Episode 87: How to Save a Planet with Kendra Pierre-Louis

Sarah Goodyear: Summer is almost here, and that means it’s the perfect time to think about how life can be better on a Rad Power Bike. Rad Power Bike’s mission isn’t all that different from ours: they want a world where it’s easier for more people to get around without ever having to get in a car. As North America’s leading electric bike brand, Rad Power Bikes has affordable e-bikes for every kind of rider. Whether you’re heading to the grocery store, commuting to work or just trying to get some exercise, no matter where you’re going, you’ll experience what founder Mike Radenbaugh calls “The e-bike grin.” You can’t help but have fun. To learn more, go to RadPowerBikes.com. There are plenty of bikes in stock now and shipping is free. Rad Power Bikes: transforming the way we move, and helping to win the war on cars.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I think it’s really important—and we do this on How to Save a Planet, it’s not enough to have people understand what they’re fighting against. You need to have people understand what they’re fighting for. And it’s very easy for people to imagine a future where you take a gas car and you substitute it for an EV. It is much harder, I think, for people who have not experienced it, to just picture a different way of moving through society overall.

Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. Aaron and Sarah are off this week. So we have a lot of overlapping crises in this country. Last year, 42,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes, and that’s the highest number of fatalities in about 16 years. There’s a housing crisis. Home prices and rent are through the roof, out of reach for many Americans, especially for young people just starting out. And of course, there’s kind of the one that goes over it all, that’s climate change.

Doug: These problems, they’re all related, they’re all rather complicated. The solutions sometimes seem rather obvious to a lot of our listeners, but they’re not necessarily to the general public. So that’s sort of the question that I’ve been grappling with: how do we effectively communicate the urgency of all of these overlapping problems, the urgency of implementing solutions, especially when people might, well, push back or ignore them, or if we’re gonna be charitable, how do you break through the status quo and reach people who are just busy, who are just overwhelmed, who are overworked and not really paying attention?

Doug: So there’s probably no better person I can think of to talk about this, about communication and how to really talk about our problems and solutions than Kendra Pierre-Louis. Kendra is a senior climate reporter at Gimlet Media, where you can hear her on the podcast How to Save a Planet. She was also on the climate beat at the New York Times, and was a staff writer for Popular Science. She’s a reporter with a real knack for explaining complicated concepts to a general audience, whether that’s the science behind climate change, or issues of public health, or a host of other issues. We’ll get to all of that. Kendra Pierre-Louis, welcome to The War on Cars.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Thanks for having me, Doug.

Doug: You’re in Queens, that’s right?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I am. Born and raised.

Doug: Born and raised.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: But not in this apartment. [laughs]

Doug: No. [laughs] You’re the rare—the rare New York City native, I think, who’s sort of like out there in the media—not that there aren’t lots of New York City natives, but, you know.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah. There are a few of us. There’s a club. We know each other. [laughs]

Doug: That’s good. Yeah, that’s right. Like all the bike advocates, we know each other. Where’d you grow up? Where in the city did you grow up? Not in that apartment, you said.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: No. So I grew up on the easternmost edge of Queens in a little place called Bayside.

Doug: Yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: So kind of on the edge of Forest Hills. But I was born in Flushing, and we lived in Flushing until I was like four or five.

Doug: All right, so for our audience, we have to establish your credibility here. Do you own a car?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I do own a car.

Doug: All right.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: But …

Doug: Kendra, it was very nice having you on the podcast. That’s it for this episode. You can find us at …

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Can I defend myself and I’ll …

Doug: No, I’m kidding. Keep going. I’m sorry.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I—this is actually only my second time ever owning a car. The first time I owned a car was I went to grad school in Vermont and I lived, like, 10 miles outside of town and just was like, “Well, I’m not gonna drive.” And I didn’t for, like, four months. I either lived on hitching rides, and then I rode my bike and got hypothermia and I was like, “I guess I really do need to learn how to drive a car because it was that time of year. But I got my car in the pandemic, like a lot of people did, and I moved to—I moved to coastal New Hampshire. I got to, like, July of that pandemic year, and I was riding my bike along a bike lane along the Clearview Expressway, and I was like, “It’s gonna get bad here in the fall, and I don’t want to be here when it gets bad.”

