War on Cars: Doug Gordon On Changing Culture and Imagining a Different Kind of City

War on Cars: Doug Gordon On Changing Culture and Imagining a Different Kind of City
Doug Gordon. (Photo: Zainab Iqbal/Bklyner)

PARK SLOPE  — Street safety advocate Doug Gordon, 45, has over 20,000 followers on Twitter. It’s where he expresses himself in 280 characters or less. Occasionally, he’ll call out Mayor Bill de Blasio, though he’s also not afraid to do it in person either. With the high number of street deaths just this year, he believes the work he does is even more important now.

Gordon has lived in NYC for about 21 years, of which the last 16 have been in Brooklyn. He grew up in the Boston area and moved here after college. He makes his living by writing and producing television shows for a variety of networks including PBS, ABC, and the Travel Channel where he covers the intersection of science, history, and culture. But the majority of his time is taken up with advocacy for better streets.

“In my TV work, I often have to take vast, complicated subjects, learn as much as I can about them, and boil them down to something that can be understood by a general audience. In advocacy, many of the concepts that lead to safer streets can seem complicated or counterintuitive, such as how taking away a lane of car traffic can actually improve traffic flow,” Gordon told Bklyner on a cold morning. “So I see my role as an advocate being as a kind of communicator, someone who can take urban-planning speak and translate it into language regular people can understand and, hopefully, support.”

To him, both TV and being an advocate are connected. And though he’s always been interested in cycling and the city, he believes any death on the street in unacceptable. For those who ask what makes him qualified to advocate for such a problem, he said, “I sincerely believe that any death on our streets is simply unacceptable. I don’t think anyone needs a vast amount of credentials to work toward a world where such tragedies aren’t seen as the cost of living in a modern society.”

The War on Cars

Gordon does not own a car and doesn’t plan on doing so. After all, he believes the City doesn’t need more cars on the street. Cue his podcast titled, “The War on Cars.”

“The way I like to refer to it is that it is sort of like the ‘war on Christmas’ or the ‘war on men,'” Gordon said. “It’s like anytime you challenge the status quo, people accuse you of waging a war.”

The name of his podcast is meant to be tongue and cheek, he explained. Rob Ford, the former mayor of Toronto, said back in 2012 that he would end the ‘war on cars’.  Ford argued that bike lanes and improvements were taking away spaces for vehicles, and he pledged to put an end to that.

When Gordon was looking for a name for his podcast in September of this year, it seemed fitting for a podcast that focuses on fixing the many problems brought by cars, not from a policy perspective, but from a cultural perspective. He and his co-hosts had been thinking of beginning a podcast because they couldn’t find one that tackled the issue from a cultural lens. “It’s a cultural problem. There’s something deeply intrinsic to the driver’s identity that is wrapped up in owning and using a car,” he says.

Gordon doesn’t hate cars. He uses them to get to places that are not accessible by transit, like to his grandmother’s house in the Bronx. Cars are just a tool, Gordon explained, “unfortunately, we’re using them for jobs where a better tool might come in handy.”

“We’ve over-deployed the use of cars. We use them for things we don’t need to use them for,” Gordon said. “Therefore, that sort of meta-problem leads to other problems. People get killed, there’s too much pollution, the noise above Coney Island Avenue, the social isolation, the danger.”

This year alone, about 203 people have been killed by vehicles in NYC. At least six kids ages 10 and under have been killed by cars. Most of the cyclist and pedestrian deaths took place in Brooklyn. Take 10-year-old Enzo Farachio, for example. The little boy, who had just started middle school, was waiting at the bus stop when a car rammed into him and killed him. Or the young artist from Bushwick, 28-year-old Devra Freelander, who was cycling when a truck struck and killed her. She was the 15th cyclist killed this year. Both her and Farachio’s death hit Gordon very hard.

“Every one of those is a tragedy… these are real people,” Gordon said. “So often in the coverage of these stories, it gets boiled down to the basics, like ‘Was the pedestrian looking at his or her phone? Was the cyclist wearing a helmet?’ All of these questions to me, dehumanize the people involved and the families that are left behind.”

When he heard about the three-year-old boy that was killed by a car while his mother pushed him in a stroller earlier this week in Harlem, all Gordon thought was – “that’s a child.”

“That’s someone’s life,” he said. “And it affects the people they leave behind forever. Not just their immediate family members, but their entire communities.”

Often after such tragedies, people quickly begin to put blame on the victims. On social media, someone is always quick to point out that cyclists break rules, too, for example. Or that the pedestrian was probably not crossing in the crosswalk. Gordon doesn’t disagree.

“Yes, I would say cyclists break the rules. I would never disagree or deny that. What I would say is that there’s a huge difference between breaking a rule when you’re at a multi-ton vehicle powered by gasoline, verses when you’re on a bike powering it yourself.”

He argued that drivers usually break the rules to save a few seconds, and that though some cyclists do it for the same reason, they are more often than not, doing it to stay safe.

“I do go through a red light every now and then,” Gordon said. “I do it when the bike lane is blocked up ahead and I don’t want to have to compete with the drivers who are behind me. It’s a nuanced kind of thing. It’s not as simple as ‘Well, they do it, too.'”

Vision Zero is a “strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries, while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all.” It began in Sweden and has been implemented throughout Europe, and since 2014 in NYC.

A City For All

Gordon believes that the way NYC has implemented Vision Zero has been very reactive.

“It takes someone dying for the City to act,” Gordon said. To prove the point – Council Member Chaim Deutsch wants to have bollards installed at every bus stop in the City, a bill in honor of Farachio.

“A city where no one dies [because of unsafe streets] is one thing and we should strive toward that. But you can have cities where nobody dies that are still very unpleasant to walk and bike in.”

To Gordon, it’s less about a Vision Zero city, and more about a livable, walkable, bikeable, accessible city. To Gordon NYC is the ideal city. He absolutely loves the people, the culture, and the energy here, but does it feel safe? What does an ideal city feel like?

“My daughter is 10. I think a city that works for a 10-year-old would work for everybody,” he said. “I want to be able to send her to the corner store to pick up some ice cream. Vision Zero changes would depend on who you ask. But that’s where I start from. Slower car speeds, fewer cars, wider sidewalks, safer bike lanes. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution. For me, it’s more about what it feels like, particularly from the eyes of the kids.”

Gordon has two kids; a daughter and a six-year-old son. Both are bike lovers and the little one is also really into busses. His daughter is going to start middle school. Gordon said he was that parent that plugged every address into Google Maps to check what the route would look like. He even took a walk to some of the schools to envision what it would be like for his daughter; to check which streets were dangerous and where there were stop signs. He just wants her to be safe.

“I think of streets like software. Like is your computer ever done being upgraded? They are always coming up with improvements to make your processor run faster. Ways to play games faster. Ways to improve your workflow,” he said. “We could have stopped with Microsoft version 2.0. But now we’re on 20 or 30… We’re just trying to change the system that’s pretty rotten.”

Gordon has been riding a bike forever. Once he was on a training ride in New Jersey, training for a charity bike ride to raise awareness for AIDS back in 2000. He was at the front of the group riding straight through an intersection when a driver tried to speed past the group. Once the driver turned, the vehicle hit Gordon who then rolled off the hood of the car. The driver was apologetic and Gordon was ok and left with a cracked helmet and scrapes. Though he was never hurt biking again, he had many close calls.

“I think the work of any advocate is never done,” he said. “Like are we ever going to cure homelessness? No. But, we keep fighting.”


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