Sarah Goodyear [ad music]: If you, like us, are using these quarantine times to catch up on some podcast-listening, then we have a great new show to recommend we think you’ll be into. It’s called The Sidewalk Weekly. The hosts are Eric Jaffe and Vanessa Quirk, career journalists now working for an urban tech company called Sidewalk Labs. They break down the week’s top stories, interview experts, and they do it all in about 25 minutes. You should subscribe to The Sidewalk Weekly wherever you listen to podcasts or visit sidewalklabs.com/podcast.
Woodrow Phoenix: A lot of what we do societally is based on us not thinking about it too deeply. If we thought about what it took to drive a car at 80 miles an hour and how likely it is we could crash… Would you really want to do that? You probably think, okay, that’s a bit risky. We just tune all that stuff out. And that way we, we can do it.
Doug Gordon: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon. You might have missed it, but back in April, we tweeted a thread about Action Comics #12 from 1939 in which Superman takes on reckless driving. It’s a remarkable historical artifact from early in the automobile age when cars were seen as dangerous invaders in cities and a real threat to public safety, the kind only the Man of Steel himself could defeat. After posting that, I was curious to see if other comic books had ever taken on the subject of cars. That led me down an internet rabbit hole where I eventually landed on a new graphic novel by a British writer and artist named Woodrow Phoenix. The book is called Crash Course, the subtitle: If You Want to Get Away with Murder Buy a Car. Now, for listeners who might not be familiar with the form, it’s not unusual for graphic novels to take on serious subjects. There’s Maus by Art Spiegelman, which is about the Holocaust; Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical account of growing up during the Iranian Revolution; and March, a trilogy about the civil rights movement written by Congressman John Lewis. But as far as I know, Crash Course is the only graphic novel about the problems with cars, including the way in which our entire built environment caters to driving at the expense of walking and cycling, the dangers of SUV cars and self-driving cars, and the more recent and disturbing trend of automobiles being used as weapons against protesters. As you’ll hear, Woodrow Phoenix describes Crash Course not just as a graphic novel, but as a work of journalism. But because of the way he mixes words and beautifully hand-drawn pictures, it’s far more impactful than any book on the subject I can recall. Honestly, I have read it multiple times since doing this interview and I find something new in it with each pass. Woodrow Phoenix’s work has appeared in newspapers like The Guardian. He’s also done TV projects for Disney and Cartoon Network. Crash Course is actually an update to his book Rumble Strip, which was published in the UK in 2009. One very quick warning. The episode doesn’t contain spoilers, since Crash Course has no plot per se. But there are visual choices and subjects Phoenix covers in such creative and surprising ways that I at least want to give you a chance to experience the book with fresh eyes like I did. If that sounds like something you want to do, you can stop, go purchase the book, and listen to this later. That being said, even if you haven’t read the book yet, I think you’re going to find this conversation fascinating. Woodrow Phoenix, thank you for joining The War on Cars.
Woodrow: Well, thanks for having me here.
Doug: So I want to start at the end, actually, with your afterword. You write in the afterword, “I wrote this book to make you mad,” and I thought that would be a very good place for us to really begin our conversation. Can you explain what you meant by that very declarative statement?
Woodrow: I was thinking about this book for a long time before I actually made it. And one of the things that made me think this is something that’s worth talking about is the time I spent working in Los Angeles. I was there for six months working at Cartoon Network, making a pilot for a, for a TV cartoon show. And I figured, okay, I’m going to be staying at a hotel that’s like four blocks from the studio. So I don’t need a car. I’ll just stay and, and then I’ll just walk there. And what I found was that after about four or five days, I couldn’t go anywhere to eat, because everything in Burbank closed at like 9 p.m., I couldn’t go to any supermarkets because the closest one was like ten blocks away and there were no sidewalks. Like, I couldn’t walk to them because I had to walk in the street. So I wound up getting a car because I had just no choice, really. So I thought this was interesting and weird and kind of ridiculous. And the more time I spent in Los Angeles, and the whole time I spent in the car, I kind of realized this is a very different way to live. It explains a lot, I think, about how, um, people think about themselves in the US because you’re very isolated. You know, you’re always in your car by yourself going to places. And you don’t have those kinds of random, serendipitous interactions that you get when you’re using public transport. It’s very, very solipsistic and very, very narcissistic and very… Just, you’re just alone all the time. And it made me feel very different about myself and about people around me. And I thought it was a really strange and bad kind of mental state to be in. I mean, I really like driving, you know, I really enjoy it, you know. But when you have to do it all the time by yourself in that way it becomes something else, I think it becomes a kind of compulsive and weird. I mean, the whole idea behind this was just to try and make something. It’s an argument, obviously. It’s a, it’s a polemic. The idea is I am… I want to change your mind about, about this thing that you do every day. And, and I thought that this kind of experiential way of doing it was the best way to do that. So there are, there are all kinds of aspects to that. I don’t think this could have been a film. I don’t think it could have been just a prose book, because it’s all about showing you things and making you see things in a way that will stay with you.
