Episode 56: Humane Streets with Anil Dash
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Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. On previous episodes of the podcast, I’ve said that cars are the internet comments section of the real world. When you’re driving, you can remain more or less anonymous if you want to. Maybe you behave in ways you never would face to face. And long before people were posting memes on Twitter, they were communicating everything from jokes to their political beliefs, to the fact that their kid made the honor roll at a local high school on bumper stickers.
Doug: So in that sense, just like your Facebook page is an extension of your identity, and often the first or maybe only impression other people have of it, your car is sort of the same thing. But the similarities between the internet and driving don’t end there. And it was with this in mind that I wanted to talk to one of my favorite people on the internet: Anil Dash. Anil is well known in tech circles. He is a blogging pioneer, and I remember reading him way back in the early 2000s. You might know him from his presence on Twitter, where he is @anildash, or from his writing in Wired magazine. He currently serves as the CEO of Glitch, a platform for app developers. Anil is also a regular bike-share user and a huge fan of Prince—something you’ll hear about later. More than anything, Anil is a sharp and thoughtful critic of the industry in which he’s worked for his entire career. And as he puts it in his bio, he is an advocate for more humane, inclusive and ethical technology.
Doug: And if you zero in on those three words: humane, inclusive, ethical, I think those have a lot of overlap with my own personal vision of how streets should work, the podcast’s view of how streets should work and hopefully yours. So enjoy my talk with Anil Dash.
Doug: Anil Dash, welcome to The War on Cars.
Anil Dash: Thanks so much for having me.
Doug: So for people who don’t know you very well, you are primarily focused on tech, both in your professional life, your personal interests, which we will get into, but, you know, every now and then you dip your toes into issues related to safe streets, cycling, things like that. How did you arrive at this perspective? How did you incorporate this into your worldview?
Anil Dash: That’s a great question. It was not something I was sort of born to or fluent in. And my background as you said, is, you know, I’m a tech guy. I’ve worked at start-ups and made software and that kind of stuff for a long time. And there were sort of two genesis points for me. You know, one was my father is a civil engineer by trade. He did it for 40 years, working for first the state of Pennsylvania and then later California’s Department of Transportation. And I would go with him to job sites, construction sites, this was like my nerding out as a kid, and see how highways were made, see how streets were made. And it just stayed with me of, like, infrastructure, transportation, moving people around is a thing we do. It’s almost like it’s a trade that you can have, in the way that, you know, somebody else would be like, “My family makes, you know, wine,” or, you know, whatever it was. And that really stayed with me.
Anil Dash: And then the other was actually, I think, very tied to the way I see technology, my love for technology, which is that I love systems. Like, I really love how do you make a system—you know, in my case, how do you make a tool that, like, a million people want to share their photos on, or that a billion people—you know, want to—I don’t love the billion people networks like Facebook too much, but even just that idea: you’re gonna build a tool that all these people are gonna use in their daily lives. And then when you think of it through that lens of we as humans have the ability to build systems that could be part of the daily life of everybody around us, you can’t not be just mesmerized by transportation, by everything around us that we do to get where we’re going. And that it’s this emotional, visceral—like I’m a fan.
Anil Dash: Like, I approach it like it’s a band that I like or an artist that I love or whatever. Like, transportation to me is this thing that is ceaselessly inventive and interesting and challenging. And so that’s been—it’s a very different lens than, I think, what any professional or expert would have. Like, for me, it’s just like this thing that is ceaselessly interesting, and then very functional, too, which is that I do ride my bike to get around. And I do use, you know, a Citi Bike to go everywhere I go. And I do rely on our systems, and so I care about them as a citizen too.
Doug: Yeah, I think what you’ve defined is sort of what I would call being a noticer, that people who are interested in systems tend to be people who, from a very early age—and I was like this—couldn’t help but walk through life just noticing things.
Anil Dash: Mm-hmm.
Doug: The sort of very famous way I think Colson Whitehead talks about, you know, walking through the city and noticing when a store changes from the cell phone store to a hair salon, and realizing that that used to be different. It’s like a switch that’s turned on in your brain that I think if you’re a noticer, you can’t turn off. So I wanted to ask you, you mentioned riding Citi Bike. What drew you to live in New York then? You said—you mentioned having lived in Pennsylvania and California. What brought you here?
Anil Dash: Well, you know, I grew up in suburban, rural Pennsylvania, and it was incredibly racially homogenous. Our family was essentially the first people of color to live in our town. We were—years later, after my folks had retired to California, I went back to my hometown in Pennsylvania, and I remember just having this conversation with my mother where I was like, you know, growing up I felt like I didn’t fit in. And then I thought about the fact that we—my parents spoke a different language at home, we ate different food, we practice a different religion, I listened to different music, we wore different clothes. I think I felt like I didn’t fit in because I didn’t fit in.
Doug: Right. Right.
