Episode 72: You’re Wrong About Bikes with Michael Hobbes
Aaron Naparstek: Hey, everybody. We’ve got a new sponsor here at The War on Cars, and we’re pretty excited about them: Rad Power Bikes. Rad Power Bikes’ mission isn’t all that different from ours—they want to make it easy to live life without having to own or drive a car. As North America’s leading electric bike brand, Rad Power Bikes offers affordable e-bikes for every kind of rider. Whether you’re meeting up with friends or running errands or just trying to get some exercise, Rad Power Bikes are reasonably priced and thoughtfully designed. They’ll help you flatten hills, avoid traffic and reduce emissions, but most of all, they’re just a lot of fun to ride. The holidays are coming up. You’ve probably got someone in your life who’d be happier riding a bike with an electric assist. Rad Power Bike would be a great gift. You could even get one for yourself. Visit RadPowerBikes.com to find the right e-bike for you. Plenty of bikes in stock right now, and shipping is free. Again, that’s RadPowerBikes.com—transforming the way we move and helping to win the war on cars.
Michael Hobbes: Cars are bad. They pollute, they’re expensive, they’re not good for the poor. In all of these, like, really obvious ways, it’s not great for Americans to be wedded to this object that ends up costing them, like, $12,000 a year, like, whatever that statistic is. Cars are bad.
Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. I’m here with my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear.
Aaron: What’s up?
Sarah Goodyear: Hey. And Doug sounds a little weird, but he does not have COVID.
Doug: I have a cold.
Aaron: Just a good old-fashioned cold.
Doug: I haven’t had a cold in two years because of all the mask wearing, and now I have one, and it hit me pretty hard.
Aaron: Almost kind of refreshing to see colds come back.
Doug: They’re back in fashion. So in this episode, what does media coverage of cycling and progressive transportation have in common with moral panics?
Sarah: Yeah. Why is it that whenever a city installs new bike lanes or sees a rapid shift in how people get around, there seems to be an equal and opposite reaction that isn’t based on facts, but instead on fear?
Aaron: And, you know, we often call this phenomenon “bikelash”—this kind of nimbyism against new projects on the street—often bike lanes. But bikelash has a lot of similarities to other media-generated controversies and panics.
Doug: So I’m very excited about this because we have a special guest to help us explore this subject. We are joined by Michael Hobbes.
Michael Hobbes: Mr. Moral Panics over here.
Doug: So you might know Michael as the co-host of Maintenance Phase, a podcast that debunks the junk science behind fad diets and the wellness industry. And he is also the now former co-host of You’re Wrong About—a fantastic podcast. Very popular. Michael Hobbes, welcome to The War on Cars.
Michael Hobbes: Thanks so much! I’ve been listening since episode one. Really glad to be here.
Aaron: Oh, wow. That’s pretty good.
Michael Hobbes: I’m also a scrappy little cyclist. You didn’t mention that.
Doug: Well, we were gonna talk about that. You live in Berlin, a relative cycling paradise compared to New York. You’ve also lived in Copenhagen. Tell us about your experience of living in different cycling cities. And then also Seattle. You lived in Seattle for a while.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah. Well, I think I’m a typical American in that I never thought that I was, like, a victim of car culture. I got a car on my 16th birthday. I was really excited to get one. And it was a symbol of freedom from my parents, right? It was a symbol of adulthood. And I was really excited about it. I was super into cars. I knew all the horsepowers of all the cars. I read all the car magazines. I didn’t think of this as, like, a uniquely American thing, remotely.
Michael Hobbes: And then when I was 25, I moved to Aarhus, Denmark, which is a little college town in Denmark. And it was like you had to get a bike there because it was unbelievably expensive to get a car. It just was not an option to drive. There was no parking, no anything. And so I was like, “Okay, I’ll bike for the first time.” I hadn’t really thought about it as a form of transportation. And then I started biking everywhere, and I absolutely loved it. Like, I was getting more exercise. It was cheap. I paid, like, 150 bucks for my first bike. And of course, I wasn’t paying for gas, I wasn’t paying for repairs. And then slowly, you know, I eventually ended up moving to Copenhagen, lived there for five years, and I just got, like, super radicalized of, like, this is just a better way to live. You never have to deal with traffic, you never have to deal with parking. And then I start to notice, of course, that when I came back to America and I was like, “Oh, I’ll try this here where I live,” it was just a completely different experience. It was like an absolute nightmare. There were people throwing beer cans at you and yelling. And there’s no infrastructure and it’s this awful thing. And it’s like, oh, well, maybe there’s not like a culture of cycling in Denmark, maybe it’s just like there’s literally just, like, giant bike lanes everywhere.
Aaron: Welcome back to America. We’re going to now try to kill you for using a bike.
