Transcript — Episode 78: 311 is a Joke with Alex Pareene
Aaron Naparstek: It’s Aaron here, and let me be honest with you for a minute. You generally shouldn’t be taking fashion advice from me. For the most part, I’m not very well dressed, it’s not my thing. There is one exception, however: when it’s raining outside and I’m walking the dog or I’m picking up some groceries on my bicycle, I wear a Cleverhood classic rain cape. And I look good. How do I know I look good? Because people actually stop me on the street and they say, “Hey, that’s a cool rain cape. Where’d you get it?” True story. And you know what I tell them? I say, “Go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars.” When you check out, enter coupon code “onelesscar.” You’ll get 20 percent off in the Cleverhood store now through the end of February. And for every dollar you spend, Cleverhood donates five cents to advocacy groups working to create safer, more livable and equitable streets. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars, coupon code “onelesscar.”
Aaron: This is The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek, and with me are my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear.
Sarah Goodyear: Hey.
Doug Gordon: Hello there.
Sarah: We are very excited today to have a fourth person in the studio with us. Alex Pareene, welcome to The War on Cars.
Alex Pareene: Thank you so much.
Sarah: Alex is a contributing editor to The New Republic. He’s co-host of the podcast The Politics of Everything. He also has a fantastic newsletter, which is called The AP. And his work has appeared in The Atlantic, zillions of other venues. And he also was an editor at Gawker back in the day when it was really Gawker.
Alex Pareene: Mm-hmm. That’s right.
Doug: Alex, you write a lot about national politics—I remember the famous hack list. You write a lot about punditry. You’re also very interested in things like good governance, and you have a particular interest in illegal curb cuts in New York.
Alex Pareene: [laughs] Yeah.
Doug: So maybe you could explain this for our audience?
Alex Pareene: Well, the illegal curb cuts is, like, I just moved to a neighborhood where there were just so many of them, right? Like, I had lived in other parts of Brooklyn where there were just way fewer of them because of what sort of apartment buildings there were. And then going to a place that had more of these townhouses with these completely fake driveways, and they were everywhere.
Doug: And we should explain, like, an illegal curb cut is someone puts up a new house, a new apartment building. They build a garage, and then they build a driveway that wipes out a parking space and it takes cuts through the curb.
Alex Pareene: Yeah. And sometimes it’s not even—well, it’ll be someone has taken what was clearly just, like, supposed to be the sort of front courtyard area of their townhouse and been like, “This is where I store my car now, and I’m gonna paint the curb yellow.” And, like, the curb does not go down like a real driveway would, but they’re like, “This will be my driveway now.”
Sarah: But I think, like, more important than taking away the parking space is that curb cuts like this essentially normalize the process of driving across the sidewalk.
Sarah: Which is a place where there are people walking.
Alex Pareene: Right.
Sarah: So yeah, it’s a bummer about the parking space, but really, what it is is that this is just like, “Oh yeah, our sidewalks are for driving.”
Aaron: But also, a lot of curb cut owners take their on-street parking spot in front of their curb cut, and they park a second car there, too. So it’s also like an amazing way to just sort of privatize a hunk of public space, like attach it to your house by just sort of painting yellow on your curb, right?
Alex Pareene: Yeah, it’s a great—it’s a tremendous life hack if you have some yellow paint and you own a building in New York.
Doug: Drivers are the original tactical urbanists, basically.
Alex Pareene: [laughs]
Aaron: Doug, you should do that for a bike rack in front of your building since you’ve been trying to get a bike rack in front of your building for, like, 10 years now.
Doug: If you want to see government work faster than ever, like, put down something related to bikes or pedestrians on the streets—paint a crosswalk, whatever it is. They will be out the next day, that night even, getting it out. But if you actually want a legal crosswalk or bike corral, it’ll take, like, 18 months.
Doug: Alex, I’ve been following you for a while, reading you for a while, and I’ve noticed that you have sort of like accelerated in the amount of time you spend with your work on these issues related to cars and cities. Explain that process for me. Why are you more interested in it today than you might have been? You’ve always been interested in this, but it’s come up a lot more lately for you.
