Episode 95: Make Love Not Cars with Dan Savage
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Doug Gordon: There’s some language and topics of discussion in this episode that might not be appropriate for young children. So if you’re in the car, you might want to wait until you’re home and alone to listen to this episode. And seriously, driving with children? It’s like one of the most dangerous things you can do, so you probably shouldn’t do that either.
Dan Savage: I’ve observed it all my life that cars kill cities and are bad for cities. And I don’t understand why cities make room for cars, accommodate cars, fellate drivers, accommodate drivers the way that cities do and politicians do. Cars are the enemies of cities, and yet cities just bend over and take it.
Doug: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon, and with me are my co-hosts, Sarah Goodyear and Aaron Naparstek.
Aaron Naparstek: How’s it going?
Sarah: Hey, Doug.
Doug: Hey, folks. Good to see you both.
Doug: I think we should get right to it and introduce our guest. We have a very special guest for this episode. Dan Savage, welcome to The War on Cars.
Dan Savage: Thank you for having me. I’m such a fan of the show.
Doug: So a lot of you may know Dan from his advice column, Savage Love, his column in The Stranger, which is Seattle’s alt-weekly, which has been running and been syndicated since 1991. Is that right?
Dan Savage: Yeah. Yeah, 31-2 years now. I am getting letters from adult humans seeking sex advice whose parents wrote me for sex advice before their children were born. And it freaks me out.
Aaron: You might have helped conceive those column writers.
Dan Savage: Despite all my, like, urging of anal, I guess so. A few of them. A handful.
Doug: You never know. Dan, we’re really excited to have you here, and I think people might be wondering what does a sex advice columnist have to do with the war on cars? But we’re gonna get into that in lots of different ways. But I thought we could just start with the really simple one, which is: you do not have a driver’s license.
Dan Savage: I do not know how to drive. I never learned. I grew up in Chicago, and the dumb kids and suburbanites drove and had cars. And we walked to Clark Street and took the bus and jumped on the L. And eventually the L went to the airport, and I could get anywhere in the world without ever having to get a driver’s license or own a car.
Sarah: So driving was just super basic then, and you were not basic.
Dan Savage: It was super basic and I was not basic. It took me a while, though, to figure out what was actually going on with me in cars. I’m a terrible passenger. Whenever I’m in a car, I apologize to the people who are driving because I gasp and I flinch and I distract drivers because I’m just super nervous. And I was in a car being driven somewhere, going to a college speaking gig in Alberta, and I went into my spiel with this woman, the student who was driving me around, like, “I’m really sorry, da da da da da. I’m gonna drive you crazy.” And she looked at me and she said, “Have you ever been hit by a car?” And I went, “Oh, yeah. I was run over when I was five years old in front of my mother.”
Aaron: Oh, wow.
Dan Savage: And she said, “Do you think I might have something to do with your whole, like, car aversion?” And I’m kind of, like, embarrassed to admit that it took me until I was in my 40s to connect those two things: my sort of loathing of cars and my not wanting to drive. All three of my siblings grew up in the same neighborhood, half a block from the Clark Street bus, three blocks from the Morris El stop in Chicago. All three of them drive. I’m the only one who doesn’t drive, and I’m the only one who got run over in front of mom.
Sarah: And so it sounds like you actually—your response to being in a car is rational, and so the flinching and everything, I think that’s actually maybe more appropriate than just sitting there as if it’s totally normal to be bombing around at 60 miles an hour.
Dan Savage: Bombing out at 60 miles an hour through a city. That’s what drives me crazy about drivers is this expectation, particularly in Seattle where I live, that there’s some sort of constitutional right to go 60, 70, 80 miles an hour through the middle of a city.
Dan Savage: I’m 58 years old, so white flight and the automobile and freeways and expressways being driven through the centers of cities sort of happened in my lifetime, but not my conscious lifetime. I don’t remember it. But I’ve observed it all my life that cars kill cities and are bad for cities. And I don’t understand why cities make room for cars, accommodate cars, fellate drivers, accommodate drivers the way that cities do and politicians do. Cars are the enemies of cities, and yet cities just bend over and take it.
Doug: [laughs] So Dan, when we were talking about this episode, and I should tell our listeners that Dan, you are a listener of the podcast and you invited yourself on, although we had actually …
Dan Savage: I did, I did, I did.