Doug: I thought about that a lot while reading it, because even I, someone who is well aware of every argument that you’re making, even I was compelled to continue reading this and read it again and then again, because I did feel that, that marriage of drawing and words and it was all very affecting to me.
Woodrow: I thought it was very important to make the images as attractive as I could because… I mean, a lot of this stuff is attractive. I mean, I like the way they look. I like the way things are designed. I love the way that iconography works. I think there’s, there’s lots of amazing design choices out there. But also the more attractive the images are is the more powerfully they’re going to hit you, when I talk about what that attractiveness is linked to, so it’s kind of a evil trick, in a way.
Doug: And that, that’s the evil trick of driving, is that the, um, —and I think you conveyed this so well (man, I could talk about this for hours) — the, you, you do this thing in the book where, you know, you show the monotony of our built environment for cars. And from one page to the next, the image might not actually change, but the subject changes. And you go from that feeling of power, perhaps, or pleasure in being in a car to the real menacing threat of danger that you impose on other people as a driver and that you might experience as a pedestrian.
Woodrow: Repetition is a really important device in all that kind of stuff because the idea of juxtaposing things and then changing how they feel just by changing, you know, how you described them is a really strong way to get people to understand something. And that’s why I did that. And again, it’s something you can do, you can do very easily with comics and it’s very hard to do that with other things because of that thing you describe of, of saying, “Oh, did I see that before?” Go back and look. “Oh no, something different. Oh, no, it is the same thing. But something else has changed.
Doug: So you wrote Rumble Strip, which was the earlier version of this book in 2009 based on that experience. And now this book, Crash Course, has been updated. There’s new material in it. What has changed both in your thinking of this issue and in the book itself between 2009 and 2020?
Woodrow: Well, I guess there’s lots of small things and a few big things. I mean, I guess the biggest big thing really is the change in both the kind of profile of cars and driving and the way they’re used, because… I mean, even in 2009, there were starting to be SUVs around. You know, I recall one thing that amazed me was being in a parking lot of a cafe and this gigantic, I think might have been a Ford Explorer. It came rolling in and I hadn’t seen one before at that point. And this, this thing was like the size of a truck and, and it kind of… It rolled up to the food stand. And it was, it was, it was bigger than the stand was. And this tiny woman got out, which was also hilarious to me, but you could, I could see that she felt really good to be in something that protected her like this. You know, she was much bigger than everything around there and she had that kind of confidence that came from feeling like, yeah, I’m okay, I can roll over anything that gets in the way. It’s good. And she had that kind of swagger that people have when they get out those kinds of cars.
Doug: And you get into that a little bit in the book because you talk about this exoskeleton that cars become. But when we talk about cars as an exoskeleton, sometimes we imagine them as like Ripley, in Alien, you know, with a big robot suit…
Woodrow: Yeah. Yeah.
Doug: …That she’s wearing to fight the creature. But you kind of go a little deeper than that, that you talk about spam in a can. That actually you aren’t really that protected. It’s more like this little egg carton that can kill you as much as it can kill the people outside of your car. Could you talk about that a little bit?
Woodrow: Well, I spent lots of time talking to people about their own attitudes towards driving and what they thought. So one of the stories that you might remember is about a guy who has a small, zippy black sports car and he gets rid of it to get an SUV because he is worried about his daughter, you know, getting crushed when they’re out driving. And that was a very real thing. You know, he said that he felt very insecure in his low-down sportscar. And it was great to drive in, but it was very, very low down. You know, you were kind of half-lying in the seat and you couldn’t see over anything. So I could see how he felt like, okay, I can’t, I can’t have my child in this car because if we club anything, that’s it. It’s over.
Doug: But then you talk about how other people seeing this person in a big car think, “I need a bigger car,” and it becomes an arms race, um, which I thought, you know, as an advocate who works on safe streets, these are all phrases that we use in our world. So it really felt to me in reading the book that obviously you had done your homework. This is more than just something you thought about after seeing a Ford Explorer in a parking lot. And in fact, unlike a lot of graphic novels, this has a whole bibliography and sources at the end.
