Doug Gordon: Streets are not just for cars. They belong to all of us.

Doug Gordon. Image: Archive of Doug Gordon.

Doug Gordon is a co-host of the popular podcast The War on Cars. He is also a writer, public speaker, TV producer, safe streets advocate and passionate believer in cities for people. He has written for The Guardian, The New Republic, Salon, Curbed, Jalopnik, The New York Daily News and Streetsblog.

As a TV producer with credits for PBS, ABC, Discovery, History, Travel and NatGeo, Doug knows how to tell a good story. Through his communications consulting business, Brooklyn Spoke Media, he has advised nonprofits and mobility companies on communications strategies that make the case for safer, smarter streets. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife Leora and their two children.

Natalia Olszewska: Welcome, Doug! Please tell us a little bit about what led you to start The War on Cars podcast.

Doug Gordon: My background is in television production, and I have worked on many different shows, mostly documentaries, with a focus on science and history. I was always interested in cities and safe streets, so I also did a lot of advocacy work in my neighborhood, pushing for bike lanes and bike parking.

Over time, I did more of that and started writing about it because my background in television often involved explaining complicated issues to general audiences. This skill translated well into my activism.

A lot of the issues we’re interested in are complex, and regular people don’t always understand them and can’t be expected to. So I started doing a lot of writing and explaining about how things work and how they could work better.

Then I met my co-hosts for the podcast. Aaron was the founder and editor of Streetsblog, and Sarah, my other co-host, also wrote for Streetsblog and has worked extensively as a journalist. We started the podcast in 2018, so it’s been going on for a little over five years. 

The War on Cars podcast. Image: Archive of Doug Gordon.

We really felt, as Aaron would put it, that no one was taking on the car as both a product affecting all of our lives and as a cultural figure, almost like a god, that influences every aspect of our, especially American, culture. 

If you’ve listened to a few episodes, you’ll see that we cover some policy-oriented topics, but we also explore how cyclists are portrayed in film and review automobile ads in the Super Bowl. We approach the car as a giant, often unseen object that significantly impacts our politics, geography, architecture, culture—everything.

That’s been going strong, and now I don’t do as much TV work because this podcast is pretty much full-time for me. I live in Brooklyn, New York, which we joke is the headquarters of the war on cars in North America.

The Change Towards Walkability and Cycling

Natalia: I was in Brooklyn a couple of times, but I don’t know it that well. My first question is, is Brooklyn a walkable neighborhood for the United States?

Doug: It depends. Brooklyn is really big. If Brooklyn were its own city, it would be the fourth or fifth largest city in the United States. There are some areas that are entirely car-dependent and not very walkable, but much of Brooklyn is incredibly walkable with great transit. I’m within walking distance of three or four different subway lines and two or three different bus lines. 

My particular neighborhood is arguably one of the most walkable in the city, if not the country. It really depends on where you are, but here, walking, transit, and cycling are the best ways to get around.

Michal Matlon: It’s interesting when you talk about different points of view you’re approaching these topics from. In your last episode, you discussed the conspiracy theories connected to the 15-minute city and the politicization of the topic. Why is it so controversial to talk about these things?

Doug: Change is hard, and we see that in many aspects of society. Whether it’s Black Americans gaining status and power in the United States, women gaining status and power, or other similar movements involving marginalized people, there’s often backlash from the dominant culture that feels threatened. Change may happen too quickly for some, though obviously not fast enough for those rising up. 

Cycling in Paris. Image: Eddie Junior

Change can be scary, and one of the biggest constants  we have is our streets. People may have lived in their neighborhood for 20-30 years, seeing it stay the same, and then suddenly, new people or city government initiatives bring changes like bike lanes or restrictions on car traffic. In some cases, like in Paris, entire streets are being closed to cars and replaced with bus and bike lanes. Change is hard for humans. 

We’re also in an era where everything is polarized and political, not just in the U.S., but also in Italy, France, and elsewhere. Common sense ideas, like children not being run over by cars while walking to school, can become politicized and seen as a threat to freedom. This polarization makes it difficult to find common ground.

In that episode, I didn’t feel very hopeful about resolving these issues. We’re at a place in our political culture where Joe Biden could make an offhand comment about breathing oxygen being good for humans and the rightwing would hold its breath.

Michal: What incentives could encourage people to get out of their cars and try other modes of transport, especially if they’re reluctant to change? Have you seen any positive changes in this direction?

People don’t avoid cycling because they hate the environment or love traffic; they avoid it because it doesn’t feel safe.

Doug: A lot of it comes down to building the infrastructure. People don’t avoid cycling because they hate the environment or love traffic; they avoid it because it doesn’t feel safe. The Dutch aren’t more virtuous; they’ve just made their cities so that cycling, walking, or taking transit is easier than driving. This requires political will and city officials who are committed to making changes.