Alex Pareene: Yeah, it’s true these issues have always interested me. And even since I was young, you know, I’ve never—I grew up in Minneapolis and I biked and I took the bus. And especially as a young person, as a teenager, I tremendously enjoyed the sort of freedom of public transit and bicycling being able to take me across the city. And, you know, obviously I moved to New York, which is the best transit city in the country. And when I was an editor at Gawker, like, my job for a long time has been to read about national politics, but at Gawker, I spent a lot of time sort of trying to trick our audience into carrying about, like, New York politics and trying to make, like, Albany interesting, you know?
Aaron: It’s so interesting, though.
Alex Pareene: Yeah. You know, it was very interesting to me. But I think that definitely what has happened recently is that my interest in issues of governance and urbanism and how we make our cities work and how our cities don’t work increased tremendously when I had a child just about five years ago. And it mattered. I mean, what mattered to me then was just this really basic parental thing of wanting my kid to be safe, right? And feeling like the complete dominance of cars over our city, and the fact that they’re completely unmanaged regularly felt threatening to his safety, right? And, you know, we’re still a car-free house. And you know, that means we take the bus and we walk and now I bike in places. And, you know, like, my interest in governance went from a more abstract thing to a much more concrete thing, I think, in the last few years.
Alex Pareene: And then the other nice thing is that in this era of the newsletter, though I have plenty of critiques of the sort of newsletter economy, I can dig in on this stuff more and hopefully find out that there’s an audience for it.
Sarah: I just would like to say that I think it’s pretty interesting that for this generation, for your generation, that it’s becoming a parent that radicalizes so many people. That, like, it used to be that you become a parent and you become more conservative, but instead it’s like …
Aaron: Yeah. That is interesting.
Sarah: You know, I mean, I think that’s kind of cool.
Alex Pareene: Yeah.
Sarah: All right. So Alex, we said that we were gonna talk about governance, and you have a piece in The Atlantic that just came out about 311, which is New York’s system for reporting problems that you see, sort of non-emergency stuff. It’s supposed to be this very useful tool for New Yorkers. But you wrote about it, and the title of the article is “What Happens When the Police Don’t Care? Or Basically, How 311 Became a Joke.” Can you tell us a little bit about how this piece came to be and how it relates to what we’ve been talking about, about governance and your radicalization?
Alex Pareene: How it came to be is there’s this one Nissan that parks in front of the hydrant in front of my building all the time. And it has no license plates, and the registration’s been ripped off. Like, you can’t see if it’s—it’s clearly not legally registered. And I left multiple 311 complaints about it that were closed out, sometimes within minutes, sometimes within hours, without any action being taken. That’s part of how it came to be. An editor at The Atlantic also asked me to write about this, but 311 is a really interesting story of governance. 311 began conceptually as a non-emergency police number. In the ’90s, there were all these stories about how 911 was overloaded, completely overwhelmed with calls. 911 wait times were out of control. It became a campaign issue. Bill Clinton in sort of the consummate 1996 height of, like, sort of non-politics politics, you know, was like, “Here’s my big idea: a non-emergency police number.” He called it a community policing number. And that’s how it was introduced in a few cities before it came to New York.
Alex Pareene: But the big change in New York was Michael Bloomberg, when he was in his first term of mayor, and his idea was not even necessarily a non-emergency police number. His idea—and I think, like, it’s actually a very good idea. His idea was this is how a person reaches the city government and gets them to come out and take care of something. This is how the government becomes aware of problems in the city, and this is how people reach their government to come fix them. And that has the potential to be a pretty revolutionary idea, right. I compared it to these sort of progressive good government reforms of an earlier era, which had a lot of unintended consequences, but that’s sort of an entirely different episode.
Aaron: I remember when Bloomberg introduced 311, and it really was a big idea that it was—like, it was very difficult to understand who to call, where in government, how to get them to respond. And they built not just a phone number but, like, an entire building full of people and an entire, like, database and system where these calls would get routed to the right people. And it really did feel like for a moment, it made government more responsive.