Doug: Well, it was serendipitous because we have, like, a sort of mental list of guests, and you have tweeted and written a lot about biking and transportation. But you have used your advice column to really change or be part of the cultural change that has led to acceptance of gay marriage, for example, and the legalization of gay marriage, and other big social issues surrounding the LGBTQIA-plus community. And so we sort of wanted to talk about how that overlaps with, I hope, what we are doing to a lesser extent here at The War on Cars. And obviously, like, the identity of a person who is gay or lesbian is a little different than a person who’s just riding a bike. You can get off your bike and not be a cyclist tomorrow, but I thought that would be a really good hook and a good way for us to really frame this conversation. Do people agree with that?
Aaron: I mean, bikes are queer? Come on!
Sarah: Oh, my God. Stop! [laughs]
Aaron: No? Are we not allowed to say that? I mean, we are—like, we’re not like the mainstream mode of—we’re like this weird sort of thing off on the side of the road.
Doug: We should let Dan, the Simon Cowell of this American Idol episode, tell us if that’s acceptable or not.
Aaron: That was probably offensive.
Dan Savage: I think there’s a parallel. Cars are cis-het and bikes are queer.
Aaron: Thank you.
Doug: All right.
Sarah: There we go.
Doug: On that note, we are going to take a break and come right back.
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Doug: Okay. So we are back, and we were talking before the break just about how Dan has used his column since 1991 really, that has spanned a whole lot of history in the social movement towards legal acceptance of things like gay marriage, for example. Or your own experience adopting a child, as you’ve written about in your book, The Kid. And I think that’s probably a good jumping off point for what we want to talk about in this episode.
Dan Savage: When I started writing Savage Love, I was in ACT UP and Queer Nation, and I was an activist. And in a sneaky way, I considered it an extension of my activism or a new form of activism. And one of the things that a lot of—like, I sometimes have to remind people that when I first started writing Savage Love, the people who hated my column most were gay people, were other gay men because I wrote really explicitly about gay sex. And sort of the instructions we’d gotten from gay hivemind was when a straight person says, “What do you do in bed?” We’re supposed to go, “Well, we watch television and we read and we sleep, and sometimes we make love. What do you do in bed?” And my feeling was just answer the question until they’re sick of hearing me answer, until they stop asking that question, because now they know.
Dan Savage: But also, when I started writing it, I thought, well, this is a really sneaky way to trick straight people into reading about queer issues, gay lives, HIV, which I read a lot about in the early ’90s when deaths were reaching their peak. Because it was mostly the column 80-plus percent of the time, and I was very careful with the percentages, about straight people. So when I wrote about gay people, queer relationships, when I wrote columns about trans people and trans issues 30 years ago, straight people would read the column out of force of habit in a way they wouldn’t read something by a queer writer in a—you know, they weren’t reading the New York Native and they weren’t reading the queer writers necessarily in The Village Voice, but me they would read because I was almost always talking about them, and then they would just read about us and take away, you know, the messages about our lives.
Dan Savage: And for a lot of my readers, when my column was—you know, first kind of exploded, I was the gay person that they knew. And I was a pretty good gay person for them to know because I was on their side. And I see The War on Cars as doing that kind of outreach and activism. Me coming on, you’re gonna have to flag this because I am the F-bomb king and I swear all the time in case people are listening to the show in their cars with their kids. So you’re reaching drivers, and in a way you’re talking to drivers about the cyclists they’re trying to get around in the same way I was talking to straight people about the queer people whose necks they had their foot on when I started writing my column 32 years ago.
Sarah: Yeah, I’m interested in following up about the way that marginalized cultures get brought into the mainstream, and the tensions that exist around that. And certainly in queer culture, and I know that you experienced this in a variety of ways, you know, there has been a gatekeeping tendency. With the marriage question, there were many gay and lesbian people who said, “We don’t want anything to do with straight marriage. Straight marriage is an oppressive institution. Why would we want to do that? We are part of something different. We’re losing our identity if we get sucked into that mainstream situation.” And some of that exists in the alternative transportation activist community, or whatever you want to call it, the bike activist community, where there’s gatekeeping about are you doing it right? Are you riding a bike right? Are you sufficiently political in your—in your attitude when you get on a bike? That somehow getting on a bike is a political expression. And you see this very clearly with the backlash against e-bikes, which, you know, a lot of people who have been bike activists for 20, 30 years are saying, “Well, that’s not really riding a bike.” And to me it’s just ridiculous. It’s just people who ride bikes wanting to be enfranchised into a system that exists. So maybe you could talk about those parallels.