At an individual level, good infrastructure is key. There are also policy incentives, like New York’s congestion pricing, which will charge drivers to enter Manhattan and use the money to improve public transit. 

In the U.S., we also need to make a freedom-based argument for going car-free or car-light. Owning a car is expensive, time-consuming, and heavily regulated. Americans value independence, yet we’re tied to cars that are monitored by the state and require licenses.

Living in a place where you can walk, cycle, and send your kids out to do the same makes you more free, with more time, money, and better health. Once the infrastructure is in place, people will have the freedom  to experience these benefits.

The Origins of Car-Dependence

Natalia: I have another question about our dependence on cars. You mentioned that change is difficult, like social change and emancipation. But with cars, we’re talking about a relatively short history, starting with Henry Ford in 1908. What is it about cars that made them dominate the world and our minds so quickly?

Doug: There’s a great book by historian Peter Norton called “Fighting Traffic.” When automobiles first appeared in the 1910s and 1920s, there was a lot of resistance to them. They were loud, big, required special rules, and were expensive. They were seen as toys for the rich, and they caused many accidents. Streets were once places where people could walk freely, and the introduction of cars changed that dramatically.

Suddenly, automobiles started mowing down people.In the 1920s, New York City saw a child killed almost every day. As a result, there was significant pushback against the widespread use of automobiles; they were seen as invaders and monsters. 

The real answer is that the automobile industry, the oil industry, and the highway-building industry are enormous. There are billions, if not trillions, of dollars invested in perpetuating the sale and use of automobiles. 

Car traffic exploded at the beginning of the 20th century. Image: Library of Congress

Bicycles, in contrast, are cheap. I often joke on the podcast that no venture capitalist or Silicon Valley tech company will give me millions of dollars to promote walking or building things closer together to save money. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, what Peter Norton describes as “motordom”—all the forces of the automobile companies and highway builders—gathered to address their image problem. Automobiles were killing people, so they pushed back by inventing concepts like jaywalking. 

They ran educational campaigns to place the blame on pedestrians rather than drivers. We don’t have a similar force advocating for pedestrians, cyclists, or people who want to enjoy public spaces without disturbance from automobiles. Where there’s a lot of money at stake, money drives the decisions.

Michal: So we’re talking about what we can do at the city level. Since many of our readers are individual architects, is there something they can do at the level of individual buildings or developments, or does it have to be tackled from the top?

Doug: It takes effort from both directions. I believe the political will is there from the bottom up. People do want change, but sometimes transformative leaders, like Anne Hidalgo in Paris, are needed to push it through.

She faced controversy but was very successful. For architects, it’s challenging. They have to build according to local codes that often include minimum parking requirements, which dictate much about the form and location of buildings.

Architects could push back against these parking requirements. Some U.S. cities have successfully lobbied to remove minimum parking requirements for new construction. 

There are billions, if not trillions, of dollars invested in perpetuating the sale and use of automobiles.

Architects are good at thinking about how their buildings interact with the public space, not just how they function internally. More thought should be given to how buildings contribute to the public experience, pushing back against regulations that don’t enhance the public environment.

In New York, new construction is abundant, and I wonder why the city isn’t requiring developers to build better public infrastructure along with their projects, like bike lanes or public seating.

Natalia: This reminds me of a documentary I watched about Louis Kahn, the architect from Philadelphia. The film, made by his son, was called My Architect. Kahn had a master plan for Philadelphia in the 1950s to close the city center to cars and promote walkability. The city’s administration opposed the idea, calling it absurd. Architects often have great ideas about what’s good for people, but the real power lies elsewhere.

Doug: That’s really the story of cars: who has power and who doesn’t. It’s about who will help those without power gain equal access to the streets. Philadelphia, the city responsible for the founding of the United States, existing largely in its current form before automobiles were even an idea, highlights the absurdity of considering it absurd to remove cars from its center.

The Impact of the Pandemic

Natalia: Do you feel that the pandemic changed anything? During COVID, there was hope that things would change, but now we’re past the pandemic. What’s the reality? There’s more discourse, and micro mobility is more present in different areas. What are your reflections on that?

Doug: I think it has gone both ways. There was a significant rise in micromobility, and e-bikes really took off as people tried to avoid public transit or needed an easy way to get around while enjoying their time outside. 

Here in New York, we saw a rise in outdoor dining and curbside cafes. Open streets, closed to cars, were created to allow people to spread out and support the struggling restaurant industry. 

