Clip from a 1950s car commercial
15 minutes here can change 15 years of car buying habits.
In the fifties, advertisers weren't just selling cars. They were selling a lifestyle.
Clip from a 1950s car commercial
Notice how your neighbors look with admiration as you drive out in your new Chrysler.
Move to the suburbs. Be the envy of your friends and neighbors.
Clip from a 1950s car commercial
And now let's go with the missus for the Saturday shopping. Take the keys and see what driving pleasure really is.
We were promised a middle class fantasy of leisure and long drives. And instead what we got was traffic. Lots and lots of traffic. As Americans embrace car culture and everything that went with it, we started to rebuild cities as people move further and further into the suburbs, we tore down city streetcars and rail stations, and we put in their place wider roads and lots of parking lots. Today, there are more than a billion parking spaces in the United States, and somehow I still can't get a spot when I try to drive into downtown D.C.. So much of our lives are centered around our cars and for most of us they just sit empty all day long. What if it wasn't this way? What if instead of designing our cities around cars, we designed them around you know, people.
I'm Chris Cillizza and you're listening to Downside Up, a podcast from CNN where we look for answers to big what if questions if we changed one thing we take for granted about our current world, what would our new reality actually look like? So join us as we turn our city's downside up and imagine what they'd look like designed around people instead of cars.
I think this topic is about the two huge crises of our time: climate change and social division. If we can solve this problem of how people live and move around in our communities and we can do it in a way that's both ecological and equitable, we would go an enormous step towards both solving climate change and all of the political division we see in our society.
That's Vishaan Chakrabarti, an architect and an author of a book called "A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America." What he just said surprised me. I knew, of course, cars were a source of pollution. Duh. But do they really cause political divisions? Well, to understand that, I think we need a better sense of what cities actually looked like before cars existed.
Cities were invented a long time ago, and so we had cities for millennia that did not have cars. And, you know, most people today, because they just assume the world we live in is the way it's always been, they look at the streets and they think of streets were invented for cars. Streets and sidewalks were invented because people needed an organization strategy for how they were going to live. So if you look at ancient China, ancient India, ancient Greece, ancient Rome, all of those civilizations had streets and sidewalks. They were narrower than what we have now probably, but they were all about social connection and people seeing each other eyeball to eyeball. And then we have the widespread use of cars and streets just got wider and wider and our whole landscape transformed in the 20th century as a consequence of it.
And of course, these cities weren't designed around cars, obviously, or even around commerce.
In ancient Chinese cities. To move north was to move towards the heavens in ancient India you circumambulated to the center of the city in order to reach a certain sense of spiritual understanding of yourself. And in Greece, the grid was literally about democracy. In Rome, it was about power.
I want to tug on this thread a little bit. I hear you say social a lot. We're social. I totally agree. We're social beings. We want to be together. I live in and around Washington, D.C. My experience with a city is largely sitting alone in my car, surrounded by other people, largely sitting alone in their cars, trudging through the traffic of a city. Cars don't strike me as a particularly social enterprise. They seem to be isolating.
Yeah, well, cars are a huge problem for the obvious reasons. Carbon emissions, childhood asthma rates in inner cities, all sorts of other things. But the larger problem is they are social segregators. In politics we talk about the bubbles created by social media, and I would put forth that cars are the same kind of bubble, that they are segregators. And in fact, there is a huge history of racial segregation having to do with the building of highways across the United States in the 1960s and 1970s and white flight from our cities.
Vishaan is describing here that cars can be psychological segregators, a fancy word that just basically means that cars allow us to isolate ourselves and move from place to place, only interacting with people who look or think exactly like us. But he's also talking about the ways that building our roads and bridges have basically created segregation too, think about it. Many of America's highways were specifically built through minority neighborhoods, pushing people out of their homes and in the process, disrupting generations of wealth creation for black and brown Americans. But before we get to all that, we've got to understand how cars became so damn popular in the first place. How did they go from a luxury item for the ultra rich to a core part of the American dream?