Dan Savage: Well, the parallel there is, you know, this idea that—you know, I remember gatekeeping in Queer Land 30, 40 years ago where some people, you know, if you didn’t come to the meetings, if you weren’t at the protest, if you didn’t come to the demo—and it wasn’t enough just to come to the demo, you had to be at all the planning meetings, you had to help make the signs—you weren’t doing it right. And my attitude was, if you’re out and queer and taking up space, you’re doing the heavy lifting. Like, if you’re on a bike in an urban environment—or a rural environment or an exurban environment—and you’re taking up space, you’re advancing the cause. It’s enough to be out and queer to make change. And, you know, a lot of people who are involved in activism in gay-land would valorize their own activism when all they were doing was what they really enjoyed. Like, they liked being activists. And there are some people who didn’t like being active, and my attitude was, so long as you’re out, you’re helping and you’re making a difference. And perhaps the most profound difference, because it’s really our families that change first.
Dan Savage: And so e-bike? Other bike? Like, okay. That, like, reminds me of people 30, 40 years ago grousing about, you know, now it’s like gym bros or whatever, then it was clowns. Like, oh, you know, there would be this sneering from activism land at, you know, the people who were just in the bars or the people just came to the pride parade for fun. And, you know, they weren’t doing it right. And so the people getting on e-bikes now, which I’m actually thinking about getting one, I’m crowding on 60, creeping up to 60, Seattle’s got steep hills that I am 58 years old and I’m still climbing those hills on my seven-speed bike I think is amazing, but I don’t know how much longer I can hold out.
Aaron: You know, Dan, in a way, you’ve been a really successful activist as a columnist. You wrote a book in 2005 called The Commitment. It was a pro-gay marriage argument when opposition to same-sex marriage was sometimes pretty strong, even in the gay community. You know, what kind of advice would you have for us as The War on Cars, as people who are trying to create this pretty substantial social change in North America where car culture is utterly dominant? What advice can you give us as an advice columnist for how best to continue to fight for these changes that we’re working toward?
Dan Savage: As much as I like to say “Fuck cars and fuck drivers,” we didn’t win marriage equality, which now feels imperiled by the Supreme Court and the successful launching of the groomer blood libel in the last couple of years.
Dan Savage: We didn’t win it by saying “We hate straight people and fuck straight people and we’re here to destroy marriage and family.” We said, “Hey, straight people. If you can get over your shit, we’re your kids and your friends and your neighbors and your coworkers and fun people to know and hang out with. And we’re not the enemy.” And, you know, I don’t know how to drive, and I avoid getting in cars as often as I can, which drives people who bring me in to speak places crazy, because if I get a hotel within two miles of the venue, I walk. And they don’t want you to walk because they want to know exactly where you are. And I’ve had people send cars for me and me being like, “I’m not getting in it. You can’t force me to get in the car. I will walk.”
Dan Savage: But I am in cars sometimes. And my—I hate to admit this, but I own a car. My husband and I own a car. He drives. Sometimes I am in that car when he drives it. And at that moment, like, that tension in our relationship, because he does not ride bikes and he is a Seattle driver who hates people on bikes, and I have to remind him that the person whose life he’s imperiling right now by passing a little too close, or getting angry because he can’t get around him and hurry to the next red light at the speed he’d like to could be me. And he’s fond of me and my ability to pay our mortgage, and probably doesn’t want me to get run over by somebody like him.
Dan Savage: And so I think we have to sort of, you know, it’s—the opposition is fun. Like, I popularized briefly using the term “Breeder” to describe straight people in my column 30 years ago, like, came in and said, “Hey, we have a hate term for you guys, too.” It was when my column, every letter began with “Hey, faggot,” you know, modeling the appropriation thing that the queer nation movement was all about. And I called straight people, “Breeder.” Like, “Hey, driver!” Like, drivers are cyclists sometimes, and almost all cyclists are passengers sometimes. And we need to blur those lines just like we blurred the lines between queer people and straight people by convincing them that, like, we’re right there. We’re in your workplace, in your family, in your community, on your block, and maybe getting on with us is gonna be better, not just for us, but for you, too. And that’s, you know, ultimately what the fight about marriage was about.
Dan Savage: But, you know, I do want to say, Sarah, that I just—I can never not address it. Like, we shouldn’t fight for marriage, we shouldn’t want to be a part of that institution. We got to go into marriage on our own terms. You know, part of the fight was straight people and, you know, people opposed, religious conservatives opposed to marriage stood there saying “Marriage is about religion, marriage is about children, marriage is about monogamy.” And our argument wasn’t, “Yes, we want to be married and monogamous and religious,” our argument was, “It’s not if you guys do it. Not always. You can get married, straight people get married without a church service, get married without having children and get married and not have to be monogamous. It was really [the] marriage equality movement called straight people not on our desire to redefine marriage, but the fact that they had already redefined marriage to the point where we could no longer be excluded from it, rationally or logically. Only bias and bigotry could exclude us from it.