Woodrow: Well, I tell people it’s not a graphic novel. It’s actually, you know, it’s journalism, but it’s in, it’s in a comics form. But it’s not a novel, you know. It, it’s graphic journalism, really. But the thing was, yeah, because I, I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just my ideas and my thoughts. So I spoke to lots of people — pretty much everybody I came across, I would ask questions — and I did a lot of reading. You know, I read lots of traffic stuff. I went to the Department of Transport and read through all the abstracts. I read insurance reports. I looked at newspaper articles. Even looked at some court reports. Just get an idea of, you know, all the different ways that the legal and social aspects of this thing all tie up, because I wanted to just make sure that, okay, this is what I think. Let’s see if other people feel the same way or what… I mean, sometimes, you know, people said things I wasn’t expecting, which is also good. But mostly, it was… I think we’re all kind of thinking the same kinds of things, but we just kind of feel like for some reason we can’t really say them. I mean, one of the things about making this book is… I think a lot of what we do societally is based on us not thinking about it too deeply. It’s like we have to not think about it, because if we really thought about these things, we wouldn’t be able to do them. Like, you know, if we thought about what it took to drive a car at 80 miles an hour on the freeway and how likely it is we could crash or someone could crash into us or something could go, could go wrong with the car. It’s like, would you really want to do that? You probably wouldn’t. You’d probably think, okay, that’s a bit risky. But we, we, we just tune all that stuff out. And that way we can, we can do it.
Doug: That, that’s exactly how I think about driving these days. I can’t get in a car without thinking this could end catastrophically.
Woodrow: And actually, I think, actually, you know, I think we should be thinking that way, because that’s, that’s the thing. I think if we were all a lot more conscious about what it meant to be in a car, then I think people would drive, you know, in a much better and much safer way. But because we’re encouraged to forget all that stuff, that’s why people behave so recklessly. And it’s also… I think it’s a, it’s an interesting kind of quirk of human nature. It’s like the safer we are, it’s the more we feel able to misbehave and do crazy stuff. You know, it’s like, in a way, the very fact that SUVs are built to be so safe and so armored makes people inside them behave more recklessly because they feel cushioned.
Doug: I want to talk about the visual choices that you make in the book because it is obviously a visual medium. And you start with a very stark metaphor. You compare… Well, you imagine a world in which pianos are dangling precariously over everyone’s heads as they walk down the sidewalk or across the street.
Woodrow: Well, really, you can just imagine if you had to walk down a street where there was, you know, half a ton of wood and metal hanging over you — well, several of them, in fact, you know, every couple of yards you go there be another one — you wouldn’t walk down the street unless you had absolute certainty that whoever it was that was in charge of these pianos was going to be responsible. They had training in how to use them. They weren’t going to be slacking off and looking at their phones or drinking coffee or, or looking at messages while they were doing it. They were really serious about making sure nothing went wrong. You know, that’s, that would be the minimum that you would expect. And if somebody let one those pianos fall, then you would think, well, that’s it. They’re never gonna get another job, you know, moving pianos again. It’s over.
Doug: There’s another visual choice you make in the book… This is a book about cars and their effects on people, whether they are pedestrians or drivers. And yet there are no people shown in the book. There are silhouettes. There are the traffic icons on a “walk” or a “don’t walk” signal or on traffic signs. But there are no physical human beings depicted in the book. I was wondering if you could talk about that choice.
Woodrow: So one of the things I think that makes comics a difficult medium for people to read is that there are all kinds of constructions that you have to get your head around to do it properly. So you’ve got panels, you’ve got people in the panels who are interacting with each other. You’ve got those captions and you’ve got the balloons with the speech in. And these things recur from panel to panel. And you have to be able to figure out, okay, this person in this picture is the same as that person in that picture, but they’ve just moved somewhere different. And this person is moving in this way, that person moving in that way. And what they’re doing is all related. What they’re saying in these balloons, goes with what they’re, what they’re thinking. And there’s, there’s a lot of work and a lot of, um, comparing and figuring out that you have to do to read a comic book. And, um, it’s a lot of work, and some people just can’t do that. Or it’s, or it’s too much work, you know. And that’s fine. It’s like, there’s no reason why you have to enjoy kind of working. So people tend to default to mediums that don’t require them to put so much mental effort in. So one of the things I’m always thinking about is okay, how can I make this easier? How can I make this, you know, less daunting for someone? So it occurred to me that if I was to remove all the people and just have the situations, and the captions that explain the situations, then that’s like kind of one level of work is gone completely. It’s like you don’t have a protagonist anymore because you are the protagonist. Yet the captions take the place of the people and by reading the captions and looking at the picture, you know, it’s like first-person narration; you are in the middle of the situation. So it makes it much easier and much simpler to read because you’re not trying to put yourself into the position of that person who’s on the page, you just are that person. And what I found was that… So this was at, this was… At the time, it was a kind of idea, I wasn’t really sure it was going to work. But I tried it and what I found was that people who don’t normally read comics could read this very easily because I didn’t have to do that thing with identifying with the character. They could just put themselves in there. And what I found, as well, is a lot people didn’t even realize there was no one in the pictures. You know, they would just start reading, and they get, and they get, you know, a few pages in, and they think, wait a minute. Where are the people? You know. But they didn’t figure it out at first.
