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The invention of the automobile revolutionized how people could move around the world. But for all the benefits, the proliferation of cars has also brought with it many negative consequences for our cities, like increased air pollution and injuries and deaths from accidents. Also, a tremendous amount of space in cities goes toward accommodating cars, not just the roads but also the parking places. And this is space that’s in high demand. In this episode of Better Cities by Design, we spoke with Doug Gordon, safe streets advocate and co-host and producer of the podcast The War on Cars. Doug explains why he’s declared war on cars and how life in his home city, New York, could be improved by drastically reducing the number of cars there.

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Co-host and producer of The War on Cars podcast, Doug Gordon joins us for this episode of the show and talks about his fight to rid New York City (and cities around the world) of cars. Unlike many cites in the US, most New Yorkers do not own a car. Across the 5 boroughs, 55% of households do not own a car and a mere 22% of people commute to work with a car. Still, it’s estimated that there are around 620 car accidents in the city every day. And a 2021 Harvard and University of North Carolina study found that around 1400 New York residents die prematurely each year from pollution caused by trucks, cars, and buses. Doug and Davion discuss these and many other problems that cars create in cities, as well as how the COVID-19 pandemic opened many New Yorkers’ eyes to what life in the Big Apple could be like with far fewer cars.


The Arcadis global podcast

Better Cities by Design

Arcadis' fortnightly global podcast series, where we talk to change-makers to discuss how they are making our urban environments better places for people to live, work, and play

Episode transcript:

We recognize that not everyone is able to listen to our podcast, which is why the show is also available in text. If you would prefer to read what happened in the show instead of listening, please click the link below for the episode transcript.

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    Davion Ford

    Welcome to Better Cities by Design, a podcast brought to you by Arcadis where we talk to changemakers who are working to make our cities better places for people to live, work and play. I'm your host, Davion Ford. This week we're going to New York City for a conversation with Doug Gordon co-host of The War On Cars Podcast about the tension between the automobile and people. We're going to explore Doug's strong views on the topic of urban transportation and hear his perspective on the role of cars and cities to understand why he's declared a war on cars.


    Davion Ford

    Let's turn back the wheels of time to the late 19th century. Many people mistakenly believe that the car was invented by Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, but that's incorrect. The automobile was actually born in Germany, officially on January 29, 1886, when Karl Benz, yes as in Mercedes Benz, applied for a patent for his vehicle powered by gasoline. It was a three-wheeler which gained much notoriety when Mr. Benz’s wife, and their 14 and 15 year old sons embarked on the first long distance journey by car in 1888. The trio set out without informing Karl and the 180 kilometer journey really demonstrated the practicality of the motor vehicle and spurred on the subsequent growth of what would eventually become the world's largest automobile plant of its time, in the city of Mannheim. The first American gasoline car was invented by two bicycle mechanics, the Duryea brothers in 1893. But the real game changer was Henry Ford, who, in 1908, introduced the transformative Model T and revolutionized mass production, and that same year William Durant founded General Motors. These pivotal moments embody the spirit of innovation and contributed to the sense of freedom that many Americans still feel about their cars. With this deep-rooted love affair between Americans and their cars, it should come as no surprise that there are a remarkable number of cars in the US. According to Forbes, a staggering 91.7% of households in the United States own at least one vehicle but all of these cars on the road have also created negative impacts on people in society. Here's Arcadis’ Global Solutions director for new mobility, Simon Swan


    Simon Swan

    Cars have revolutionized society and we've grown to love our cars. We love the freedom, the speed, the road trips, and their personalities, and some are great at some things, and terrible at others, much like people. In fact, we love them so much that in some countries, there are almost as many cars as people. Cars are pretty much a way of life. But I believe it's become an abusive relationship. Our cities are clogged with them, contributing to poor air quality and subsequent health issues. And car accidents are one of the leading causes of death in many countries around the world. Race cars also occupy a huge amount of space in cities; space that can be used for other things, by more homes, parks and playgrounds, and safe active travel, like walking, cycling, and rolling.