Dan Savage: So it wasn’t about, you know, let us in because we want to live on your terms. It was the terms have changed, and we live on those terms already. And it was just—it was straight people recognizing that they redefined marriage, not that we’d redefine marriage. And I’ve been married to my husband since the moment we could get married. We’ve been together for 30 years. We are not monogamous. We don’t have to be monogamous. And we didn’t assimilate to enter into marriage. We absorbed marriage.
Sarah: I’m so with you on that. And I just—I just did want to show you, Dan, that I pulled this yesterday from my library.
Aaron: The listeners can’t see. But it is the book, The Commitment by Dan Savage.
Sarah: My wife bought it when it came out, and she wasn’t my wife yet at that point.
Dan Savage: Aww!
Sarah: Anyway, if we were in the same physical space, I would ask you to sign it. But yeah, you were—your arguments and your takes on this were a big part of our conversation about what it meant to get married.
Dan Savage: And anybody who picks up The Commitment and reads it will see that when Terry and I first began to talk about it, we were very deeply ambivalent. We weren’t out of the gate like, “We want to get married!” Literally, there’s a conversation that I relay in that book with my mom, my late mom, where she said we should be married. And Terry said, “I don’t want to act like straight people.” My mother, like, rounded on him and said, “You have a child!” Because we’d already adopted our kid. And there’s no more straight acting than that. That ship has sailed. And, you know, I miss my mom, but she is the one who prompted us to really start thinking about it a little more deeply.
Dan Savage: And it is for queer people, particularly for vulnerable queer people, for queer people whose families are hostile or unsupportive, the power to determine for yourself who your immediate next of kin is is essential as we learned during the HIV-AIDS epidemic. When guys who’d been together for 10, 20, 30 years were thrown out of their partners’ hospitals, thrown out of their apartments, barred from their funerals. We have to be able to decide that for ourselves. And, you know, Terry and I were relatively privileged, and had powers of attorney and had done all that legal paperwork to the tune of about $8,000. And then suddenly with marriage equality, people who had only had $65 could determine for themselves who their immediate next of kin was. And it was very empowering. And it is a social justice issue for vulnerable queer people with hostile families to have that power.
Sarah: Yeah, 100 percent.
Doug: Dan, I wanted to—you said something earlier that your column felt like an extension of your advocacy, and that you were involved in ACT UP early on. You know, I sometimes have people ask me, “How do I get involved? What should I do?” And usually my advice is, “I don’t know. You know, what are you good at? And just do that. You can build websites? Build websites mapping crash locations or something like that.” How did you get into giving advice, you know, sex advice and, like, how did that start? How did that process—I kind of understand as an activist, going to a meeting, holding a sign at a protest, but how do you say, “You know what? I’m gonna start writing an advice column and make it an extension of my advocacy?”
Dan Savage: Well, I want to really quickly say something about what you just said, that people ask you, like, what they can do. I think—and this is what ACT UP was really good at, and it’s what the It Gets Better project did. It’s the activists, the committed, like, live, breathe it 24 hours a day activists, your job is to identify for the people who don’t have that kind of time or drive or interest, identify the doable things, the things they can do in the time they do have. And ACT UP was great at that. ACT UP looked like an army, and ACT UP on the inside was like a core of really dedicated people. And we had phone trees, and we would convince people that you just show up at the protest, you give us your body. We’ll hand you a sign. We’ll give you an armband that says whether you want to be—you know, risk, arrest or not, and make sure you’re not in the group risking arrest, and just come. Just be there at this time.
Dan Savage: And we would have the t-shirts, and we would have the media sheets that, like, explained the answers that you could give if a reporter asked you a question. We didn’t say, like, “You weren’t at the meeting. Fuck you.” We said, “Thank you for coming to the protest. Here’s everything that you need to really have an impact.” And I think whether it’s bike activism, marriage equality, AIDS activism, any kind of activism, you want to point to the doable thing. And if that’s coming to a Critical Mass ride once a month, if that’s advocating for your school to put in bike parking, like, there’s just—identify the doable things for people. But the most doable thing for cycling is to get on a bike and go someplace.
