Episode 61: Jamelle Bouie Has Seen the Future of Transportation
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, for me it’s like I just became super attuned to how much space cars take up in a way that I just don’t think people appreciate. It’s very easy to say we need more parking in a place, but there’s not that much conversation of, like, what you’re giving up when you do that. And I think being a biker or pedestrian helps you see what actually you’re giving up by prioritizing car infrastructure.
Aaron Naparstek: Hey, it’s Aaron Naparstek here. Welcome to The War on Cars. We have a special guest for you here today. His name is Jamelle Bouie. Jamelle is a columnist for The New York Times and a political analyst for CBS News. He covers campaigns, elections, national affairs and culture. But that’s just his day job. If you follow him on social media, then you know that, in between producing two columns a week for The New York Times, Jamelle is an incredible street photographer, studies American history, plays Nintendo, writes reviews of movies and breakfast cereals, gets involved in local land-use politics, is raising a two-year-old son, and the list goes on.
Aaron: And so it was with great interest to us here at The War on Cars when last spring we noticed Jamelle tweeting enthusiastically about a new topic: his electric assist bicycle. Clearly, it was time for The War on Cars to sit down with Jamelle Bouie. And so I did. I had a great conversation with Jamelle that somehow moved from e-bikes to parking policy to voting rights, and touched on a lot of other stuff, too. And that’s coming right up. But before we get to that, a quick word from our sponsor.
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Aaron: Jamelle Bouie, thank you for joining us here at The War on Cars.
Jamelle Bouie: Oh, my pleasure.
Aaron: So Jamelle, you’ve been tweeting a lot about your e-bike, and so to prepare for this interview, I wanted to go back through all of the Jamelle Bouie bicycle tweets that I could find, because there’s a body of tweets there. And I found two tweets that I just kind of want to run by you as, like, two data points. And they kind of tell a story. So February 17, 2020, a little bit more than a year ago, and basically, like, right before the pandemic hits us in a real way, you tweeted, “Our next major household purchase is going to be an e-bike!” Exclamation point. “Very much looking forward to it.” That’s tweet number one, February 17, 2020. Then almost exactly a year later, February 26, 2021, you tweet, “Seriously, I’m convinced that e-bikes are the future of transportation.” [laughs]
Jamelle Bouie: [laughs]
Aaron: So here we have in one year, you have gone from, “I’m thinking about buying an e-bike,” to “e-bikes are the future of transportation.” And, like, take me on that journey. Like, what happened in that year, you know, to get you from there to here?
Jamelle Bouie: Sure. So to start, I’ve been riding a bike my whole life. I grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, which is not a bike-friendly place. It’s very much a car-centric, you know, design. Sprawling subdivisions and shopping in malls and strip malls is sort of the landscape of Virginia Beach until you get to the ocean front, which is the most popular part of the city and also the most walkable and pleasant part of the city. But I grew up in Virginia Beach, didn’t have a car until I was, like, 17. And so a lot of how I got around from my friends’ place in my neighborhood to just, like, going to other neighborhoods down the street was just by a bike. And I’ve been sort of a bicycle person for most of my life.
Aaron: Living and working in Washington, D.C., for about seven years, Jamelle mainly used a Brompton folding bicycle to get around town. About four years ago, he and his wife moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where they live now.
Jamelle Bouie: And it’s very hilly here, much more so than in D.C. And so although I used my Brompton a bunch to get from our then apartment and now house to downtown or to the library, what have you, it became—I was getting kind of tired of doing it, of putting all the effort into getting from point A to point B. And then we also have a kid. And at the time he was about one and a half. And so he’s basically at the point where he could be on a bike in a kids’ seat. And I wanted to be able to bring him around, because he’s getting very mobile, wanted to take him to playgrounds, and didn’t want to just hop in the car. In D.C., we had one car. My wife is a teacher and had to drive out to Northern Virginia to work. And so we had a car basically for that reason. We have a car here because you do sort of need one for a bunch of reasons. But we live close to downtown Charlottesville. And so actually other than dropping off my son at daycare, most of my day to day I can not be in the car, and on the weekends I rarely drive at all.