I simplify things a lot, but World War II is the accelerant. Because what happens is, prior to World War II, we have some sense of suburbanization both in the UK and the US, but it's pretty limited and car ownership is really very rarefied. So what happened? World War II happens and a couple of major things happen all at once. We have a whole complex industrial machinery to build these things that we built during World War II, and now we've got all these factories set up so we can build mass production in terms of automobiles. There's a Cold War going on, and there is a very, very serious concern about nuclear war. One thing to keep in mind is that most of our major cities before World War II, from 1900 till roughly 1950, were denser than they are today. Our cities lost a massive amount of population after World War II because Eisenhower passes the National Highway and Defense Act. And so it's out there to do a couple of different things. It is to help diffuse the population in the event of nuclear war. That's why the bridges are so tall, because they wanted to be able to move nuclear weapons around. But there's also another couple of factors. There's huge corporate interest here, right? Because when you move people from dense, small apartments in cities to suburban homes, you have this hugely consumer society that makes the economy just explode because now all of a sudden you need lawnmowers and you need maybe two cars and-
Right. Golf clubs, then you need room. There's a George Carlin scared about how I bought a house, then I bought more stuff, and then the stuff wouldn't fit, then I bought a bigger house.
Clip from George Carlin
That's the whole meaning of life, isn't it? Trying to find a place for your stuff.
So there's this huge consumer economy that's fueled by this. And the auto industry, the tire industry, the fossil fuel industry, they're all in on the game. We start seeing literally the disappearance of mass transit systems all around the country.
So that technology exists when cars exist and it just starts to become defunded. Because I always wonder about that, whether it's light rail or those sorts of things. So there are other transportation options, they just sort of wither as cars become ascendant?
It's a little bit more insidious than that. That technology existed prior to cars. You had the electrification of trains and cities before any widespread car usage. And so you had street cars in almost every major city in America. And the thing is, it didn't just wither. It went away. I mean, there was a famous Supreme Court case, there was cartel formation among Standard Oil and Firestone Tires and a bunch of other companies that were actively lobbying to eliminate the street cars in cities.
This is key to understanding how our cities stopped being designed around people and started being designed around cars. The car lobbyists, tire lobbyists and oil lobbyists were essentially writing transportation policy throughout the 20th century. That meant subsidies for cars and the defunding of everything else. Cities started tearing down the electric light rail stations. They tore down train stations. And what happens when you separate people from the necessities of their daily lives? You guessed it. They have to buy cars to get there.
And suburbanization also became a way to segregate white, black and brown people and shut families of color out of the American dream. As white people fled to the suburbs. They took resources with them and tore down the infrastructure in the cities they left behind.
And by the time you get to the civil rights movement, you start to have a huge racial component to this, which is what we refer to as white flight. So now you've got government subsidized highways, you've got all sorts of government interest and fossil fuel companies, and you've got redlining of mortgages. So African-American families, even if you're middle class, you can't go live in the same suburbs. And so you start to see this huge racial segregation happen. Rioting in cities. Mass transit usage plummets. And you start to see subways feeling unsafe. Mass transit feeling unsafe. So the thing is, when people look at me today and they say, well, I live in the suburbs because it's cheaper. Well, that's not just like a series of market forces. There's a huge number of things the government did for building the highways to the G.I. Bill, to mortgage interest deduction, which were primarily targeted at suburban homeowners to redlining of mortgages. That created a subsidized system of why everything from schools are better in the suburbs to the fact that it's cheaper and so forth.
So the suburbs were something that emerged from white, middle class desires and anxieties, and that push dramatically changed the way our cities look.
Dr. Destiny Thomas
The federal highway system was built to facilitate redlining. It was infrastructure that was installed so that white people who had been convinced that they should be afraid to live near black, brown and Asian folks could travel between their worksites and their homes in the suburbs. The suburbs were erected out of this spirit of xenophobia and racism.
Dr. Destiny Thomas is an urban planner and CEO of The Thrivance Group. They're committed to rethinking the design of our cities with a focus on racial justice and cultural restoration. She raises an important question for this "What if?" If we were to design our cities around people, what people are we actually talking about?
Dr. Destiny Thomas
Most of the time, the cities that we know today were not designed for the people who live in them. The infrastructure is hostile for people who have disabilities. For people who are proud to be fat or overweight. For folks who are sensitive to say that word. I identify as fat. The cities are hostile for people who have cognitive differences, which aren't even recognized as disabilities. And the ADA Act when it comes to infrastructure design. I don't like to use the word marginalized people because when you really boil down who fits into that category, it's most of us. All of that to say cities then are designed to serve a very small minority of people who happen to have access to resources and power.
And even as we've added back some public transit options we tore down in the wake of white flight, they're still tied to that legacy of car culture.