Alex Pareene: Yeah, absolutely.
Doug: And also, one of the points you make in The Atlantic piece is that the idea is that it’s going to eliminate corruption, right? You don’t need to know who your city councilperson is or have a relationship with that person.
Alex Pareene: Right.
Doug: It’s not like I’m going to prioritize this pothole on the street of someone I know versus some other. I’m just going to fill the pothole. And so the idea is everybody gets the same level of service from government, whether they know a guy or whether they don’t.
Alex Pareene: Yeah. So then what I find in the piece, and I don’t think this’ll be a surprise to the listeners of this particular podcast but, you know, there’s a breakdown that happens when basically 311’s job is to route these issues to the appropriate agencies, and the breakdown happens when one of the agencies just decides it doesn’t care. And in this case in New York, it’s the NYPD. And the things that they don’t care about are all of these ways of managing the streets that they are responsible for but don’t do. And the city council, the New York City Council, did an investigation this year that found them ignoring and closing out complaints about illegal parking, and Streetsblog followed that up with an investigation finding basically the same thing. And, you know, there was a sort of incredible stat that a few years ago, no parking complaint was closed out in less than 15 minutes, and now, like, most of them are.
Sarah: So I think in this case, 311 is fulfilling its mission of radical transparency, and the transparency is revealing that the NYPD doesn’t care about illegal parking. And as a matter of fact, the NYPD is often the …
Alex Pareene: Often the illegal parkers. Right.
Sarah: Yeah, exactly. But I mean, I will say that for it. Like, at least you can actually see just how flagrant the disregard for the rule of law by the New York City Police Department is. I mean, it’s kind of astonishing that it’s just right out there in the open.
Alex Pareene: There’s more than one car that regularly parks on my block that has no license plates, and I’ve started getting when there’s like one of them—every few days, I’ll just fire off another 311 ticket. And I’ve started getting—like, the police have closed this with “Additional information below” and then no information below. That’s my new one that I’ve been getting.
Sarah: Yeah, yeah.
Alex Pareene: I’m like, “All right.”
Aaron: And there’s reports though, two people who file a lot of these 311s are also getting harassed by mysterious callers, right?
Alex Pareene: Yeah, that was one of the things that the reporting in Streetsblog found, which was disturbing, right? Like, there are people who, you know, fire off way more 311 tickets than I do. And a couple of them, you know, started getting weird calls in the middle of the night from unknown numbers. And I mean, it’s more likely than not these were city employees—and particularly NYPD people—and I confirmed with the Department of Investigation that they’re looking into it, right? But I mean, we sort of know how police discipline goes in this city generally. And, you know, my wife was like—I was complaining about some other car basically parked dangerously on our block and my wife was like, “Should I file a ticket too?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. I don’t think so.” And that’s a really disturbing thing to think too, right? Like, I can’t alert the city to a problem because there might be retaliation. That’s not a sign of anything going well. [laughs]
Doug: Alex, your piece is really interesting because what we’re talking about is government corruption and the ways in which government does or doesn’t work. And it’s interesting how the most visible manifestation of how government doesn’t work, at least, you know, for cranks like us, is through the streets. And it is interesting that parking became the thing in the midst of, I think, a wider police enforcement slowdown during the pandemic, that became a very visible manifestation of that. It’s also borne out in the way they’re not enforcing dangerous driving violations.
Alex Pareene: Yeah. I mean, I think—in this city at least, I think it’s clear that a message has gone out that all is permitted on the streets, right? Like, driving aggressive, incredibly aggressive driving, has from my just walking around witnessing it, you know, we don’t have statistics because no one’s enforcing anything. But, you know, you can just see that aggressive driving is up. And the statistics we have are that accidents and deaths are up, but it’s clear that to use the philosophy of the police by the standards of broken windows here, if no one is punished for parking wherever you like, people will come to understand that anything is permitted behind the wheel, right? You can get away with anything behind the wheel at this point, and I think drivers got the message. And it’s really unclear that there’s any appetite on the part of the city or the police to do anything to rein that back in.