Michael Hobbes: Exactly!
Sarah: You’re basically being anti-American by riding a bike, and you need to be reminded of that constantly.
Aaron: But it is familiar. It’s like this conversion experience that people have when they start riding a bike. It’s just you had yours in Copenhagen, which happens to be probably like the best biking city in the world. So even more extreme conversion experience.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah, I’m cheating. Yeah. Well, I think the biggest thing is there’s this extremely reactionary PragerU video that I return to sometimes called, like, “The Freedom of Driving” or, like, “Why America’s Car Culture is Great,” or something like that. And it has this whole thing about how driving is freedom, right? Like, driving is like you go from point A to point B, and you can’t do that on the bus. And to me, the amount of hassle that comes along with traffic and, like, finding a parking space doesn’t feel like freedom to me.
Sarah: You just don’t want to work hard enough for your freedom. That’s the problem.
Michael Hobbes: I guess so.
Doug: Why do you hate America, Michael? Come on!
Michael Hobbes: I know. What a cuck! This sucks. And so yeah, it just doesn’t—like, it just seems like it’s only freedom if you look at it in this idealized way and not in the way that it actually is to drive for, like, 80 percent of Americans.
Doug: Okay, so Michael, on your podcast, your co-hosts are Sarah Marshall and Audrey Gordon. So we have a Sarah sitting next to me.
Michael Hobbes: Oh, yeah.
Doug: I, of course, am Doug Gordon. So, you know, make yourself at home. Help yourself to anything in the fridge. You should feel really comfortable here.
Aaron: We’ve also had journalist Aaron Gordon on the podcast. We’ve had all Aaron, all Gordon shows, too.
Doug: 2022 is just gonna be people named the same names as us, as our guests.
Michael Hobbes: [laughs] I was wondering why I felt this warmth like I was sitting next to a campfire, and that must be why.
Doug: Make yourself at home. But before you do that, we are going to hear a word from our sponsor.
Sarah: It’s that time again: the clocks are falling back, it’s getting dark earlier and the weather is turning cold and gray, which is why it’s the perfect time to throw on a Cleverhood. My personal favorite is my Rover Rain Cape in bright pink. It’s hard to feel gloomy when I’m riding along on my bike dry and cozy and very visible, no matter how dark it is, thanks to the Rover’s reflective details. Plus, the people at Cleverhood aren’t satisfied with just making stylish, highly functional rain gear, they’re also focused on doing it responsibly and sustainably. They support environmentally-friendly manufacturing, fair labor practices and small suppliers. And Cleverhood donates five percent of revenue to advocacy groups working to create safer, more livable and equitable streets in cities around the US. For 20 percent off all of Cleverhood great products through December 31, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, and enter coupon code “holidayrain” when you checkout. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars, coupon code “holidayrain.”
Sarah: Michael, your work on your podcast and in your journalism involves debunking a lot of things that fall into the category of moral panics. So maybe you could start by defining for us what exactly is a moral panic?
Michael Hobbes: I mean, there’s various definitions over the years, but the general idea is a societal anxiety takes the form of some sort of specific other. So an example of a moral panic would be the satanic panic in the ’80s and ’90s, where we had this idea that there were cabals of satanists taking over daycares. Also, the razor blades in the apple, Halloween, that’s kind of a moral panic. We’ve had moral panics about, like, political correctness. We’ve had moral panics about teenagers and sex. We keep having the same one, like, you know, rainbow parties. There was the slap bracelet one when most of us were kids. It usually takes the form of, like, this kind of grave societal threat, but the only evidence of this grave societal threat is like these weird random anecdotes that don’t actually hold up to any scrutiny.
Aaron: I’m just curious, Michael, because your podcast is so great—both your podcasts are great, but You’re Wrong About is so enjoyable. And I mean, just how did you get into moral panics? How did you start covering the moral panic beat?
Michael Hobbes: Oh, totally by accident. I mean, we started out just looking at—like, the premise of the show was stories that the media got wrong the first time around. And so we started looking into, you know, Terri Schiavo and political correctness and street gangs and Tonya Harding and all these things, these kind of famous examples of the media really messing it up on the first draft. And then once you start looking into more and more of these, you find these extremely familiar patterns. And so we sort of got to the point where we could almost predict what was going to happen in these things. When you start looking into something like, you know, the McDonald’s hot coffee case, you’re like, “Oh, okay!” So it’s like it’s an incendiary anecdote that gets totally twisted around. It becomes this thing that nobody really cares about the details, and it’s supposed to indicate this underlying grave societal crisis, but that’s not really there, either. And so it’s almost like the ways that the media get stories wrong have these, like, extremely familiar components to them.
Sarah: Well, the title of our podcast, you know, comes from just such a moral panic, actually. The war on cars, right?