Aaron: And while Jamelle lived close to a couple of bus stops, he found that the buses didn’t run frequently enough to be all that useful to him. He didn’t want to have to drive everywhere, but the folding bike was no longer cutting it. So he started looking at electric-assist bicycles.
Jamelle Bouie: It was the kind of thing where, when I was doing research, you know, there’s obviously electric bikes and electric cargo bikes that go from relatively inexpensive to actually quite expensive to, like, comparable to a down payment on a car.
Jamelle Bouie: And I was looking at that higher range. And the decision I came to is that if I do this, I actually want to get something pricier that I can kind of just treat as a second vehicle, not as just a recreational thing, but this is—my wife will have the car to go to work, and if she needs to do something. And then I will just have my bike, because I feel comfortable being on the road. And, you know, superficially I wanted it to look nice, I wanted it to be sort of esthetically pleasing. And so that kind of just automatically bumps you up into the higher cost range.
Aaron: After shopping around and doing his research, Jamelle settled on the Tern GSD. That’s “Tern” like the bird. T-E-R-N. But the closest bike shop selling the Tern was a two-and-a-half hour drive back up to Washington, D.C.
Jamelle Bouie: I immediately got a sense of what this thing would do for my lifestyle when I had rented a car to go up to D.C., because we don’t have an SUV and I just needed a larger car to actually transport the thing. So I rented an SUV to grab the bike. And my thinking is I’d grab the bike, I’d bring it back to Charlottesville, back to the car dealership. And so I could just drop off the car, then bike home. And that’s what I did. And it was just sort of one of the smoothest, best rides of my life, right? Like, it was an easy ride. I got home in, like, 25 minutes. It was very quick. And I was like, holy crap, I can basically traverse town in—and when you think about it, not that much longer than it takes to get around town on a car.
Jamelle Bouie: I can traverse town on this thing very quickly, and it’s just a pleasure to ride. And so that was in May, and I basically spent the entire summer and much of the fall on the bike with the kid on the back, going to playgrounds, running errands, doing as much as we could in the pandemic. And even in the winter I still was on it all the time. So after a year between the tweets, that second tweet, the recent tweet was pretty much inspired by a year in which the bike more or less transformed my mobility. It’s like, not like I had a hard time getting around in the first place, but being able to hop onto the bike, get to where I’m going anywhere in Charlottesville pretty much within a half hour at the furthest, and lock it up, walk in to do what I need to do, hop back on and get out, and not have to worry about parking, not have to worry about fuel. Like, kind of just having all the conveniences of a bike and kind of a lot of the conveniences of a car as well. And then seeing friends of mine also follow my lead and get bikes and kind of have the same kind of experience.
Aaron: Having seen how transformative the electric-assist bicycle could be, and being the New York Times national affairs columnist that he is, Jamelle almost immediately began thinking about the broader social implications and possibilities of replacing car trips with e-bikes.
Jamelle Bouie: I live in a part of town that has a lot of working-class families, that there are a lot of people who do rely on that one bus stop or the couple bus stops to get to work and get home, and knowing how everyone’s job isn’t really that far away. And so for people who are able, like, get them a subsidized e-bike and you’ve just—you get to work faster, cut down on costs of owning a car if they need one. I mean, kind of in a town like Charlottesville, really can reduce the amount of money you need to live here. I kind of started coming to the conclusion that, setting aside how much it’s been transformative for my life, I do think that the ease of use, the speed, the relatively low maintenance and low-cost maintenance makes this the kind of vehicle that—and compared to a car, the relative low expense makes this the kind of vehicle that for a lot of Americans—not every American, but for a lot of Americans—could provide the kinds of mobility that is really needed.
Jamelle Bouie: And if you could get 10 percent of people doing their daily life on a bike,that clears up roads, that kind of makes it easier for everyone else who does rely on cars and does rely on motorized transportation to get around. So that was a long answer, but that’s kind of where that came from.
