SUMMER SPECIAL: Meet Mr. Barricade
Doug Gordon: Hey all, Doug Gordon here. It’s the last blast of summer, and we’re taking it easy. So we’re digging into the archives to release my interview with Vignesh Swaminathan, the urban planner and TikTok star, otherwise known as Mr. Barricade. It’s a taste of what you can access if you sign up and become a Patreon supporter of the podcast by visiting TheWaronCars.org. We’ll be back soon with brand new episodes, and we have a lot of great stuff on tap for the rest of the year. But first, here’s a word from our sponsor.
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Doug: Hello, I’m Doug Gordon, and welcome to a special bonus episode of The War on Cars just for Patreon supporters. Are you on TikTok? I’m old, so I am not. But I do know that there are a lot of viral stars you might see dancing or stitching together funny videos. And among them is a very unlikely celebrity: Vignesh Swaminathan, also known as Mr. Barricade.
[TIKTOK CLIP: Hey, all. Mr. Barricade here. I want to show you this post. Do you see this post right here? It’s just a balloon. When I step on it, it folds flat and it bounces back up like nothing. Barricade!]
[TIKTOK CLIP: Mr. Barricade here to show how we took away a lane and added an on-street trail in a residential neighborhood on Doyle Street in Emeryville, California, designed by yours truly. Let’s check it out.]
[TIKTOK CLIP: Hey, all. Mr. Barricade here to explain the benefits of a shared street. Shared streets are designed with pavers, bumps and art so people feel the road as opposed to having to follow lines that have rules.]
[TIKTOK CLIP: Hey, all. Mr. Barricade here to talk about the benefits of outdoor dining. As we come out of COVID, there’s gonna be a need to revamp the businesses, and having outdoor dining is one of the best ways to do so. By taking out a car lane and underutilized parking during this COVID time, we can create this public space. We can improve the aesthetics of traffic control equipment with vinyl wrap and paint. And we always need to plan for ADA access.]
Doug: Vignesh is the CEO of Crossroad Lab, an engineering and urban planning firm in Cupertino, California, that designs bike and pedestrian projects in and around the Bay Area. And he uses temporary materials to do quick builds of complete streets. On TikTok, you will often see Vignesh dancing, doing his signature move of pulling his finger across his mustache and pretending to stir a pot. He also posts quick takes on everything from how protected bike lanes work, to the history of redlining and segregation. The Mr. Barricade feed, it has hundreds of thousands of followers. It’s obviously a lot of fun, but it’s also an ingenious tool for community engagement, for fighting racism and for giving people the ability to see their streets in a new way. So enjoy my conversation with Mr. Barricade, Vignesh Swaminathan.
Doug: Vignesh Swaminathan. Welcome to The War on Cars.
Vignesh Swaminathan: Thank you for having me. Excited to be here.
Doug: So you’re a huge celebrity now. How does it feel?
Vignesh Swaminathan: It feels interesting. I’m happy that I’m known for my interest and my own personality and things that I’m very proud of. And so it’s been a fun journey these last six months.
Doug: We’re going to get into your TikTok feed, but I will say that just before this interview, I was cruising through it, and there’s a run of I think at least three videos of you purchasing probably every copy of the San Jose Mercury News in the entire region. I don’t know if there are any left for regular readers. They’ve all gone to your family, I suppose?
Vignesh Swaminathan: Yes, they’ve gone to my family and friends here in the South Bay. It was very exciting for me that day to be on the front page of the Mercury News. I was blessed that the writer of the article is actually a fan and had been following me for a long time, even following me from before I started posting urban design and urban planning content. For somebody to get into the news from my area who is not in the tech industry is kind of a new thing for a lot of folks. And so a lot of my parents’ friends were telling me and my parents that I was on the front page before even I knew about it.
Doug: It’s great. It was so much fun to see. I want to talk about your background. You grew up in California, and what’s your educational background? What got you into this?