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And I got home and I checked it on Strava, and a friend had logged in from a beach on Portsmouth in New Hampshire. And I was like, “That’s where I want to be.” And I immediately went online and I was like, “Apartments in Portsmouth.” I didn’t end up in Portsmouth, I ended up a little bit further south, right on the ocean. And the entire time that I was doing it, I was like, “This is a very ridiculous decision as a climate reporter.” It ended up working out in my favor, though, because getting to see climate change in action was really useful, and it’s turning into this, like, side project that I’m working on. But that’s why I got the car. And then I haven’t been able to decide whether or not to sell it. [laughs]

Doug: I think I’ve seen you talk about it online, that you’ve referred to it, maybe not exactly these words, as a sort of like albatross around your neck.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I got really lucky, and my apartment has parking. So it’s this weird thing where financially it makes no sense for how often I drive it, which is I drive it maybe twice. It depends on if I’m hiking a lot. If I’m hiking then I’m driving it more. So, like, I anticipate using it a lot this summer for road trips. But in the city, the only place I drive it to is to my parents’ house or Home Depot. [laughs] So like, when everyone was complaining about the price of gas, you know, I was like, “I don’t know what gas costs. I haven’t filled my tank since February.” Like, this is—like, sometimes I look outside just to make sure it hasn’t been stolen. So I don’t know if that indicates frequency of driving.

Doug: I like this because you’re the urban elite because you don’t know what the price of gas is, but you’re a car owner, so you’re sort of the hoi polloi. This is good. This is very—you have got a lot of credibility, I think, on these issues. We’re gonna get into a lot of stuff after the break.

Aaron Naparstek: Hey, it’s Aaron here. When our family visited the Netherlands some years back, one of our kids got a little bit whiny about biking in the rain. Our Dutch friend told him, “You’re not made of sugar.” In other words, hop on that bike. You’re not gonna dissolve. You just need the right rain gear. When it’s wet outside, all of us here at The War on Cars wear Cleverhood. Cleverhood’s capes and anoraks look great while they keep you dry. Thoughtful details like reflective threading make you visible on the street at night. Cleverhood also donates five percent of profits to advocacy groups working to create safer, more livable and equitable streets in cities around the US. For a 20 percent discount on Cleverhood’s capes and anoraks, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter coupon code WALKTHISWAY when you check out. That code is good through the end of June. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars, coupon code WALKTHISWAY. Because you’re not made of sugar.

Doug: So Kendra, you talked a little bit about your credibility on these issues as a New Yorker, as someone who has lived in New England, as a car owner, but you’ve also lived abroad.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah, so I lived for a little bit in France, and I didn’t know how to drive when I lived in France, so I definitely was not driving in France. We rode our bicycles pretty much everywhere, and everywhere we couldn’t ride our bike we took the train. And it was great. I was probably in the best shape of my life, and I mean that, like, because I was just riding everywhere. Like, I rode to the supermarket. Sometimes I would ride—I taught in a school about 40 minutes away, and sometimes I would ride to school. But even if I wasn’t riding to school, I was riding to the tram that took me to school. It was movement baked into your life, and it also shifted the way in which you do things, right? Like, so you’re not going to the supermarket and buying 90 pounds of groceries because good luck fitting that on your bike. You’re going to the supermarket, like, a couple of times a week, but it’s in and out, it’s more a pattern of your life. It’s like you were getting baguettes every day. [laughs]

Doug: Our listeners should know Kendra is not wearing a scarf and a beret, but I can picture you on your bike doing that. No, I mean, I think that’s really one of the beautiful parts about kind of city living is I don’t do bulk shopping, I just pick stuff up as I need it.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I started doing bulk shopping because of the pandemic.

Doug: Yeah. You know, I always found that to be a very interesting thing about the pandemic. On the one hand, we were sort of shaming people and saying, “Don’t hoard stuff, don’t go buy, like, 15 rolls of toilet paper at once or a case of bottled water,” or whatever people were buying. But at the same time, we were telling them, “You can’t go to the grocery store more than once.” And it’s like, well of course, then I’m gonna buy, like, 80 cases of paper towels or whatever it is. I can only come here, like, once every two weeks. Right, yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah. So it was an interesting tension. And so it’s been interesting trying to, like, unlearn those behaviors that I learned in the pandemic. But having learned them, it also feels a little bit like the dominant way of shopping in the US. It’s like we’re all hoarders and we don’t know it.

Doug: Yeah, absolutely.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: That was actually one of the interesting things about France is—and I don’t know if it’s changed because it’s been a bit since I lived there, but they actually regulated stores. So, like, you needed to have a certain number of butchers, you needed to have a certain number of bakers, because they wanted to maintain that small shop going from store to store experience, which is really interesting. It’s interesting the degree to which some countries make choices based on what they think will make a pleasant place to live versus sort of like having your whole society shaped by whoever can extract the most wealth out of that shape.