This outdoor dining program was launched quickly and was a huge success, something that would have taken countless meetings to advocate for before COVID. These developments made people see their streets differently and realize that streets can be public health tools.Streets don’t just have to be for moving and storing cars; they’re a resource that belongs to all of us. 

Transforming parking spots into outdoor dining was popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. Image: Eden, Janine and Jim

On the other hand, many people avoided public transit, and car registrations went up. Traffic rebounded quickly as cars became a sort of personal protective equipment, like a giant mask you could wear to avoid interacting with others. In some places, the pandemic made us more isolated and self-oriented. So, some things improved, and some things got worse. 

In our politics, the concept of the 15-minute city gave rise to conspiracy theories. But I think there was a larger awakening that cities can be better. Neighborhoods like mine are thriving because of work-from-home arrangements, while office-dominated downtowns are struggling. It’s a mixed bag, but there was a moment where it felt like our relationship with the outdoors and streets could change for the better.

Michal: One of the positive effects of the pandemic is the increased discussion about third places. People started using public spaces more and feeling freer to spend time there. You mentioned that streets shouldn’t just be for transit but places to stay. Creating these third places is important. How does this relate to the war on cars?

I used to live in Atlanta, a car-dominated city, and joked with a friend about where the revolution would happen since there were no gathering places.

Doug: The idea of third places is crucial. During the pandemic, many people who had the resources left the city for the suburbs or the countryside. However, some found themselves more miserable because they lacked the social interaction of the city. 

Even if you live in a small apartment, cities offer numerous third places like coffee shops, parks, and libraries where you can interact with others. These interactions foster a sense of community and understanding. Cities tend to be more liberal and progressive because people constantly interact with others who are different from them.

For example, in Vienna, café culture has contributed to many political and social movements. I used to live in Atlanta, a car-dominated city, and would joke about where the revolution would happen since there were no gathering places. 

In contrast, New York has numerous third places like coffee shops and public parks. Union Square, for example, is named for the union organizing and protests that happened there. Third places are essential because we intuitively seek them out. We like to be around other people, even while valuing our privacy and space. So, yes, they are incredibly important.

What Makes the Change Successful?

Natalia: Could you remind me how long you’ve been doing the podcast?

Doug: We launched in the fall of 2018.

Natalia: Okay, 2018. As an activist, do you have any markers of success? How do you observe and quantify progress? Is it the number of people who listen to your podcast, or is it more about influencing mindsets? Over the years, what’s been your biggest source of satisfaction in your work?

Doug: Since we started, we’ve definitely seen the listenership go up. We’ve rarely had a month where it’s been lower than the month before; it almost always increases. New people find the podcast and listen to old episodes.,

We also see success in terms of awareness of our issues. When we started over five years ago, we were hesitant to say we had a podcast called “The War on Cars,” which is a confrontational title for some people. We were also hesitant to say we did advocacy for walkability and bikeability because people get defensive about their cars. 

Now, when we mention the podcast, people are interested. They might say they bought an e-bike and love it, or they wish they didn’t need a car as much. There seems to be more awareness, partly due to the pandemic and stories about e-bikes. 

The pedestrianized Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna. Image: Arno Senoner

Climate change has become a more salient issue, and people better understand cars’ contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. We’ve seen a significant cultural shift in how people perceive these issues, which is a sign of success. The ultimate sign of success would be fewer cars, but that will take time.

Michal: What are some of the biggest misconceptions you’ve encountered in this discussion? For example, in Vienna, they wanted to pedestrianize Maria Hilferstrasse, the main shopping street, and shop owners feared it would reduce footfall. However, revenues went up, and they were happy in the end. What other misconceptions have you seen proven wrong?

Doug: The classic example is Strøget in Copenhagen, one of the earliest pedestrianized retail corridors. Shop owners initially said people wouldn’t walk to shops in winter, but it was a huge success. 

We’ve seen similar things happen with pedestrianized streets and bike lanes in other cities. People predict doom and gloom, but once changes are made, they quickly become popular. That’s what happened with Times Square’s pedestrianization.

People thought it wouldn’t work, but as soon as it was closed to traffic and chairs were put out, people enjoyed it. People are afraid of change, but you need leaders who are confident and willing to stick with it despite complaints. 

Americans who visit Europe don’t think cities like Paris or Amsterdam would be better with more cars.

For example, Central Park in Manhattan and Prospect Park in Brooklyn allowed cars until about six years ago. When the last mayor, Bill de Blasio, made them 100% car-free, people predicted gridlock and chaos, but none of that happened. Now, the parks are incredibly pleasant and important spaces. If you asked people today, they wouldn’t believe cars were ever allowed there.