Sarah: The other thing that this 311 problem illustrates to me is that you can have these technocratic solutions and they can be good, functional technocratic solutions, but when they enter the real world, they won’t function as intended if the institutions that are responsible are just the same old same old.
Doug: Yeah. So Alex, you were saying basically that drivers have gotten the message that anything goes on the streets. And I think that that is manifesting itself in other ways—to make another awkward segue here, perhaps—that we’re seeing driverless car companies, or companies that are working on driverless technology such as Tesla testing their products on public streets. And you had a piece in your newsletter about what Elon Musk is doing. I think we’ve all seen these videos of people testing full self-driving on public streets, and there’s one from San Jose that made the rounds recently.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Okay. And then the car is trying to go down the railroad tracks again. I mean, this shouldn’t—this shouldn’t …]
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Like, I’ve never seen it come that close to a pedestrian.]
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Yeah, a pedestrian. Like, a pedestrian and the railroad tracks now. This is—I’m not gonna comment. You guys can just see for yourselves.]
Doug: So in the video we see from the windshield perspective, the car tries to go down some railroad tracks. It almost hit some pedestrians in a crosswalk. It mistakes a red Wells Fargo sign for a stop sign and stops. It blows through a different stop sign, actually.
Aaron: Then it just drives on the streetcar tracks for a while. Just starts to go straight down them.
Doug: And so Alex, in your piece, you have this question that you asked: like, why would this be allowed and what is Elon Musk doing? And, in fact, you argue he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Alex Pareene: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And those are the questions, right? On the one hand, why is this allowed? Why are these things out on the streets when they’re clearly not ready? With Tesla in particular, they’re marketing something as, quote-unquote “full self-driving” in addition to autopilot. They’re two separate things. But the thing that they’re marketing as full self-driving is not—I mean, it’s just not. And it’s not—their autonomous-driving engineers have an entire classification system for self-driving, and this is a level two out of level five accorded by their own sort of standards. Other car companies have features very, very similar to Tesla’s that are limited to basically highway conditions. You have to be going above a certain speed. Below a certain speed these things just shut off.
Alex Pareene: But Tesla is now letting particular Tesla owners beta test self-driving within city limits, and you can—I mean, we can see the results in videos like that one, and in videos like Michael Ballaban, former colleague of mine now at CNN, he reviewed one of these things on the streets of Brooklyn. And it was a nightmare. I mean, watching the video practically gave me an anxiety attack. He’s, like, going around streets I know very well, and his car is trying to drive him into traffic, and he has to keep grabbing a hold of the wheel every few blocks. Every few blocks he has to intervene, which does not sound like full self-driving to me.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Whoa, whoa! That was a really sharp turn the car just tried to make. Oh, we’ve got a situation in front of us. Whoa! Okay, what we just had in front of us was a UPS truck coming onto our lane. We had a guy in front of us with a cargo bike. To avoid hitting the guy on the bike, the car seemed to want to put us straight into a giant UPS truck. I would prefer not to hit a UPS truck today, so I took over. It does seem to need an interruption every couple of blocks or so. Sometimes if the car’s hesitating a little bit, I have to intervene. You also have to be ready to take over at any time. Now this is challenging. Oh! No, we’re going on the wrong side of the road.]
Alex Pareene: So then when The Times started reporting about really odd decisions Tesla had made, like the feds had recommended infrared cameras to monitor drivers to make sure they were paying attention to the road. And Tesla was like, “No, I don’t think so,” even though their competitors have added things like that. Tesla engineers were wondering why Elon kept overhyping the abilities of his cars, why he was rushing them to market before they were ready. Like, actual, you know, in-house engineers were wondering what he was doing. And then they had the story about how you can play video games on the touch screen. And, you know, I mentioned earlier, I don’t own a car. I’ve never owned a car. I can drive, but in the last few years, whenever I rent a car, I’m just astounded by how much more distracting shit there is everywhere. Like, most new cars have so much things taking your eye off the road. It’s nuts! In addition to the sightlines in general being worse.