    Davion Ford

    The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, estimates that globally car crash injuries are the eighth leading cause of death for all age groups, and the leading cause of death for people between the ages of five and 29. This grim reality of mankind's love affair with the automobile is part of what motivated our guest, Doug Gordon, to become a safe streets advocate. Because of the efforts of people like Doug, his home New York City is in the midst of a transformation. With a population of over 8.8 million residents, New York is the most populous city in the United States and a melting pot of cultures from around the globe. Unlike many cities in the US, though, most New Yorkers do not own a car. Across the five boroughs, 55% of households do not own a car and a mere 22% of people commute to work in a car. Still, it's estimated that there are around 620 car accidents in the city every day, and a 2021 Harvard and University of North Carolina study found that around 1400 New York residents die prematurely each year from pollution caused by trucks, cars and buses. But the COVID 19 pandemic which ravaged the city opened many New Yorkers eyes to what life could be like with fewer cars. The pandemic lockdowns cleared out the streets and New Yorkers started to get a taste for life without cars all over the place. And many of them liked it, and this has led to calls for a massive reduction in the number of cars in the city, an effort to claim streets and sidewalks for people, not cars. Our guest today, is a man whose life's work is all about pushing back against the prevalence of cars in New York, and cities in general. Doug Gordon is the co-host of The War on Cars Podcast, and as I mentioned, a safe streets advocate.


    Davion Ford

    Hello, Doug, welcome to Better Cities by Design!


    Doug Gordon

    Thanks for having me.


    Davion Ford

    So my first question for you is, I guess the really obvious one, why have you declared a war on cars? And why do you think that we should all be at war against cars?


    Doug Gordon

    Okay, so I must explain the title of the podcast. The war on cars actually comes from a claim that other people lay at the feet of advocates and city planners who want to make their cities better. For people biking or walking or taking transit, you take one parking space to put in a bike corral or an expanded bike lane or bus lane, and people accuse you of waging a war on cars. So when we came up with the name for the podcast, we decided to lean into that. That being said, cars are sort of waging a war on us, right? They kill 40,000 Americans every year, countless more worldwide. And so as my co-host Aaron Naparstek will say like, why shouldn't there be a war on cars? This is like, there's blood in the streets, right? We really need to fight back against the space, and all the negative things that cars do to us.


    Davion Ford

    Okay, but you've got to you've got kids, right?


    Doug Gordon

    I do. I have two kids.


    Davion Ford

    And you haven't so you have a whole family? So surely, you use a car at times. So when you're using a car, are you a traitor to your own cause. Or, if not, how would New York be different if everyone used cars the way that you do?


    Doug Gordon

    You know, I see mobility like a Swiss army knife, like every now and then you're gonna need the big knife, the big blade to whittle a stick or do something like that.


    Davion Ford

    And is that the car in this analogy?


    Doug Gordon

    That's the car, the car is the big knife, right? And but every now and then you need the pair of tweezers or the corkscrew or the smaller blade. And that is a bike that is a bus. That is, that's walking, and you need to use the right tool for the job. And right now we just use a car for everything, you know whether you're going on the camping trip with the family hundreds of miles away, or you're just going a few miles down the road to pick up milk and groceries. And so I don't feel like I'm a traitor to the cause. You know, I don't love to deal in absolutes. I think of it as like a vegetarian who advocates for meatless Mondays, you know, you don't have to go full vegan. But if we all scaled back a little bit, and policies enabled us to do that, the world would be a better place. And look, like the Netherlands has a very high car ownership rate as far as Europe is concerned, right. But if New York was a little bit more, like Utrecht or Amsterdam, if more people in my own city, where 54% of households don't own a car, switch to things like biking, or taking transit, things would be a lot better. Less pollution, less noise. So yeah, it's about making little switches,I think, that lead to big changes.


    Davion Ford

    Okay, so how's the war effort going so far? And what have you seen change in New York?


