Episode 91: The War on Cars Heats Up 

Aaron Naparstek: It’s back to school time, and parents across North America are wasting millions of hours schlepping their children to and from school in cars. Here in Brooklyn, New York, where the streets are once again gridlocked with school drop-offs, every horn honk reminds us that life would be better if students could safely ride to school on bicycles. Fortunately, our friends at Cleverhood are here to help make that happen. Their rain capes and anoraks look cool, protect you from the elements and are designed for people—including kids—who walk and bike. Cleverhood also donates five percent of profits to advocacy groups working to create safer, more livable and equitable streets in cities across the country. For a 20 percent discount on Cleverhood products, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter coupon code BIKETOSCHOOL when you checkout. That code is good for a limited time only. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com/waroncars. Coupon code BIKETOSCHOOL.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, reporter: Okay. Again and again and again, we’ve got to take this point up. Congresswoman Malliotakis, US electricity is powered by natural gas and coal and fossil fuels—about two thirds of that. If we go all electric, you’re gonna have to basically ratchet that up in order to power electric cars. Your final word?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nicole Malliotakis: Absolutely right. Look, the Democrats have had a war on cars …]

Aaron: Hey, welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek, and I’m with my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear.

Sarah Goodyear: It’s really nice to be here.

Doug Gordon: Yeah, it’s great to be with you both.

Aaron: Welcome back, everybody.

Doug: What a summer.

Sarah: Yeah.

Doug: What a summer.

Aaron: Well, so okay. It’s September, which means summer is over, the kids are back in school. The cars and trucks are back out on the street here in beautiful Brooklyn, New York. And it is what we like to call “honking season” once again. So happy honking season.

Sarah: It’s your favorite time of the year, isn’t it? [laughs]

Aaron: [laughs] I am losing my mind.

Sarah: [singing] The most wonderful time—yeah.

Aaron: The cars seem particularly angry this fall.

Doug: The cars seem angry. Right now, someone’s dashing off an email. “The drivers, Aaron. The drivers seem angry.” Yes, but you’re right. No, it’s bad. It’s bad.

Sarah: The drivers do seem angry. And who can blame them, right? I mean, I would be angry too, if I were locked inside a metal box being forced somehow to pay thousands of dollars a month for the privilege of being frustrated and enraged for several hours a day.

Doug: I think you could have a lot of fun if you replace the word “car” with “metal box,” and you just start referring to it. Like, “Let me through with my metal box! I need somewhere to put my metal box! I paid a lot for my metal box!” Then you really see how crazy drivers can be.

Sarah: It’s true. I love metal boxes! [laughs]

Aaron: I find I have some—like a kind of primitive impulse to want to appease the car gods when they get angry like this. I’m like, “What can I do? What can I do to make them stop honking, to make them happy, to make them feel better?”

Sarah: Is that the impulse that leads so many pedestrians to scurry through the crosswalk?

Aaron: I think so. I think we’re appeasing them. Yeah.

Sarah: It’s true. We’re, you know, exposing our soft underbellies to their fangs in a show of obeisance, you know?

Aaron: Wave at them. “Oh, thanks for not running me over.”

Doug: “Thanks for not killing me.”

Aaron: But I simultaneously want to appease. And then I get—I’m, like, infuriated and enraged and want to, like, pummel them. I’m tempted to tell about my road rage incident yesterday, but I think I’m gonna avoid it. [laughs]

Sarah: I mean, that’s so tantalizing, though, Aaron. I mean, I think that all of our listeners would like to hear about your road rage incident.

Aaron: Okay. So yesterday I was walking—I was walking to the office, and a car was pulling into a parking spot, but decided that it wanted to park on the sidewalk. And so instead of just sort of waiting for me to pass before he took his parking spot on the sidewalk, he just sort of kept driving into me. And I was like—I was like, “What are you doing?” And so, like, I walk by and I—like, I rapped on his window with my knuckles. Like, “What are you doing? Like, I am walking here?” You know? Like the movie. And he rolls down his window, and he starts yelling something at me. And I was just like—and so I, like, got into his window with my head. Like, I was—my head was fully in his car. And I said, “You’re driving on the sidewalk! Do you want to talk about it?”

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: [laughs]

Sarah: And did he?

Aaron: He did not want to talk about it.

Doug: I bet. I doubt it. Yeah.

Aaron: I’m a rather large person. I was angry. And he didn’t want to talk about it.

Sarah: I love …

Aaron: But I felt—like, there was no satisfaction in this. It does not feel good.

Doug: But I do love that you describe that as a road rage incident because, like, if someone was jamming their cart in the supermarket into your shins …

Aaron: Right.

Doug: … you wouldn’t describe that as a “grocery aisle incident,” you would just describe that person as a sociopath.

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: And say that they shouldn’t go grocery shopping when other people are there. And yeah, that’s just an—that’s just an asshole.

Aaron: Yeah, was this sidewalk rage?

Doug: I don’t know.

Aaron: This guy was also, like, 75 years old and I just was, like, terrifying an elderly person who was just clearly—you know? But he was also so entitled. He clearly also felt like, “I’m trying to drive on the sidewalk. You need to get out of my way.”

Doug: “I need somewhere to put my metal box!”

Sarah: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.

Aaron: So this is basically our fourth anniversary episode. We’re starting our fifth year of The War on Cars. That’s pretty good.