Doug: You know, you talked about that idea of unlearning our shopping habits, you know, when you had to come back from abroad, or the reverse of how Americans can only really picture sort of these big every two week shopping trips where they’re buying 90 pounds of groceries. Part of what your talent is is explaining and storytelling and talking about the science behind climate change and other issues that, like I said at the top, are really complicated. But you have a real knack for drilling them down to sort of their basics.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Thank you.

Doug: Oh, you’re welcome. You know, drilling them down to sort of their basics, but not talking down to people, really saying this—just presenting the facts as they are. Where did you—where did you cultivate that skill? You have a degree in science writing from MIT, is that correct?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I do. I have a degree in science writing from MIT, and a degree from the SIT Graduate Institute in Sustainable Development. And an undergraduate degree in economics that nobody ever thinks I have a degree in economics.

Doug: [laughs] Well, that’s probably very helpful. I mean, how did you get interested in this as a career path for yourself?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: So I was interested in sustainability probably in college. That’s the first time it really became of an interest to me, but I didn’t know journalism was a thing—you know, my parents are immigrants, and getting a nice, stable job was, like, kind of the marching orders. And journalism to me was a thing that, like, you did if you came from a lot of money or you didn’t worry about money. And I was neither of those, so I didn’t go into journalism straight out of college. I didn’t go to journalism straight out of grad school. I got a degree in sustainable development because I thought maybe I would go into development work.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And then halfway through my grad program, I was like, nope. Like, the place that is developing is the United States. [laughs] That was kind of my big takeaway. And I sort of floundered. I bounced around. I was—when I lived in France, I was teaching English. It wasn’t doing anything huge. It was just sort of figuring things out the way you do in your 20s. And then kind of five or six years ago, maybe a little bit—maybe seven years ago, I started freelancing a little bit, and then I started freelancing a lot. And then I was having no social life because all I was doing was my day job and freelancing. And I kind of made the commitment to kind of either do that pivot.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And again, I gave myself three options. I was like, you either find a full time job in journalism, you make enough money freelancing that you can quit your day job, or you go to J-school. The first you didn’t happen, so that’s how I ended up at MIT. But I think to your earlier question, like, where did I learn how to tell stories? I think it was Queens. I grew up—I grew up having to talk to people from lots of different backgrounds for whom English was not always necessarily their first language, and also for whom I didn’t necessarily speak their first language. So, like, it’s really funny, and I feel like a lot of first-gen kids can relate to this: my parents speak English, but they don’t—but it is English as a second language. And so there’s always a certain level of translation that I think happens in those kinds of relationships. And then, you know, my best friend in high school, her parents were from China, and her parents didn’t speak great English. And so you’re constantly learning how do I tell people who are clearly intelligent, right? Like, the issue is not intelligence. There’s this language barrier. How do I tell them the things that I need them to understand from me in a way that they can understand, but isn’t an insult in their intelligence. And I think that’s where it comes from.

Doug: Wow. Yeah, that’s a real skill. And I think to translate that or transpose that onto a journalism career is immensely valuable. Yeah, so I was thinking a little bit about this discussion and your work and what we do on the podcast, and I think I’m gonna oversimplify this by a lot, but I think there has always been a very explicit connection between the bicycle and climate and the environment. And, you know, going back to the ’70s, let’s say, that Earth Day and all the rest and Critical Mass and all of the sort of bicycle uprising sort of movements throughout the decades, there’s always been a contingent of cycle advocates who really explicitly talk about the environmental benefits of cycling.