Doug: I was thinking about the video game thing, because initially Tesla was assuring everyone it only works when the driver is parked.
Alex Pareene: Yeah.
Doug: And I remember a lot of advocates like myself and others were like, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Because we know where this is headed.
Alex Pareene: Yeah.
Doug: Right now, it only works while it’s parked, but you can be sure someone will figure out a way, or the company itself will just allow you to use it while the car is in motion. And sure enough …
Alex Pareene: Sure enough they did.
Doug: … and that’s what they’re doing.
Alex Pareene: They just did it through a software update, right? They don’t tell anyone, right? They just threw a software update one day.
Doug: And they didn’t ask for permission from the government to do it.
Alex Pareene: Of course not, yeah. And so now, while in a moving Tesla, a driver can be, you know, playing an actual game on his touchscreen.
Sarah: But, like, Elon Musk is not stupid, right? And this is where your newsletter goes that I think is really terrifying and disturbing, which is you sort of make the argument that this is all by design, right? And it has an end in mind.
Alex Pareene: Yeah, I think that, to some extent, what Musk wants is to just sort of force his ideal future into being, right? And his ideal future is robot chauffeurs for everyone. He wants to force that future into being, and he is willing to ignore rules to do so, unlike other car manufacturers who have decades of experience sort of working with safety regulations in Europe and regulators in the US, and actually have an interest in avoiding liability for doing unsafe things. I think he’s much more interested in the “Move fast and break things” model, which frequently is called innovation in a technological sense, but is actually sort of innovation in a regulatory sense, in which you just go in, do whatever you like, and then wait for the regulations and the agencies to accommodate what you’re doing.
Alex Pareene: As I say in the piece, I think Musk probably is actually familiar with the history of the automobile in the city. And that’s when I bring in Peter Norton, the historian, who I’m sure many of your listeners are familiar with.
Doug: We had an episode with him early on. If you haven’t read Fighting Traffic, you should. And you draw on it heavily in this piece.
Alex Pareene: Yeah, yeah. And the particular history here is how liability for auto accidents shifted from drivers to pedestrians basically, in the public eye and and legally. The invention of jaywalking, which I think a lot of Americans sort of take it for granted that this is how the streets are: the car is dominant over the streets, jaywalking is a crime. But in fact, those conditions had to be created. And auto manufacturers and auto enthusiasts, with help from the media and help from the government sort of created those conditions, as Norton writes about very, very well. But what happened, you know, there was mass carnage in the streets. There was a political threat to the dominance of the automobile as a result of outrage about the mass carnage in the streets. And the cars decided, like, “Well, what we will do is, like, we will keep people off the streets. We will get people off the streets.”
Sarah: I’d like to point out you just said the cars decided. [laughs]
Alex Pareene: [laughs] They did.
Aaron: Well, they called themselves “Motordom.”
Alex Pareene: Motordom.
Aaron: Motordom decided.
Alex Pareene: Motordom decided.
Aaron: That was literally their own name for their …
Doug: Was that their own name, or was that something—that was their own name, right?
Aaron: No, that was their own name. Yeah.
Doug: Oh, wow. I didn’t know that.
Aaron: They thought that was a nice, non-evil name. [laughs]
Sarah: But now today, like, we are kind of seeing—like, the cars are becoming more and more like sentient beings, right? And that’s kind of the future that Elon Musk is setting us up for here.
Aaron: Yeah. So one of the things that makes me crazy about all this is that, like, what you just pointed out there: like, the cars actually are becoming sentient beings. Like, Elon is—one of the reasons why he wants to do this is because the self-driving car technology, it’s artificial intelligence and you kind of have to train it. You know, it learns. Like, the more people who are out driving Teslas out in the real world, in theory, at least, the better the AI gets at knowing where all the stop signs are, and “Oh, that’s a bicyclist. That’s a pedestrian.”
Doug: And yeah sure, you might run over a few people while you’re doing that.
Aaron: But you have to. You have to make a bunch of mistakes to teach the AI …
Doug: Not to do that.