Sometimes you just have to try things and stick with them. Americans who visit Europe don’t think cities like Paris or Amsterdam would be better with more cars. We seek out places where walking is safe and pleasant.

Disneyland is popular partly because there are no cars. So, we need the courage of our convictions, both as elected officials and individuals, to know we’re on the right side of this issue and get it done.

The Car Culture

Natalia: I have a question, maybe slightly provocative. I know that in your podcast, you focus more on cars and not drivers. I didn’t listen to this episode, but I was reading about the episode where you focus on a car as a toy. 

During the conversation, I was thinking about how interesting it is that, especially for boys, cars are a big part of their identity. For many people, it’s still a status symbol, especially in developing countries with growing middle classes.

It’s an object of aspiration and a symbol of status. For example, can you imagine an important politician or a royal family member driving to a ceremony riding bikes? I think the Dutch king does it.

Doug: Yeah, and the Danish king as well.

Natalia: Yes, exactly. The new Danish king. I’ve seen him on a bicycle in the media. But what arguments would you give to someone who perceives cars as an object of desire or something related to social class?

Doug: I think agreeing with people is a good way to start a conversation. I would never tell someone that cars aren’t cool or that they’re not smart for appreciating them as engineering marvels. Cars are interesting objects of design and engineering. We have many car enthusiasts who listen to the podcast. We did an episode with Bob Sorokanich, the former editor of Road & Track, who loves cars.

Dutch Queen Juliana cycling in 1967. Image: Nationaal Archief

The kind of driving most people do is for simple tasks like getting groceries or going to work. The driving you see in car commercials, speeding through windy roads or empty cities, doesn’t exist in daily life. If someone loves cars, they should be in favor of fewer people having cars. If you love driving, you want to get all the unnecessary cars off the road.

Cars have their place. Not everyone can ride a bike for all trips, and transit doesn’t work for everyone. But a lot of times, people use cars for short trips that could be done differently. Cars are tools, and we should use the right tool for the job.

For example, I can’t drive to visit Amsterdam; I have to take a plane. But that doesn’t mean I take a plane to the grocery store. In many places in the U.S. the car is the only safe and smart tool. But in a city, walking, transit, and cycling are usually better options.

To car enthusiasts, I say, cars are cool. I played with Matchbox cars as a kid. My son loves his Hess trucks. No one’s trying to take your car away. But if you want better driving, get your neighbors onto bicycles. The Dutch have some of the most satisfied drivers in the world because those who are driving need to, not because society forces them to.

Natalia: I love this approach because it makes clear that it’s just a tool, and we should use this tool consciously in a way that is least detrimental to our safety and the safety of the planet.

Doug: Yes, I use the tool analogy all the time. You have to use the right tool for the job. Sometimes you use a broom to clean up a mess, and sometimes you use a powerful vacuum. If you only had one or the other, it wouldn’t work. Mobility is the same; you have to pick the right tool for the situation and the job.

This kind of driving rarely happens in everyday life. Image: Andrew Svk

Michal: We’re nearing the end of our conversation. Usually, at the end, we ask about positive examples you’ve seen. Can you talk about places where you’ve seen the most significant transformation or where people’s mindsets changed as a result?

Doug: I’ll give an example of a place I really love going to, where they’re doing some of the most interesting work, and then maybe a local example. 

Utrecht in the Netherlands is one of those places. Everyone always talks about Amsterdam or Copenhagen, because they are marquee cities you’re going to visit if you have  limited time. They’re great examples of people-centric design, but Utrecht is great too. 

It’s not the primary destination for international visitors to the Netherlands, but they’re doing so much that’s worth seeing. . They have a whole new university campus built with transit lines, or smart traffic signals that can detect when a cyclist is coming, so cyclists don’t have to wait.

Their bike parking garage makes everybody want to have something like it in their city. It’s a great place for people to see what can be done in a very exciting way. 

The successful pedestrianization of Times Square in New York City. Image: Archive of Doug Gordon.

Times Square in New York City is such a great example of everything we’ve been talking about. First, it was just, “Can we close it to traffic and will people take to it?” And the answer was yes.

The Department of Transportation closed off Broadway which goes through it diagonally. They put out beach chairs they picked up at a hardware store to see if people would sit down. They experimented, saw how people interacted with the space, and people took to it. 

Then, over time, they engaged architects and figured out what surface material and lighting the space  needed. Now it’s this really exciting place with all this activity. Most people changed their minds. Even a lot of New Yorkers, who might pride themselves on hating Times Square because they think it’s just for tourists, find it more pleasant now. 

Some people will never be won over, but that really did win a lot of people over. It’s one of those, “If I can make it here, I can make it anywhere” stories. If you can change Times Square to make it more people-centric, then you can do it almost anywhere.

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