Aaron: And how is it for your son? Does he—is he excited about the e-bike, or does he have any feelings about it? And how is it for you biking around the city with a kid? I know that for me, biking with two kids actually on a Dutch family bike, as I was, you know, 10 years ago, it definitely changed my perspective on the city in a variety of ways. I would notice reckless drivers more because it’s not just me now, it’s my kids on the bike. I would actually notice terrain more. I noticed where little hills were, because I was riding this incredibly heavy Dutch family bike with two large little Naparsteks in it. Does your kid notice the bike in any way? Has it changed your relationship with him, or your perspective on the city?
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, so he loves the bike. Now that the weather’s warming up again, he asks to go on the bike if on a weekend I’m like, “Hey, do you want to go to the store with me or run an errand?” He’s like, “Are we going to be on the bike?” Obviously not in my clear language, he is again two and a half, so in toddler-speak. But so he’s on—he loves being on the bike. It’s a lot of fun for him. Much of our time on the bike involves him pointing out things to me, best as I can trying to answer him and have a little conversation. I’ll say that I’ve had a similar experience in terms of just noticing more about drivers. Like, I one hundred percent notice—in the same way that my having a dog has trained me to see squirrels everywhere.
Aaron: [laughs] Yes, exactly.
Jamelle Bouie: Being on a bike has just trained me to see bad drivers.
Jamelle Bouie: And reckless drivers, and the ways in which things that drivers do not perceive themselves as being reckless are actually incredibly reckless. And so, like, you know, I rely on drivers using turning signals to figure out how I’m going to react in a bike, and when they don’t, it really is—like, just kind of adds a level of chaos that I do not enjoy. But drivers I don’t think perceive that as being a reckless move, but it is actually very, very reckless.
Aaron: So an interesting thing happened as Jamelle began riding around on his new bike. The electric assist motor expanded his range, and allowed him to see a lot more of Charlottesville. He began to get a more holistic feel for the city in a way that might not have happened if he were traveling in a car or on foot or even on a regular pedal bike.
Jamelle Bouie: I’ll add, you know, this is The War on Cars podcast, it’s very urbanist-friendly.
Aaron: Yeah, we can speak freely here.
Jamelle Bouie: I will say that traversing Charlottesville on a bike, and just going on kind of casual, not even point A to point B, but even just going on casual bike rides, which is what I’ll deal with the kid a bunch, I’ve just seen so much more of this town. And so my sense actually, like, I occasionally tweet very vociferously about land-use decisions in this city. And a lot of that’s inspired just by actually seeing, like, 70 percent, 80 percent of lots in the city. Like, I’ve actually seen much of the built environment of Charlottesville just from biking around.
Jamelle Bouie: And so when someone says, “Oh, there’s too much density in this area.” It’s like, well, no there’s not. Like, I can tell you right now how many—what the lot size is and how many empty lots there are. Like, I have a visualization of that. And there’s just a way in which becoming someone whose primary mode of getting around here is on a bicycle has sort of, like, made me much more aggressively, you know, pro-density, anti-cars, anti-parking. Because it just becomes like a waste. You see it as like the waste of space that it is. You kind of—you don’t drive in the downtown, and only perceive the parking in downtown. I perceive the parking in the entire, like, mile radius around this area. And so for me, it’s like, oh, there’s this too much parking here.
Jamelle Bouie: Like, it’s never used, it’s taking up space, we shouldn’t construct more. In a way that I’m not sure that you get if your primary way of getting around is a car and, like, you’re tuned to sort of what the car needs. And so that’s just been interesting.
Aaron: It’s like you’ve been radicalized, you know? It’s like, how was Jamelle Bouie radicalized? Well, he took his kid to the playground on an e-bike a lot.
Jamelle Bouie: But seriously, I mean, that’s pretty much what happened. [laughs]
Aaron: Are you starting to, as you bike around, develop your own policy ideas on the local level for what you would change to make e-biking more common or safer or better?
Jamelle Bouie: Oh, yeah. I mean, you know, first of all, there’s probably like—there is a direct path for me getting an e-bike to me deciding that I wanted to be on the city parking commission.
Aaron: Oh! So you’ve actually—you’re, like, active. You’re in.