Doug: As someone who sort of straddles both the climate movement and the bicycle movement, I don’t always see the climate movement as making these explicit connections between their issues and needing to move to fewer cars and needing to invest in transit and, you know, better bus systems and cheaper bus systems and more frequent bus systems. Why do you think that is? I mean, you talk a lot about your experience as a kid in New York City and the bus, and how much freedom that gave you. And you make very explicit links between climate and how cities are built. How do we do a better job of bridging that gap between these two sometimes disconnected movements?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I think we all draw upon our lived experiences. I think I’m doing the same thing that a lot of these climate activists are doing. I think a lot of people who are most vocal in the climate activism space grew up in the suburbs. And even if they live in cities now, New York is a much different place than the city it was when I was a kid. A lot of parents don’t necessarily feel comfortable letting their kids ride the bus alone, or letting their kids ride their bike in New York now alone.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And I grew up sort of—I’m a Zennial, so I grew up on the edge of being feral. And both my parents worked. And so for us, it was the only way that they could be like, “We want you to have these enriching experiences, but we can’t take you there.” You know, that’s why I say, like, I think mass transit, I think cycling communities, it releases parents from tyranny, and it gives kids freedom in a way that I think people forget or have never experienced because they didn’t grow up in a community where that was the norm. And so I think it’s really important. And I think we do this.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I think it’s really important—and we do this on How to Save a Planet, it’s not enough to have people understand what they’re fighting against. You need to have people understand what they’re fighting for. And it’s very easy for people to imagine a future where you take a gas car and you substitute it for an EV. It is much harder, I think, for people who have not experienced it, to just picture a different way of moving through society overall.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And to your point, something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, because Amanda Mull at The Atlantic did this really lovely story about how the fitness industry is broken, and how so much of the fitness industry is focused on, like, people who are already relatively young and relatively fit. And there’s very little out in that space for people who have pandemic bodies that have atrophied and they have no more muscles. [laughs]

Doug: [laughs]

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the things that we know sustain health, right? Is we know walking, if you’re able, is hugely important. And not, like, 80,000 miles a day. It’s not even the 10,000. Like, the best research that we can find, it’s like it’s 7,000 steps a day, which is not that much if you’re just going around doing errands that require you to walk around, right? So walkable communities, biking to places, all of these things will make you healthier, will make you—connect you to your community. Because when you’re on a bike and when you’re walking, you see people in a way that you don’t see people when you’re in a car.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Free your kids at an earlier age. Like a 10 year old can—I was actually thinking about this today, which is I rode the school bus through third grade. From third grade through eighth, I walked to school. For high school, I was lucky enough to live a mile and a half away, so sometimes I rode the bus and sometimes if I wanted to save, I got a half fare bus pass, so sometimes if I wanted to palm the money for candy, I would walk instead.

Doug: Very smart!

Kendra Pierre-Louis: But, like, you know, I had—that’s an interesting level of freedom and agency that I didn’t think about at that time, that like—because a mile and a half is walkable, right? Like, that is a walkable distance. And I look back at my childhood, and I was like, “No wonder you were so freakin’ fit. All you did was walk and ride your bike everywhere.” And it wasn’t exercise. But, like, if we have people who are doing that, then all of a sudden a lot of gyms don’t need to exist. Like, paradoxically, like, healthier societies have less opportunities to make money. You’re commodifying fewer things.

Doug: Yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And there’s this other thing, too, which is, you know, I often say “walkable communities,” right? But walkable communities are ideally also wheelchair accessible communities.

Doug: Yes.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: They’re, like—they’re mobility accessible communities. We’re working on a story now about cycling that I’ve been lovingly calling a love story to cycling, because I think cycling needs a hype machine.

Doug: It does.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And there’s a whole community of disabled cyclists that tend not to get as much attention, I think, because I think it doesn’t fit into people’s preconceived notions of who a cyclist is. And who a cyclist is is generally kind of envisioned as—respectfully—a skinny white dude, right? In spandex.

Doug: Taken. You know, I totally understand that. Yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And so even in places like New York, where so many people who are cycling are people of color, and they’re cycling because it is reliable, affordable transportation, those messages kind of get erased. Those aren’t the communities necessarily. And there’s an activist who goes by Brown Girl Bikes, I think.

Doug: Brown Bike Girl, yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah, Brown Bike Girl.

Doug: Courtney Williams, who’s the unofficial bike mayor of New York City. She’s awesome. Yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Who makes this point, I think, far more capably than I can, which is like, those are not the communities that the bike infrastructure is going into. But if we re-envision what society looks like and what—how we navigate around that society, suddenly it becomes much more accessible for a huge breadth of people and across ages, right? You can get a four year old on a bike and you can get an 80 year old on a bike, right? Four year olds can’t drive, and 80 year olds, it really depends on whether or not they should be driving, right? So if you have epilepsy, you can’t drive, but you can ride a bike, right? Like, there are all of these people that, like, get excluded, but they’re excluded in ways that are invisible to people. So when you bring up the issue of bicycling, all of a sudden people think that you’re being exclusionary.