Michael Hobbes: Yeah!
Doug: Yeah. I mean, the idea that you take one parking space, and suddenly all of motordom is under threat, right? Like, that one little anecdote about someone getting almost hit by a bicycle becomes, “Beware of the bicycles. They’re all going to kill you!”
Michael Hobbes: Oh yeah. I mean, this is the very familiar pattern too with moral panics is that they’re oftentimes an offshoot of, like, a majoritarian backlash to social progress that benefits minority groups, right? So we had the thing in the ’90s after Anita Hill where it was kind of like, well, you know, it’s getting harder out there for men. Like, men in workplaces? You can’t even ask somebody to, like, get a coffee with you anymore because she’s gonna accuse you of sexual harassment and you’re gonna pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages. And it’s sort of you zoom out a little bit and you’re like, really? Was it hard for men in the 1990s? Like, really? Like, is that—like, does that hold up to any scrutiny? But again, you’ve got these, like, perfect little anecdotes that slot into these molds and it’s like, it makes you forget that like, no, men are actually fine. There’s just a relative loss of privilege, and it’s very easy for people to catastrophize those into like, you can’t even do anything anymore.
Doug: Okay, so Michael, you recently wrote something for your newsletter. We’ll put a link to it in the show notes. It’s called “The Methods of Moral Panic Journalism,” and you talk about how there’s been what seems like a lot of stories in mainstream publications now about “cancel culture,” wokeness that’s gone out of control. Sort of like you’re saying you can’t say anything anymore. That, like, all of this is heading towards the second coming of Stalin or Mao. We’re all in big trouble. And in the piece, you identified four hallmarks of moral panic journalism. I’m wondering if you could talk about what those are?
Michael Hobbes: So basically, I mean, the elements—I mean, I don’t want to say that this is definitive because each moral panic has, like, its own little flavor, but the ones that I identified in the wokeness panic specifically are these low-stakes anecdotes. That oftentimes you’ll have like, this guy was gonna give a talk at MIT, and now he can’t give his talk anymore. And it’s like, okay, I don’t know why we need a magazine article about this, necessarily.
Michael Hobbes: You also have a lot of these, like, irrelevant examples. So one of the ones that I pulled out of an abysmal Economist article about this was like, you know, they’re banning books. The left is banning books. And the example they gave was J.K. Rowling. Like, J.K. Rowling, she’s been criticized for her views. And you’re like, right, so a book has not been banned. So it’s actually evidence that this trend isn’t in existence. Like, we’re not banning books. It’s not an example of the thing that you’re saying it is. It’s an example of the opposite, but you’re presenting it like it’s an example. So we see a lot of that.
Michael Hobbes: And there’s also the misleading statistics. I mean, this is something you see all the time, where one of the statistics that goes around about this “wokeness panic” is like, I think it’s like, 68 percent of college students say that they’re afraid of expressing their views because it might offend somebody. Which isn’t really evidence of, like, a Stalinist crackdown. It’s more like people are just trying to be careful with their words so that they’re nice to people, right? Like, this is something all of us do all the time. You’re like, “Should I say this thing? It might hurt somebody’s feelings. I probably shouldn’t say it.” Like, that’s actually—that statistic is kind of meaningless.
Michael Hobbes: And then the biggest one, I think, with most moral panics is this idea of false equivalence. That we have this idea that, like, the left is radicalizing and like, you know, you can’t say anything and cancel culture, Hollywood movies, blah blah blah. But then we also have, like, very well-established efforts on the right to take away voting rights. They’ve just essentially robbed women of the right to abortion in Texas. They’re overturning ballot initiatives. Like, the efforts that are being done on the right are being done by elected officials. And it’s quite clear that just straightforwardly, the threat to democracy comes from the right, and yet we keep getting these articles about, like, “Well, what about the sophomores at Oberlin?” “Like, what about this speaker that was disinvited from a talk?” And you’re like, “Why? Why are we putting both of these things on the same plane? It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Aaron: I mean, they want to change the name of food in the cafeteria at Oberlin, Michael. Come on.
Michael Hobbes: Right! It’s like this level of stuff. And every time you’re just like, “Why are we talking?”
Sarah: You see this in transportation all the time. For instance, we just got these new figures out about the surge in traffic fatalities for the year 2021. The figures are really staggering.
Doug: Yeah. So we’re at about 20,160 people who’ve died in motor vehicle crashes in the first half of this year, 2021. That’s up 18 percent over last year. And it’s the largest number of projected fatalities since 2006.
Michael Hobbes: Yikes.
Sarah: But somehow, if a bicyclist hits one person in the city of New York, that statistic is the one that gets pulled out, not the fact that tens of thousands of people, as usual, are dying on the roads of America, and that number is now going up.