    Doug Gordon

    Well, the biggest changes, I think if you hadn't been to New York City, and let's say 10 or 15 years, you really would come here and say “Wow, where did all of these bikes come from?”. It's the most noticeable change. City bike, our bike share system racks up 100,000 trips per day, if not more, during the nicer spring and summer weather. There are more pedestrian plazas, you know, Times Square is the most famous example of that. But here in Brooklyn where I am, there's lots of smaller stuff. During COVID, our previous mayor launched the open streets program. So we have lots of streets that are closed off to cars and open to people and restaurants come out and set up tables. And so I think if you came to New York on like a nice Saturday, in the spring, you really would say there is a lot that is going right here, this city is moving in the right direction. That being said, we have had a couple of tough years with traffic fatalities. Cycling fatalities are very high this year compared to previous years. So we have a lot left to do. You know, it's sort of two steps forward one step back. Some years it's two steps forward, two or three steps back. But progress isn't linear, but I would say in the big picture we are quote unquote, winning the war.


    Davion Ford

    So yeah, you mentioned bikes and of course this is a bit near and dear to me living here in Amsterdam. What is it about bikes and folks and cars because it just seems to me that this is a maybe you've seen this in New York, I know I've seen it here in Amsterdam, that bikes versus cars is like really the nastiest aspect of this, let's say quote unquote, war, that you're talking about what's up with that?


    Doug Gordon

    We're very territorial as a species, human beings. And I think we interact in our world in so few ways with other people who are sort of outside our immediate circle, whether that's, that's race, that's economics, it's just geography. We don't often interact with people who are different from us, you know, you just pass by them on the street or whatever. But, you know, for a cyclist going down the street, if a driver is parked in a bike lane, that's a life or death situation, in many cases, or it can feel like it. For a driver who is confronted, nobody likes to be told you're wrong, because they take that as you're a bad person. So when a cyclist confronts a driver for doing something illegal, you know, they sort of get up on their hunches a little bit like a bear almost. And they can get very defensive. And I can understand that because here you are in the super stressful giant, metal box that you always have to find a place for. And anything that comes along that sort of threatens your, your place in the hierarchy or your ability to move and store that giant metal box, this albatross that's hanging around your neck as you move through the city, it can make you very defensive. And so I think it gets to something very reptilian in our brains, you know, something that really goes to the heart of our evolution, about how we share space and move through our territory.


    Davion Ford

    And you really describe it there as well, too. I was getting imagery and scenes of like just being on the savanna somewhere who well and like your car is like you're the lion, like traipsing across the savanna in your car. And then what is this? Like? I guess the bike the cyclist is like a gazelle has the temerity to tell you that you need to move it along.


    Doug Gordon

    Yeah, although I think the car is probably more like a lumbering rhinoceros. They're not as graceful, right? As I move in these very blocky ways. Or a hippo, yes.


    Davion Ford

    Yeah, to stick with your whole notion that and that we see that cars are very dangerous. The hippo being incredibly dangerous. Anyway, we digress. Listen in the US and you know this very well. And it's not just in the US, we see this in many countries around the world, the car has been very successfully marketed for decades and decades, as a source of like, freedom and power. And, well, masculinity as well, too, in a lot of ways. And it's something that many, many people feel deeply passionate about. I could talk about my father briefly, who's my late father, who was just crazy about cars. And so you've got these car show types and the and the folks who really want to soup up their engines and, and I'll confess the last time that I was over visiting my home country, the US I took a nice road trip from Richmond, Virginia, all the way up to Madison, Wisconsin, and just set out on the road in a in a like, say fire engine, red Jeep Cherokee rental. And it was awesome, right? So how do you, let's say combat that really visceral, all this emotional attraction that automobiles have for people.