Vignesh Swaminathan: So I grew up in Sunnyvale and Cupertino, and I’ve always been interested in how cities work. I studied civil engineering in college when most of my friends were studying computer science from the Bay Area, South Bay Area. I went to the civil mainly because I wanted to work on home construction. I kind of saw how the Bay Area housing crisis and more was affecting a lot of other issues. And so I wanted to get into home design and home construction. And then I got an internship with the city of San Jose kind of midway through my civil engineering bachelor’s that helped me kind of formulate that I wanted to do transportation. This was a very unique role.
Vignesh Swaminathan: At the time I was working on a parking app with some friends about how to show people where you could park for free. It was essentially a static map that just showed what blocks, places you could park for free. Not really showing if it was available or not, but just basically just holding that information. And I was approaching cities and colleges asking about data that they had, and the city of San Jose didn’t have much at all of any data about their parking. And so I got an internship there working in parking and downtown operations. And at that role, I was very lucky for that role because I didn’t have to deal with some of the jurisdictional issues that happen or inter-political issues that happen with a larger city like San Jose when I work in downtown operations. In most cities, there is a Department of Transportation that deals with operations, and then there’s a public works that deals with big capital improvement projects. And they don’t work well with each other, and it’s very frustrating because they both do the same type of work, but they have different interests. And the public works is dealing with paving, drainage, curbs, sidewalks, and DOT’s dealing with mode shift, volume, striping, signage, signals. And what was nice about working in downtown operations and parking is we kind of did all of that in one group because we managed it downtown. So I was exposed to a lot of different disciplines of civil to get the end goal of building either curbs, parking spaces, curb extensions and bike lanes.
Doug: And I did notice in your TikTok that there’s a big focus—we’re going to get into the transportation-related stuff, but there’s a big focus on—you have a hashtag #DrainGang.
[TIKTOK CLIP: What are you doing in the drain, idiot?]
[TIKTOK CLIP: Ha ha. Drain Gang!]
Doug: That’s the engineering part of your background, then?
Vignesh Swaminathan: It is, it is. So after I worked with the city of San Jose, I went to go work for a heavy highway consulting firm. And I worked on a lot of major highway interchange projects, and did a lot of grading and drainage, which is a lot of what civil engineers do is grading, meaning how flat or how steep is the ground going to be? And drainage is, after you make it steep, where does the water need to go? And TikTok is a platform of music and dancing and people copying and doing trends. And Drain Gang is a Swedish experimental trap group, and this group makes quite unique music. And I combined one of the dance moves that I usually do of pulling on my mustache and stirring a pot. And I combine that with that audio to explain different types of drains to folks in my TikToks. By doing that, people are very intrigued by oh, there’s so many different types of drains, and they vary in size and design, and that’s the case. Depending on the soil and the terrain, we have different types of large pipes or open channels. And it’s around us all the time and we don’t look at it. It’s not the sexiest topic. It might be sexy to me and some of my peers, but not to everybody. And I’m making it into a way that people can—they see it now when they go about their life and they go about their day to be like, “Oh, there’s an inlet. There’s a curb. There’s an open water channel. Oh, and I saw that on TikTok.”
Doug: You’re known as Mr. Barricade. Where did that nickname come from?
Vignesh Swaminathan: So when I was working at the city of San Jose in parking, in downtown operations, part of downtown operations is managing events, festivals and construction in the downtown. So whenever there’s a need for a lane closure for tree trimming, or a new development’s building a new sidewalk, or if there’s a block party or a marathon, I was the person who managed the cones and barricades for the city of San Jose. And there I learned a lot about coordination, coordinating with different types of people, coordinating with people who don’t know much about the roadway, working with private products, working with emergency access and working with the community. And through that process, the community started to call me Mr. Barricade. And this was really exciting to me because I quickly saw how we could change the culture of a road within a matter of hours. It went from being a busy speedway, to suddenly people are drinking and doing salsa in the street and there’s speakers and there’s kids doing hopscotch. And I saw the value in that, and that helped me kind of get into my new role.
Doug: So you get on TikTok, you now have 437,000 followers. Did you ever imagine it would take off in such a way?