Doug: Hard to believe. It’s amazing.

Aaron: Yeah. So let’s—you know, let’s just go back to basics. For this episode, we’ve got no special guests. It’s just the three of us chatting like old times. And we can start with our summers. You know, we all had interesting summers with travels and War on Cars-related moments. So who wants to begin?

Sarah: I’ll begin. I went to Europe this summer because my father lived in Spain, and he was dying. And I went to see him. And then he—he has died. He died a week ago. So that’s been kind of rough for me. But while I was in Europe, there were two main parts of my trip that were really relevant to The War on Cars. And one was I walked from the coast of France inland into the Pyrenees, and I was walking for six days.

Aaron: How far is that?

Sarah: I don’t know. I walked—I was walking on average between 10 and 16 miles per day.

Aaron: Wow.

Sarah: So I covered a lot of miles, and it was all in this one region of the Western Pyrenees, the Basque country of France. And what was really interesting to me was later looking at the map, on a big map of France, and seeing how small the region was that I had been walking around in. But during those six days, it was like the most expansive universe. You know, I went from mountaintops to farmland to villages. It was all beautiful, pastoral landscape, very well preserved in the European way, where they put a high priority on preserving traditional farmland and villages. And that was a really beautiful experience. There’s a lot of open space as well.

Sarah: And what really struck me was that there was within this very small region that you could drive from one end of it to the other in a couple of hours, I found an entire universe that I could have spent months exploring. And that way that walking changes the scale of your experience of the world and puts it on a human scale, and makes everything so much richer and so much more interesting than it is when you’re driving past it. It was something that I experienced on a cellular level during that walking time. So I really am very grateful that I had that time, because it really helped to refresh my perspective.

Sarah: The other relevant thing that I experienced when I was in Europe was very different. I was in Milan, which is, of course, one of the continent’s most modern and sophisticated cities and most affluent cities. And the thing that really struck me when I was there was that there were so many people first of all on bicycles, because they really used the pandemic to improve their bicycle network. And according to bicycle advocates that I’ve read in Milan, it’s a total transformation of how many people are riding bikes. And certainly you saw dozens of people riding bikes to work in the morning and doing all of their travel.

Aaron: And am I correct, they really transformed it during the pandemic, right? Like, they went from, like, soup to nuts, total overhaul of city streets for the pandemic. Is that right?

Sarah: Well, I’m not sure about that. I will say that there is lots of good bike infrastructure there, but it’s not visibly much better than New York, for instance. But there is a very different attitude from the drivers on the street toward people on bicycles and people on micro-mobility devices of various kinds. It’s just much more respectful. Everything moves at a slower pace, and people seem to just sort of accept that you let everybody go in their turn and everybody’s flowing together. It doesn’t feel adversarial. But even more than the bicycles, what struck me about Milan was the number of very small cars and sort of ATV-like kind of motorcycle tripod things of all different kinds. Like, there wasn’t one type of these things that really dominated. There were also a lot of e-scooters and e-bikes, but you saw these smaller cars.

Sarah: And I just—you know, it’s going back to the smart car, which was supposed to be this revolution that kind of never played out in the United States, but apparently it’s still playing out in Europe. And a lot of these were electric vehicles, and they were everywhere in these very high-end, affluent neighborhoods in Milan. And you saw these very well-dressed Milanese businessmen going to work in the morning on their little, you know, electric motorcycle-slash- something else. I’m not sure what to call it. And it was just—you know, you think of New York and how much people complain about parking, and then they insist on driving vehicles that are 22 feet long. Like, y’all could fit a lot more of your cars …

Doug: If you had smaller metal boxes.

Sarah: … if you had small metal boxes, you could fit more of them. Instead, you just are insisting on making your metal boxes much bigger and bigger and bigger. The people in Milan would like to tell you that you can have a smaller metal box and still be really rich and look great and feel powerful and have less metal box to park.

Aaron: Right. And display your status.

Sarah: Yes!

Aaron: To everyone else around you.

Sarah: Exactly.

Aaron: But maybe with your nice clothing instead of, like, your giant metal box.

Sarah: Exactly.

Aaron: Okay. So Sarah—first of all, sorry about your dad.

Sarah: Thank you.

Aaron: Doug, you also had travels and death in the family, too?

Doug: Yeah. I guess I’ll start with the bad news first. Yeah, my grandmother, Miriam Gordon, born 1926 on the Lower East Side on Sheriff Street in Manhattan. She died this summer. She died actually just a week and a half ago. And, you know, she was a major force in my family’s life. And I’m 48, she was 96, so you do the math. She was 48 when I was born, the first grandchild. So yeah, just a huge, huge part of my life, my entire life. I talked to her every week. She lived in her latter years up in the Bronx in a—what was called the Hebrew Home for the Aged when—a long time ago. I think it’s got a different name now.

Doug: She lived mostly independently up until the end. She and I would talk frequently about how much she liked where she was. She liked the other people. She was cared for well. She had her own apartment, so she lived somewhat independently. But she hated where she lived because she—for her whole life, she worked up until her late 80s, she was around young people. And she sort of, like, hated the isolation there. So that was kind of like War on Cars related, you know? The way that we age in this country, and how small her world got at the end. So that was kind of sad. So yeah, that was—that was a tough end to the summer for me and my family and my kids. It’s their great grandmother.