Anil Dash: [laughs] Like, I’ve deduced, I’ve diagnosed the issue. And then, you know, it’s so obvious in retrospect, but I think as a kid you don’t think about that. And then I had, like everyone, been to New York when, you know, you go on a vacation, or certainly in our case, whenever anyone would visit from India, whether it was our distant family members or even people who were, like, new immigrants that would be staying with us. They would always be like, “We want to see the Statue of Liberty, we want to see the Empire State Building.” And we would come up to New York, and I would always tag along on those trips. And I just remember having this almost sense of inevitability.
Anil Dash: It was—and this is funny because in retrospect, this is the moment that I think New York was most vilified to the rest of America. This is definitely, you know, graffiti on the subways and the sort of worst, lowest Bernie Goetz caricatures of what New York was. And I was the emoji of the smiley face with the hearts for the eyes looking around New York. I just was like, this is the place. This is where I was supposed to be. And it was really actually not more complicated than that for me, being a teenager, seeing it and being like, “I need to be here.” And, you know, the summer I was 21, I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t have a job. I packed up everything I had and moved to the city. And I think I was very fortunate to be so naive and foolish as to do so, because within five minutes I was like, “This is where I’m going to spend the rest of my life.”
Doug: When you started riding a bike in the city, was it when you first moved here? You mentioned Citi Bike, when did you start?
Anil Dash: Actually, you know, it was not when I moved here. I had—because I’d grown up in the suburbs, I had a car the first summer I lived in New York. And I mean, if you grew up in America, you’re taught in the suburbs that the car is freedom. And actually, in truth, it is there, because what was I gonna—like, I couldn’t get to the mall. I couldn’t get to the record store, you know, without a car. But I got here, and after an onslaught of parking tickets and everything else, I was like, “Oh, I’ve made a systemic error. I have a category error in what I think this place is and how you navigate it.”
Anil Dash: And that was a revelation because it was—and again, I think part of this was being 21 years old—what other lies have I been told? What other sort of wool has been pulled over my eyes about what I’m supposed to do? That was really—it was exciting. It was exciting to be—to have revealed to me that the car was a lie. Because it had been a stress, a constant stress. It’s expensive to have a car. It’s expensive to have insurance. It’s expensive to park. It was, you know, gas. Like all those things. And I was constantly stressed out because I was broke and all that other stuff. And then all of a sudden, as soon as I let it go, I was like, a great weight has been lifted. I’m never gonna own a car again. And I never have, you know?
Anil Dash: And that was just like a—when you shed your old self, when you have—or you have that moment of realization of, like, I’m an adult now and I’m going to choose what I’m going to be, and it doesn’t include this machine. And then all of a sudden I felt so, you know, light of foot. But I didn’t—I actually hadn’t really ridden a bike until Citi Bike arrived in probably 20 years, since, like, I was a kid, since I was a teenager. And I had just been like, you know, fine with the subway and the bus and walking around or whatever. And literally that first time I hopped on a Citi Bike, like, the day of I signed up and whatever, I felt like a kid again. I was like, I am—like, the wind through my hair, and zipping around and having—and just that joyous feeling of, like, moving around.
Anil Dash: And also I had felt very acutely after—especially after 9/11, like, that our public space was something very, very precious. I was very, I don’t know, possessive of it. Like, it was a very emotional thing. And I felt like, you know, when they had started to close off parts of Times Square, and particularly—like, I got married in Madison Square Park, and so when they started to build out the traffic bulbs and planters and stuff around there, it felt like, well, what it was: seeing flowers bloom. And so then being able to ride a bike past there felt like being given, like, childhood back. Like, it was such a joyous thing. And it’s so ridiculous because it’s like it was also a faster commute to go to work, to clock in. You know, like there’s all these things that are very prosaic. And I’m not this like, you know, whatever. It’s not poetry. It’s just getting where you’re going, and that’s fine. But I did have that moment that—like, I cannot lie. It was like my heart was singing, I’m racing through this city that I love. And they have given me this part of it for me, and not those people just driving through.
Doug: Yeah, it’s interesting. I remember being in Los Angeles with a friend 20 years ago, and we were driving. And I said to him, “Does it ever kind of hit you that, you know, you’re in Hollywood? There’s the Hollywood sign, you know, there’s Grauman’s Theater.” And he’s like, “No.” He’s like, “Do you ever really think about seeing the Statue of Liberty every day living in New York?” And I said to him, “Yeah, because I bike over the Brooklyn Bridge and I can see it every day, and I kind of almost never don’t appreciate it.” Like, there’s always a moment when I’m riding over that bridge or the Manhattan Bridge and I see the skyline and I think, “Oh my God, I live in New York! Like, there’s the Empire State Building. This is pretty awesome.” And the teenage version of me would be pretty psyched with me right now.
Anil Dash: Yeah, yeah. I mean, when I used to travel a lot, every single time, I loved, you know, flying into LaGuardia and you have that approach where you’re just coming up Manhattan, and it would just be like, “Holy shit, I get to live there!”
Anil Dash: It’s just such a, like—it was still exciting. And I was sort of like, if that ever goes away, then we have that conversation: are we going to retire to the suburbs or whatever? And it just never has.