Doug: Yeah, it actually took me a little bit after the piano opening to realize, hey, wait a minute, there are no people in this book and all I’m actually seeing (and the illustrations are, are quite detailed and beautiful in their own way) but all I’m seeing are, are roads and paint on highways and traffic signs and buildings along the side of the road, sometimes from the perspective of the driver, where they’re pushed out to the margins…
Doug: Sometimes from the perspective of a pedestrian, where they’re much more front and center. So it did actually take me a few pages to think, oh, wow, there’s, there is not a lead character with whom I have to identify or choose not to identify. I thought it was a brilliant choice.
Woodrow: It just makes it much more, um, personal because, you know, you become the main character. So it’s, it’s kind of your story. It’s like I am talking to you directly and you and I are having this experience together. And there’s no, yeah, there’s no third person to have that experience through. So it just makes it much more… yeah, just much more personal. And what I found, actually, is that, like I say, people who don’t want to read comics can really enjoy this and read it the same way because it’s not asking them to do that thing. So I think it made it the best way to get this information across, because of what I’m trying to do really is just make you feel these things I’m explaining to you. And so this kind of experiential way of doing it is what I think makes it feel like, yeah, this is happening to you right now.
Doug: Well, that’s exactly how I felt. I felt very immersed in it. I was also thinking that there’s another place in which we tend to not see people when we’re talking about cars and streets, and that’s in automobile ads on TV. And the, the book in many places reminded me of one of those ads where you are the only driver. Everybody else has been pushed to the sides. If there are people at all, they are not in your way. There’s never traffic and you are driving through, not some suburban sprawl, strip mall, desolate highway section of the country, but perhaps the most beautiful part of a city. And that was very clearly evident in many pages in your book.
Woodrow: It was, it was something that I thought about a lot because, of course, like you say, car ads are always about selling this idea of freedom and of, you know, wonderful conditions, and you’re going to be in this amazing machine that will do whatever you want. You’re going to be going someplace that’s going to be providing you with the greatest day out you ever had, and you’re going to get there in this wonderful, frictionless, enjoyable way. There’s no other cars to get in your way. It’s just you and the road and the freedom and it’s all great and there’s music playing and wind in your hair and the sun is shining and, you know. So that’s what all car ads are like. So that also affected the way that I was drawing this stuff, to kind of, in a way, kind of turn it around and say, “OK, so if this is what it was like, then how would you feel in that situation?” And there was something else, too, because we have this innate desire or tendency, I guess, to identify with whatever we see. So if I did draw cars in those pictures, the first thing you would think would be, hm, is that the kind of car I would drive? It’s like, do I have a car like that? No. And if you didn’t like the car, then that would immediately kind of make the picture not so good because, like, ah, well, I wouldn’t drive a car like that, so this picture doesn’t appeal to me or it doesn’t represent what I think. So by leaving out all kinds of signifiers like that, it made it much more adaptable. You know, you can project your own idea of what a car should be into that space.
Doug: There, there’s a lot that we’ve been talking about, about your book, where streets and spaces and drivers and pedestrians are sort of like this fluid concept — very liminal concept — that they can be one thing depending on your perspective and another if you shift out of that perspective. And, and there is a great example in the book of just that concept. You talk about parking lots. Could you explain that?
Woodrow: It’s just that thing of massive amounts of space being given over to a particular purpose, and then what happens when that purpose no longer applies. So a friend and I were in Anaheim, California. We’ve been to a gig and we’re walking back to the train station. It’s probably about, you know, 11 p.m., maybe 11:30. And I don’t know what, what station it was, but the parking lot was… it was immense because obviously it was designed to have all the cars it would need to get to a concert. So it was thousands of spaces. And it was nighttime and there were no cars in it and there were only a few lights on. And we were walking across this lot and walking and walking and walking. And at one point I said, “This feels really creepy. Are you creeped out?” He was like, “Yeah, I’m glad you said that. This is really scary.” But neither of us could really figure out why it was so scary. But it, it just kind of was. And then, it was, I think, because people should be there, you know, and without people, it just feels like a pretty inhospitable and really alien place to be in. It’s almost like you have this feeling of like ghost cars are gonna get you or something. I don’t know. But it, it just felt, it felt wrong. It felt wrong to be in there.
Doug: I feel like you’re not even going as far as you say in the book, which is that it feels like a cemetery. It’s plots laid out, empty squares. Oftentimes they’re numbered so that you can find them, which is exactly how cemeteries are laid out. Even the experience that you describe of… if you were to drive and park in a parking lot that was empty, when you leave, there are people who will not just shoot straight across the parking lot in any which way. They will still follow the arrows and the open space designated for driving because driving through empty parking spots just feels weird in the same way that stepping over a grave would feel weird in a cemetery.