Doug: The polar opposite of all of that is that we went to Disney World at the very beginning of the summer, which I actually have great memories of going there with my grandmother, my grandparents. But we went with my in-laws, my mother and my kids. So the oldest people we know, you know, and the youngest people we know. And I’m not gonna lie. I had a great time. I’m not ashamed. I love it—I love going there.

Sarah: We don’t expect you to be ashamed. [laughs]

Doug: No. You know, the thing about—the thing about going to Disney, my feeling about it—and there is a War on Cars angle here, which I’ll get to, which is that you can’t be a snob. You know, it’s not like you can go to New York and be like, “Oh, you plebes going to Times Square. I’m going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See you tonight for dinner.” You just have to go with it. And I just went with it, and I just had a great time.

Doug: So I’m now down a very deep rabbit hole, because there are tons and tons of fascinating books about the urbanism of Disney World. And lots of people have written about this. We’ve probably talked before about how Americans, like, spend all this money to go to places where they can walk. You know, they’ve got something like the 20th-largest transit system in the United States. Their bus system is the same size as St Louis’s bus system. For me, I was fascinated by all of these wealthy people—because you have to have money now to go, it’s really expensive—just getting on the bus in the morning and going to the Magic Kingdom or Epcot or whatever. People who probably would never take the bus back at home. There’s lots of sociological reasons for that. It’s very expensive. It’s essentially like you’re living in a high-tax state for the price of admission.

Aaron: Right.

Doug: But I read a really great book called “Married to the Mouse” by Richard Foglesong, which I totally recommend. It’s all about Orlando’s relationship with Disney, so expect some War on Cars episodes related to Disney World, perhaps in the future. I think there’s a lot we could do.

Aaron: Like a six-part series.

Doug: Oh, there’s tons of fascinating stuff. You know, Epcot was supposed to be this planned experimental community of tomorrow where people would live car free. And that’s what the monorail and the people mover would move people around. And the theme parks were just supposed to be like one anchor on one end. So yeah, had a great time, but I was the guy instead of taking pictures with Mickey Mouse was taking pictures of, like, the ferry and the bus and the Skyliner, their gondola system.

Aaron: So Disney, if you see any “Ban Cars” stickers up and around, you know, Main Street, USA …

Doug: You know, they don’t even sell chewing gum in the theme parks there because they don’t want that kind of stuff happening. You know, graffiti or anything. I didn’t even try. First of all, like, yeah. Yeah, why do it there?

Aaron: They’ve already banned cars.

Doug: Yeah, they’ve already banned cars on Main Street. It was the safest, most pleasant car-free experience I’ve had in quite some time. So that was my, like, you know, great start to the summer. Crappy end to the summer.

Aaron: Yeah.

Sarah: All right. And what about you, Aaron?

Aaron: Well, so my death in the family was my uncle, Michael Krepon, who—he was a pretty amazing guy. He was my mom’s younger brother, and he ran this thing called the Stimson Center. So his life’s work was dedicated to nuclear disarmament.

Doug: Wow!

Aaron: So if there has not yet been a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, Uncle Michael might get some of the credit for that. You know, we’ll never know. That’s the downside of that kind of trying to prevent things. [laughs]

Sarah: [laughs] Right.

Aaron: You know, it’s like, did he prevent the nuclear war or not? We have no idea. But he was an awesome guy. And so we got to visit him in Charlottesville, Virginia, around Memorial Day. So he was still—you know, he was—he had all of these different cancers. So he kind of decided he was, like, terminally ill. He’s like, “I’m done trying to treat this.” So we—you know, we got to, like, take the kids down to Virginia and visit him. And then later in August, we were back for, you know, the inevitable memorial service stuff. So yeah, so that was rough. But we got to ride e-Scooters in Charlottesville. [laughs]

Doug: [laughs]

Sarah: There’s always an upside.

Aaron: There’s always an upside.

Doug: There’s always a War on Cars angle.

Aaron: There’s always a War on Cars angle. But no, actually, so I will say the takeaway from the Charlottesville e-scooter thing was that they are speed governed and geo-fenced. You know, Charlottesville has this famous pedestrian mall. It’s actually where that crazy white nationalist march took place a few years ago. And one of the interesting things is that we had all our kids and family on e-scooters and we’re cruising around downtown Charlottesville, but as soon as the scooter starts scooting up the hill to the pedestrian mall, you just lose power, you know? It’s like it just powers down and you can’t go any further. And at first I was like, “Oh, damn. Like, did this just run out of batteries, you know, on me?” And then I realized, no, like, they had actually just geo-fenced the pedestrian mall. Which, you know, you think about the irony of Heather Heyer being run over by, like, a Dodge Charger or Challenger or whatever stupid muscle car that guy was driving, like, the muscle car was not geo-fenced, right? Like, that person could actually drive directly across the pedestrian mall, but me and my children on our scooters were actually, like, stopped from driving on it. And so, you know, it just raises the question for me, as always, like, why aren’t we putting this technology in cars? It’s just such a—we have the technology. It’s a no-brainer.

Sarah: We need to also put the technology in white supremacists.

Aaron: [laughs] You are geo-fenced from …

Sarah: [laughs]

Doug: A big border right around …


Sarah: They just—they get close to the thing and they go “Ooooo.”

Aaron: Planet Earth.