Doug: So one of the reasons I wanted to have you on, obviously, is because of your background and your professional work in tech. And you kind of exist in this interesting space in the tech world in that it is your job, it is a community that you’re a part of, but you’re also very critical of it, very philosophical about its role in society. And sort of the reason I wanted to have this discussion, because I’ve always felt that there’s a lot of overlap between how you talk about the tech industry and how I and my co-hosts, how we talk about safe streets. And there’s the very obvious overlap, right? Where Uber, Lyft, Amazon, these are tech companies that are having an increasingly dominant role in transportation. They are clogging up our streets with black cars, with delivery vehicles. They are influencing how we get around.
Doug: There’s the sort of deeper and slightly more indirect comparison that I think you hit on a lot of time, which is that, you know, when someone builds an app or some sort of platform, they tend to think, “Well, this is just a neutral thing, right? Sharing pictures. This will be a great way for people to connect online.” That’s sort of the Facebook pitch originally. But then there are unintended consequences that can quickly overtake the original purpose for that app.
Anil Dash: Right.
Doug: With Facebook, like we said, a lot of people came to it because they wanted to connect with old high school friends, share baby pictures. But now, you know, it has a very corrosive effect on democracy. It’s an accelerator for conspiracy theories and white nationalism. And I was thinking about streets in that sense too. You know, cars were originally sold as “See the USA in your Chevrolet.” It’s get out of the city, connect with nature, family road trips. But they’re also an accelerator for social corrosion, climate change. They are literally a means of dividing Americans, highways through Black and brown neighborhoods, especially.
Anil Dash: Yeah.
Doug: This is not so much a question, but more of, like, an interesting way in which I think that these two areas really overlap, and perhaps explains a little bit of why you dip your toes into this world as much as you do.
Anil Dash: Yeah, I think there’s this part that is—that the promise and the threat are so proximate in all of these systems that we built. And there was a point, I do think, when aside from the sort of military justifications of the Eisenhower highway system, there was a personal freedom argument around the control that a family having a car could give you. And it wasn’t entirely false. And also, there were people that were intentionally talking about not just building a system that was justified as a Cold War expense, but that was destroying Black and brown neighborhoods and Jewish neighborhoods, you know, as it was created. And that was a choice that people made that was very intentional, and they just sort of tried to elide in describing as cars arose.
Anil Dash: And I think of this in a very analogous way, definitely with technology where, like, Mark Zuckerberg was sort of like, you know, all I wanted to do was build a social platform where I could be rating women in a sexist way. I didn’t mean to enable fascism around the world, right? And it’s like, just a side benefit that sort of was an offshoot of this. But also, there are genuine connections. People do genuinely make connections on social media. People actually do feel a sense of presence to being able to see their niece or their nephew on Instagram and, you know, be a part of their life or whatever it is. So there is a part that is, like, a sincere benefit that I don’t dismiss. And I think that’s one of the things I—that’s the great struggle of all the work I’ve done in my career, is I do still believe that technology can be a force for good. I’m not—I don’t blanket condemn it. I’m not a Luddite. I mean, God, I hope not. I run a company that helps you make software.
Anil Dash: But I really—I think that we hear a lot of times, who could have foreseen? Who would have known? Nobody could have known that these harms would happen. And that is just a lie, because people absolutely have always been raising the flag, always been saying this is an issue. And I think, you know, you look at decades now of research about what the climate impact of cars was going to be and people saying, “Well, we couldn’t have known.” Well, we did know. And when people say we couldn’t have known that surveillance-based advertising systems on the internet, we didn’t think they would lead to the harms that they’ve led to. We did know, and there were people waving red flags from day one. And I think at one level, it’s also, you know, personal accountability for me. I feel a great grief, and to some degree guilt, that I was one of those people shouting from the rooftops and waving red flags, and that I was so ineffectual. You know, we weren’t more effective or persuasive, really weighs on me in the same way that I feel like some day when my son is older—he’s nine years old now, but I think he’s going to get older and he’s like, “Why didn’t you do more about the climate?”
Doug: Yeah. That’s something that weighs on me all the time.
Anil Dash: You know, and I think that’s sort of the exact same way I feel about the technology. And I think that’s a really—it’s a heavy weight. And this—as we are talking, we’re just past the 10-year anniversary of the movie The Social Network, which was the dramatization of Facebook’s creation. And it’s not actually super accurate, but there are some parts at the beginning of the film that are pretty close to what really happened. And around the time the film came out, The New Yorker did a profile of Mark Zuckerberg that was one of the first really—it was pretty, actually gentle, but it was mildly critical of him around there, when he was still considered this kind of golden boy of technology, the next Bill Gates or whatever. And I got quoted in the story, and I said—I mean, I think I had this very tepid, “You know, I don’t think Mark realizes that he’s not right about some stuff.” I mean, it was very, it was just this very—it was hardly a slap in the face. And the reaction was if I had said, you know, he should be run out of town on rails, you know? It was like in Silicon Valley, like, talked to people that were like, “You will never work in this industry again.”