    Doug Gordon

    It’s funny because the driving that you're describing, and that I like to do like, I like to go on those long road trips, load the family in the car, and like the lore of the open road as a sort of American heritage of the automobile would suggest. That's not the driving that most people do in their daily lives, they drive the kids to school, they're stuck in traffic on the way to work, it takes them way too long, just to run basic errands. And so you know, it's interesting, we actually have a lot of fans of the podcast, who are car enthusiasts, who are in classic club cars, and you know, fix up vintage cars, or, you know, just turn around and sort of working on their own cars. And for them, when I've spoken to those people, they say, yeah, we love our cars, cars are amazing machines, they're one of the most significant important inventions in humanity. And all of that's true. What they hate are other drivers, and they hate all of these people in their way. And so this notion of cars as freedom machines, are these things that enable independence. That's not really true, right? Like, you're dependent on massive subsidies to make it affordable. You're dependent on this dinosaur juice that's pulled up from, you know, countries far away from where you live at a great cost to humanity and the environment and the climate. And you see how enraged people got here in the US when gas prices went over, you know, $4 a gallon, which I know for Europeans is like, wait a minute, per liter, you know, we're paying more than that. And I think it's, you know, I recently argued that it's really it's proximity that enables freedom, you know, I can run to the corner grocery store and pick up an ingredient for dinner and be home in five minutes, as opposed to “Alright kids, let's get in the car, and I gotta find a parking space.” And it can take 15 minutes, or it could take 45 minutes depending on traffic. So, you know, I think the car has been marketed as this freedom machine, but it's sort of a bill of goods, because like I said, the driving that we want to do is not the driving that we do do.


    Davion Ford

    You talked a bit earlier about some of the, let's say, bad side of cars. And you've been mentioned in that throughout, but specifically around the pollution bit. Yeah. And electric vehicles have really been touted as a solution in this space. So people can maintain their love of the car, but they won't have all of the exhaust coming out of the back end of it, because they will just charge up their car at home. But of course, that's not really covering the entire gamut of issues that you see with the car. So what do you think about electric vehicles? And do you see them as a similar threat to livability there in New York?


    Doug Gordon

    Yeah, the company line from the podcast, I would say on EVs is that we should be transitioning people out of cars as quickly as we possibly can, and making spaces for people where that's possible, right? In New York, Boston, San Francisco, all the usual suspects of places that were sort of that came up before the automobile. In sprawled out suburbs, or in rural communities where a car is necessary for daily living, we should be transitioning those folks to EVs as quickly as possible. So basically, no car where it's possible to live without one, electric where you absolutely have to. But sort of like you're saying, you know, that only solves one problem with the automobile. And that's tailpipe emissions and pollution, you still have massive amounts of tire wear, a lot of these cars are heavier because of the batteries and other design choices. So the wear and tear on the roads is much worse. You know, and also, transportation is not so much a technology problem, as it is a geometry problem, especially in cities, how do you fit the most people or move the most people in the minimal amount of space. And so the car doesn't really solve that problem. If it's electric, it still takes up the same amount of space parked on the street, moving through your city, it's still dangerous, right? If I'm hit by a hybrid or electric vehicle, I don't think well, “I've died a noble death because it was good for the environment.” It's still dangerous. I think the challenge with EVs is that there are a lot of folks, especially in the US who are doing or want to do what I call “greening the status quo”, which is basically we're all going to live the exact same big American lifestyle, the big house in the suburbs, and three cars in the driveway, and nothing about our life will have to change because it'll all just be powered by like sunlight. And that's only really one piece of the puzzle, there are lifestyle changes that are going to have to come as we cope with climate change. Hopefully, less driving is part of it.


    Davion Ford

    So you talked about, we talked a bit about bikes already. And that's bikes versus cars, but are of course, all types of other, let's say new mobility options out there. And I don't know to what extent that's even a misnomer at this stage with things like E-scooters, which have been around for a while now. And E-steps. Also drones. What role do you see new mobility options playing in the war on cars?