Doug: And the border looks like the map of the United States. Stay out.

Aaron: But so our real vacation-y trip this summer, though, was to Quebec City. We sent the kids off to summer camp, and then my wife, Joanne and I, we went up to Quebec City, which I’d never been to. I’ve been to Montreal. Quebec City is really cool. I don’t know if you guys are aware of this, but we have an ancient European walled city in North America. But one of the things that makes it wild, though, is that you’ve got this, like, truly ancient, like, almost medieval walled city, you know, overlooking, like, the strategic St. Lawrence Seaway passage. Which you can, like, tell immediately, like, oh yeah, this would be, like, really important to have a big fortress and a walled city, like, overlooking this place that’s, like, completely giving you access to the center of North America.

Aaron: But then you’re like—so you’re walking around these beautiful streets, and they have an amazing bike share system. Everything is e-bikes. The e-bikes were in great state of repair, the docks were available. And then you start to sort of like walk out of the core of the city, and all of a sudden there’s just like, “What is that Ford F-350 doing here? Like, why is that in the ancient walled city? That doesn’t belong.” And then so it’s kind of this very bizarre mix of, like, North America and, like, medieval Europe very much squashed up next to each other.

Sarah: Wow!

Aaron: And that was my summer.

Sarah: So there have been highs and lows, and we’re all still standing. And what’s really kind of crazy is that the whole time that we were doing all those things, the war on cars—not the podcast, but the war on cars—was apparently raging unchecked.

Doug: Right. And we will get to that after the break.

Doug: Did you know Rad Power Bikes just reached half a million riders? And sure, a lot of those people are using their bikes for commuting, for taking the kids to school or running errands, but they’re also visiting friends, heading to the beach or a park, going to the library, picking up pizza, going to a concert or the movies. You know, all the stuff people do by car. It’s just that with a Rad Power Bike, they’re having a lot more fun than being stuck in traffic. So whatever your reason for riding an electric bike, you can visit RadPowerBikes.com/waroncars, and check out the latest deals from North America’s largest e-bike brand. What’s your reason for riding a Rad Power Bike? Again, that’s RadPowerBikes.com/waroncars.

Aaron: Okay, so one of the things we have here at The War on Cars is a special War on Cars Google news alert. And it seemed to be particularly lively this summer.

Doug: Oh, I would say I got something, if not every day, multiple times per week this summer with the phrase “war on cars” in some news item somewhere in the world. So the first one that came across our radar was by a British writer, an opinion columnist named Guy Birchall. The headline is “The War on Cars is a War on Ordinary People. Greens seem blissfully unaware that cars are a necessity for most Brits.” Which I just love. Like, what? Everybody knows cars are a necessity for most people. Come on. Who are we arguing with here? But that was the first one that kind of popped up back in May.

Aaron: Right. It’s like such an avoidance of the actual argument, which is like, wouldn’t it be good in some ways to make it less of a necessity?

Doug: It’s like anti-smoking activists seem to be unaware that people are addicted to smoking.

Sarah: [laughs] Right!

Doug: We’re aware. We’re aware this is a problem. Yes.

Aaron: War on cars on the march in Great Britain. What else?

Doug: Okay, Aaron, you were in Quebec. There is one from Canada by a writer named Philip Cross. And the title is, “In the War on Cars, the Suburbs Strike Back.” Again, here’s the subhead: “Only the very naïve think we will soon end our dependence on autos.”

Aaron: Ah, yes.

Doug: Again, I don’t think we’re doing this anytime soon. I’ve been doing this for a long time. Aaron, you’ve been doing this for longer. Sarah, you’ve been doing this for a long time. I am not so naïve as to think that, “Oh yes, tomorrow we’ll all just lay down our car keys on our kitchen table and walk outside and get on our bikes.”

Aaron: Yeah. In fact, I would describe myself more as disillusioned than naïve.

Doug: [laughs] Yes. Yes. Weathered.

Aaron: Yeah. I think we know how hard this is gonna be to, like, transform the system. It’s just so …

Sarah: Yeah.

Aaron: Who’s naïve about it?

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, right. Like, I think naïvete is not my problem. I think despair is my problem.

Aaron: Right.

Doug: Yeah. A lot of these articles all have the same thing. It’s like, “You know, businesses depend on cars and trucks for their deliveries. And old people and the disabled require cars for their transportation needs.” Yes. Yes, we know. We know.

Aaron: Right. It’s like, “Dude, I fought for sharrows in 1998.”

Doug: [laughs]

Sarah: [laughs] Yeah, right.

Aaron: Like, and we were happy when we got them.

Doug: Yeah, it took me two years to get one bike corral in front of my children’s school. I’m aware …

Aaron: We’re not naïve.

Doug: … of what we’re up against. All right, so that’s Phillip Cross in the Financial Post. Then there was one from Colorado, from the Gazette. Sarah, you have some thoughts on the author of this piece, which is titled “Perspective: Losing the War on Cars.”

Sarah: Right. But the author of this piece, Randal O’Toole, that’s a name that will cause a tremor of fear in anyone who’s been doing this work for a long time, because this guy has been putting out bad takes on a very regular basis for decades. His thing is basically that waging war on cars is, you know, waging a war on the economy. And cars have gotten so much better. And 55,000 people a year used to die in car crashes, but cars have gotten better, so now it’s 45,000.