Doug: Yeah. I wonder also, I think social media has really broken our brains on these issues because it all gets weaponized. You’re gonna put a bike lane in there? Well, how are disabled people going to get where they’re going? And I think, you know, everything gets so binary, like that there’s only either the fit person on a bike or the person who is in a wheelchair and can only get around either driving themselves or being driven by someone else. And there’s no in between of, like you’re saying, the various types of disabilities that might lend someone to actually be able to get around perfectly fine on, you know, an adaptive cycle, let’s say.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Right.

Doug: And I think …

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And that adaptive cycle is much safer if they’re not sharing the road with a car.

Doug: Right. If they have a wide bike lane that’s not just two lines of paint in the door zone, and they can be seen. Because a lot of those bikes are lower to the ground than many of the bikes that someone like me might ride. I think that gets back to the storytelling aspect of it, of like how—and I’m glad to hear that you’re working on this story and I can’t wait to read it or hear it.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah. [laughs]

Doug: Yeah. How do we change that narrative? Like, what? Do we just keep telling these stories, keep interviewing these people? It’s part of what we try to do on the podcast, but what’s your strategy?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: So I think some of it, the power of it lies in storytelling. But I think the power of it lies in storytelling about the alternatives, and not so much in the storytelling of the problem. Part of why I left The Times to join How to Save a Planet was because we’re so focused on the solution that I can—we did an episode, or I produced an episode last year that was about one of the known problems in the climate space is that solar panels use a lot of land. And there are all of these researchers who have been looking at how you can mix solar with agriculture, because agricultural land—solar installers love ag land for a number of reasons. And for a lot of farmers, it’s a way of generating extra revenue, right? So how can you mix the two?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And I ended up finding this shepherd and going out into the field with her and hanging out all day with her and her sheep in upstate New York. And it was beautiful. And the episode, people loved it because it was like, how do you not love 30 minutes of a smart-talking shepherd and, like, sheep baa-ing in the background. And you can hear the crickets, you know? It puts people in a place where they can envision that as the new reality. And I think we need more of that. I don’t—I don’t want to say no, we should never talk about the problem. Clearly, we still talk about the problem, but I think so often we get very narrowly focused on the problem, it becomes there’s no oxygen for the solutions and people feel trapped. And I think that’s a really important part of storytelling, is that we need to give people the stories that they can envision another way of being in this world.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I think for me, I got that perspective by living abroad, but not everybody gets to live abroad.

Doug: Right.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And also I think people can feel this thing where like, oh, that’s okay over there, but not over here. And it’s like, okay, but the reality that we’re living is also manufactured. Like, we are living in somebody else’s creation, and so we can create something different. And I think that’s a really important message that we need to get out there.

Doug: I mean, I think it’s a really important point because I think a lot of the climate movement, and even the bike movement, is focused on the problems. And sometimes—you know, like I have a real problem with Vision Zero as a way of talking about solutions because it’s so—your brain instantly goes to walking and cycling is dangerous, you’re gonna die. Instead, I really wish we could frame it in terms of livability.

Doug: And I think sometimes there’s that problem in the climate movement, that we tell people all of these things they’re gonna have to do that are gonna make their lives seemingly worse. Like telling people that they shouldn’t fly as much kind of sucks. Like, people like going on vacation. They like visiting family that lives in other parts of the world. But one of the reasons I kind of like bike activism as a little tiny tool of climate activism is that it actually is a way that your life can be better if you can make it work. Riding your bike is awesome. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice to switch a car trip with a bike trip. How do we change that? How do we really focus on the positive aspects of the lifestyle changes and the institutional changes we’re gonna need to kind of whip this climate change problem?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: So my feeling is specifically with bicycling—and I’m not like a huge bicycle activist, I’m just a reporter. But I feel like there are two things. One, one of my really good friends hates driving. And I actually didn’t get my driver’s license until I was almost 30, and part of it was because driving terrified me, right? Like, I don’t—I know some people really love driving. Basically every time I enter a vehicle, I’m very aware of my mortality in a way that I don’t feel when I’m on a bike. But my friend also doesn’t bike because she doesn’t feel safe on a bike in New York City for really valid reasons, right? Like, the bike lanes are not protected.

Doug: Absolutely.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: There is a lot of traffic. And so I think the solution is you’re not just going to win by just getting people who are okay with riding a bike. I think you need to get people like my friend who would be willing if it was safe enough to feel like they’re getting something taken from them, right? They are being deprived of an experience, which is the ability to navigate the city in the way that they choose. And I also feel that extends to transit too, right? Like, we deserve clean, fast, cheap or free transit and we don’t get it. A different friend—I don’t know if I should tell this story, but a different friend was driving to Jersey yesterday or maybe the day before, and they texted me, and I know you’re not supposed to text and drive, so I’m definitely not gonna name friends.