Woodrow: Well, I figured that out later. You know, it was like it took me a while to realize, oh, this is why I’m totally creeped out by this. You know, at the time, I just knew it was, it was a horrible feeling. But later on, I kind of realized… I put it together. The “oh, yeah, that’s what it is.”
Doug: And then you flip that. You say that when, when the parking lot kind of comes to life and people start parking in it, then it turns into almost like the Wild West, the frontier. The frontier, I think is what you say.
Woodrow: Well, I think anybody who goes to a parking lot in the middle of a Saturday afternoon when everyone’s trying to do the various trips to all the different big-box retailers will understand what that’s like because everyone’s kind of competing for the best space. Nobody wants to park any further way than they absolutely have to. Everyone’s got lots of stuff they want to get into their cars and then they want to get out without anyone else getting in their way. And it’s, it’s like, it’s frenzied, like, no one takes the time. No one’s going to give way to anybody else. Everybody wants to just get in and out as fast as they can. And people don’t pay attention and they drive the wrong way round the arrows because they’re in a hurry. They park in places they’re not supposed to be parking in, they park in the spots for disabled people, they park in spots for parents, and no one cares. It’s… Yeah, it can be, can be really quite nutty. And also, because people aren’t paying attention, it’s like, you know what it’s like. Most these places, they have little arrows and little kind of strips of paint saying, you know, “Walk this way.” And no one pays attention to those. It’s like you’re walking along on these little things and people are backing out, not looking, and they’re almost hitting you. It’s like, wow, I could actually die doing, doing, doing this, you know, I could die kind of going shopping.
Doug: I, I think the book really hits on exactly that idea, that all these little arrows on the ground and the ways in which we have laid out our cities and our streets are antithetical to human nature, that they just completely disregard the actuality of what people will do in any situation. Nothing has been able to change human nature. The fact that we become much worse people behind the wheel of a car. You talk about road rage and how we sort of dismiss that as a cute coinage when it is anything but. Can you talk about your feelings about the, the term road rage?
Woodrow: I think it’s a very destructive term, really, because it has the effect of making things seem like, oh, it’s no big deal. This is just something that happens. And it’s almost like an excuse for it. It’s like, people can just say, “Oh, I felt some road rage there,” or “That was a road rage incident,” and it’s kind of minimizing what happened. And, um, it’s a very convenient way for people to kind of offload responsibility for how they behave.
Doug: Another visual choice you make in the book is that so much of it actually is visually set in New York. You lived in Brooklyn for a little bit. Is that correct?
Woodrow: That’s right. I have a… what I call my surrogate family who live in Flatbush. And I would spend summers with them and, um, yeah, and from there, I would go into Manhattan a lot as well, obviously. So. So, yeah. So all that stuff I draw is things that are very familiar to me from summers of being in New York. And, you know, I love the streets. I love the city. I think it’s a wonderful, interesting place full of great stuff. And also, of course, it’s a very good stage to examine all the things that we’re talking about, because obviously New York is not like many other American cities, because it is so… mixture of walking and driving. Like lots of New Yorkers don’t own cars, and that’s fine because we have the Subway to get around with and we have busses and those things work really well, unlike Los Angeles, where the subway system is very strange and doesn’t really go the way you want to.
Doug: So on the subjects of streets, uh, in New York, you know, where we’re currently in a situation where our streets are not really places for driving or walking in the traditional sense. They’re sites of protest. This book was written before the events of the last few weeks of the Black Lives Matter protests. But you have a great part of the book that talks about, you know, drivers exploit the vulnerability of pedestrians. They say, “I’m bigger than you. I can run you over. Get out of my way.” But protesters can exploit that in a different way. And you talk about how just twenty people joined hands and formed a kind of human chain over the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, D.C., and then you go on to link that to other protests related to the Michael Brown shooting, Philando Castile, and the ways in which spaces that weren’t designed for people at all — highways — became sites of protest.
Woodrow: So the whole thing about, about who owns a street, obviously is a very contested and very difficult area to get into because there’s a legal side to it as well as the social side to it. And, um, societally, I think, honestly we all own these streets because we all pay taxes, so we, we should all be equally able to use them or not use them. But, in practice, what happens is power goes to whoever has the strongest thing. And of course, cars are much more, much more powerful than people are, so cars dominate those spaces. And it’s just, you know, you’re not going to argue with someone in the car if you’re walking because you’re going to lose every time. So we just cede that space to, to the biggest object in them. So drivers exploit that because they know they can push their way around. So the idea that if you as a group start protesting, you’re kind of thinking, well, they can’t run us all down, so we’re going to do this thing as a group. So in a way, that is a quite naive way to think, because it kind of relies on the idea that even if drivers are outrageously selfish, they’re not crazy. They’re not going to deliberately run people ever, because that would be insane. But of course, we now have a situation where people think they can do that.