Michael Hobbes: Right. It’s almost this thing of, like, one of the challenges, the structural problems of journalism is that it thrives on novelty. So kind of by definition, if an action is more rare, it’s going to get more attention. Whereas I feel like the problem is that car accidents are so routine that it’s almost difficult to get any attention on them unless they’re, like, really extreme, right? Of, like, a mother with a baby or something that gets killed in a crosswalk. Unless it’s something really hardcore and, like, kind of unexpected, you really can’t get attention on these just very routine—I don’t even know what it is, like, 25 people a day who get killed in car accidents.
Doug: It’s man bites, dog, basically.
Michael Hobbes: Exactly. Yeah.
Aaron: Okay. So now that we have an idea of what a moral panic is, let’s talk about an example from The War on Cars realm. So I want to turn to this New York Times article from October 10. And it was reporting on the big bicycling revolution that’s happening in Paris, France right now. Just a little background on that: so Anne Hidalgo, she’s been the mayor of Paris since 2014, she’s now running for president of France. She’s pushed one of the biggest and boldest and most successful programs to really just force cars off the streets of Paris, make more space for pedestrians, for bicycles, for transit, for parks. She transformed the highways along the river into totally car-free linear parks. She—during the COVID lockdowns, she created 100 miles of new bike lanes. And she ran for election, essentially, on turning Paris into a 15-minute city, where every resident could have everything they want and need available within a 15-minute walk or bike ride. This has been really successful. She just won re-election in 2020, and she’s really transformed the city. And it’s a city of 10 million people and one million people a day are now riding bicycles.
Sarah: Yeah, and we talked with one of her deputy mayors, Christophe Najdovski, about that. What he told us was, “You know, we were elected on this platform. And so when we got into office, yes, people were getting mad at us for executing parts of it, but that’s what we were elected to do. So we just did it.”
Aaron: Okay. And so how does the New York Times, the US paper of record, cover this fantastic victory in the war on cars? Their headline is, “As Bikers Throng the Streets, It’s Like Paris is in Anarchy.”
Sarah: Oh God!
Michael Hobbes: It’s some kind of masterpiece. I thought—I dove in the second I saw that. I was like, “Oh, this is my shit!”
Aaron: All right. So just to give people just a quick little taste, here’s the lede: “On a recent afternoon, the Rue de Rivoli looked like this: cyclists blowing through red lights in two directions. Delivery bike riders fixating on their cell phones.” [laughs] I’m sorry. I was just like, “Have they not seen drivers?” I’m sorry. No, we have to read the article. “Electric scooters careening across lanes, jaywalkers and nervous pedestrians scrambling as if in a video game.” Okay, and it just goes on like that. But it’s just …
Michael Hobbes: And of course, they quote, like, a local resident who says it’s chaos, you know?
Sarah: “Shaking a fist at the swarm of bikes.” Now I’m just really trying to imagine that. Fist shaking is not really a French gesture. They’ve got a lot of gestures in French but, like, the actual fist shaking? I don’t know, I’m just not actually buying that.
Doug: It’s the New York filter. It’s the New York filter shining through here. Michael, you had a kind of excellent takedown of this on Twitter, as you do about many things. What was your reaction to this story?
Michael Hobbes: I mean, what made it so moral panicky to me, and why I think this is a useful framework for this kind of coverage is because it’s basically taking something totally normal and making it exotic. And this is something that you see in moral panics all the time is that it’s like, you know, people don’t like a college speaker and the college is like, “Oh yeah, we’re gonna disinvite you because it’s gonna be a hassle.” Yeah, that’s part of having, like, speakers come to your college that sometimes, like, you just don’t invite them anymore. But then this has then become like the sign of this, like, creeping Maoism. And it’s same thing here where it’s like, yeah, you’re looking at a street and, like, there’s lots of people, and it’s kind of chaotic, and some people are on their phones and, like, some cyclists are jerks, and some drivers are jerks and some pedestrians are stressed out. Like, yeah, that’s a street. You’re in a city. Like, welcome to it. But it’s described in this way as if it’s like this really exotic thing. Like, “A cyclist ran a light and the pedestrians were afraid.” And like, yeah, I don’t know. Like, I don’t know what to tell you, man. Like, welcome to city life, whatever.
Aaron: It’s the same jerks. They’re just on bikes instead of cars. So you’re less likely to be killed by them now by those jerks.
Michael Hobbes: I also love the thing of just literally walking around Paris and interviewing just totally random people. Like, there are experts quoted. Like, to give some credit to the author of this piece, she also does interview some, you know, Copenhagen urban planners, whatever. But like, the first, I think, three quotes in the article are literally just random people who are just like, “Yeah, I can’t stand these cyclists,” says, like, Tom Smith, a banker who lives in Paris. And it’s like, why would I care what this guy thinks? And surely you could walk around Paris and find people that do like the cycling infrastructure.