Doug: Let’s assume that we’re stuck in traffic and not moving.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah, they texted me because they were like the traffic in the Holland Tunnel is so bad that people are getting out of the car to fight each other.

Doug: Oh, man!

Kendra Pierre-Louis: That just does not seem like a healthy way to structure society.

Doug: No, it’s pretty rare that someone gets off their bike to fight another cyclist. Yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: [laughs] Yeah. The other thing that I like to encourage people to rethink, like, subways and buses, to rethink transit not as mass transit, but as bar delivery devices, because you don’t need a designated driver if you’re just gonna take the subway home afterwards.

Doug: Oh, that’s one of the best things about living in New York in your 20s is you can kind of stumble home on the train, or even take an Uber or Lyft, which are, you know, not great on their own, but you don’t have to worry about I’ve got this giant metal box and I’m supposed to bring it home and find a place to put it? And I cannot do it in the state that I’m in. Right.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: The one and only year—it wasn’t an issue when I lived in—when I made my COVID exodus because I wasn’t really hitting up the bars for pandemic reasons [laughs]. But the year that I learned to drive I was in grad school, and like I said, I lived outside of town. And so I would have to—when we were going out, I would have to figure out who was going out and who I could crash with. And I remember distinctly, like, kind of at the end of the year being like it was a beautiful place I was living in, and it was great in many, many ways, but very much being like, I don’t ever want to have to drive to survive. And that’s kind of been my north star.

Doug: You know, so we’ve been talking a little bit about how we tell stories to our fellow humans, but you’ve sort of brought the fight or your storytelling ability to the mainstream media through, you know, your work at The Times, through your work at Gimlet. You had a really great appearance on Jon Stewart on his podcast, and you can watch the video online. I’ll put a link. It was really fearless. It was a great and very respectful conversation. But it’s really rare, actually, for what we consider to be mainstream media figures to devote a lot of time to climate issues. It seems even more rare for them to devote a lot of time to bus and other transit issues, never mind bicycling. How do we bring this issue? How do we get more people in normie mainstream culture like a Jon Stewart to really bring this front and center?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah. I mean, I think this goes back again to we tend to—like, I don’t like the phrase “mainstream media,” I prefer “national media.”

Doug: Yeah, absolutely.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Because I think there really is a big split between sort of the big national players and especially TV, and, you know, local news and, you know, the alternative media sphere, if you will. And I think some of it is that I think there are two kind of big issues. One is that there are all of these, like, unspoken journalistic norms, and people kind of get locked into these ideas and these ways of doing things. Like, this is how we do a story, and people just keep perpetuating that cycle, and it’s really hard to disrupt those norms. And every time something kind of traumatic or horrible happens and people are like, we’re not—people revert to doing it the wrong way, even though we’re like, we’ve had this conversation 90 times.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: The other thing is national media overall is overwhelmingly white and affluent—and that’s even before they enter media. So you’re talking about people who are—again, this is where lived experience, I think, matters. So I think as a group, as a monolith, it’s often people who live in certain ways. And I’m not saying, like, good or bad but, like, they live in certain ways, and they are influenced by their perspectives, and they rarely have this perspective challenged by people who are different from them.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And so I think the answer is media needs to be more diverse, but media has also shown itself to be unwilling to diversify. Like, the calls to diversify media have been coming since the 1960s at minimum, right? And media hasn’t actually meaningfully changed that. And it’s not just racial diversity. We need more economic diversity. And it doesn’t get seeded kind of plainly enough. And yeah, so I think it’s about finding ways to diversify media and fight for your stories. I’ve fought for a lot of stories, and I became known as kind of a pain in the ass. And then I decided I didn’t want to fight anymore.

Doug: [laughs]

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And then there’s another kind of reinforcing thing, which is a lot of people—I forget the stats, but a wild number of people, their primary news source is—like, cable news gets a lot of the oxygen, but a lot of people their primary news is still, like, the 6:00 p.m. news.

Doug: Okay. So speaking of television and the media, you had a great tweet about car commercials. You wrote, “Car commercials really love to pretend they’re protecting the ecosystems they’re destroying.”