Dan Savage: And maybe where everyone has to go is Europe. And I’m just convinced that so much would improve about the United States if people weren’t so myopic and provincial or walled off. We would have socialized medicine if we had some sort of, you know, program like Israel has to bring Jews to Israel to see Israel, just to bring Americans to Germany or France or Austria and break a leg. Break their leg after they get here, and they can see what socialized medicine is actually like, and they won’t be so fucking afraid of it and send them home. And also bring them here and see the kind of infrastructure and bike trails and mass transit that they have in Holland and Austria, Germany. And that you can live in a city as big as Berlin and not be car dependent, and be freed from a car. Americans come to Europe so they can not drive places for a while, and then they go home and they vote against anybody who proposes anything that might make driving a little less convenient. So maybe, you know, one of the things we can identify for people, a doable thing if you can swing it, go to Berlin for a week?
Doug: Your activism will be an all-paid trip, all-expenses paid trip to Europe. Think you can swing that? Yeah, I think I can swing that.
Aaron: That’s what radicalized me was going to Freiburg, Germany, with my then fiancee, like, 25 years ago and just seeing like, “Oh, my God, this is so nice!” Just the transit and the biking and the walking was so much better than what we had. And coming back here and being sad about it actually spurred me on to a lot of activism.
Doug: My first trip to Amsterdam was 2008 for work. And I was standing on a bridge. We were shooting B-roll of the city for a TV show I was doing, and we just stood there for about a half hour shooting cyclists going, you know, this way and that way. And there’s an old person, there’s a pregnant woman and there’s an eight year old. And that was really my first exposure to even thinking that there was another way of doing it. And that’s what sort of radicalized me. So it works.
Dan Savage: And there are certain cities maybe that Americans who are, you know, Europhobic can go to. I grew up in Chicago, and we had a lakefront trail system. And it’s before the second Mayor Daley, who was actually a cyclist himself and spent a little bit more money on bike infrastructure. Chicago is a great place to be a cyclist. I got everywhere on my bike, including in the winter on my bike. And the lakefront trail knit the whole city together. And unlike Seattle—and this is a little paradoxical—the roads are wider, the arterials are a little wider in Chicago. And so drivers hate you less because you’re a little less in the way than you are in Seattle where it’s all bottlenecks and gridlock. And so maybe, you know, if you don’t want to go to Amsterdam, and I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to go to Amsterdam, but if you don’t, go to Chicago and rent a bike for a week and get everywhere on the lakefront trails that you need to go, and you’ll see that it’s better.
Aaron: I mean, while we were on Seattle, Dan, I just wanted to get your take on how things are going there on the livable streets front. At least here in New York, my impression sometimes is like, wow, Seattle’s doing great things. The downtown has new bus lines, and they got rid of that highway on the waterfront. They turned it into, like, another service highway, right?
Dan Savage: It’s a six-lane highway with a, I don’t know, $3-billion tunnel that they built underneath it to replace the highway that they then replaced with a surface highway. It’s the worst of both worlds. And the tunnel that they built to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct in downtown Seattle is tolled. It’s tolled, and so people aren’t using it. And so it’s not gonna pay for itself the way they lied to us that it would pay for itself. The real tragedy of the Northridge earthquake in Seattle in, like, the early 2000s was that it almost collapsed the Alaskan Way Viaduct. It made it almost fall down. If it had fallen down, okay, hundreds and hundreds of people would have died, and that would have been terrible. But everyone would have seen that we didn’t need to replace it.
Dan Savage: You know, there was a time when the tunnel wasn’t open and they had to close the Alaskan Way Viaduct down to demo it, and everyone predicted traffic apocalypse, which is why we were building the tunnel. And then it didn’t happen because people found alternative modes of transit. We had just finished, you know, our rudimentary light rail line. People biked, people took the water taxi. People found other routes once, you know, we weren’t inducing demand by having this double-decker freeway through downtown. And now we have the six-, eight-lane highway on our waterfront, where a whole neighborhood could have gone in, two full streets could have gone in, housing could have gone in, a park could have gone in. Anything. And it’s a real tragedy.
Dan Savage: And the politicians responsible, our former mayor, Ed Murray, our former Governor Christine Gregoire, it was really just terror that if they did something that could be spun as inconveniencing somebody who thought they had a constitutional right to drive through a city at 70 miles an hour, that they would lose elections. He’s not the mayor anymore for scandalous reasons. She’s not the governor anymore because she’s just not. And so those future elections that they were worried about losing, they kind of would have lost anyway. And they’ve saddled the city with these infrastructure projects for a mode of transportation that is killing the planet and killed the waterfront again. Like, they used to talk about how they built the Alaskan Way Viaduct and killed the waterfront, and now they’ve built a six-lane superhighway over a multibillion dollar tunnel and killed the waterfront again.
Aaron: It’s so frustrating.