Michael Hobbes: So it’s like, you’ve clearly chosen people who are gonna deliver the message that you as a journalist want to deliver to readers, but you’re not able to do it because you have to have this, like, weird patina of objective reporting. Like, we’re not here to give opinions, we’re just here to report the facts. So it’s done in this, like, fake sort of official tone. But, like, you very clearly found people that you’re using as a mouthpiece for your own opinions.
Aaron: And that really bleeds over into the kind of facts and figures that they choose to highlight in this article. So one great example was, “On a recent afternoon, eight cyclists ran a red light en masse on the Boulevard de Sebastopol, a major north-south artery. Wary pedestrians cowered until one dared to try crossing, causing a near pileup.”
Doug: A near pileup. Like, what does that even mean?
Aaron: What is a near pileup?
Doug: You either have a pileup or you don’t. I don’t understand. Right. Like, is eight cyclists running a red light a lot?
Aaron: But it gives that patina of statistics, right?
Doug: Like, how many cyclists were at that red light?
Sarah: Yes. The eight. The eight, right? En masse. But also, “cowered?” I mean, really? But there’s a number in it, so it must be true.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah. Another number that jumped out at me from that piece is that they say that there’s been a 35 percent increase in accidents involving cyclists. And as a reader, if you’re not someone who’s, like, a complete loser and who knows these things, you’re like, “Oh, this is an article about near misses with cyclists, and they’re saying a 35 percent increase in accidents involving cyclists. So obviously that means cyclist hitting pedestrians, right?” But no. Accidents involving cyclists also includes cyclists being hit and killed by cars. So this is like this perfect moral panic use of a statistic where they say—or it’s framed in the article to give you the impression that, like, cyclists are these predators roaming the streets, but then actually cyclists are the victims of being hit by cars. But without that context, there’s no way that you would know that from the story.
Sarah: And also without knowing what the baseline number of cycling accidents was.
Doug: Right. Was it 10 last year and 13 this year?
Sarah: Was it 10? Yeah, exactly.
Aaron: But also the fact that they have increased cycling by, like, 800 percent in the last year.
Sarah: Right. It’s actually a textbook misuse of statistics.
Doug: Yeah. Well, so Michael, to your point, I think it’s like two paragraphs later, the example they give that comes from a cycling organization, they say, “Recently a two-year-old boy riding with his father was killed near The Louvre when a truck turned into them.” That’s not cyclists hitting a pedestrian, that is a truck killing a child. The example doesn’t serve the statistics at all.
Michael Hobbes: It’s a classic irrelevant example, right? It’s like cyclists are out of control. A boy cyclist was killed. Anyway, cyclists are out of control. And you’re like, “Wait, I’m not sure that that story is saying what you think it’s saying. Like, that’s evidence for the opposite of what this article is pretending to be about.”
Sarah: If you do look at the actual statistics and try to dig into it, the statistics don’t back up the article’s premise at all, which is, you know, the premise being that being a pedestrian is suddenly so hideously dangerous because of all these crazy bikers anarchically riding around. The Local, which is an English-language French news site, has an article where they put some of this stuff into context: 15 pedestrians lost their lives in 2020, a slight decrease from 16 in 2019 and 19 in 2018. So the number of pedestrians who are dying on the streets of Paris is going down. Walking was the most dangerous form of personal transport since eight cyclists lost their lives, as well as 11 drivers, 11 riders on motorbikes. So 15 of the deaths that happened last year were caused by cars or vans. Three were caused by heavy goods vehicles, another two by motorcycles or mopeds. Only one of the accidents involved a cyclist, and one was like an electric scooter or hoverboard thing. But, like, when you actually look at the granular numbers, it’s cars. Cars are the ones that are killing people.
Doug: I mean, there is probably a great story that could be written about when you make a city a cycling city it can feel more chaotic and more dangerous. And, like, we should explore that human psychology. That’s a really interesting thing to explore. Like, why do we see cars as just background noise, not dangerous? We ignore them, but you’re almost hit by a bike and it’s like it’s anarchy.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah.
Doug: Like, what is that human reaction? Talk to psychologists, right? Talk to professionals, urban planners. But this is just like a fear-mongering piece that seems almost designed to prevent change.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah, and it’s classic moral panic stuff too, in that a lot of people, I think, find cyclists annoying on a visceral gut level in a way that they don’t find drivers annoying because all of the infrastructure is designed around cars. So it’s not—they’re not kind of violating the rules, right? Like, cars aren’t really going up onto sidewalks very often. But because the infrastructure hasn’t really been designed for cyclists and we’re not really used to having cyclists around, there are more of these interactions that can actually be pretty unpleasant for pedestrians. And so it makes sense that there would be these, like, normal growing pains. But it’s just one of those things that you really have to zoom out to see it of, like, oh, the problem is actually cars, but on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute level, it doesn’t seem that way because they’re not buzzing past you the way that cyclists sort of have to in a lot of crowded cities.