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah. So I think it’s a Kia maybe, a commercial where they show this, like, beach that is filled with, like, detritus that has washed on shore. And this rugged individual who loves the environment drives his Kia onto the beach with a beachcomber behind it picking up all of the waste and, like, disposing of it. And then sort of empowered by his actions and feeling very satisfied, he sits on the beach with his Kia, his very large SUV is sitting on this beach watching sea turtles come out of the sand into the ocean at sunset, which I don’t even think they do. I think they come out—they need the dark. So I don’t even think that they hatch at that time. But the thing is, you don’t drive on the beach. You definitely don’t comb sea turtle habitat.

Doug: Yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: During nesting season.

Doug: What they don’t show you is him running over all of the sea turtle eggs, yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: The sea turtles. [laughs] And it was just like such an unhinged commercial. And I just lost it. Like, it was just wrong. Like, he was—like, if you did what he did during turtle nesting season, you would have killed all of the sea turtles.

Doug: Yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: It was just a functionally incorrect commercial. And SUVs are really harmful to the environment. And they weigh a ton, and they would have compressed. Everything about it just defied rationality.

Doug: Never mind that the emissions from cars like the Kia that is shown in this—in this commercial are making the ocean more acidic and killing sea turtles. Right. Exactly.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah.

Doug: We’re up against something huge. You know, we don’t have the millions and the billions of dollars that the car companies and the oil companies have to literally greenwash what they are doing. I don’t know how we fight that. I feel like, you know, How to Save a Planet, The War on Cars, It’s like this little tiny insurgency, and the nipping at the heels of the giants. And it feels very like a real intractable problem that—you know, I know you’re really focused on solutions, but sometimes I get so mired in just like, oh, can we ever—can we ever win this?

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I feel like there’s this other element, which is I think a lot of people are done. They don’t want to buy more and more. They don’t want to be on this consumption treadmill, and so they just need permission to get off of it. And I think that’s what makes now a little bit different than other times in recent history, which is I just think a lot of people aren’t as motivated by, like, the bright, shiny objects. I think—especially now because of the pandemic, I think people are just tired. We were stripped from connections for a really long time, and I think that is a thing that people value more and more.

Doug: Related to the pandemic, the work-from-home thing is really exposing how isolating the suburbs are, to kind of get back to something we were talking about a little bit earlier about suburbs. That, you know, there was this exodus early in the pandemic in lots of cities where people said, “I need to spread out, I need space.” And they bought a house in the ‘burbs and sold their place in the city. And then they just found that it was really isolating. Like, sure, they had their home office, but they had nowhere to go. And now there are a lot of people who are privileged enough to do so, are working from home. I think they’re finding the value of maybe having a place that they can walk to, and have that kind of outdoor gym that you’re talking about a little bit, of just places where you can go without having to think too much about making it a destination.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: One of the things that I try to talk about and I try to tweet about a lot is that I feel like people push back against density because they’re thinking Midtown Manhattan. And for a lot of people who maybe haven’t been to New York City and definitely haven’t been to Queens, I’ve never lived above the third floor. The apartment that I’m currently living in, it’s a three-unit building and it’s, like, three stories. I’m a big proponent of, like, middle density, and so I’m like, I wouldn’t want to live in Midtown. I wouldn’t want to live in a super tall tower. Density and walkable communities is not Manhattan, it is Queens or parts of Queens. It is Somerville, Massachusetts. It’s a large part of Montreal. Like, there are really other models for it. And that’s the other thing that I really try to do is I try not to be like, “Everyone should live in New York City” because please don’t. We have a housing shortage.

Doug: Rents are high enough. Yeah.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: But also, there are other ways of being. And, you know, like, I wake up in the morning and there’s a tree in front of my apartment, and there are mourning doves and it’s lovely. And nobody is trying to take the birds away from you. There are options that are between, like, a very large house in the suburbs and a tiny apartment in a high rise.