Aaron: … not to do that. So the whole premise is like, we have to, like …
Alex Pareene: We have to allow some stuff. We have to allow this thing to …
Sarah: But where Alex goes with this is even scarier, because what Musk is setting up here is a world in which the street is going to have to change, right? Because the cars are never …
Aaron: They’re not gonna learn well enough.
Sarah: No matter how hard they think, they’re never gonna be able to do what people do in a complicated urban street configuration with all the various random things that happen. So …
Alex Pareene: Yeah, right. And I think, like, the more honest AI people are now much more willing to admit that the sort of perfect self-driving tech is decades away. And, you know, for years they’ve been telling us “It’s around the corner, it’s around the corner.” They’re much more willing to admit now that, like, “Okay, look: we have stuff that will work really, really well on a well-maintained, grade-separated freeway. It’ll work great there. But, like, the unpredictable, improvisational city street, like, it’s gonna be a long time before AI can figure out how to navigate this safely.” The more honest ones are sort of finally saying that, but I think if you wanted to force that future to happen right away, well, you might come in, cause a bunch of mayhem, and then do so not worrying that the government will crack down on you because you have no experience of the government cracking down on you. You’ve always gotten your way. You might do that with the understanding that, well, maybe what will happen is they will just reorient the streets to work with my vehicles than the other way around.
Doug: I think then in a way, really, they’re gonna have an easier time of remaking streets.
Alex Pareene: Oh, yeah.
Doug: Than they did back in the 1910s and the ’20s.
Alex Pareene: You know, I linked to a story from a few years ago, which was like a Times story from 2019, I think, in which, you know, self-driving car people were sort of blithely saying to themselves, “Well, to make this stuff safer, you know, maybe we’ll have gates at crosswalks. Maybe we’ll have to move some crosswalks.” And it was all just very casual, like they hadn’t actually thought this part through, but when they were asked to come up with solutions, what they went to was, like, we will gate off people from the streets.
Doug: There’s even a part in that video from San Jose where I think the guy behind the wheel who grabs the wheel as he’s about to run into, you know, three women crossing in the crosswalk, he says, “Oh, these pedestrians are making it so annoying,” or something like that. And you’re like, Okay, that’s it. That’s the attitude. Get rid of the pedestrians, and it’s not annoying anymore.
Alex Pareene: Right, right.
Sarah: Right. Or, like, create a streetscape that’s much more like a highway.
Aaron: The technology that’s going into these cars also gives us the potential that every car could be speed governed as it enters a certain—like, you could create a geofence, not even like a fence on the street, but a fence in the computer on the map that says when the car enters this street, it can never exceed 20 miles per hour. Like, that technology is all packed into a Tesla. They could do that. They could set that up and upload a software update, and all of a sudden we have speed governor technology that people have been trying to get for a hundred years, but motordom has killed. That’s all there. So there’s a certain way in which this technology could actually be potentially good for cities.
Alex Pareene: Yeah.
Aaron: It would probably need to be in a different type of vehicle, you know, not in a giant car, but in something smaller, lighter, cleaner. And it’s there. It just needs—I think it needs cities to be able to take over control of regulation of vehicles from the states and the feds and Elon Musk.
Doug: Look, Aaron, this is a great idea. What I want you to do is I want you to call 311.
Aaron: [laughs] Yes, please call 311. Oh, your case has been closed.
Alex Pareene: Right? And I think that’s really key, right? Because what the future looks like is going to come down to a political battle, and it’s going to come down to the level at which people are allowed to sort of democratically decide these things. And the way people like Musk would prefer to do it as a sort of end-around around that to skip to the part where this is the status quo, you have to deal with this everywhere now. But, like, it’s going to be like a political fight, I think, for the next few years as to what kinds of vehicles rule our streets. Because I do think people don’t understand that these are political issues, that it’s not just like this is just how things are, right? And even in the—to bring it back to the prior topic, like, I saw an illegal 53-foot tractor trailer parked in a bike lane in a no-standing zone, right? And it’s just sitting there. It’s probably been there all day. But, like, most people walking around, that’s just the background noise to them. Like, they don’t know that’s illegal. They don’t know they can ask someone to do something about that. They don’t know that they could have it not be there. You know, it’s the idea that that is the result of a series of political decisions made by our leaders.