Doug: And in fact, you specifically mention the white nationalists who killed Heather Hire in Charlottesville as one of the leading incidents of exactly that, and then exploiting the vulnerability of pedestrians further, you talk about the legislators in the U.S. who attempted to make it legal, essentially, to run over people with your car, trying to erase all legal consequences for anyone who might do what happened to Heather Hire.
Woodrow: It’s a classic thing, I think, to try and dehumanize your opponent, because once you’ve made people into something other than people, they’re just nuisances. They’re protestors, they’re, they’re not worth anything. Then, of course, the next step is to say, “Well, if they are not really human, if they’re not really like you, then there’s no problem with killing them because it’s not your fault. They, they just happen to be in the wrong place in the wrong time and you’ve got something to do. And that’s it.
Doug: So speaking of that dehumanization of other people outside of the cars, you, you get into the idea of autonomous vehicles, of driverless cars. And, uh, obviously, there’s a rather notorious example of Arizona, of an Uber test driving car that killed a homeless woman who was pushing a bicycle across the street. And both the computer system in the car and the human backup operator in the car failed to see this person. There was another visual choice you make in the book when you get to this part is that… There are many parts of the book where we’re seeing one or two-lane roads with an arrow, maybe an exit sign. The street environment isn’t actually that complicated. But when you get to the discussion about driverless cars, I’m looking at a page right now where you see ahead of you three different directions in which you can go, dotted lines in every possible direction that… it looks like a “connect the dots” sort of child book illustration. It’s very visually confusing. Overhead are, you know, a dozen traffic lights pointing in different directions. And this idea that this is not a place for humans at all, it’s barely a place for machines.
Woodrow: Yeah, that, that’s an intersection near Phoenix. And as you say, it’s a really tremendously complicated, like, six-way crossover. And so all these, all these lanes are all winding around each other. It’s just massive. I could imagine there’ll be crashes there all the time because it’s just… there’s just too much information for your regular human to take in, really. But I think the problem with autonomous cars, even as a concept, is that, really, they require us to really change our behavior quite, quite radically. And that’s why I don’t really think autonomous cars can work, because they would, they would mean far too much, um, concessions being given to them by us. You know, we could, we could no longer use the streets in the way that we use them right now because we would have to at all times make sure that we weren’t in their way. So I don’t really see it working as a, as a concept anytime soon.
Doug: Although there’s an argument to be made that depending on how they were programmed, especially in cities, people could essentially bring them to their knees. They could just stop cars by stepping out in front of them. But you could imagine a scenario where then the car companies program them to ignore that person, much like they ignored the woman in Phoenix who was run over.
Woodrow: Well, that was, that was the really outrageous thing about that whole incident with Elaine Herzberg is that because they turned off the brakes in order to, in order so the car wouldn’t keep jerking to stop every time it encountered something… they turned off all the emergency sounds so that they wouldn’t be bothering the operator. So they actually disabled all the safety features, you know, and they did that on purpose to make the ride smoother. So that’s the result.
Doug: So on page 121, you show an image of crushed plastic cups on a buffer, a painted buffer on a street. And that’s actually a project that I was involved in. It’s on my blog: “The Solo Cup Bike Lane,” where I took a buffer, uh, in Williamsburg in Brooklyn that was a frequent site of cars double parking and blocking the bike lane. And just by putting up red plastic cups merely inches high. Drivers stayed out of the lane. Now, you show them crushed. We also had done a, a, a project, some people around the country, where we showed that… how easy it is for these things to be destroyed. And yet we rely on paint as this magical force that can repel cars when, of course, we know that’s not, not the case. So when I saw that in the book, it was quite exciting to see, but a very effective, effective point.
Woodrow: Well, I thought, I thought it was a really brilliant idea to use the plastic cups in that way because it, it really gets across very, very powerfully how… how vulnerable people are. Because you can, you can see, you know, a human body is not that much stronger than a plastic cup when a car is rolling over it. So you can just imagine what that feels like that crushed cup could be my crushed leg, you know. So I thought was an ingenious thing to do, to put those cups out there like that, because it really makes the point, without having to say anything. It’s like, oh, well, you know, look at the cup.
Doug: You know, you talked a little bit earlier about this being a work of journalism, and on that page, you list out the number of people who were killed — specifically in Brooklyn, actually — last year. And then you really sort of extrapolate that out to this larger human crisis in the country and around the world. So I thought, again, it was a very effective way of marrying the very simple image to some pretty deep and very difficult facts.