Doug: I mean, I think that gets back to what I said about Twitter and social media as sort of breaking our brains, that if you say something like, “I love living in the city,” you just get a million responses of like, “Well, not everybody wants to be stacked on top of each other.” And it’s really hard to have a nuanced conversation about it. There is something in between everybody gets, like, a quarter acre and a five bedroom McMansion, and on the other end of the spectrum, a 42-storey apartment building. There’s a happy middle in a lot of cities. A lot of American cities already have this.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yeah. And a lot of American cities could have this with a little bit of shifting in planning. Like, it doesn’t mean a wholesale overhauling of your city. And it also means things like aging in place. Like, there are all of these concepts that we don’t really think of that are benefited by having better trans—like, this is, I think going back to, like, yes, we have to quote-unquote “Give some things up.” But, like, we also get so many good things, we get deeper relationships, we get opportunities to age in place. And maybe you did live in a single-family home or a large home, and you move down the road into a multi-family dwelling, but it’s still your same neighborhood, right? Like, it’s still like you still have the same connections, and there are more opportunities for that when you don’t have one kind of housing stock in a community.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And all of that adds up to healthier communities for people, but also healthier communities for the planet. Because one of the reasons density is so good is not just because it improves transit but, like, you get efficiencies around heating and cooling your home and all of these other things, right? But we don’t have those conversations. I don’t know. And I also think part of it, to your point, and this is, I think, one of the things that makes How to Save a Planet different is that, like, if you’re always talking about the problem, we’re never talking about what works. And so the communities that work, the places that work often get overlooked because there’s nothing to talk about if there’s not a problem. As opposed to looking at them as templates and models of what could be elsewhere.

Doug: And I think that’s such an important shift in framing and perspective. And it’s something I take from your work and from How to Save the Planet and the other stuff that you do. Yeah, I think that’s a super important perspective shift.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And then the question is: what can we do to make those places work better? What can we do to make places more like those places? I don’t know. I was walking—this is gonna—this is the most ridiculous sentence I’m about to lay out.

Doug: Lay it on us.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: I was walking to the bike shop yesterday. [laughs]

Doug: All right!

Kendra Pierre-Louis: And I took a different street. I took one street over. And a lot of Queens is really funny because basically, like, a developer built the block. So, like, you go one street over and the houses will all look the same, but they will look the same differently from the street that you were on. And for whatever reason, I was walking one street over, and it was just like a really—the developer who—whoever built that street just did a good job. Like, good job. The housing was just, like, really quaint, and the people who lived there were, like, really into vegetation. So it was a lot of—there were a lot of trees, but also a lot of, like, container gardens on stoops. And it was just like the perfect day, you know? Like, the sun was shining, but it was kind of late in the day, so it wasn’t too hot, and the birds were doing their thing and, like, the smell. And …

Doug: Can I edit in the Sesame Street soundtrack as you’re talking here? Yeah, it sounds like that.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: [laughs] I’ve lived the other, which is you drive to the bike shop or you drive to the store, and then you get out of your car and you go into and you come out, and you interact with no one. And on that tiny walk I, like, interacted with, like, five people. And I, like—I don’t know. When I moved back here from New Hampshire, I was walking from the bank to tip the movers. And I was actually wearing this shirt. And the shirt, it’s a Mount Pleasant library t-shirt, and it says, “What’s more punk rock than a library?” And this guy stopped me and he’s like, “I love your shirt.” And I was like, “What?” And he was like, “I love your shirt.” And he’s like, “I’m a librarian.” And I kept on going and, like, I hadn’t—you know, because I was living someplace where there weren’t a lot of people. I hadn’t had that kind of interaction basically for a year. And it was lovely. And I don’t—I don’t know how to explain. I’m being very, like …

Doug: No. There’s like a little dopamine hit that goes off when that happens.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Yes! There’s something really lovely about those kinds of interactions, and I think—I think it’s sad that we work so hard to make it really hard to have them in a lot of places.

Doug: Kendra, I think that’s a perfect note to end on. There is a better world out there. We can build it. We can tell people that it exists. And I really appreciate your insight, and the work that you do. And that perspective shift, I think it’s really important. So Kendra, thank you for joining The War on Cars.

Kendra Pierre-Louis: Thanks so much for having me, Doug.

Doug: You can hear Kendra Pierre-Lewis on How to Save a Planet from Gimlet Media. You can learn more about her at KendraWrites.com. And you should follow her on Twitter @KendraWrites. I’ll put a link to everything in the show notes.

Doug: If you want to support The War on Cars, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and join today starting at just $3 a month. We will send you stickers, and you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content. We want to thank our top supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro & White in New York City, Virginia Baker, James Doyle and Martin Mignon.

Doug: A big shout out to our sponsors Rad Power Bikes and Cleverhood. Visit RadPowerBikes.com to check out North America’s leading E-bike brand. And for 20 percent off everything in the Cleverhood store, including the new official War on Cars anorak, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, and enter code WALKTHISWAY.

Doug: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by me. Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D. Designs. I’m Doug Gordon, and on behalf of my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.