Dr. Destiny Thomas
Transit is, is lauded as being the people centric mode of transportation because a lot of people can fit into it and it goes longer distance faster than you would go in a car. But, and I'm willing to bet money on this, in any major city, at least the transit network is installed, if not adjacent to the major highway network, very nearby. It's built to supplement that same route. Even the electrification of busses, which I'm super excited to see happening, but those bus depots are being stationed in places or communities like whites, so already suffering from environmental racism and car culture, literal car culture pollutants and things like that. And now we're saying this community should also house the infrastructure for the development and manufacturing of green that everyone else in the city will get to benefit from. And no one else is going to have to see a fleet of 50 green busses driving past their kindergartners class.
Dr. Destiny Thomas
Right. So that's car culture to me. The same ideology that said, we can drop this freeway over this community and level all of the homes beneath it is how we make decisions like that.
So what exactly would an alternate transit system look like? Because designing our cities around people isn't as simple as just changing the method of transportation. It's about building an entire ecosystem that looks to benefit the whole community.
Dr. Destiny Thomas
As someone who grew up riding transit. I always tell people as a child, I was getting my produce from the local transit station. I was getting my incense, I was getting the books that the elders thought that we needed to read. I was getting the De La Soul tapes. I was getting clothes and maybe even if my mother or older sibling had somewhere to go and maybe couldn't drop me off at daycare, the transit station, our bus stop in our community was so active you could literally drop me off and the space would be programed in a way where you could trust that I'm going to be safe and maybe even learn something while I'm there. So even as I'm saying we should reimagine transit, what I'm really saying is there are so many models of resilience, right? Things that our communities have designed and developed on their own that fit the need that I'm saying exists.
Destiny's general idea is to let residents reimagine what transit could look like rather than pushing for some technological solution that may just repeat the same problems of the past. During the pandemic, we got to see a little glimpse of the creative community that could flourish in our cities.
Dr. Destiny Thomas
Some cities tried to do open streets, slow streets, play streets, closed streets.
Explain to me what slow streets are.
Dr. Destiny Thomas
Slow streets was and still is a program that residents on a block or maybe a couple of city blocks, they all put their signature on this paper where they're asking to basically close the street to through traffic so no cars can come down the street unless the cars belong to one of the residences on the block and unless it's an emergency vehicle. And the idea behind that is, in a pandemic, definitely people need more space to be able to travel and children need to be able to play outside, either on the sidewalk or in the street without the danger of speeding cars. And then I think also the more obvious thing which happened was like the al fresco dining is imagining what it looks like to live our inside lives outside for the purposes of better health outcomes. And I also think for anybody who has never traveled the city that they live in on foot, anyone who is a pedestrian or a regular pedestrian will tell you that it's a completely different experience than the experience that you have in the car. So you will see people and neighborhood assets that you never noticed before.
I really love that idea and it's so true. If you're speeding through downtown, as I occasionally do, you don't get the chance to really get to know your city, to really know the community. You're just someone passing through it in a tube, essentially. But if we're able to break the cycle of this car culture, we could see benefits in both our natural and manmade environments. And by seeing each other, literally seeing each other on the sidewalks, in bike lanes and in parks, could that lead to better civic engagement? Cities come in all shapes and sizes, and I love that both the Vishaan and Destiny stressed that each city's future is going to look different, but that the future should be decided by the people that actually live there. If we start to rid our cities of car culture, though, how are we going to get around? It's a basic but important question. Coming up after the break, we'll look at possible futures of transportation.
Welcome back to Downside Up. I'm Chris Cillizza, and I'm speaking with architect Vishaan Chakrabarti. Are there cities out there, whether they be small, medium or large cities, are there cities out there that are in your mind sort of doing things that are less car centric and more people centric.
All over the place. So certainly in Europe. Right. And so you have the smaller Scandinavian cities, Copenhagen and so forth. Tons of bike lanes. You know, there's a whole culture of biking. The Dutch countries, you know, again, enormous, enormous infrastructure around walking, biking and mass transit.
When you say enormous infrastructure, what does that mean? Does that mean less wide roads for cars? What does it what does the actual sort of physical manifestation of that mean?
It means dedicated bike lanes that are just like these little green painted things where you're going to get doored, dedicated bike lanes that are wide enough even for older people who drive those like large tricycles and things like that, where you literally see on and off ramps. I went to China in the early nineties and Beijing actually had some of the most sophisticated bicycle infrastructure in the world where literally you'd see thousands of people on bikes, elderly, young people being off ramps and on ramps. All of that got destroyed in favor of the car in Beijing and now they're trying to build it back.