Sarah: And also you don’t perceive cars as human beings that you can be annoyed at. They’re big, scary machines, whereas a person on a bicycle is a person, and you can see them.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah.
Aaron: And you probably are having more close encounters with them, you know? And there might even be more crashes. But, like, the crashes between bikes, like the little bump-ins and run-ins are so much less dangerous, so many fewer injuries and fatalities than in crashes with cars.
Doug: It’s low stakes, to get back to Michael’s piece.
Aaron: Yeah, right. Exactly.
Doug: It’s just low stakes.
Sarah: Okay, let’s face it: the New York Times has gotten a lot better about reporting on these issues over the last few years.
Aaron: That is true.
Sarah: But they seem to be a little bit of a roll here, because it’s not just Paris that they’re deciding to have their little moral panic about. It’s New York too, right?
Doug: Yeah. There was a recent article about the explosion of e-bikes and electric mobility, micromobility here in New York—mostly on the island of Manhattan. And there was an article titled, “As E-Scooters and E-Bikes Proliferate, Safety Challenges Grow.” So it read, “The coronavirus pandemic has upended many of the familiar routines that make up everyday urban life, bringing tectonic shifts in office culture, classroom learning and online shopping. Now it is transforming the way people move about the nation’s largest city. A boom in electric-powered mobile devices is bringing what is likely to be a lasting change and a new safety challenge to New York’s vast and crowded street grid.”
Doug: So basically, the story goes on to give some hard numbers about the rise of e-bike sales, scooter share programs and how they’re doing, and it continues with some of those same sort of, like, context-free statistics that you saw in the last piece. It says, “At least 17 people have been killed while riding electric mobility vehicles this year, according to city officials. Revel—” which is the scooter-sharing program here, electric mopeds—”They had to shut down when they had three riders who were killed.” So then this story says, “E-mobility crashes have also killed three pedestrians this year, including the actress Lisa Banes, who was knocked down by a hit-and-run scooter rider on the Upper West Side.” So I guess we should explain the Lisa Banes story?
Aaron: Yeah, it’s worth digging into that story again. It’s like, when you start to sort of look at the details, you see that it doesn’t quite match up with what’s being reported here. So Lisa Banes, very tragic death. She was run over on the streets of New York City by somebody on a two-wheeled vehicle. And the early reports—as they often are—were very murky about how she was killed, who did it, what kind of vehicle it was. It was described as a scooter. And so sort of the instantaneous leap in the press was like, “Oh, it was these evil e-bike riders. It was these terrible delivery guys we see on their e-bikes or these teens or whatever.”
Aaron: Streetsblog.org, after weeks of pressing the NYPD for information, found out that the vehicle that was used to kill Lisa Banes was a Fly-9, which is actually listed on the manufacturer’s website under the category of motorcycle. It has a top speed of 40 miles per hour, it has a 1,500-watt motor, which is pretty powerful. By comparison, you know, most e-assist bicycles go 18 miles per hour, they have a 500- to 750-watt motor. So much smaller, lighter, slower vehicles. Nevertheless, this whole Lisa Banes tragedy fed into the narrative that all e-bikes, electric mobility devices, are dangerous no matter what the size and purpose.
Michael Hobbes: That’s another one where I mean, there’s a long history of moral panics coming right on the heels of new technology. So there was a big moral panic around jukeboxes when bars started putting them in the dance floors, because the idea was that people were gonna start dancing together and they were gonna start having sex. And there was a huge wave. There’s a huge—you know, there’s a huge wave of panic about comic books. There’s a huge wave of panic about video games, there’s a huge wave of panic about TV watching and kids. And it just feels like we’re in the middle of this thing with scooters where again, like, I sort of get that people think that they’re annoying, because the way that people use them in cities oftentimes is actually really annoying. But it’s easy to sort of take those anxieties around, like, “Yeah, something really unpleasant happened to me yesterday,” and turn it into this, like, “They’re a menace and they have to be stopped!” Which is usually where moral panics go. There’s usually like an outsized response to them.
Sarah: So I mean, it seems to me that a lot of the time the response is coming from anxiety about the status quo changing.
Michael Hobbes: Right.
Sarah: That, you know, there’s a deep societal shift happening underneath these technological changes, and that the status quo is being threatened. And that’s scary for people because they don’t know where their place is gonna be in a new status quo. And so I think that’s really the case here where, you know, people understand that we’re going through this huge societal shift in terms of our awareness of climate change, what we’re gonna have to do to cope with that, what’s gonna happen to our cities. Are they gonna be underwater? I mean, I think all of that is lying right underneath the surface here, and that’s part of what’s being expressed in these, you know, anxious articles, and in this sort of trying to foment this kind of panic.