Vignesh Swaminathan: No, not at all. When I originally joined TikTok, it was really a way for me to kind of get my brain to not think about work, to be honest. I work and I run my business, and I also have two political roles. I sit as a Cupertino Sustainability Commission chair and BTA Citizen Advisory Committee and Citizen Watchdog Committee chair. And so the combination of my political roles and my business has been very, very busy. And TikTok was originally a way for me to kind of make a dance video in between Zoom meetings, kind of get my brain off of stuff. And I built a following from that initially, from folks who liked my dances, from folks who liked my suits—because I wear a suit every day for work, because I have meetings, and people thought that I was wearing a suit for TikTok, when in reality I’m wearing a suit because I have a commission meeting later that night or I’m meeting a council member or something.
Doug: And I should mention right now that you are wearing a purple tie with a matching pocket scarf as well.
Vignesh Swaminathan: Yes, sir.
Doug: Very dapper. Yeah, I’m wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, my pandemic wear. So feeling very inadequate in your presence, but yes.
Vignesh Swaminathan: It’s been fun, because I’ve always been wearing suits for years. And then during the pandemic I was like, “You know what? I’ve been wearing the suit all this time. I’m just going to continue doing this.” And I just kept it going, and then after the first couple of months, by March of 2020, I just was like, “This is what I’m doing for the rest of the year.” And so folks started following me for my suits, and they also followed me for me being Indian. There’s not a lot of Indian presence on TikTok. And also there’s typically, I would say with a lot of Indian Americans, we deal with different Indian-American experiences. And if I could talk a little bit about that. There are kind of two extremes that come up with immigrant experiences, if I may.
Vignesh Swaminathan: And there are folks who are looking for ways to connect to their culture. They do a lot of work to learn about their culture. They learn about the dress, the music, language, and they want to showcase their culture on social media and to their friends, because of what they learn. As being an American, you’re kind of disconnected from things that happen in India, so there are certain ways and traditions that people like to hold holy, and there’s a lot of folks that showcase that in a really beautiful way on social media. There’s also folks who may have not had as much respect for their own culture and may be used to being bullied throughout their life and being told to make fun of their own culture. And there’s folks—even Indian people—who mock Indian accents and mock their own—themselves and and make stereotypical jokes, and they also have a social media following of folks who maybe are Indian who are also being bullied, or not even Indian, but any culture who are also being bullied, and you have this extreme of folks who make fun of their culture, make fun of their parents and et cetera, because of their dealing with their own self-reflecting issues.
Vignesh Swaminathan: And a lot of Indian people, they only see these two extremes. They don’t see someone in the middle who says, “Hey, I’m proud of my culture. I don’t know everything about my culture, but I respect it and I know a lot about it. I’m also not going to make fun.” And I was dealing with a lot of these two extremes on TikTok. I was defending the folks who are trying to hold on to traditional values and seeing people who either copy or mock their stuff. And I also was telling other folks, Indian folks on the internet, to not make fun of themselves and be proud of their own skin tone and be proud of their culture. And I attract a lot of folks of many different backgrounds who found value in somebody talking through those experiences. As a 30-year-old man, I’ve dealt with a lot of that self-reflection on both sides of this perspective as I’ve grown, and I was able to talk to and help a lot of young people deal with that through social media. I also dealt with a lot of hate and racism on the app initially, before I started posting engineering content, and I dealt with it this way in a very mature explanation way. I didn’t deal with being angry or blocking too many folks. And I think that helped me attract a different kind of following.
Doug: What would you do, other than just post through it and post another video of you dancing or ignoring it, like, how would you engage with that type of response from people?