So there's a pattern here. In some ways, our cities of the future might just look like our cities of the past. We tore down mass transit to make way for eight lane highways, and now we're demolishing those eight lane highways to make way for mass transit. If you think too hard about it, it might make you mad, but that doesn't mean we're going to keep everything from our past.
Well, as long as we don't have the smelly horses. No, I think that's an interesting idea. But it's all going to be more in a high tech version of that historic viewpoint.
That's Joann Muller, a journalist who covers the future of transportation and cities for Axios. She points out that we've made a fair number of scientific advancements in the last century, so as more people move back from the suburbs into cities, our future will have more scooters and air taxis than it will have carriages and cars.
I think we're in this really interesting time right now with sort of a once in a century transformation, and it has to do with electric, autonomous connected vehicles. And with that moment where all the technology is changing, that should be the time where we rethink what cities should look like as well. You know, I don't know that a scooter is brand new or a bicycle, certainly not brand new, but we're thinking about them in different ways as transportation around cities. Sometimes it's actually a lot faster to go on a bike than it is in a car. But I also think about the idea of flying machines. It is possible that these are going to change our cities. And I'm talking about not only drones that can deliver things, but I'm also talking about personal mobility with electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
If we spent the bulk of the 20th century building highways on the ground where we spend the 21st century building interstates in the sky? Now, finally, we're at least starting to feel a little bit like "Back to the Future.".
Clip from Back to the Future
Roads? Where we're going, we don't need roads.
The idea that you could zip from one rooftop of a building to another rooftop across town is kind of intriguing. And then you would come down from the rooftop. Or maybe it's a garage, the roof of a parking garage or something like that. And you would come down and then you'd pick up another type of mobility, whether it's an Uber or Lyft ride chair or if it's a bicycle or an electric rail or a scooter or something like that. And so if we can interchange all of these different types of mobility, you think about it as a system, it might actually work pretty well.
There's just one little problem. Most of our country is still built to encourage people to buy cars. So how do we change that? Joanne offers an encouraging example. She lives in Detroit, and if there's any city in the United States that was built for cars, it's got to be Motor City. But even they are starting to rebuild their infrastructure around people.
Here in Detroit there's actually a road shrinkage going on, and part of it is probably the result of the fact that Detroit's population has shrunk over the last 20-30 years considerably. And now the road that connects my neighborhood to downtown Detroit was eight lanes wide. Now it's two lanes in each direction. And there's a bike lane and there's a boulevard and it's more landscaping and they're really shrinking the road.
We're seeing this happen all across the country. All the places where young people are moving for jobs and opportunity have one thing in common. They're scrambling to rebuild mass transit infrastructure. Here's Vishaan again.
You know, if you look at a map of the United States, we are organized into seven or eight mega regions where most jobs are, where most young people are gravitating for those jobs. This is not just in northeastern California saying it's Texas, it's the Charlanta corridor or Cascadia, Denver. Those places are all scrambling to build more mass transit, build more urban density. You talk to any mayor in any of those places, they'd love to see high speed rail connect up across those. I think that is inevitable.
Which in some ways would suggest that the growth of the suburbs, which has been the story of, as we talked about before, sort of post-World War II America from the fifties until now, the suburbs might recede.
We've already seen it. And look, here's the thing is we assume that the stuff that we see around us is just here to stay. And I think it's really important to understand that suburban America has really only truly in a widespread way existed since World War II. So if that can happen in 50 years, in 50 years, we can do something else. That's what it really tells me.
And when it comes to imagine the cities of the future, Vishaan finds inspiration in a surprising place.
Clip from Black Panther
The last thing I have to say about the future is, you know, the future vision I love to look at is Wakanda because one of the things I love about Wakanda if you notice, if you watch if you watch Black Panther carefully, there's the city. The city's got all this mass transit, all this housing, parks, all this stuff. And the moment you leave the city, you're in farmland. And there's this connection between rural life and urban life. And the thing is, people conflate suburbia and rural life. Suburbia is not rural life. No one raises cows in their lawn. And I just think that that is a really interesting paradigm to think about people either living in super dense circumstances or compact or really living in true rural hinterland and doing the things that we need everyone to do in farmland, which is grow our food and all of that stuff. And it would mean you would use a lot less land on this planet at the end of the day.
So I really love this, and I don't know whether our future looks like Wakanda or like Schitt's Creek, but it does feel like that by removing the car from the center of our lives, we can find better ways to live, not just with each other, but with the planet.