Doug: 42,000 people.

Sarah: Right. So I don’t know. I mean, Doug, maybe you could help me here.

Doug: The article is premised on statistics in Denver and the surrounding area. And for example, you know, he says “In 2000, 8.4 percent of workers in the city of Denver took transit to work, while the wider Denver-Aurora area, the figure was 4.8 percent.” And you see this come up all the time. Like, only one percent of people bike in New York, or only x tiny percent number of people rely on the bus in Los Angeles or whatever. It’s like, yeah, and we should improve that number and improve service, and make them more frequent and make bike lanes safe so that we get out of the single digits and move into bigger numbers. Absolutely. The fact that it’s currently a low number of people doing something just seems like the silliest of arguments.

Aaron: Yeah. What I find fascinating about Randal O’Toole and his ilk are—they kind of make these arguments like, “You know, the market wants cars. In our innate, natural form, we want cars. And here’s all that evidence for that. And therefore, we shouldn’t support transit.” But it’s like they’re kind of looking at, you know, this world we’ve built since World War II, this kind of automobile-sprawl environment, and all the highways we’ve subsidized and all the housing in far-off rural places that we’ve subsidized. And they’re saying, like, “Look, this is the natural thing that people want. And we should just keep building more of that.” And it’s all ostensibly for this kind of libertarian ideology that allows people to choose, but what they’re essentially arguing is that there should be no other choice but to live in this kind of automobile sprawl environment that we’ve been building for 60 or 70 years.

Sarah: I want to go back to the headline, which is “Losing the War on Cars.” And I guess my question is losing the war on cars, is he thinking that that means that we the war on cars people are winning? Or does that mean that we the war on cars people are losing? I can’t quite tell what he thinks.

Doug: His writing was so enthralling to you that you did not stick around to the last paragraph where he says, “The war on the automobile is over. The automobile and those who use it won. It is time for those fighting this war to recognize that they should instead put their efforts into making automobiles and highways safer, cleaner, and more fuel efficient than ever before. One of the ways to do that is to build new, safer roads that can relieve overall traffic congestion.” So, yes.

Aaron: Oh, so thank you for listening. This will be the last episode of The War on Cars.

Sarah: Yeah, we’re gonna—I’m actually switching over and I’m gonna start doing PR for highway construction companies, because that’s the way that we can really improve society.

Aaron: But the biggest person out there claiming there’s a war on cars is someone here in New York City. It is Republican Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis. I believe she’s the lone Republican in the New York City Congressional delegation.

Doug: That’s correct.

Aaron: Right now. And she represents Staten Island and a tiny part of Brooklyn.

Doug: Yeah, a tiny sliver of Brooklyn. Yeah.

Aaron: But she has been using the phrase “war on cars” so much that she either owes us royalties or we’re gonna have to just give her a little piece of our Patreon earnings, I think.

Doug: [laughs] Please. Congresswoman, send us your Venmo.

Aaron: Everyone donate to Patreon so we can send checks to Nicole.

Doug: No, no, no.

Aaron: No.

Sarah: No.

Aaron: So what’s going on? Why—what is she saying, and why is she saying it so much?

Doug: So as some people might know, New York is hopefully, maybe possibly on the verge of implementing congestion pricing—a toll that drivers would have to pay to enter the central business district of Manhattan. Basically 60th Street and below. And the estimates for this toll, based on kind of MTA studies, are anywhere from $9 on the low end to $23 on the high end. It seems very unlikely that the $23 version will actually happen. This is causing the more car-dependent parts of the Tri-State area, people who live in them, the electeds who represent them, to freak out. Basically saying that this is a tax on working people, all the stuff that you hear. And Congresswoman Malliotakis has just been out there hammering away that this tolling plan is a “war on cars,” all parts of the “Democratic war on cars.” So in this first clip, we hear the congresswoman grilling Transportation Secretary Mayor Pete Buttigieg on Capitol Hill back in July.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nicole Malliotakis: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for being here today. I want to talk about this administration, and New York City’s latest scheme when it comes to the war on cars. This is a pure cash grab, and it is the congestion pricing plan that was passed by the New York state legislature and signed by our governor and supported by the mayor. But I’m certainly opposed.]

Sarah: I just want to say that when she talks about a cash grab, it’s really important to remember where the money from congestion pricing is going. It’s going to help shore up the MTA, the transit system, the subway system that is in dire need of both capital and operating revenue. And that without that system, the city of New York would collapse inside of two weeks. And all of the people that she says need to drive around would be in a completely dysfunctional hellscape whose economy had collapsed.

Doug: That’s sort of like it is now, but yes.

Sarah: Well, okay. Even more so.

Doug: Right. No, but it should almost go without saying that a large number of her constituents take the Staten Island ferry and then connect to the subway in lower Manhattan to get to their jobs, let’s say, in midtown Manhattan. So this would benefit them.

Aaron: Right. For non-New Yorkers—and we should probably just explain to our listeners, like, the congestion pricing fee would only cover the very core of Lower Manhattan. So it’s the part of, not just New York City but all of North America, that is the most transit-rich place, you know, on the entire continent. And also has a free connection, a free ferry, like, a totally subsidized ferry that Nicole’s own constituents on Staten Island get to take back and forth that connects you directly to our transit system.