    Doug Gordon

    I think you'll only have to look at what's happened over the last couple of years, especially here where I live, to see that E-bikes especially had been a real game changer much in the way that protected bike lanes were a big catalyst for more cycling, and the way Bike Share. Someone called Bike Share sort of like the killer app for bike lanes, it really just filled our bike lanes with so many more people. And I see E-bikes, you know, they this is nothing new or revelatory. But you know, obviously they open up cycling to more people, people who need that little boost, they flatten hills, New York, we have lots of bridges that you have to go over usually. And so, you know they're sort of sweat killers, you don't really, you get exercise, but you don't have to break a sweat if you don't want to. So I think these things are great. And it's getting more people out of cars. You know, I think sometimes bike advocates can be purists and say, “Oh, it's cheating” or whatever. You hear that sometimes, but I don't see E-bikes as bike replacements. I see them as cartridge replacements and that's been my experience with the people I've spoken to anecdotally. I think the research bears that out overall. You know, like I said, the sort of Meatless Monday reference I made before if you can get a car owner, a car owning family down to one car, or even if they have the two cars, they're just using them less. That's a huge win. And so yeah, every version of electric mobility that you're seeing out there is a win, if it means that a person is not taking a car trip.


    Davion Ford

    And I guess my last question for you then is, what's your take on flying cars? Is a flying car, even a car actually wouldn't be part of the question. Given the fact that I mean, I guess it's a car sometimes when you're using it as a traditional car, but is it part of your war, when it's actually in the air and flying around?


    Doug Gordon

    I shudder to think what a city with flying cars would feel like or sound like, it would probably be pretty noisy. And you know, humans are pretty bad driving in sort of on one plane of existence, let's say, imagine doing it in multiple and no, you know, I think there's there's a temptation in transportation, to succumb to what I call the “Ooh, shiny effect”, which is like robot cars and flying cars. And you know, and this idea that we once were on horses with wagons, and then Henry Ford came along, and the Model T came along, and, and then electric cars came along, and pretty soon we'll have robot taxis. And, you know, that kind of stuff. And it's just this forward march of progress. And I think, also to refer to back to like what stokes these passions about bicycles. People are really confounded by the bike. It's this 19th century technology that's the solution to 21st century problems. And they think, no, that can't possibly be true, because, you know, Futurama, and World's Fair stuff in the mid 1940s, 1950s, we were promised flying cars, we were promised these like spacious, wonderful freeways where everyone was just pulling right up to their destination. And that's not true. The future of transportation is a reliable, safe, bike network, a bus that shows up on time, a car when you need it, car share, that kind of stuff. The technological aspect of all of that can be things like real time bus arrival, you look at your phone, and you can say, yeah, the next bus is coming in two minutes, it says, so right here, and 200 meters away from where I'm standing, there are five Bike Share bicycles that I can grab with my friends, so we can head on into the restaurant or to work or whatever. So it's not that, you know, we at The War on Cars are Luddites, who are against technology, it's just, we're sort of against the sort of Harold Hill Music Man, salesperson who's just promising this one trick is going to solve all of your transportation problems. It's not going to be like that. Give me a good bike. You know, like, look, I've been to Amsterdam many times in Utrecht. There's never been a moment when I've walked or biked through those cities and said “You know, what, make Utrecht better? If everybody was in a flying car.” Nobody thinks that. Nobody walks on like the left bank of Paris and, you know, says “It would be just so great if there are drones dropping people off at restaurants.” like, “No, thank you.” Just give everyone a good bike and reliable metro system. And we'll be good.


    Davion Ford

    Doug, thank you so much for your time. Can you actually give a plug for your show, so our listeners know where they can hear more?


    Doug Gordon

    Yeah, I'm the co-host of The War on Cars Podcast. You can find us at available wherever you get your podcasts as they say.


    Davion Ford

    Thanks so much for your time.


    Doug Gordon

    My pleasure.


    Davion Ford

    That's all for this episode of the show. We hope you enjoyed our chat with Doug Gordon, co-host of The War on Cars podcast, which is excellent. Definitely check it out. We really thank Doug for joining our show. Please stay tuned for future episodes as we continue to bring changemakers to the table who are driving progress in urban development. And if you haven't already done it, be sure to subscribe and check out our other episodes. I'm Davion Ford and you've been listening to Better Cities by Design, a podcast brought to you by Arcadis, the world's leading company delivering sustainable design engineering and consultancy solutions for natural and build assets. You can learn more by visiting our website or following Arcadis on LinkedIn or Facebook and please stay curious, get inspired and remember the future belongs to those who dare to make a difference in the cities we call home

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