Each week. I like to challenge one of our guests to a round of trivia. This week, we're putting Vishaan to the test with some car-themed questions. Listen and play along. All right. These I have, what, let me see. I think I have five, okay I have five questions. These are of varying difficulty. All right. Question one. Are you ready?
Okay, here we go. Question one What is considered the first mile of concrete highway in the world? It was built in an American city in 1909, and surprisingly, the road was initially built for bicyclists. Even though this city this is what we're looking for, this city would become synonymous with American automobiles. What city are we looking for?
It's got to be Detroit.
Correct? One for one. Excellent. I only know that because of Eminem. Okay. Question two. By contrast, the Tube or London Underground is the oldest subway system in the world. It opened in 1863. But where was the first subway system built in the United States? The key here is first subway system.
New York City.
1897. Fun fact. The Chicago L opened in 1892 but it was an elevated train, not an underground. But I like this New York centric perspective that everything was first in New York. I still- my mom grew up in Long Island and still only refers to New York as the city. And I have to say, mom, what city? And she's like, New York, of course. Okay. Question three During the height of American auto manufacturing, what companies were considered the big three of American cars?
Ford, GM and Chrysler?
Correct. Nailed it. You didn't even have to think. Now, this question is extremely long, so stick with me. In the sixties, Walt Disney announced plans to build a utopian city in the middle of Florida. The experimental prototype community of tomorrow, which is Epcot, actually didn't know what that acronym stood for, eventually evolved into a theme park concept, but the original pitch was for a real city, with all automobile traffic moved underground to allow for people to walk and use what form of transportation? This mode of mass transit has never been fully embraced by American cities and was even mocked in a Simpsons episode. What form of transportation is that?
Monorail. (sings) Monorail
Clip from The Simpsons
Sorry. I've seen that Simpsons episode about a thousand times. Okay, last one. We've talked a fair amount today about cities of the future and what they may look like in the "Back to the Future" series, which I just watch with my kids. By the way, "Back to the Future" number one, very good. The subsequent "Back to the Futures" to go downhill in the "Back to the Future" series what car do Marty McFly and Doc Brown use as a time machine? What brand car?
Clip from The Simpsons
DeLorean, yes. Correct. 3 for 5!
I'm upset at 3 for 5.
You should. Don't worry. As a New Yorker, you can always say that answering New York City is correct.
You know, the thing is, how can I hold my head up if I said Boston? So, like, even if it's true.
If you're in Boston and you're listening and you happen to see Vishaan on the street, show him a little mercy. He can't help it that he's from New York.
Thank you to Vishaan Chakrabarti, Joann Muller and Destiny Thomas for joining me this week to help me understand how our cities became so devoted to our cars and to imagine what our lives could be like if we redesigned them around people. My big takeaway? Our cars may be a lot of fun. They are, but they've also isolated us from each other. To fix that problem, we're going to need to rethink what our cities and towns actually look like. That may look different from place to place. They're apparently building a city in Saudi Arabia right now that will have dedicated commuting lanes for swimmers. Yes, I'm being serious. But as more and more people move back into cities, we're going to have to sus out new uses for all those abandoned strip malls and dwindling neighborhoods. Maybe the future is a little like Wakanda, with high tech cities right alongside beautiful nature. But what about you? How would you redesign your city around your needs instead of around your car? Let me know by tweeting me. @ChrisCillizza, that's at Chris C-i-l-l-i-z-z-a. And tell me what your big "what if" question is. We may feature it on a future episode.
Next time on Downside Up: what our world look like if we got rid of all the mosquitoes?
They just want to get their blood meal and move on. They don't think about moving pathogens from one animal to another or anything like that.
Only a tiny chunk of them really do even bite humans. So there's about 3500 mosquito species in the world. So the reason a mosquito bites you is always the female that bites you, she bites because she needs the protein from our blood to help her mature her eggs.
Downside Up is hosted by me, chris Cillizza. It's a production of CNN in collaboration with Pod People at CNN. And our producer is Lori Galaretta, and our executive producer is Abbie Fentress Swanson. Alexander McCall leads audience strategy for the show. Tamika Ballance-Kolansy is our production manager and Jamus Andrest and Nichole Pesaru designed our artwork.
The team from Pod People includes Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, John Hammontree, Madison Lusby, Regina de Heer and Morgan Foose.
Theme and original music composed by Casey Holford. Additional music came from Epidemic Sound.
Special thanks to Lindsay Abrams, Fuzz Hogan, Emma Lacey-Bourdeaux, Drew Shankman, Lisa Namerow, John Dianora, Katy Hinman, and Courtney Coupe