Sarah: But I think it’s important to say that even if you choose to drive, even if you’re affluent enough to drive and you have to drive for some reason, that your ability to drive exists only because all those other people are taking the subway.

Aaron: Yes. Millions of people.

Sarah: Like, there is no universe in which every single New Yorker can go where they’re going in a personal motor vehicle. That just, like, cannot happen. So she wants her people to be able to do that, other people need to be able to take the train so that there’s room for them to do it. And we need to pay for the train so that it doesn’t stop running entirely.

Doug: Look, this is a back-to-basics episode for us, so we’re being a little New York-specific, but I do think this has national implications, right? Because congestion pricing exists in London. It exists, I think, in Milan. It exists in Stockholm.

Sarah: Singapore.

Doug: It exists in Singapore. But, you know, when New York does something like put a bike lane on the Brooklyn Bridge—you know, bike lanes exist on other bridges, but when New York does something, it has implications for the rest of the country, because our media is based here for the most part. And so this pushback against congestion pricing, I think, is really important for the national transportation discussion, because if it fails, which is, you know, not likely, it’s law, it’s supposed to happen, but it could still fail, that is gonna be a big problem for when Chicago thinks they want to do something like this, or activists in Boston or San Francisco or any city wants to add a toll somewhere. They’ll just point to New York and say, “See, it didn’t work there, and they’ve got great transit. What are we gonna do here in, you know, Boston where the T is falling apart?”

Aaron: And I think, you know, one of the really interesting things here is the way in which the quote-unquote, “war on cars” is being turned into kind of one of these national culture war issues now. And I think that is part of what Representative Malliotakis is doing here is she’s really putting this issue front and center as a kind of, you know, Democrats-versus-Republicans issue for the next couple of elections, at least. And we’re seeing hints of that more and more on the kind of right wing talk shows like Tucker Carlson, and these kinds of guys are making city versus suburb-slash-rural place into a kind of core issue of this, you know, national debate. Which could be good in some ways to have these issues finally being covered, but the way in which US politics works, it’s probably not gonna be good.

Doug: It’s probably going to be bad, yeah.

Sarah: Yeah. And I mean, we saw that in the 2020 election, right, when Trump and many of his proxies were fixated on single-family zoning and the “attack on the suburbs,” and the sort of the integrity of the blissful single-family lifestyle. I think that was the beginning of—I agree with you, this is gonna be a bigger issue in the next couple of election cycles than we’ve seen before. And yes, it’s very gratifying to have people talking about it and to start thinking about these things that we’ve thought about for so long, but it’s also scary.

Doug: So Aaron, you know, you were saying that this is kind of turning into a culture war thing with Republicans on one side and Democrats on the other. And maybe that’s good, maybe that’s terrible. Probably that’s terrible.

Aaron: [laughs]

Doug: But I’d like to point out that this is a bipartisan opposition to congestion pricing. There is certainly lots of support from within the city among Democrats, but there are Democrats like Representative Josh Gottheimer in New Jersey, who is representing drivers there. So like a lot of things, I think also housing, too, where some of the staunchest opponents of affordable housing developments, or really any housing development that isn’t a single-family home tends to be white, wealthier, often left leaning, you know, people who have the, like, “Everyone’s Welcome Here” signs in their front lawns. Those people tend to be Democrats. So yay for bipartisanship.

Aaron: Yeah, urbanism, it really scrambles the normal political categories in some ways.

Doug: Absolutely.

Aaron: Okay, so we’ve got one more Nicole Malliotakis clip for you here. This is her testifying at the MTA’s congestion pricing hearing on August 25. You know, like a lot of these transportation projects, there are many public hearings and meetings. What’s particularly weird, though, about this set of public hearings and meetings is that congestion pricing has been—this process has been going on for, like, 15 years now. You know, so it went through New York City council and there were tons of public hearings and meetings. And then it went—you know, it got approved and then it got kicked up to Albany, to the state legislature, and they voted it down the first time. They didn’t actually vote—they just secretly killed it. But it finally got pushed back up again to Albany and they approved it. Anyway, so it’s all approved. Like, it’s supposed to happen. It’s the law for congestion pricing to happen, but now the MTA has to do a bunch of public hearings, and those hearings have to include lots of people from the suburbs that will supposedly be impacted. So here we are on August 25 in our 15th year of public hearings, and this is what Representative Nicole Malliotakis has to say.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nicole Malliotakis: Good evening, everyone. Can you guys hear me? [Yes, we can.] Okay, great. I want to thank you for putting together this comment period. But I do believe that this program is being jammed down the throats of the people that I represent and all New Yorkers. And I think that there’s more time and transparency that is needed to ensure that the consequences of this program are understood before its implementation. I understand that you guys did a shortcut here in terms of environmental impact, and I believe that it needs to be a full, thorough environmental impact study, and also an economic impact study to understand the consequences of what this will mean and the burden that it will place on our business community, on our residents, and on tourism.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nicole Malliotakis: New York City is just getting back on its feet following the COVID pandemic. We are trying to get more people to come to our city, and I think that this is gonna have a detrimental impact on that. But I think those consequences need to be understood, considering that this is the first in the nation type program. Also, as it relates to congestion in our city center. And I understand your goal of wanting to reduce congestion, but really this is also about revenue. Let’s be honest, right? There’s always been this “war on cars” approach, but there’s always also been a need by the MTA to get more resources and revenue.]