Vignesh Swaminathan: [laughs] I think in a very TikTok unique way. What I did—and you’re going to laugh at this—is I created a—I wanted to figure out who’s who and who’s good and who understands this perspective of anti-racism, anti-bullying, anti-harassment. And I started a group that I called Traffic Control. And Traffic Control was a bunch of folks who had MUTCD traffic signs as their profile pictures. And for those who don’t know, MUTCD is the manual of uniform traffic control devices. And I showed people on TikTok how to find the actual sign chart and find their favorite sign. And through that, I started to teach people about signage and roadway and what I do for work. And I had a bunch of people—I had almost 2,000 people with traffic signs as their profile pictures. And when anybody would say anything racist, if anybody said, “Oh, go back to 7-Eleven or tech support scamming company,” or anything that was like even remotely stereotypical, immediately you’d see folks in that go and comment about why that was wrong, and some of them would report that comment or report that person.
Vignesh Swaminathan: And I created a group of folks who were very aware of what was inappropriate and what was not. Even I had to train them a little bit. There were some times they would jump onto certain things that weren’t actually offensive. Like, there were a few times when people didn’t know my name was actually Vignesh. And someone would be like, “Oh, thank you, Vignesh.” And they’d be like, “Why are you making up a name for him?” And it’s like, “No, his name’s actually Vignesh.” Because I was getting called, like, a lot of random Indian names because in social media, there isn’t a lot of representation and so people would be like, “Oh, you’re like Aziz.” Or “You’re like Russell Peters” or something, because there’s only so many Indians in social media and the internet, so in their brain they only can relate to, “Oh, you’re like that brown cartoon character or something,” right? Because that’s all they can—these kids can relate to because they haven’t had too many friends and experiences. And so I trained a group of folks, and they were continuously going and reporting and speaking against that. And that helped.
Vignesh Swaminathan: That was my first kind of segue into showcasing my work and my engineering and my business was through that showcasing people to science. And I started talking about the different types of science and what they’re for, then started talking to people about drainage because I always had a passion for drainage. And then I started—after I did the drainage and started talking about engineering principles and I started to showcase my actual work. And then I started talking about community outreach and race and community outreach and issues with historical race. And I started talking about how hate speech is inappropriate, and from what I was dealing with on TikTok to why we do our meetings in different languages. And we care about how we explain things. And I try to talk about gentrification and issues with gentrification and displacement. And I slowly ventured the TikTok group into this, and a lot of folks who follow me would be like, “Hey, I used to be a hater, but now I’m really into this stuff,” right?
Doug: That’s great.
Vignesh Swaminathan: And it’s nice to see folks who have been with me for a while, and I’ve worked with them for a while. I have a block list of zero people. I had a block list of almost 4,000 people at one point because it got out of hand. But I’ve unblocked them and I’ve dealt with that hate, and now I have a following where I don’t have to deal with that kind of hate anymore.
Doug: So you’ve hit on a lot of things there, many of which were why I wanted to talk to you. Not merely because you’re the TikTok star of the urban planning and engineering world, but because a lot of the work that you’re doing covers almost everything that we all deal with in the planning process. So you talked about racism and community outreach and explaining new concepts. I mean, you’re in San Jose, which is a car-dominated part of the country. Let’s talk about TikTok itself then as a community outreach tool. How have you found it useful? You know, we on The War on Cars, part of our job in a 30-40 minute podcast is explaining sometimes really complicated subjects to a general audience. And I like to joke sometimes when people ask me about the podcast that yeah, I know that the true believers are gonna be listening and liking what we do, but I also want to make a podcast for my mother in law who lives in suburban Chicago and drives everywhere. I want her to be able to understand—if not always agree, but at least understand what is going on. So tell me about TikTok as a tool towards doing exactly that, as community outreach, as explainer. How do you do that in a 15 second to one minute TikTok video? How do you go into something saying, “I have shot enough and said enough that I’m going to satisfy?” I mean, I think this is a challenge in my television work, where I have to make a documentary where a person is tuning in because they know everything about the subject, but I also have to satisfy the person who is curious and doesn’t know a single thing about the subject. How do you balance that and talk to different audiences?