Dan Savage: It is really frustrating. And we have sharrows. You know, we have sharrows. We don’t—we have a handful of, you know, cut up spaghetti bike—you know, dedicated bike lanes that don’t connect with each other and don’t connect to anything and don’t get you any place. And we have sharrows, which I think all sharrows do is get drivers used to the idea of running over cyclists.
Sarah: Sharrows are like the domestic partnerships of bike infrastructure.
Dan Savage: Yeah. Yeah.
Doug: Dan, I want to bring it back to something you were saying before. You were talking about, like, a driver in Seattle will get angry at you when you’re on your bike even if you haven’t done anything wrong or inconvenienced them in the slightest. But there’s this sense that cyclists are cheating, right? And I don’t mean cheating in, like, the e-bike sense. I mean, drivers have to have insurance. They have to have a license. There’s all these laws and rules. It’s a system that has existed now for a hundred years, and then, like, suddenly these upstart cyclists come along and they’re, like, changing everything. They’re changing who’s important, who’s at the top of the food chain. And I think there is definitely some parallels with how …
Dan Savage: Status anxiety?
Doug: Well, yeah. Status anxiety, and how I think a lot of, you know, homophobic religious conservatives see gay people. It’s like, “You folks are cheating. Like, we’ve been doing this marriage thing for, you know, hundreds and hundreds, thousands of years. And along you come and you think you’re gonna just, you know, redefine it in, you know, since the 20-tens. How dare you? We’ve had to work hard for this. There are rules, and you come along and you change it.” I always see that parallel.
Dan Savage: Yeah. Religious conservatives. You have to follow the rules like Herschel Walker and Donald Trump.
Dan Savage: The rules are for other people. That’s one of the things we learned during the marriage equality debate. There is this perception that cycling is this elitist activity, that it’s recreational, that somebody on a bicycle has too much time on their hands and too much Lycra on their ass. And that’s often about, you know, where you choose to look, the cyclists you choose to look at, in the same way that someone’s like, “Oh, gay people are all like this. And it’s like, well, those are the gay people that you notice, or the gay people that you stare at, and you don’t notice the regular gay people or queer people all around you.
Dan Savage: You know, people see somebody on a $10,000 bicycle in bike fetish gear with snippy, snappy shoes and think that this person’s hobby is getting in the way of my commute to work. And they don’t see the cyclist who’s an immigrant on a bicycle because they don’t have a car or don’t have a license, getting to a construction job on the other side of town on a cheap banger bike because it doesn’t confirm their prejudices or their priors about who cyclists are. And I don’t know what the fix is for that, except more and more people getting out on bikes. And to try—you know, we told straight people, stop hating us so much and we can like—you know, we’ll be at the PTA meeting. And it’s the same thing, I think, with drivers and cyclists. If you can stop hating us so much, we’re good for you. We make more room on the road for your stupid car. Every once in a while you’re gonna have to slow down for a second. But if you add up all the time you saved because there’s fewer cars on the road with every bike on the road, or one less car on the road even just that day, because a lot of people who bike sometimes drive, too, that’s a favor that a cyclist did for you.
Dan Savage: And maybe sometimes you can’t see it because, you know, a cyclist might be in your way or rolling through a stop sign, whereas you have to stop. Not that anybody does stop anymore at stop signs in Seattle. You know, the pedestrian and cyclist deaths are way up, 40-year highs in Seattle. And it’s not because cyclists are throwing themselves in front of cars on suicide runs to the pharmacy, it’s because traffic laws aren’t enforced and they’re killing us. And the less safe they make it for bikes, the worse they make it for themselves. And how do you get through to them that a cyclist, somebody on a bike has done you a favor? Somebody on a bike is making the city a better place to drive, paradoxically.
Doug: So Dan, knowing that we were having you on, we put out the call to our Patreon supporters, and we asked people to sort of combine if they could The War on Cars with Savage Love to come up with bike-slash-sex-related questions. Aaron, do you want to read the first one?
Aaron: Yeah, sure. “Dear Dan, people can have sex in cars, but not so much on bikes or on public transportation. At least you’re not supposed to. If we really win the war on cars, where will teenagers go to get it on?”