Doug: Okay. [laughs] I want to make sure everybody heard. So there’s a car revving in the background. You might have missed it. Did you hear it? Here it is.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nicole Malliotakis: And I think that this is gonna [CAR REVVING] have a detrimental impact on that. But I think those consequences need to be understood.]

Doug: Nicole Malliotakis, representative from Staten Island, was calling in from a car. She was on a Zoom call from her car. Now it wasn’t moving as far as I could tell. She wasn’t driving. She appeared to be maybe in the passenger seat, so nobody was at risk. But holy moly. Like, if you wanted a textbook definition of the windshield perspective, there you got it.

Sarah: And I also like her implication that this is sort of some veiled attempt to get revenue. This is not a veiled attempt. It is a quite deliberate policy decision that reducing congestion for drivers can happen. I’m sorry, I can’t say it.

Doug: Oh, no. I mean, it’s like when people say that, you know, “These speed cameras are just a program to punish drivers.” Yes, they’re a program to punish drivers who speed. The congestion pricing program is not to punish drivers, it is to raise revenue for transit and to discourage people from driving if they don’t have to. It’s pretty simple.

Sarah: Right. And when they say things like, “You know, this is gonna lead to fewer people driving into the city.” Yes.

Doug: Awesome!

Sarah: That is what it is for.

Doug: Fewer metal boxes in the city.

Aaron: Right.

Doug: Aaron, you are, like me, an esteemed student, professor, scholar of bikelash. There’s a few things in here that I felt like just sounded like the typical stuff that you hear at public meetings. Did any stick out to you?

Aaron: I mean, I appreciated her call for the, you know, studying the environmental impact of reducing driving.

Doug: Yeah. Nobody cares about the environment more than Republicans who are told to drive less. Yeah.

Aaron: Drive less. You know, but just that whole disingenuous line of argument, which unfortunately, like, our environmental review system is actually set up to reinforce.

Sarah: Well, in San Francisco …

Aaron: Exactly. San Francisco was unable to build its citywide bike network in the early 2000s. So there was like a four-year delay on that, because that environmental impact statement showed that, you know, adding some bike lanes to certain streets might create more traffic congestion, because these studies tend to assume that, like, every car that was driving on the bike lane street is just gonna be displaced to the next adjacent street. Which is not what happens. People make different decisions. But anyways, yeah, San Francisco could not build a bike network for four years.

Sarah: I believe it was—it was one person’s litigation.

Aaron: One person’s litigation.

Doug: They weaponized it. Yeah.

Aaron: Based on California’s strict clean air rules. So that’s what’s happening here. You know, she is trying to weaponize, you know, environmental review against a program that would very clearly be good for the environment overall.

Doug: Yeah, there was also the “jammed down the throats of the people that I represent.”

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: You hear that language all the time. Even though, like you said, congestion pricing has taken forever, it’s gone through multiple layers of state government and city government. It’s not being jammed down anyone’s throats. The fact that she’s actually there testifying against it is kind of proof that it’s not. Sarah, I noticed that you laughed when she mentioned tourists, the effect on tourism.

Sarah: I mean, you know, this cracks me up because of course, the tourists that we’re trying to get back are from Europe and China and …

Doug: Or from Iowa.

Sarah: Or from Iowa.

Doug: They don’t drive here.

Sarah: They’re not driving here. And their experience of the city is going to be immeasurably enhanced in every way, including their access to good transit to get around and see all the different things, but also just being able to walk around, being able to ride around on a Citi Bike.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: Being a tourist in New York City is gonna be so much nicer. And Europeans, the ones who I sometimes talk to who say “I liked being in New York, but it didn’t feel comfortable or safe in certain places because of all the cars,” those people are gonna feel much more at home.

Aaron: They are.

Doug: You know what tourists love in New York City? Car-free Times Square, you know?

Aaron: [laughs] Right.

Sarah: Yeah, exactly.

Aaron: You mean they don’t love, like, driving through Times Square to get to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree?

Sarah: Right.

Aaron: You know, in an SUV? It’s just like—it’s just like it would be the worst experience, you know?

Doug: Look, and even local tourists, there are all kinds of package deals with Broadway and the MTA where you can get, like, discount transit tickets and things like that. So most people who are coming into the city as tourists are not driving the Escalade from Times Square to Chinatown to Lower Manhattan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’re not doing that.

Sarah: And if they are, they should pay.

Aaron: They should pay like $1,000 to drive by the Christmas tree.

Doug: Yes.

Aaron: But you know what kills me about this whole thing is when Sarah and I were starting Streetsblog 15 years ago, we were covering the congestion pricing hearings, you know?

Sarah: I know. This was like we bonded over this.

Aaron: This has been going on forever. And …

Doug: A slow jamming down people’s throats.

Aaron: Yes. Whoever is jamming this down people’s throats is doing a terrible job.

Doug: Taking their sweet time. Yeah.

Aaron: But the fact is, like, we see this again and again with, like, these kinds of, you know, transportation projects that, you know, nobody really knows what congestion pricing is. Like, it is an abstraction right now. It doesn’t—you know, unless you’ve been to London and you know what downtown London was like before congestion pricing and after, you really don’t know what it is. And so it’s very easy to demagogue it. It’s very easy to scare people. And they do this with bike lanes. They do this with, you know, bike share. They do this with every transportation project. And we know that the only way to make these things work is to just put it on the ground, make it happen, test it out, let people see it. More often than not—very much more often than not—people are like, “Wow, this is fantastic to be here, you know, on a safe bike lane or in a downtown with less car congestion.” And it’s popular.