Vignesh Swaminathan: When I started my career, community outreach wasn’t always done the best way. A lot of cities wanted to rush community outreach because of the heavy duty nature of the project, or historical issues that they didn’t want to address. So a lot of cities will try to have the meetings at 3:00 p.m. and just try to get ‘er done. You know, we’ve seen how doing the outreach in different ways with more access to the community, so the community can access the information and give feedback is very, very important. So when COVID hit, it really affected our industry quite a bit, because our industry had just figured out a concept called QuickBuild, which I’ve been working on, doing tactical urbanist projects in the ground and using that as a form of community outreach.
Vignesh Swaminathan: And that has proven to us as being the best way of community outreach, because then we can get feedback from people on the ground without actually spending the big bucks on the ground. Without ripping up the road, we can get the community to put down art and paint and posts and all that fun stuff that you and I have been talking about back in 2018 and 2019. And we were going full force with that, but then 2020 happened and we couldn’t do that anymore. It was hard to communicate to the community while everybody’s at home. And so we tried to figure out different outreach tools such as online, and dealing with all the issues with online because not every family has access to the internet. We saw that with schools and parents needing wi-fi access, and we couldn’t get people to come to meetings.
Vignesh Swaminathan: And during this time, I kind of felt that social media is a great tool to be able to communicate to folks of stuff that I’m repeating all the time. But it is difficult. I made a video recently about redlining in Oakland, and just redlining in general. And what that video was about is basically I was just pointing out that, hey, a lot of redlined communities have poor infrastructure. Here’s a couple of intersections that don’t have any drains, and that’s why the pavement’s messed up.
[TIKTOK CLIP: I’m in a historically redlined community here, and there is no drainage. There’s no drain here. There’s no drain here. There’s no drain gang. It’s not here. The lack of drains has messed up the concrete road, and you can see how poorly maintained the asphalt road is because there’s no drains. The water sits here, chews it up, gets underneath, messes up the soil, and you have potholes.]
Vignesh Swaminathan: Really, really basic stuff. And anybody else in any redlined community, whether you’re in the East Coast, you’d be like, “Hey, you know what? Like, this neighborhood also doesn’t have any drains. That’s why the pavement’s messed up.” And that’s a very simple way. That’s the intro into what other videos I can make. And that’s kind of where when I talk about big issues like that, I mean, talking about the drainage is the first step. It opens the doors for me to talk about more aspects of it as I move forward, right? So if I make another video about redlining, I’ve got to talk about more elements after that. And a lot of people who would have seen the first video would automatically get the second video because they saw the first video, and because I’m using similar hashtags, I’m using similar language and similar text. And so that’s how I’m using the TikTok algorithm to my advantage in here is by me putting different series, and eventually you’ll come to different folks’ feeds. I don’t have a feature that’s really important that I need on TikTok, and I’m waiting for TikTok to give me this feature. TikTok has been rolling out a feature called “Playlists,” and I can create a playlist of my videos. And so that way I can organize my videos and saying “These are my engineering videos, these are my Drain Gang videos, these are my dance videos,” and I can organize a little bit more, but I don’t have that feature yet in TikTok
Doug: Although I might argue that, you know, the person who comes to you for the dance videos, if they happen to be served up a redlining video next, that’s not a bad way to get your message in front of folks.
Vignesh Swaminathan: Exactly, exactly. And that’s kind of what I’ve been doing with this is, as I said, I’ve been dealing with a lot of racism on this app and people who deny that racism exists. And they still do that. And when I talk about redlining as a problem, it’s counteracting their arguments. It’s like, “Oh, this is what systemic racism looks like,” right? And I think exposing a lot of different people to the content is really cool. And I’ve been trying to incorporate the content together, doing a dance video in a public space, explaining what that public space is for, or dancing on one of my projects and explaining what I did and why I did it is cool. And a lot of times what’s nice is I’ll explain something really big in a video, and then people will ask questions. And what’s nice about TikTok is I can create a video that responds to that question, and everybody who saw the first video will get the response in their feed, which is very, very nice. So I get a lot of folks who ask the right questions, and I know they’re going to ask that question. And I’m ready for another video to follow up, because I know that question is going to come up.