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah. I mean, it’s an advisory board, so nothing we do has necessarily the force of law or policy, but it’s not nothing. So for example, there’s a big controversy over a new parking garage that we have a contract to build that parts of the city wants to build, but it’s still kind of up in the air whether it’ll actually happen. And the parking advisory—the last iteration of the committee or the board wrote a letter in support. This iteration, which has myself and a few other new members, wanted to also write a letter of support, but the fact that a bunch of us are, like, you know, pro-transit, pro-density, car-skeptic types, meant that we didn’t write the letter, there’s not gonna be a letter of support. Which actually does have an effect on what the council is gonna decide about the garage. And so it’s a modest thing, but it’s sort of like that’s my dipping my toes into this.
Aaron: You wrote a column that I really liked a couple weeks ago that got into some of the challenges of policy making. It was your column about the collapse of the electrical grid in Texas, and the failures of governance that surrounded that catastrophe. You wrote, “Amid awful suffering and deteriorating conditions, Texas Republicans decided to fight a culture war. In doing so, they are emblematic of the national party, which has abandoned even the pretense of governance in favor of the celebration of endless grievance.” And, you know, that got me thinking about The War on Cars, which, you know, it’s like a tongue-in-cheek reference to a culture war. And so much of our politics now is not really about policy and governing, it is about this kind of culture war and entertainment. And transportation has become part of that culture war, too. You know, pickup trucks on one side and, you know, e-bikes with kids on the back on the other. These are both, you know, in their own way, like, potent signifiers on either side of this culture war. And I think a lot about how do you deal with that? Like, if our goal is simply just to create policy that will make transportation better and move American cities away from the automobile to more efficient modes, how do we do that without getting totally bogged down in this kind of quagmire of culture war? Or do we just have to accept that that’s what it’s about and fight the culture war?
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, it’s interesting, because even if you do not want to play the culture war game, your opponents are going to, right? Like, Albemarle County, which is the county—in Virginia, cities and counties are separate, so it’s not that Charlottesville is within Albemarle County, it’s separate from the county. But we’re geographically within the county and the county surrounds Charlottesville. But Albemarle County recently had a planning commission meeting where they postponed a decision on allowing a new housing development that was going to be mostly affordable for the developer to make some additional changes. And the opposition to even allowing the development at all was from, you know, nearby homeowners in their kind of generic tract homes, but they apparently think are more than that, who went through the litany of horrors that would happen if you let people live, you know, two families to a unit.
Jamelle Bouie: In the midst of that conversation, one of the planning commissioners brought up the long-since-demolished Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. And it’s like, that Commissioner who I happened to email and ask about this, like, explained that this was only about sort of the deficiencies of public housing, etc., etc. But you bring that up and that’s just a culture war dog whistle, right? That’s actually saying something to listeners about what the speaker thinks is going to happen. And it’s signaling something in a culture war. Like, there’s no avoiding it. It’s a move that’s, like, too potent to not use for opponents of stuff, for opponents of bike lanes or opponents of just de-emphasizing car infrastructure. And so in terms of countering it, I don’t know if I have a strategy, but I know that my preference is just to try to refocus the conversation as much on concrete advantages and benefits, and also point out that the people invoking the culture war aren’t disinterested, right? Like, this is self-interest. And so it’s—I don’t know. Like, just noting where there’s self-interest, and trying to just refocus the conversation on the actual issue at hand, right? The actual issue at hand in the case of a housing development isn’t some, like, scary specter of a dead Chicago public housing development. It is your actual friends and neighbors in this city who want to live somewhere.
Jamelle Bouie: The issue with the parking garage isn’t, you know, are we gonna be anti-car? It is that the economic situation is not great. Do we have $15-million to spend on new parking when our schools need to be rebuilt? And that’s the only way I can think of kind of responding to culture war stuff without playing on that turf. So in the case of national politics, right, we’re kind of experiencing this right now. Big, massive relief bill was passed, $1.9-trillion, by the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress, and then the Republicans in Congress are going on about Dr. Seuss or whatever.