Anil Dash: And that was really instructive to me, was the skin was that thin about the mildest of criticism, even though I felt a thousand times stronger about it, but I felt like I shouldn’t be too untoward in the criticisms. And I look back and I’m like, gosh, if we had gone, you know, as hard in the paint then as we do now in talking about what they were enabling, maybe we would have been able to shift things more. And I feel the exact same way about, like, there were things we also didn’t know. Like, I do think it is a valid excuse if you are in 2008 to say we didn’t think that a photo-sharing app was gonna enable, you know, mass violence and be like, yeah, okay. That is actually—then, sure, that is a thing. But as soon as you know that the danger is there, then you have a responsibility to act.
Anil Dash: And I draw the direct analogy to our built environment and transportation systems and highway systems, because my father, you know, was the anchor of our family to come here. He came here as an immigrant in 1963. It was before immigration reform had passed in America. The reason he was able to immigrate from India was his skills as an engineer. He came here and got his PhD, became a civil engineer. And he built highways, and he was considered important to the national interest that, even though this country has had deep contempt for immigrants—especially Asian immigrants—they would make an exception for him.
Anil Dash: But we did not know, I did not understand the system that he was building was one that was perpetuating redlining and destroying neighborhoods of the most vulnerable people in America. And they didn’t tell him that. This is the reason that you get your visa is because we’re gonna pit you against these communities that are the only reason you’re even allowed to be here. And that—I think that trade off, those two things of that he—you know, my dad has a PhD, and he did contribute a lot, and he did build things of merit. You know, like, I think of like, you know, every time I land at Hartsfield Airport or SeaTac, you know, Seattle-Tacoma, like, those are airports he helped build and they’re meaningful. He helped work on the foundation of Disney World, and that has brought millions of people joy, right? And those are good things.
Anil Dash: And the larger system that he was part of victimized people who he was never warned about or told about. And so I think that’s such a—like, that dichotomy, and then I look at that—and that’s a history of now 50, 60 years ago, is what’s playing out now, because we let Indian and Chinese immigrants come in and build the highway system 50 years ago because it was deemed valuable to the national interest. And now we’re letting Indian and Chinese immigrants come into Silicon Valley and build the internet because it’s deemed vital to the national interest. And in every case, it is pitting these vulnerable communities against each other at the expense of Black and brown communities, at the expense of communities on the margins. And if we can break out of that cycle, then we can actually do the positive thing that we say we’re doing.
Doug: And I think you also hit on this idea of institutional responsibility versus individual actions. People who are just cogs in the machine perhaps, versus the people who really are pulling the levers of power, or even just the individual users of technology. You know, like, I am not on Facebook, I got off of it in 2018. And I’m obviously on Twitter a lot, and so I can’t really say I have some sort of morally superior stance than other people. But every now and then my wife and I will sort of get into it because she needs to be on Facebook a lot for her work, because she manages some of the social media stuff at her job. And, you know, I say, “Like, this is this platform that’s enabling and sowing all sorts of division. You know, how can you really justify being on it,” right? Like, if you were in a bar, and someone was screaming racist stuff at the end of the bar and the owner didn’t kick them out, you probably wouldn’t go to that bar again.
Doug: But at the same time it’s like, that’s a little bit too much for me to perhaps put on my wife. She needs to use this thing. And I think of that in terms of streets, in that I drive to the airport. I fly every now and then, but I’m also very concerned about climate change. And I think of the destructive ways in which cars have transformed our society. You know, it’s like that cartoon. And yet you participate in that society, you know? It’s like we’re all—these things have become so important to our daily lives. Like, some people really can’t connect with other people or perform their daily functions without using social media of some sort, in the same way that most Americans can’t really live their lives without using a car in one way or another. The negative effects sort of—you know, not negative effects be damned, but they just can’t even engage with that. And so when you start to engage with people, “Hey, you know, cars are killing the planet. Facebook is leading to genocide in Myanmar,” they just can’t really square that circle because it cuts too close to home. It’s this thing that is wrapped—it’s their identity. You know, your car is your identity, and your Facebook page is your identity now.
Anil Dash: Well, and there’s these things I think there’s so many levels to the one part is that we are all complicit in unjust systems. And, you know, how do you even reckon with it? Because you’re not—like, if you’re part of society, you’re gonna participate in some of these things. And absolutely, I mean, one of those profound examples I think about is the only way that I’m connected with my extended family overseas is through WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook. And it is a platform that did absolutely enable the misinformation that led to a genocide in Myanmar. And if you had told me 10 years ago, 15 years ago, would you use an app run by people who enabled genocide? I would think it’d be a pretty easy no. You know, I’m a moral person. This is a slam dunk, this is the easy one.
Anil Dash: And it turns out it’s not, because it’s also a question of what would have to happen for me to be willing to lose the connection to my family that I’d wanted my whole life. Because they were never part of my life. My family in India and overseas was not a daily part of my life during my entire childhood because it was not—even if cost hadn’t been a question, there was no infrastructure. There was no technical way to reach them. And now they’re a part of my life and my son’s life and whatever, because these technologies are there. And people are always saying to me, they’re like, “Well, you could quit Facebook, you could do whatever. But what about—why doesn’t everybody quit? They could just quit.” And it’s like, I think it is too much to ask someone to say forego talking to your family.