Doug: So you seem to have a really unique skill, because I think sometimes people who are really deep in this work—and this is true of engineers and planners, but it’s true of scientists, it’s true of Star Wars fans, it’s true of anybody who has a deep knowledge of a specific subject, are not often very good at explaining things. Or they think that, because they are so passionate about this, everyone shares that passion. But obviously, that’s not the case. You know, you have such a deep historical knowledge of this stuff, and in talking to you, your empathy for marginalized communities really shines through. But I was also thinking in watching your videos, your literal point of view is shown in these videos. A lot of times it’s like the camera is held at your eye level facing out. Maybe we see your face at the beginning when you introduce yourself, but then it turns around and we see your hand pointing to a flex post.
[TIKTOK CLIP: To reduce the risk of any sort of crash on a green phase, we put a very tight radius here. So a vehicle is forced to slow down when making this turn, and they view the bike at a better angle and not in their blind spot.]
Doug: Tell me a bit more about your sort of more artistic choices when you’re making these short videos.
Vignesh Swaminathan: So if I’m in the middle of the lane, I’m saying, “Hey, if you’re in a car lane, you’re going to be turning this way,” or “If you’re on a bike, you’re going to be dealing—you’re going to be interacting with cars this way,” is really, really, really important. Too many times in community outreach meetings we just show people a big plan view because we’re like, “Hey, look at this cool engineering diagram I drew.” And people are looking at it and they’re like, “What? Like, which way is north? Okay, that’s my street. Oh, this is where the plan is,” right? And that’s how people orient themselves. So doing the video is a great way for me to do that.
Doug: So one final question: what’s the next TikTok video? What will you be explaining? What project are you working on that really has you wanting to go out there and shoot something new?
Vignesh Swaminathan: Sure. So I have a couple that I’ll be doing. I’ve been doing some stitches with funny videos on TikTok where if there’s video of somebody in a drain or there’s a video of some building collapse or something that’s related to engineering, I’ll explain it. I recently did a video that I thought was very funny where there was a fight in the downtown and people are beating each other up. And then I stitched the video and I’m talking about the utility spray paint colors on the ground that are around the fight.
Doug: Yes, I saw that one. It was great.
Vignesh Swaminathan: I think stuff like that is funny. I have a few projects to showcase at the new BART station that we built. We built a two-way bicycle facility to the new BART station in San Jose. And that’s really going to be used quite a bit when BART opens back up and when people start using transit again. So I’d like to showcase that. And right now, I feel I’m barely getting started with the TikTok. It’s just kind of coming up. To be honest with you, it’s still formulating what Mr. Barricade is, what I’m going to be showcasing on the channel. And I have so many more projects and so many more clients to work with over the next 30, 40 years of my business and career. The main goal of my firm is to help cities with these quick-build projects and protect the intersection design projects as they build out their bike-ped master plans. And so there needs to be a new wave of this kind of community outreach. And I feel that TikTok is going to be the way for me to help cities with that. And I think that will be a great way to attract people to come to the project, to learn about it from behind a phone screen, and to use it well before we actually spend the big bucks on building things out fully. It’s definitely a new frontier in some social media.
Doug: Vignesh, thank you for joining The War on Cars. This was fascinating.
Vignesh Swaminathan: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.
Doug: That’s it for my interview with Mr. Barricade, Vignesh Swaminathan. Thanks Vignesh for being on the podcast. I will put links to his TikTok and his work projects in the show notes, so check it out. Many thanks to all of you for your continued support. Honestly, we have been sending out stickers and all kinds of stuff to people all over the world, and it continues to be so humbling that people are supporting us wherever they live. We really couldn’t do it without you. We have some big episodes coming up. I think you’re going to love them, so thanks again.
Doug: On behalf of my co-hosts Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, I’m Doug Gordon, and this is The War on Cars.
Doug: Vignesh is the CEO of Crossroad Lab, an engineering and urban planning firm in Cupertino, California. Car alarm. Oy. All right, that’s better. Vignesh is the CEO of Crossroads Lab, an engineering and urban planning firm in …