Aaron: It’s maddening. It’s like …
Jamelle Bouie: I think the right response is just not even to engage it. To say, “You guys can talk about that if you want, but here are actual problems that we’re trying to solve.” And I don’t know how much that’s gonna work, but I do know that endlessly trying to litigate culture war stuff from the perspective of governance is a fool’s errand, because there’s nothing you can do about it. Like, what are you gonna do, right? Like are you gonna—in the Seuss case, are you gonna mandate— is the government—is the Congress gonna pass a law saying that the Seuss LLC has to publish these books?
Jamelle Bouie: No, of course not.
Aaron: What you’re experiencing there, I assume, with a more conservative, rural county surrounding your little blue city, it’s—you know, that’s a microcosm of what’s happening in the US. And, you know, a thing that I think about a lot is the way in which our constitutional system here in the US just fundamentally disfavors cities in a variety of ways.
Jamelle Bouie: Right. To add to the disfavoring of cities point, I think it’s worth emphasizing that this is not just true of national politics, it’s true of state-by-state politics as well. One thing I think people should really internalize is that when a politician is railing against a city, like a politician in, say, Kansas is railing against a city, they’re probably talking about Topeka as much as they are New York, right? Sort of it’s every state has a big city or several, and the cities in every state—and the rural-urban divide is true pretty much in every single state. So this is, like—this is true everywhere. And I think it’s worth impressing that upon people, because I think it gets to the solution, which is that I don’t think there are any—the reforms to change this are not about policy so much as they are, like, electoral design.
Jamelle Bouie: Because in my view, the issue here is that it’s possible to win elections, national elections, without having to really appeal to city dwellers at all. And so if you are a political party who has, like, hinged itself on a rural and exurban base, you have no real incentive to try to compete for votes in cities. This distorts in all sorts of ways, not just across like a red-blue axis but, like, in terms of just what issues are discussed in national politics. Like, I think that if the Republican Party were competing for votes in fast-growing cities, that housing policy would be, like, a national issue, and just the construction of housing would be a national issue. Especially with the Republican Party making headway with working-class voters. Like, you have right there, a potentially potent policy area if the party were competing for votes in cities, right?
Jamelle Bouie: And so in that, you know, all the reforms I have would be things that kind of move the country closer to one person, one vote, right? Like, you get rid of the Electoral College, which people believe would mean that big states would dominate, but really what would happen is that, because states would cease to matter in terms of who becomes the President, you’d be looking at kind of like mid-sized metropolitan areas are the most important geographic areas. You could imagine if a Republican Party all of a sudden now had to really compete for winning every possible vote, then yeah, you would spend time trying to win votes in fast-growing major cities, which are not just New York and California, but Texas and Georgia and plenty of other states as well. North Carolina, South Carolina. And you would have an incentive to compete.
Jamelle Bouie: And I think this goes both ways, right? Like, it would be Republicans competing for votes in cities, and then Democrats competing for votes in rural areas, knowing that even if you don’t win the county, you still win—the votes still matter. I think it’s important that everyone needs to fear losing, and everyone needs to believe they can win. And when you have a party that no longer fears losing, it can become hidebound and stagnant. And if you have a party that no longer believes it can win, it can become, like, nihilistic and terrifying. And I think nationally, we have the Republican Party, which sort of doesn’t really believe it can win without changing the rules and, like, kicking people out the electorate. And then in cities like New York and the state of California, you have a party that does not think it can lose. And so that creates its own set of dysfunctions.
Jamelle Bouie: And, like, having meaningful party competition on the basis of, like, one person, one vote, I think would scramble things in ways that would ultimately be beneficial. And it would bring to the fore issue areas that are really neglected. Again, I’m gonna go back to housing because I think it’s sort of—there is no national drive, no national politician saying the United States needs to construct much more housing than it does. And I think it has everything to do with how the party coalitions right now are what their nature is. Back when the construction of housing was, like, a matter of national concern, the party coalitions were much more fluid. And you had Republicans strongly competing for the votes of city dwellers and suburbanites, and Democrats strongly competing for the votes of rural Americans.
Jamelle Bouie: And that—yeah, that puts certain issues on the table in the way that just isn’t the case now.
