particular thing, because I just feel like it’s invisible. People just can’t—they refuse to acknowledge it. So I’m really happy that this coroner in the UK finally just said what we all know, which is that people are dying because of the things that we’re spewing into the atmosphere.
Doug: I think, Sarah, it gets back to what you were saying earlier about that we should also be free from certain things. In America, we tend to think of freedom as a thing to which you’re entitled. Like, I am free to do whatever I want, other people and their health and safety be damned. So I’m free to own a gun. I am free to pollute in my giant truck. I am free to spread coronavirus because I’m traveling for Thanksgiving or going to a large gathering. But we tend to not frame freedom in terms of, I should be free to go to school and feel free from the fear of being shot there. I should feel free to go to the movies, and be free from the fear that someone is gonna walk in there with an AR-15. You know, grocery workers should be free from the fear that some jerk is gonna come in without a mask and just say, “Freedom, freedom, freedom! I don’t have to wear one.” And so I think this really gets back to—I don’t know how we shift that perspective, where our freedoms should also be interpreted as how we treat each other and allow other people to live lives as freely as they want to live as well.
Aaron: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. How do we shift the perspective? I think there’s some piece of it that involves people who feel this way, you know, progressives basically, who want to see Americans getting better at taking collective action and taking care of each other and taking care of the world. That there’s a certain way in which, I feel like we need to reclaim these ideas like American freedom. Like actually, if we do a better job of taking collective action and taking care of each other and taking care of the environment, we’re creating a form of freedom, you know? And these guys who are choosing to make their vehicles more dangerous and polluting, and ruining other people’s lives with their diesel defeat device garbage, that’s not freedom, actually. You know, that’s a form of tyranny. That’s a form of oppression. I just feel like if we can sort of reclaim these fundamental American ideas, we might have a better chance of moving the dial on some of this.
Doug: Okay, so speaking of freedom, our last news item. A lot of people have experienced the freedom of riding a bicycle over the last 10 months. The bike boom is real. It happened. Tons of people were buying bicycles to get around, either for transportation or recreation. What will it take for the bike boom to last as people start to get vaccinated, as the economy returns to normal, what do we think is gonna happen? Andrew Hawkins, writing in The Verge has a great piece on this, and he says it’s gonna be tough. It’s gonna be a turf war, as we’re all used to. But what do we think is gonna happen next?
Sarah: I do think that you have a lot of people who are younger, who are in their 20s and 30s, who are getting—you know, they were already bike-curious, should we say?
Doug: Sarah, that’s another term I think you might need to trademark, I’m not sure. Someone has probably said that before, but that’s a good one.
Sarah: I’m sure somebody has said that. I’m sure somebody has said that. But then, you know, in the pandemic, they went ahead, they got a bike, they started going around on it and they had fun. I mean, I think that there’s some built-in stuff happening where there are younger people who are using bicycles as transportation, and that is gonna have its own momentum. But I just think it has to be infrastructure. That is what it comes down to for me. You have got to improve the infrastructure. I’m sure you guys—you know, it snowed in New York a few days ago. I just passed some of the best bike lanes that we have at Prospect Park West yesterday, totally clogged with a huge snow bank right in the middle of them. Like, we’ve got to have the infrastructure and maintain it as if we expected people to use it.
Aaron: Yeah. And I mean, so this is an infrastructure problem. I think there’s also a finance piece to this. And we need to—I think we need to make it much easier and cheaper than it already is, frankly, to ride a bike, and especially to get an e-bike. And there’s probably a lot that government could be doing and banks could be doing to make it so that people can buy bikes in the same way that they buy cars, you know? Like, zero percent down, no money down. Just come and get a car. Like, we probably need to be doing stuff like that with bikes, especially e-bikes, which are a little bit expensive, and could be a real game changer, and could help get a lot of people on bikes who aren’t necessarily using them yet.
Sarah: Yeah. Actually, that’s another thing where, to go back to the beginning, that Paris is ahead of us. They have an e-bike subsidy for anyone who makes less than €2,000 a month, they can get up to 25 percent of the purchase price of an e-bike subsidized by the government. I think up to, like, €500 or something.
Aaron: That’s amazing.
Doug: Yeah, that’s awesome. I also think, you know, to get back to the question about mayors and politics and stuff like that, and to kind of tie it into our transit crisis, you know, we’re gonna have lots of people abandoning transit as service becomes less reliable, as trains don’t come as frequently. And the last thing you’re gonna want, if you’re the mayor of a dense city, is for those people to switch to their own private cars, Uber, Lyft or whatever. You’re gonna want them to switch to bikes if they decide to get off transit. And so, especially in an age where every city is gonna find its budget in general under a lot of pressure, and they’re not gonna be able to spend as much money on stuff as they used to, bicycles are a really cheap solution to moving lots of people. And they solve a lot of the other problems that we’re talking about. Nobody’s ever used a diesel tamperer on their e-bike, you know, to get more performance out of the battery. So I think cities have to lean into this stuff and say, we’ve got the solution right here. It’s staring you in the face, and it can solve—not all, but a lot of the problems you’re gonna be facing over the next however long it takes to come out of all of this.
Sarah: All right. Well.
Aaron: That’s a good place to end. We’ve got the solution, people.
Doug: Yeah. It’s right there.
Sarah: So that’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. It’s been a pretty dark year, but for me at least, one of the silver linings has been that we have continued to do this podcast. And I feel like we’ve stayed connected to our listeners. We’ve heard from so many of you out there in the world. And I don’t know about you guys, but that’s made me feel pretty good.
Aaron: Definitely. Definitely. And it’ll be nice to get back in the studio when we are finally vaccinated and things are good to go. I’m sure we’ll be the last people vaccinated. We are …
Doug: Podcast hosts are not essential frontline workers, no.
Aaron: Sadly not essential here.
Doug: I really appreciate everybody for listening to the show. I have loved throwing myself into doing this podcast with both of you. You know, we’ve just talked about the store. I just sent out a ton of packages to people all over the country, and it’s so gratifying to see the support that we’re getting from everybody. So it helped me get through 2020. So thank you to everybody.
Sarah: So if you like what you’ve heard, you can help out and become a part of this community by pitching in on our Patreon account. You go to thewaroncars.org, click on “Become a Patreon Supporter.” And as always, we’d like to give special thanks to our top Patreon supporters, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York, Drew Raines and Virginia Baker.
Aaron: Please rate and review The War on Cars on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to check out our new online store at thewaroncars.org/store. You can also purchase an official War on Cars t-shirt at Cotton Bureau, and you can also get books by many of the guests who have appeared on the podcast by going to our bookshop.org page at bookshop.org/thewaroncars.
Sarah: We even have a special kids’ list, so you can start indoctrinating your kids early into the war on cars.
Doug: Also don’t forget, you can get 20 percent off the purchase of stylish Cleverhood rain gear for walking and biking. Just go to cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter code “waroncars” and you will get your discount.
Sarah: This episode was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Danny Finkel of Crucial D Design. I’m Sarah Goodyear.
Doug: I’m Doug Gordon.
Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek. And this is The War on Cars.
[VOICE MEMO, Rachel: This is Rachel in Seattle, Washington. And the number of negative experiences I’ve had as a vulnerable road user and bike brigade member rise like a 2020 countertop sourdough with each passing week. But today, I just want to extend my gratitude to the War on Cars team for helping me feel so much less alone, as the only cyclist in my friend group. May you all stay safe amid the grumbling sea of coughing vehicles.]