Anil Dash: And the thing is, we actually have navigated this world before—even in the realm of communication—by talking about things that are a public utility or a public service, and having a conversation about the cultural obligations of people that create these platforms and technologies. And so, you know, we had a better answer when it was the arrival of terrestrial radio, when it was the telephone system, when—you know, for as imperfect as it was, those were actually much more public goods. And then we’ve sort of interestingly, and I think it’s no coincidence that Uber presents itself as a technology company even though it’s a transportation company, and all the other sort of players, because technology intrinsically doesn’t have to be ignoring the social interest, the public interest. But the current conceptualization of how you fund technology, the venture capital base, that is deeply grounded in their being—well, I guess you could have a public concern, but it’s an afterthought, or it’s an acquisition strategy for buying customers. But it’s not intrinsic to what you are.
Anil Dash: And the idea of public technology does not even exist. Like, we can’t even point to—even though that’s where we got the internet from, even though that’s where we got all these other great technologies from, email, everything else, in the contemporary imagination, if you say to a young person, “Can you imagine a public internet?” And even in the midst of, like, the rise of DSA and sort of like public discussions of socialism, all these kinds of things, if you say, “Can you imagine a public internet service?” Not just the dial-up, that you’re going to have a public ISP that’s going to be your cable provider or whatever, but like a public service that was run by the internet. You mentioned a government Instagram, and especially because of the mistrust of government, people can’t even fathom the idea.
Doug: And I think that’s really similar to public transportation. Our conversations are often a little skewed by living in New York City, where there is, like, a deep commitment by the people to the subway system, even if we have our issues with how the government runs it, and the trust that Governor Cuomo puts in it or doesn’t put in it. But there is a deep …
Anil Dash: We care enough about it to criticize.
Doug: Yeah, we love it. We love it a lot, even when we are complaining about it. But in the rest of the country, public transit is, for the most part, derided. You know, white wealthy Americans cannot get their heads around what role should the government have in any of this? I think that is very similar. It’s a really tough nut to crack.
Anil Dash: Well, it requires an imagination, and it requires an empathy for marginalized people, right? Because every town has somebody who can tell you what is good and bad about their transportation system, their public transportation system. But they’re not the people generally that have the voices to get listened to. And even the conception of what would good transit look like is not a conversation you can have in most of America. The concept doesn’t exist, you know? And so it’s this sort of failure of imagination happens one level lower than even—because if you said, “How could you make a better car?” You know, it’d be like, “Okay, add some cup holders.” But it’s because it exists within a level that they can have a dialog with. They know what they’re responding to, you know? And like I said, if you said, “What would be a great social network that would be owned by the people?” People would be like, “I don’t even understand the question.” It’s such a weird way to think about it, because of how we’ve been taught.
Anil Dash: And yeah, we are lucky that in New York we can at least conceive of that question. But we don’t—you know, I have been reflecting on this a lot lately. You know, most of, like, especially red state America where I grew up, New York is a myth. New York is a myth that’s constructed by media. And it is kind of permanently frozen in 1989. It is full of “those people.” We are useful only rhetorically when being used to advocate for militarism. And our deaths are inconsequential. They’re just a political talking point. Whether it was 9/11 or COVID mass deaths in New York City, are bizarrely, like, obscenely misused by political forces in the rest of the country to really just advance the agenda they already had. We wanted to go to war, we wanted to not wear masks, whatever it was. And to a degree, that is just gruesome. It’s just ghastly.
Anil Dash: And when you think about it, that is a life and death conversation they’re having, and they still can’t see us as people. And this was very acute to me because they did—you know, 9/11 this year, the anniversary, they did a jet fly-by. And it was like, definitively the worst thing you could do is fly jets past lower Manhattan, right? It’s like it’s actually easy. It’s an easy one to know. And so that really very clearly communicates the contempt for even seeing us as people.
Anil Dash: And therefore, now—and we are yet the most authoritative American community to talk about mass transit, and to talk about futures of transit. Like, as flawed as it is, we’re the best at it in this country. And so meshing those two things, which is like, well, if they don’t even give a damn if we live or die, they’re sure as hell not going to listen to us about taking away their cars. And so that’s actually the challenge is like, how do you get them to see us as people? As people whose lives matter? As smart people who actually understand something? As people whose lives are good?
Anil Dash: And, you know, they can’t conceive it because it’s like, even if you have the conversation even with well-intentioned people, they’re like, “I could never live there, you can’t have a yard.” And it’s like, well, okay. But, you know—and I think we fall into—and I’m as guilty of this as anybody, we fall into platitudes. “Well, we get great bagels and we have good pizza.” You know, and it’s like it’s funny and it’s true, but it’s also this—like, we have neighbors. We have neighbors. And we don’t even press the advantage we have and explain to others: you don’t have neighbors, you have other houses that your house is near you know? And I know it because I lived there, you know? And as much as I want to talk about a cup of sugar that they’re borrowing from their neighbor, it’s like, we have neighbors. I know what playlist my neighbors listen to. I know what sounds make their dog bark. Like, we have neighbors, we are living by people. And that teaches you something. And it is a thing that upgrades your life, and makes you better at living your life and caring about people.