Dan Savage: [laughs] Well, you can’t have sex on a bike, but you can have sex near a bike. Sometimes you can, with your partner, bike out to the boonies or the woods and get it on next to your bike. And getting a little cardio before you fuck is actually good for the fucking. That said, you know, you might want to rent that really old Tom Cruise movie, Risky Business. You can actually fuck on public transit. You have to be courteous and considerate of other riders. Make sure you’re in a car all by yourself with Rebecca de Mornay. And yeah, you can—there’s a certain amount of fucking in public that I think we have to accept or should be a little chiller about. Our fetishization of complete privacy is a little odd when you consider how humans evolved in social groups and used to share caves and beds. Yeah, turning a corner or getting on a subway and realizing two people have just leapt apart from each other because they were fucking right before you boarded, I don’t think you were terribly wrong and you don’t have much to complain about, and you should just be a little bit chiller about it. So yeah, if you want to fuck in an empty subway car, go ahead. Fuck in an empty subway car, but stop if somebody else boards the train.
Sarah: It’s very sensible advice.
Sarah: Our next letter. “People who ride bicycles are often portrayed in media as less desirable mates, a la Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. What do you think might help change this perception, and how might bicycle manufacturers think about applying the adage ‘Sex sells’ to how they market their products?”
Dan Savage: Cars are exoskeletons. There’s that point in middle age where a lot of men will purchase a sports car, and it’s just a way of once again having a non-doughy body. Maybe if we just pointed that out more, that your car is not abs and your car is not tits, and somebody who’s on a bike is gonna be in better physical shape, and you can infer from at least their endurance on the bike, their ability to ride the bike, that they’re probably gonna be a little bit better at riding you too. Yeah, I don’t understand. Like, I see cyclists everywhere I go. I never see somebody in a car and think “Hot!” You only get a little glimpse of somebody in a car. Somebody goes by on a bike in bike shorts, you have a pretty good take on whether that’s an ass you want to eat.
Dan Savage: So I think that—I think the culture of sneering at people on bikes and saying there’s something unsexy or geeky or low rent or cheap or weirdo about being on a bike are the people who created that film or television show who are stuck in their cars in LA going from one end of town to the other to make that show, being jealous of the people that they see on bikes who they think aren’t working and have more free time than they do. And so they smear them. But all of us on bikes, we know. We know. The people on bikes are hotter and smell better. You smell better when you get off a bike than when you get out of a hot and sweaty car.
Doug: Okay, Dan. So here is our next question. I think it’s a really good one. “Why is it so common for drivers to call people riding bikes homophobic slurs—generally the F-word? Is it just a generalized cultural insult being applied broadly, or is there some overlap of the threat people—well, actually just men—feel to their own identities seeing someone get around just fine and under their own power but in a different way, that calls up this very specific attack?”
Dan Savage: Somehow consumption, aggressive consumption and conspicuous consumption got knit together with the idea of being a man and being masculine. And it’s an expression of power and status to have a big, stupid, expensive, hard-to-maintain car that takes up a lot of space. That means you’re a man, you’re manly. You have the ability to make that purchase and maintain that automobile. And that status pressure can make people crack and make people miserable when they see you zip by on a bike enjoying yourself. And they’re mad at you for not buying into the same power structures or ideas of status and dominance that they have bought into. There’s a reason why the angriest and sometimes most vicious homophobes are themselves homosexuals, are closeted homosexuals. They see gay guys out there living the lives that they won’t let themselves live and they get mad. And I think the same thing plays out with a lot of people in cars. They see people out there who then they mistakenly assume are never in cars or don’t also have a car. And they see somebody who is leading a life very different from theirs, and they take that personally, and they get mad about it. And the go-to insult because of the conflation of consumption and masculinity or horsepower and masculinity is of course, that this is not a masculine person, that this is a—this is a fag.
Aaron: Okay, Dan. Here’s—here’s another one that we received from a listener. “My bicycle seat is the only thing my vagina gets to ride. I even named my bicycle after Seven of Nine, my favorite Star Trek character to help the relationship feel more reciprocal. I’ve tried millions of dates and events, and even moved to Montreal to try a new pool of monogamous lesbians, but all I’ve found are more potholes to bruise my lady parts. Should I be grateful and focus on what I do have with my bicycle? It seems too painful to aspire to intimacy with humans, and yet I crave the impossible. How can I find my chain link when I am rusted and jammed with loneliness?”
Dan Savage: Oh!
Dan Savage: I get variations on this question all the time, and I always feel bad when I have to answer it because the honest answer is it might not happen for you. There’s not someone out there for everyone. There’s not a lid for every pot. And it helps to just sort of accept that and be Zen about it. And all the partnered people that you look at, that you feel jealous of, they’re one bike accident away from being single again.