Aaron: I think it also hits on an issue where increasingly it seems like the car is the major nexus for public corruption in New York City.
Alex Pareene: In New York, yeah.
Aaron: Like, the car is the fundamental unit. The car and parking is sort of like the place where public corruption is happening most egregiously and most visibly.
Alex Pareene: Most visibly, most openly. Right.
Aaron: And it creates—and all the problems that we have with trying to manage all of these cars in a dense urban environment, it’s inherently dysfunctional. It’s virtually impossible. Like, there’s no—we haven’t even talked about whether or not the police are actually an appropriate body to be doing traffic management in a city. It’s not really what I think they should be doing.
Sarah: No, they absolutely are not.
Doug: Yeah, right?
Alex Pareene: You know, I mean, cars, we all know they’re just a geometry problem in a city like New York. They’re literally a geometry problem. You can’t fit as many of them in the city as people want to bring in. But because, like, police and city employees and state employees and, you know, agencies treat the ability to put their personal cars wherever they like is like one of the perks of the job, like it becomes further unmanageable. But it also becomes this very obvious visual reminder that like, oh, you know, the city is not being governed on my behalf, right? Like, to bring it back to this idea of the progressive era of government reforms, like, it’s back to being a patronage thing, where it’s like, this is who the city is for. On one hand, in Manhattan, it’s for the very, very wealthy people and the people and the banks who have offices for. And then in the boroughs it’s like for cops and city employees and their buddies.
Doug: Okay, so we have this huge problem of corruption, of a lack of willingness to regulate big companies. Is there anything that can be done? Or is it—I mean, do cars just have—like, you know, to Aaron’s point, like, they are the nexus of corruption and all of these issues that we’re talking about. But are they so deeply entrenched that we’re just like we gotta deal? Like, what can be done?
Alex Pareene: I think to bring it back to something else Aaron said, like, we got to politicize it, right? We got to politicize it. We’ve got to make it an open political question, because right now this is happening because it’s treated as a status quo that is sort of beyond political questions—the dominance of cars over our cities. But, you know, outside of some narrow issues of what powers the mayor has, like, there’s not really a reason we couldn’t be doing what Paris is doing. And the way that you get that is by changing it from a sort of settled issue—this is how the city is run—to an open political one. And I mean, obviously, that sounds very easy to say on a podcast. It takes a lot of organizing and it takes a lot of work. But that’s a way to turn it around, to actually, you know, take what the powers that be want to treat as settled and to reopen the question.
Aaron: That is it for this episode of The War on Cars. Alex Pareene, thank you so much for joining us.
Alex Pareene: It was a pleasure.
Sarah: We’re going to put a link to Alex’s newsletter, The AP, as well as his writing in The New Republic and The Atlantic, and his podcast The Politics of Everything in the show notes.
Doug: Remember, if you want to support The War on Cars, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us.” Join today. Starting at just $2 per month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content and other awesome rewards.
Aaron: Speaking of which, we have a new Patreon reward: the official War on Cars bicycle water bottle.
Sarah: Yeah, and it’s awesome. It’s got our colors, it’s got a beautiful yellow cap. I love this thing.
Doug: This is the first time we’ve actually made, like, bicycling-specific War on Cars gear, which you feel like would have been something we would have done originally. But I guess …
Aaron: I know, right? We got the good plastic, right?
Sarah: Yes, it’s the …
Aaron: Instead of the crappy poison plastic?
Doug: These are really nice Specialized water bottles. They’re great for on and off the bike, whether you’re—I don’t know, riding a peloton or riding to work. Who knows?
Sarah: As always, we’d like to thank our top Patreon sponsors: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Drew Raines, Virginia Baker and James Doyle.
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: Are people crossing? So I would personally wait. I’m gonna have to pause it. It was just going and going. These people are just making it annoying. Oh, and for the first time, it didn’t take us down the railroad tracks, but it did take us into the bus-only lane.]