Doug: I think too, like, you can seem somewhat insensitive if you boil it down to this, right? Like, these are—unquestionably it’s a tragedy, right? Lisa Banes was a beloved actor.
Sarah: She’s a human being.
Doug: She’s a human being, right?
Sarah: Yeah, she’s a person who should be alive today.
Doug: She was someone’s spouse, she was someone’s friend, right? But I think, like, we’ve all been doing this long enough to know that there’s always one of these that happens, right? And the number of people killed by bicyclists in New York City usually hovers around less than one per year. Like, that fact has not changed. And just like with the Paris story, as cycling has grown in New York, the number of people killed by cyclists has not grown at the same rate. It stayed actually pretty flat. So I think it does feel like there’s this, like, “See? We told you these cyclists were really dangerous.” You see it in the Post, you see it in the tabloids. They’re using these stories as a way—I mean, meanwhile, a three month old was killed on the sidewalk by a driver just a month ago.
Aaron: Exactly. I mean, the actual opposite is happening, at least in terms of vehicles. I mean, there are more fatalities and injuries on New York City streets right now, and they’re being caused by cars. They are being caused by cars and trucks and increasingly powerful, increasingly large cars and trucks—cars and trucks that are sort of like muscle cars that are designed and marketed for aggression. So again, it’s like the exact opposite is happening as to what’s being claimed here.
Michael Hobbes: Yeah.
Doug: And in the piece is a paragraph that kind of speaks directly to what you just said, Aaron. It says, “The influx of electric bikes and scooters has also brought more conflict to the streets at a time when traffic deaths have risen to the highest level in nearly a decade because of more cars, more speeding and reckless driving.” That’s the paragraph. So there’s no actual connection there between the rise of e-bikes and the rise of traffic fatalities. In fact, they’re saying the rise of traffic fatalities is because of all the cars. And so it’s almost like the point you were making earlier, Michael, that cars are just in the background and sort of like, we can’t do anything about the danger caused by cars, so why would you throw more things into the mix, basically?
Michael Hobbes: Right. It’s like Republicans. It’s like, why haven’t the Democrats done this thing to, like, get around the Republican blockade? Like, what’s wrong with the Democrats’ strategy to get over, like, the debt ceiling stuff? And it’s like, Republican intransigence is just taken as, like, background noise. And, like, well obviously, there’s no reason why the Republicans would ever vote for anything. But, like, the Democrats’ strategic error, like, it feels like the same sort of thing going on where it’s like, who is given the moral responsibility in this situation?
Doug: Scooters in disarray.
Sarah: Yeah. [laughs]
Doug: Yeah, basically.
Michael Hobbes: I also think the scooter thing is such a fascinating example, too, because there’s also this misplacement of blame. Because I think that a lot of the criticism of electric scooters is really a criticism of the companies that are rolling out scooters in these cities. And I kind of get the fact that, like, yeah, there wasn’t a lot of consultation, and just overnight, there’s all these scooters all over the place. And these random companies don’t really seem to have thought through, like, what does it mean for disabled people to all of a sudden have all these scooters strewn around the streets. Like, there’s no zones or, you know, like, the city bike scheme, no official place where you park them. And there’s something here too, about how the private sector has taken over this role and has been able to, like, create this new genre of movement without anyone kind of like checking in, or like, is this the good thing to do, or maybe we should regulate this in some ways that make it easier for accessibility and other problems. But, like, all of those much larger and I think very valid issues get pushed on like, “These e-scooter riders are dicks!” Like, that’s the form that it takes, but it’s like there’s a much broader structural problem that is much bigger than any of the individuals that are riding scooters.
Aaron: And by the way, you’ve just described the problem with cars. That, like, we have these privately-owned personal transportation devices that are wildly inappropriate for the city, at least for transporting one person at a time in a dense urban environment. And, like, they’re totally unregulated. And actually, what’s interesting to me is some of the stuff that we’re imposing on scooters, on these new weird, exotic mobility devices like speed governors.
Michael Hobbes: Oh my God, I know!
Aaron: And, like, geofences. Like, when you’re in this area, you can’t go any faster than 18 miles per hour on your scooter. These would actually be great ideas for cars. So, you know, it’s interesting how in some ways, the moral panic with scooters might—I hope—be leading us to, like, some policy ideas that we can actually impose on the more dangerous and much more inappropriate vehicles.