Woodrow: One thing that I think it’s important for all of us to do is to push back on the way these things are reported. You’ll notice I very deliberately never talked about the drivers or name them — the people who actually did the killing — because what usually happens is that the people who kill get all the attention. The people who get killed never get mentioned. And, and I think that’s the wrong way round, you know, because what’s important here is that somebody was killed who should not have been killed. So by trying to refocus that information and make sure you understand that every one of these fatalities is a person and this is their name and this is what happened to them, it’s like, okay, so I’m trying to make you think about your own vulnerability because this could happen to anybody. I mean, another thing that I consciously do in the book a lot is to try to reframe the language that describes these things. It’s like, I talk about people in cars and people on bikes and people on foot. We’re often talking about drivers and pedestrians and cyclists because I think those terms tend to remove the humanity from people. So obviously, we use them because they’re, they’re technically correct. But actually, I think to keep emphasizing this is not a car, this is a person in a car. And it, it puts the agency back on the person. Often when you, when you read about collisions, where you read about all kinds of accidents, you’re always hearing about a car drove into somebody, a car went off the road. A car did this. It’s like, no, a car didn’t do that. A driver in a car did that. And you think so… And that’s the thing that I think is really… We have to keep, we have to keep pushing back on the language.
Doug: And along those lines, that sort of leads to the end of the book which, which you end in two somewhat different ways. The first way is that you talk about.. Again, we’re going back to that idea of this liminal space or the status where you are neither driver nor pedestrian, that your status changes depending on where you’re sitting or walking. And very much towards the end of the book, you speak directly to drivers. You write, “It doesn’t matter how big it is — your car — or how much you paid for it. The separation between walker and driver is not defined by the presence of car keys in your pocket. You aren’t driving now. You’re walking. That makes you a pedestrian.” And you end with this image as if I have just gotten out of a car and now have to walk across the street to my home or, or wherever my destination is. And it looks like a vast expanse, almost like a river that is impossible to cross. And you can almost feel, if you really stare at the picture for a moment, that at any moment this empty space… voom, a car could just come right through it and wipe you out. And so again, I thought that was a very effective way of just illustrating that we are neither of these things. We are both of these things. It’s this sort of like quantum state of existence when you’re…
Woodrow: Yeah. Yeah.
Doug: …When you’re talking about cars. But then you also talk about your own near-death experience, um, in a car, driving between London and Brighton. And I think it’s an experience that anybody who’s ever driven or been a passenger in a car can relate to.
Woodrow: It was just one of those situations that, I think, sooner or later, everyone is going to have something happen to them like that. So I was, yeah, driving on the motorway on a perfectly sunny, average day. No big deal. I was in the overtaking lane because I was going faster than everybody else. I was doing about somewhere between 75 and 80 miles an hour. And a car in lane next to me just moved into my lane — or began to — without signaling or anything. And it was way too close for me to avoid it. So I was going to hit it and… in that three or four seconds when I was absolutely sure I was going to die… This is it. It’s over now. All these things went through my head. It was astonishing, really. You know, all those cliches about how time slows down. It turns out that that happens to be true. You know, I had, I had so much time to think about all the things that I could’ve done differently not to be in this position. If I had just, you know, slowed down a bit more, if I’d been in a different lane, if I had, you know, all the things I could’ve done and I wasn’t going to be able to do them anymore, you know. And then suddenly she veered back into her lane and… It was over. It was fine. It was done. And I, well, obviously, I couldn’t say anything to her because we’re in two separate cars. All I could do was just keep going. And I, and I got to Brighton, I got to my destination. You know, I just like sat in my car and, like, cried for like ten minutes because, you know, I was so completely just full of adrenaline that was running out of means. And I, you know, I was going to die. That was it; I, I kind of accepted it, almost. It was like, okay, this is it then.
Doug: I thought visually, uh, what was so interesting about that moment… you talked about time slowing down and how this occurred in no more than three or four seconds. And as far as the illustration goes, you see an overpass, a bridge of some sort. And in almost all of the time, over three or four pages that you’re describing these feelings, the bridge barely moves. You don’t actually see it fade into the distance or you go much beyond it. So it was a very striking way of using this graphic form to illustrate what the text was saying. I just, I went back and stared at that and reread it and really almost in my mind tried to measure how far a distance did this car travel in all of the time that he’s talking about here. And we’re really only talking perhaps about a quarter of a mile or less.
Woodrow: Yes, less than that, probably. So, so I wanted to, yeah, I wanted to really make that point about how condensed this was and make it obvious through the visuals that this all happened in a very short space of time. But again, it’s one of the things where if you weren’t paying attention, you might not really notice that, but if you kind of look at that image a few times, you realize, oh, you know, like you said, it doesn’t change very much between the start and the end of this experience.