Doug: I always think that when you live in New York City, and I talked about riding over the Brooklyn Bridge before, that, like, if you don’t have patience and empathy for other people, you have to get it fast or you will not survive here. Because if you are annoyed by every last thing that people do here, because we’re all stacked on top of each other and bumping into each other all the time, you’ll just go crazy. And you will just say, “You know what? I’m moving to the suburbs with my five bedroom house where I don’t have to talk to that many people, at least when I don’t want to.” But, like, cities, when they work best are drivers of empathy. And I think there is an analogy there then for streets, of building humane, empathetic streets that sort of serve the most vulnerable, and that say to the people with the most power—whether that’s wealthy white people, people in SUVs, government officials, whoever it is—hey, you don’t actually matter just because of this random piece of identity that you have. You matter as much as anybody else, and not one bit more and not one bit less.
Doug: And that when you live in a city, that sort of does come out of you a bit more, that we’re all sort of just yelling at each other because we think, like, who are you to tell me what to do, you know? Like, that’s a very, like, New York thing. But I also think at the same time, like, something that you learn very quickly in New York or in any city where you’re really bumped up against each other, is the power of just saying, “You know what? That’s not for me.” And I think on the internet especially, it’s very hard for people to do that, to just let a thing lie. We have to have opinions on everything. Oh, the new Star Wars is terrible. You know, this new Amazon series, I love it. Whatever. But for the most part, like, we just should live our lives saying, “Hey, it’s not for me,” you know?
Doug: Like, we don’t need to have the strong opinions on a bike lane. You know what? You want to ride a bike? You know, a thousand other people want to ride a bike? Awesome.” You know, “You want to drive a car? Well, we do have to sort of grapple with the, like, geometric and pollution aspects of, like, how that may or may not work in a city, but I’m not gonna judge you as an individual if that’s what you need to do.” So I do think there is a real overlap with tech and streets, which sort of leads me to my next question is, you know, you’ve been an observer, and you have a lot of opinions on how you build more humane technology that connects people rather than divides them. What lessons do you think you might offer, or what advice might you offer to advocates, to people who are trying to build more humane streets and more humane cities?
Anil Dash: Oh, that’s a great question. It’s a tough question, because I very consciously am a student of safe streets and successful streets, as opposed to pretend to be any kind of authority. But, you know, the patterns I’ve seen in technology, in building systems that work, one of the biggest things is not coming in with the presumption of a solution, right? Rather sort of can we get consensus on the problem we’re solving, and then get everybody in the room, and then maybe we will iterate towards the thing that will work.
Anil Dash: And a lot of times with technology what happens is somebody will say, “We’ve got a problem: typing your credit card in your web browser isn’t secure enough.” Okay, we’re gonna get a bunch of our brightest minds together in a room and they’re gonna come up with a technical solution to this, a standard solution to it. And they do. And then inevitably, it’s a mess and it takes years to pull together. And Google says they want to do this, and Microsoft says they want to do that, and it’s a whole battle. And then conversely, the things that have worked really, really well online are when, like, a couple of people who just build stuff happen to build something. And some other people are like, “Well, what if we added this to it, and we improved it?” And they sort of iterate together, and then over a couple of years—you know, after years and years of, like, being below the surface and not very well known and not very appreciated, all of a sudden it’s ubiquitous and makes everybody’s lives better.
Anil Dash: And I think about that approach of, like, you know, whether it is the community budgeting efforts that people do, or this sort of allocation of, not just resources but attention and intention, the processes are not—still not effective. Like, think of who goes to meetings, right? Whether it is, you know, community board meetings or any planning meeting.
Doug: It’s privileged people who have the time to do it.
Anil Dash: Yeah. Or total cranks.
Anil Dash: Right? Like, there’s sort of nobody in between, right? There’s either like that guy and that’s all he does or yeah, the people who are like, “Well, I’ve got somebody to tend to my life while I go and weigh in on this thing.” And it’s been interesting, especially as we’ve been all social distancing, and many of these meetings have moved to video conferences and whatever online, all of a sudden I’m like, “Oh, I could be cooking dinner and be at the meeting? Well then, now I’ve got an opportunity. You know, now I can participate.” And why wasn’t that done before? There’s no reason. There’s absolutely no reason that they couldn’t have it to be that easy to participate, that I had to go to the school gym that I never go to and navigate by the wacko guy who’s always at those meetings and, you know, wait for him to finish his rant before I go ahead and do it.