Sarah: Yeah. Actually, that leads me to a question I’ve been thinking about. Michael, since you’re such a close student of moral panics and how they play out over time, how do these things tend to resolve? Is there any kind of kumbaya moments where everyone realizes, “No, video games aren’t the things that are making our teenagers kill each other? It’s guns.” Or whatever. Like, does this ever get resolved in a way that’s productive?
Michael Hobbes: Honestly? Like so many things, the only way to deal with a moral panic is prevention rather than cure, because most moral panics result in these really huge reactionary backlashes. And the researchers actually call them “moral panic laws” because people often pass laws really hastily in the midst of a moral panic. I think we’re kind of seeing this with scooters. They’re like, “Oh, just pass these limits!” But they’re not really thinking through, like, what implications that has for anything else in a city because there’s all this public pressure. Or there’s an anecdote that everybody’s rallying around, like somebody dies and then it’s like, “Oh, we have to be seen to be doing something.” And oftentimes they pass these laws that are really poorly worded, like, nobody really checks through. And then you’ve got these laws on the books that years down the line, you’re like, “Wait a minute, we ended up criminalizing something that we shouldn’t have criminalized,” and it ends up having all these knock on effects. So usually what happens is moral panics result in these huge backlashes, and then everyone moves on very quickly and doesn’t really think about it or, like, really circle back to be like, “Hey, we really got this one wrong, and we’re sorry.” Like, that essentially never happens with moral panics.
Sarah: Well, that’s really encouraging.
Michael Hobbes: I know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. [laughs]
Doug: No, but I mean, it’s like the McDonald’s hot coffee case that you guys covered on You’re Wrong About. It’s like now as a result of that, it’s much harder to sue a corporation when you are harmed by their products or services.
Michael Hobbes: Right. And you don’t get the New York Times or The Atlantic or whoever being like, “Hey, we just want to let you know that for years we published, like, basically one story a month reinforcing this thing that was not happening. Like, Americans were actually suing each other less during the 1990s. And because of these wildly misrepresented anecdotes, you thought they were suing each other more. Just want to say, we’re sorry, we messed this one up. Let’s all talk about it.” Like, that never happens. It’s just kind of like people stop reporting on it once it gets debunked. But there’s never any, like, circling back and like, “I just want to take this lingering understanding out of your brain.” Like, that doesn’t happen.
Doug: Okay, Michael. So to tie it back to your piece in your newsletter—which I thought was outstanding, and it certainly made a big splash on social media—you wrote that “Journalism thrives on unconventional narratives, so it may appear that Republicans are a threat to democracy, but the true threat lies on the left is a more compelling story than things are what they seem.” And I wonder if that’s in a way in the safe streets world, in the war on cars world, why, you know, advocates like me and other people, Aaron, Sarah, sometimes we get lectured as being, “Oh you boring, humorless scolds, always going on and on about how dangerous cars are. Don’t you have anything better to do? The real threat comes from that guy on the Fly-9 e-bike who just ran someone over three months ago or whatever.” And it’s like yeah, because actually 40,000 Americans are killed every year by cars. I know it sounds boring, but it’s true.
Michael Hobbes: Right. Cars are bad. Sorry. Like, cars are straightforwardly bad. I get that, like, there are reasons why people need cars. There are places where people need cars. There’s all kinds of exceptions to this but, like, cars are bad. Like, they pollute, they’re expensive, they’re not good for the poor. Like, in all of these really obvious ways, it’s not great for Americans to be wedded to this object that ends up costing them, like, $12,000 a year, like, whatever that statistic is. Like, cars are bad. And so it’s really boring to say it, but the problem in, like, 98.5 percent of these cases is just like straightforwardly cars, but nobody wants to write the same news story over and over again, so we have to fret about e-scooters for a little while. But it’s pretty simple.
Doug: Well, that is it for this episode of You’re Wrong About Bikes.
Michael Hobbes: [laughs] They’re good, actually.
Doug: They’re good, actually. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.
Michael Hobbes: Thanks so much, gang!
Aaron: And as always, remember, if you want to support The War on Cars, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and join today. Starting at just $2 per month, we will send you stickers, lots of other special items and you will get access to exclusive bonus content.
Doug: As always, we’d like to thank our top Patreon sponsors: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Drew Raines, Virginia Baker and James Doyle.
Sarah: And also, just a reminder we have all sorts of merchandise including a brand new Cars Ruin Cities t-shirt and sticker. Check that out at TheWaronCars.org/store.
Aaron: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Designs. I am Aaron Naparstek.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear.
Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And this is The War on Cars.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, YouTube: Ever since Henry Ford built the Model T, cars have been central to the American experience. That’s because cars are more than just another way to get from point A to point B. They allow us to go wherever we want, whenever we want, with whomever we want. Think about it: with trains, planes and buses, the routes are planned and the schedule is timed. Only cars allow you to be spontaneous. When you get behind the wheel, you are in control. You are free.]