Doug: And the funny thing with congestion pricing is, unlike a bike lane or bike share where there’s lots of equipment, like, all the really is here is, like, cameras and tolling gates, right? Like, and those are—it’s all automated now. It’s license plate readers and things like that. So if it doesn’t work, you can adjust the pricing up, you can adjust the pricing down, you can turn it off entirely.

Aaron: Move the boundary.

Doug: Right. You can expand the zone, or make it—you know, make it smaller. So that experimentation, I feel like the American government in general, just doesn’t experiment.

Aaron: Right.

Doug: And so this is—and we’re just stuck yelling at each other.

Sarah: I have to say that I have, like, literally not listened to a word of the congestion pricing coverage or debate. Like, anytime I hear on the radio, like, “Now we’re gonna have a call-in about congestion pricing,” I just—off. Like …

Aaron: I actually think this is a problem because I think a lot of the advocates are like, “Yeah, we fought over this, like, you know, from 2004 to whatever year it passed,” like 2019 or something. And I feel like people are just like, “Yeah, we won, we’re done. And it’s like, no, like, there’s like a bunch of forces arrayed right now to try to kill it.

Sarah: Well, actually, for me, it’s more like—it’s more of a PTSD. [laughs]

Aaron: You’re just like, keeping yourself sane.

Sarah: I can’t. I can’t.

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: I do think the left and liberals sometimes take for granted that, like, yeah, it’s a great idea. Who could be against less, you know, pollution, less traffic, things like that. Well, it turns out lots of people.

Aaron: Yeah.

Doug: And you do have to keep fighting and fighting and fighting until the thing is in and proven and done. Citi Bike is really the best example. Like, until it was on the ground, you know, anybody could have said, “No, I don’t want this.” But then it was popular.

Aaron: Yeah. And I worry about the benefits of this one. Like, the benefits of Citi Bike are really clear. Like, you see people riding around on Citi Bikes and they’re like, “Wow, this is a great new way to get around the city.” But the benefits of congestion pricing are a little bit more abstract and diffuse. And it’s like, okay, well, the MTA is gonna have more money to put into transit. And it’s like, well, where’s that? Am I gonna get a new bus on my block? Am I gonna—you know? No, it’s really gonna go into the transit system as a whole, and hopefully, like, it will be in a better state of repair. But that’s a bit—you know, it’s not super specific.

Sarah: What’s not abstract is fewer cars.

Aaron: Yeah.

Sarah: South of 60th Street in Manhattan. Like, if that happens, it will be noticeable and people will like it, because cars ruin cities as we know, and having places where there are no cars or fewer cars is a tangible benefit.

Aaron: But it’s so easy to demagogue that because it’s like, the wealthiest, you know, fanciest part of the city and they’re getting that benefit. Whereas, like …

Sarah: I see.

Aaron: You know what I mean?

Sarah: Well, you know what? I’m just—although the same people would argue that it’s not a benefit, right? That they’re being oppressed by having it there. So I mean, they want to have it both ways. But I will say that the two of you have renewed my resolve to be strong and to listen to and participate in this debate again.

Aaron: Don’t do it.

Doug: No.

Sarah: [exasperated sigh]

Doug: Believe me, there are times when I say, “Fuck it, I’m going to Disney World. I’m getting out of here.” Yeah.

Sarah: [laughs] So on that note of renewed resolve to keep up the good fight, that is it for this episode of The War on Cars.

Doug: We know that this episode is a little late for many of our listeners. We thank you so much for sticking with us as we all dealt with our various tragedies and interruptions this summer. But we’ll be back with more, and hopefully lots of great new episodes very soon.

Aaron: If you want to support The War on Cars, as always, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us.” Join today starting at just $3 per month, and you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content. We’ll send you stickers.

Sarah: We want to say a really big thank you to all of our Patreon supporters. Starting year five as a podcast is a pretty crazy thing to be doing, and to really have it be a viable thing where we can bring you in-depth coverage and really substantive conversations with interesting people from around the world, I’m frankly just so grateful to be able to be doing this work. And the more difficult things I’ve had to go through in the rest of my life, the more grateful I am for this place to come back to where you, our Patreon supporters and our listeners are here for this conversation, you’re engaging in it with us. It’s just incredibly personally meaningful to me. So I want to say a big thank you to our Patreon supporters. And that includes our top supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, James Doyle and Martin Mignon.

Doug: We would also like to thank our good friends at Cleverhood, who make just the best rain gear for walking and cycling. You, our listeners, can enjoy 20 percent off everything in the Cleverhood store. Go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, enter code BIKETOSCHOOL. That’s BIKETOSCHOOL spelled out, all caps, at checkout.

Aaron: Special thanks to our friends at Rad Power Bikes. Check out the latest sales at RadPowerBikes.com/waroncars. We’ve also got some great new merchandise in the store, especially for kids. There is a “One Less Car Seat” onesie, and all kinds of t-shirts for toddlers and youth sizes. That is some great back to school stuff.

Doug: 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’m Doug Gordon.

Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek.

Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear. And this is The War on Cars.