Doug So did writing this book… You already went into this book with lots of very deeply felt feelings about driving. And you mention in the afterword your, your sister who was killed when she was eleven-years-old. How did that affect you in terms of approaching this work?
Woodrow: See, my dad was a very, very car-mad kind of person. He loved cars. He loved driving. He changed his car every couple of years. He always had, like, uh, the newest model of something. And he… Any excuse to go for drive, he would take it. And I would go out with him a lot. Just, just for the sake of, you know, he would, he would always invent reasons to go places, like, “I need, we need to go and drop this off to your aunt. We need to go, go here and do this thing.” Just cause he liked driving. He just liked being out. So I, I got to enjoy that, you know, through him a lot. And I really, and I really like being with him because he was a very, very good driver. He was very safe. He didn’t take chances. He was very calm. I think that’s an interesting thing, too, about the way that we learn how to behave in vehicles. So my dad was very, very calm. He never got upset. He never raised his voice. He never swore at anybody. If somebody did something crazy, he would just like, you know, sigh. And the thing that he always said to me that I would remember always is that you should always drive as if everybody else on the road is crazy and they’re trying to kill you. If you always think yourself, what’s the worst thing that person can do now? And half the time they’ll do that thing. So mostly it just comes down to giving yourself space. And it was great advice because I think about that a lot when I’m driving. And so when, when I got into cars with other people, I was really confused at the way they all drove when they… they’re all shouting. They’re all getting mad. They were swearing at people. I thought, I was thinking, but, but, but why do you do that? Doesn’t make a difference to them how you behave. You know, why do you do this to yourself? And, you know, I think because I had that example from him of, you know, what it’s like to drive in a kind of calm and human way, the way that most people drive was very alien to me.
Doug: What do you want someone who lives in a very car-dependent place and who might actually enjoy driving and never really think about these things to take away from this book?
Woodrow: Exactly that. I would like them to think about how they behave in the world, how they navigate it, and how they can just behave in a way that’s a bit more conscious. Because I think the reason why we have such problems, both societally and kind of materially with cars, is that we are all encouraged to not think about what we’re doing when we’re in one; we’re, we’re encouraged to just think about ourselves and what we want. And that’s why people behave so badly and they behave so selfishly and they drive too close and they do all these nutty things and… Because they’re just not thinking of anybody else. And I know it is kind of utopian, but I do think if, if everyone was just conscious, if everyone just realized: actually, I have this wonderful machine, but I also have responsibility to everyone around me not to drive it in such a way as to make everybody else uncomfortable or miserable or hurt them. If everyone did that, then there wouldn’t be a problem, you know. I kind of think, yeah, we could, we could solve this if everyone just changed the way they behave. And I think empathy is at the root of that. It’s like you have to start thinking about other people and not just you. And I, I hope, I guess, that if everyone was able to just think about what it feels like to be in the other person’s position, then they would behave differently. That might be naive, I don’t know, but I kind of think that it’s worth trying, you know.
Doug: I think that’s a lovely note to end on. Woodrow Phoenix, thank you for joining me on The War on Cars.
Woodrow: Well, thanks for having us. And I hope that, I hope this does something. I hope it means something. I hope it makes a difference.
Doug: That’s it for my interview with Woodrow Phoenix. I hope you all enjoyed hearing the two of us nerd out about comics and safe streets for a bit. A big shout out to Liz Frances at Street Noise Books here in Brooklyn for connecting us and making this all possible. And, of course, much gratitude to Woodrow Phoenix for sharing his thoughts with me and for putting his art out into the world. Crash Course will officially be released on Tuesday, August 4th, although a little birdie tells me it is available for purchase and delivery now. The good news is you can avoid the corporate behemoths and support local businesses by visiting our new War-on-Cars-dedicated page on bookshop.org. Check it out and buy Crash Course, as well as books from all the authors who have appeared on the podcast. We will put a link in the show notes. There’s another way you can get a copy of Crash Course, and that’s by becoming a Patreon supporter of The War on Cars. We have a special new tier where if you sign up, we will send you the book. And of course, we always have our stickers and T-shirts available to people who sign up at other levels. Go to thewaroncars.org and become a supporter today. As always, thanks to the law office of the Vaccaro and White in New York; Charlie Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon; and Drew Rains for helping us produce this episode. Thanks also to our sponsor, Sidewalk Labs. Please go check out their new podcast, Sidewalk Weekly. It’s a lighthearted chat show providing your weekly dose of urban tech news. This episode was produced and recorded by me and edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. On behalf of my co-hosts, Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, I’m Doug Gordon and this is The War on Cars.