Anil Dash: And so I think our conceptualizations of what it is to really have people participate in designing our built environment and our public spaces are still, like, decades out of date, wildly anachronistic. And not just about technology. I’m not saying, “Oh, if we put everything on Zoom, that’s gonna fix it all.” So if I say—you know, I’ve lived in the East Village basically now for 20 years and I say, “You know, this intersection has always been kind of wild. Like, 14th and 1st has always been kind of wild, you know?” And we know there’s these problems with footpaths, and we know that there’s this long light that people struggle to cross, and all this kind of stuff. And they will regularly do a measure to okay, you know, 1,400 people cross the street here in an afternoon or whatever it is. And then they’ll say, “Well, how many people participating in a meeting to help reimagine it counts as success?” And they’ll be like, “Six. Six people.”
Doug: Right. Right.
Anil Dash: Like, okay. Well, what I see in technology is there’s nobody on Instagram who builds that product, Instagram as an app, who’s like, “Well, we’ll ask six users what they think about what we should do.” No, they’ll literally test it, in their case, a million people will be part of a cohort they’re testing with, and they’ll have it extensively measured, and then they’ll do surveys and all that kind of stuff. And granted, Facebook has an infinite budget as a trillion-dollar company. So, like, there are some differences. But if we said, “Let’s set a goal that we are going to have half of all the people that regularly cross the street here have a say in how they want the street to work.” What do we do, right? And all of a sudden, if we reimagine the problem, we’ve radically shifted the conversation. Because the privilege is there in who gets to participate in the process right now, then we have the fact that, even though the car owners are outnumbered a hundred to one, they get an equal or greater voice in the conversation. It’s because we’ve accepted defeat in the framing of how the solution will be arrived at even before you’ve started the conversation.
Doug: I also think there’s something interesting in that Facebook or Instagram, they not only have an unlimited amount of resources, but you and I can both get on Facebook right now or on Instagram, and your version of it—the engineers at Instagram, they could decide, let’s show Anil a different version and see how often he interacts with it and what he pushes and what he likes. And what if we change the heart from the lower left corner to the upper right corner. And then we give Doug a different one, and his background is blue instead of green. And let’s see if that changes the amount of time he’s engaging with the app.
Doug: But we can’t really do that often with streets, unless you’re talking about, like, a quick tactical urbanism project that you run for a weekend. But a lot of transportation departments are really loath to do that. They don’t have the resources to do that. And you can’t run a million iterations of this, and beta test this a hundred different ways on multiple users. And it’s a thing I struggle with all the time. I’ve sat in some meetings where we are literally talking about changing a street, when not 10 blocks away, the very street design we are talking about exists and is successful. And sometimes I think, like, we have to get out of the meeting room and into the street, and just walk around and say, “Let’s test things. Let’s see what works, what doesn’t work, and have it go from there.” And also really to ask, you know, who’s not in this room and who needs to be here.
Anil Dash: Yeah, very much so. And I think, I mean, it’s well put. The vision we always talk about in the tech world is atoms versus bits, right? And atoms are really hard to move, and bits are really easy to change. And that’s the reason why we can’t test, you know, a thousand different variants of a street layout on a thousand different blocks and say which one works the best. But, you know, so I don’t dismiss that it’s not that easy to test variations. But I think it is—you almost never have a conversation about the design of a street take place on that street, right? And just that contextualization of, like, the truth of what’s happening literally on the street, on the ground, I think is incredibly powerful.
Anil Dash: I think there’s also this sense of what conveys legitimacy, right? So much of our conversation about the design of our streets is sort of contingent on politics, and like—and that’s a necessary thing. And it’s absurd because we’re, you know, a one-party town and there’s still this, like, immense political narrative to this. But there’s actually this—I think there’s this countervailing force, which is that most people who use the streets don’t perceive them as political. It’s actually not—you know, it’s not a partisan issue to them. It’s not a power balance issue to them. It’s not something that they—they don’t feel a sense of win or loss for their team when a certain change is made, which is not true of every other political thing, right?
Anil Dash: If you have the other battles about, you know, all the other things that we fight about, it’s very different. Now the exception may be the car drivers, but I think they’re such a small faction of who is actually using the streets.
Anil Dash: And so that part of it is, like—and I don’t—you know, this is the thing where, like, again, I’m very much a student and I don’t pretend to any level of expertise here, but that feels like a thing where giving some flexibility and some power to people to do the work themselves. And obviously, people aren’t going to be, like, running out and painting lines on the road. But I think some sense of, like, devolving capability to communities to try things, that feels like a way forward. But what it needs is for the people that want it to be a political battle to be convinced to let it go.
Anil Dash: That it’s not theirs to own. This isn’t your win or loss. That actually, if you give power to people in their hands, that is you winning and feeling empowered. And it’s interesting, because I think there are some analogs in the housing battles that go on. I think there’s some analogs in a lot of the other issues where a lot of great leaders are really good at devolving power to the people. And we just haven’t had that moment happen, I think, as effectively in the conversations about transportation. And this is, again, from an outsider’s point of view, and I’m sure there’s somebody that’s gonna hear me say that and gnash their teeth, like, “You’re ignoring, you know, all this work that we’ve done.” And I’m sure that I’m not fluent enough in some of the efforts that have gone on, but that at a high level is a gap that’s visible to me as a layperson.