Dan Savage: All of us are potentially single again, so we have to build lives for ourselves that are rich and satisfying whether we’re partnered or not, because some of us are not gonna be partnered and we want to be happy regardless. And some of us who are partnered are going to be unpartnered by fate or circumstance at some point. And we don’t want to be miserable when we are almost, you know, a 50 percent chance one or the other of us inevitably left alone. And if you build a life for yourself that’s rich and rewarding, you’re likelier to encounter people who might want to be a part of your rich and rewarding life, or encounter people who share your values or share your interests because you’re just out there not living a life to find a partner, but living a life to find contentment, pleasure, usefulness, utility. Living a life of service.
Dan Savage: And you’ll run into people. And maybe you’ll run into somebody that wants to be your bike seat. Maybe you won’t. But if your life is happy and rich and you don’t, you won’t miss it as much. But I don’t know anybody who lives their life just to land a partner who isn’t miserable and partnerless again soon. So, you know, you moved to Montreal. Montreal’s a beautiful city. Enjoy it. Put yourself out there. Maybe you’ll meet somebody, maybe you won’t. There’s no settling down without settling for, as I like to say. So you say you want a lesbian partner. Great. You say you want a monogamous one. Maybe you can loosen up a little bit about that? There may be somebody out there who’s lesbian in a committed relationship that’s polyamorous or open, and you might find being somebody’s secondary partner or the one point in a V-shaped triad more satisfying than being alone. So if you can let go the monogamy hang up, you up your chances, particularly in this queer world as it exists now of finding a partner, maybe a partner you have to share with somebody else or get to share with somebody else. I think that’s the thing that a lot of people don’t get about polyamory is that it’s not like you get less of if you have a functional polyamorous relationship, you get more of everybody. And, you know, if the option for you is to grow and change and maybe be a little bit less invested in an exclusive relationship, maybe you can have a relationship.
Doug: Well, there’s a parallel there with bikes, because they say the optimal number of bikes is n plus one. So there we go.
Aaron: That’s true. Poly-bike-amorous.
Dan Savage: [laughs]
Sarah: So Dan, we’ve got one last question for you, and this one gets pretty close to home for us. “My spouse is really into bicycle activism and livable streets. Wherever we go, he’s pointing out bad street design, traffic engineering nonsense and the evils of minimum parking requirements in the automobile industry. Now, this is all I can see when I’m out and about, and it’s kind of a curse. I can’t unsee the bad streets. I can’t unhear the honking. Is this what I have to look forward to for the rest of my life? Is there anything to be done about this?” This one is signed, “Spouse of a podcast host.”
Doug: This also could have been written by Aaron’s wife.
Aaron: Yes. This sort of mash up, frankly.
Sarah: My wife on the other hand is the one who goes nuts, so, like, I’m the one who has to hold her back. But anyway, do you have any advice for her?
Dan Savage: It may be the price of admission you have to pay to be in this relationship. And there may be nothing that I can say. If you can’t tune it out and you can’t live with it, well then you’ll have to get a divorce. But if you don’t want to get a divorce, you’ll either have to learn how to tune it out or just roll with it and see what you see. See what your spouse opened your eyes to. I’m a ranter, and my husband knows that when I’m, like, off on a rant that don’t interrupt because it just extends it. So when your spouse wants to, like, rip into curbs or poor street design, let ’em. Doesn’t always have to be a conversation. And think about other things. I gotta say, though, just to, like, be meta about it for a second, the things that we complain about our spouses in a public forum like this are the things we secretly enjoy most about our spouses. This kind of performative griping is, like, drawing attention to something that may have annoyed us at first or sometimes, but that we actually really dig. So it was a compliment in disguise for you.”
Doug: All right.
Aaron: Good stuff.
Doug: I’m feeling pretty good about myself. Thanks, Dan.
Dan Savage: You’re welcome.
Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Dan Savage, I want to thank you so much for being with us today.
Dan Savage: Thank you so much for letting me invite myself on your excellent podcast. And I will return to listening and lurking and really enjoying the show.
Doug: If you want to support The War on Cars, go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and join today starting at just $3 per month. You’ll get exclusive access to bonus content, and we will send you stickers!
Sarah: Thanks to everyone who has signed up on Patreon, including our top supporters: the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, Virginia Baker, Martin Mignon and Mark Hedlund. Thanks to our sponsor, Transit Center. You can listen to their podcast, High Frequency, wherever you get your podcasts.
Doug: And thanks to Cleverhood. For 15 percent off the best rain gear for walking and cycling—including the official War on Cars anorak, go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars, and enter code HOLIDAYLIGHTS at checkout.
Sarah: 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 Sarah Goodyear.
Doug: I’m Doug Gordon.
Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek. And this is The War on Cars.