Aaron: You know, Charlottesville was, of course, the site of the big, scary white supremacist march in 2017, and I’m curious if if you have ever yourself been made to feel vulnerable while you’re bicycling? You know, not so much for the fact that streets are dangerous and they’re designed for cars and not bikes. But because you are a Black person riding a bicycle on an American street in an American city, and in a place where there’s actually quite a bit of tension and foment in the last few years.
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, I can say that if I have gotten askance looks or whatever, I just have not noticed them. I don’t know that I have specifically experienced that, which I think speaks to something that gets kind of short shrift in this kind of conversations, which is just like class, right? Like, we’re an affluent family, you know? Like, two incomes. I work for the New York Times. And so I’m on my bike and I am dressed in a pair of nice jeans and a collared shirt and a visibly nicer jacket. I’m on a bike that is visibly expensive, right? Like, people may not be able to know how much it is, but everyone can see that it’s not like a cheap thing. And so even—I’m very dark skinned but, like, I still have these class signifiers that do shape how people react to me and respond to me.
Jamelle Bouie: I think that if I were a working-class Black guy on a regular ass bike, who is dressed going to a job at—you know at the grocery store or dressed going to a construction site, or something that would signal, you know, my class position, if I were coming from one of the public housing units in the city or if I were coming from—there are several trailer parks in the city, if I were coming from a trailer park, right? Like, all of these things would send a different signal. And I think that would very much shape how I go through the city on a bike.
Jamelle Bouie: And it’s rarely talked about in these terms within Charlottesville, but I do think that, not just improving transit options but making it easier and safer to bike around the city is—like, I want to use my class privilege such that it is to do something that I think would actually benefit working people in the city. Making the city less car dependent is making the city less expensive for people. Making it safer to bike is making it safer for workers who rely on bikes to get to their jobs, to get to their jobs safely and without trouble. It’s not going to solve everything, but it is something that, along with improving bus service, along with building more housing, affordable, public and market rate, are things that make the city more comfortable for its working-class population.
Jamelle Bouie: But to directly answer your question, it’s this class thing that I think offers a bit of a shield here. Now I don’t know what would happen if, like, a cop got me mixed up with someone. I don’t know how that’s gonna play out, but I know just in terms of, like, my day-to-day life going from point A to point B, being someone who is, like, visibly middle class at the very least does matter in a way that does, I think, shape conversations about racial discrimination, conversations about police violence, probably need to engage more with this class question in a way that they don’t typically. Exposure to police violence for African Americans is greater for working- and lower-class Black Americans than upper-class Black Americans. The fact that exposure is not eliminated for upper-class Black Americans is, I think, why it’s such a salient issue across class lines. But the facts are that if you are an affluent Black person, you are less likely to have that kind of contact with the police than a lower-class Black person. And that, I think, should be acknowledged.
Aaron: Jamelle Bouie, thank you so much for joining us here at The War on Cars. I really enjoyed speaking with you.
Jamelle Bouie: No, this was a real pleasure, Aaron. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Aaron: And, you know, stay safe for the rest of your pandemic. I’m looking forward to your second-year anniversary tweet about the e-bike and to see where this journey takes you.
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah, that’s when I eventually kind of just buy another one.
Aaron: [laughs] Definitely.
Jamelle Bouie: Yeah.
Aaron: That is the path of bicycle ownership: more bikes.
Aaron: That’s it for my conversation with Jamelle Bouie. As always, thank you for listening to The War on Cars. You can find links to Jamelle’s work, including his column in The New York Times and his photography in the show notes.
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Aaron: Please rate and review The War on Cars on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. That helps people find us. You can email us at [email protected], find us on Twitter and Instagram @thewaroncars,and Facebook, which we don’t like very much, but we’re there. This episode was produced by me, Aaron Naparstek. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Designs. And on behalf of my co-hosts Sarah Goodyear and Doug Gordon, I am Aaron Naparstek, and this is The War on Cars.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: My master made me this collar. He is a good and smart master, and he made me this collar so that I may talk—squirrel!]