Doug: But that’s, I think, why I wanted to have you on. You know, I think having perspectives from people who are outside the inside baseball perspective on this is really valuable, and who take their expertise from one area and perhaps apply it to this. Now that can totally devolve when you have someone show up at your community board and say, “You know, I’m an architect and never in a million years would I design a street this way, you must leave all the parking.” And they rely on their expertise as a sort of like a cudgel to derail a really good project. But no, I think, you know …
Anil Dash: And tech is very guilty of this. I mean, there’s definitely a lot of people that are like, “I know how to make an iPhone app, therefore, I should design the transit system for your city.” And I think that ain’t necessarily so.
Anil Dash: But putting aside that sort of tech solutionism approach, I do think there’s something to be said for amateur enthusiasts as a voice of a certain view of the field.
Doug: You know, it’s funny. I was reading a little bit of your bio. I’ve obviously been following you on Twitter for quite some time, and reading a lot of what you’ve been writing from the early blogging days even. And you have a line in your bio that you said, “I work to ensure that tech serves those who are most vulnerable, and that it enables the most people to express themselves. This means that, while my work is grounded in tech, it is deeply connected to policy, culture, art, urbanism, social justice and other domains that tech has historically overlooked.”
Doug: And when I read that, I thought, “Oh, Anil is actually defining the best possible definition here of what a city is.” You know, a city is a place where the most vulnerable people can come to fully express themselves in the way that they think is best. It means they can experience culture. It means a place where politics happens at the street level, and that social justice is advanced. And that, to me, struck me as, like, the reason why I wanted to have you on. It feels like this is infused through your work. So I really do value that, you know, your voice as someone like I said, who sort of dips his toes into this world every now and then. Because I think you are ultimately—whether we’re talking about tech or cities and streets, we are talking about human interaction. And that is sort of where we must come together.
Anil Dash: Well, thank you. That’s so kind. And that’s such a charitable reading of that description. I hope you’re right. I hope that is what a city is. And I—you know, the other thing I’d say is, you know, this is outside of my wheelhouse. It’s just something I love and care about. But I know so many of the people that you connect to and work with and speak to are doing this work every day, and it can be thankless and feel like it’s not fruitful, or it can be frustrating. And one of the things I think is, more than anything, I’d love to communicate across, is so many of us out here, we see it. I’m not an expert in this stuff. I’m just somebody that cares, and wants it to be right. And yet every day, I’m inspired by people that just do the work, that show up to the meetings, that talk to their neighbors, that push and write letters, and all the things that happen. And it makes a difference.
Anil Dash: Every time I’m walking down the street and I see, like I said, a little traffic calming is there, and somebody put up a sign and there’s this new paint that’s there and, you know, like, very prosaic things, those things, they make my heart sing. And my wife sort of jokes about like, you’ll see a reflector tacked on the ground and be like, “Look at this. It’s so cool!” And I’m totally a person, and I know there’s always a person behind it. And so that just gives me so much hope, is that there are people who will see a path that their neighbor is walking and think, “I can help them down that path.”
Doug: So one last question. You are famously, I suppose, a very big Prince fan. Perhaps, like, the utmost authority on Prince, his work and his life. If there was one song that you thought had to represent cities or bikes or transportation, what might it be?
Anil Dash: Oh, gosh, that’s a great question.
Doug: And he was—he liked biking. In fact, I think some of the final pictures of him from Paisley Park before he died were him biking around the estate.
Anil Dash: Yeah. So I will say this, Prince was a huge advocate of biking and of safe streets. His studio, Paisley Park, is in Chanhassen, which is a suburb of Minneapolis. And he would regularly bike around town. That’s how he got around town. And, you know, obviously, the Twin Cities are a great biking city. But, you know, even in that context, he was a huge, huge advocate. And he would even use bikes to get around Madison Square Garden or whatever performance he was playing, like, to get to where he was going. That’s how you would get there. So yeah, he was definitely somebody who got it and cared about that stuff. The one I would think of is, it’s a relatively obscure song, but he did an album in 1991 called Diamonds and Pearls and it was like sort of one of his more commercial albums. And it has a song called “Walk Don’t Walk.” The theme of the song is essentially walking to your own beat. And the beat to the song has car horns in it. [MUSIC CLIP]
Anil Dash: And I remember hearing it, I was probably 16 when it came out. And he had incorporated car horns into the song as this almost percussive element, but that to me communicated about, like, these are this intrusion. Like, this is this sort of sullying of this space. And so it’s an obscure song. It was by no means a hit. It’s probably not his greatest composition. But for folks who care about streets, I think you could hear in his music that he was somebody that understood, you know, the way that all these pieces fit together, and that he would tell people to walk the way they wanted to.
Doug: Anil Dash, thanks for joining The War on Cars.
Anil Dash: Thanks for having me.
Doug: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. I hope you all enjoyed my conversation with Anil as much as I liked talking to him. Hopefully we’ll be able to have him back on the show.
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Doug: This episode was produced and edited by me. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Design. I’m Doug Gordon, and on behalf of my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.