People usually pride themselves on being good, safe drivers. Yet something is seriously wrong on the American streets.
In 2021, the number of road fatalities will reach a 16-year high. An estimated That year, 42,915 people died(Opens in a new window). Fatalities increased year-over-year in several categories, including pedestrians, cyclists, elderly drivers and motorcyclists, and there were more crashes on urban roads and during the day. US Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg called deteriorating road safety “a crisis on American roads(Opens in a new window).” These trends only slightly improved(Opens in a new window) in the first nine months of 2022, but the number of deaths among pedestrians and cyclists continues to rise.
If solving this problem sounds like an impossible task that is not meant for the average person, there are several high-profile social media groups and content creators eager to convince you otherwise. They want to help you understand why streets are so dangerous, how to make them safe for everyone, and what you can do to improve them in your community. Their tactics and solutions are not always the same, but all are concerned about the car-centric culture, while insisting that this “crisis” can be overcome by designing streets around our collective well-being rather than car convenience, and by making it as difficult enabling people to drive recklessly.
There is Mr Barricade(Opens in a new window)a mustachioed civil transportation engineer who alternates explains(Opens in a new window) and criticizes(Opens in a new window) elements of traffic design to his 1.7 million TikTok followers. Not just cycling(Opens in a new window), a YouTube account with nearly 900,000 subscribers, posts lengthy videos about urban planning and walkable cities that routinely rack up millions of views. The private Facebook group New urban planning memes for transit-oriented teens(Opens in a new window) (NUMTOT) specializes in mixing urban planning solutions with humorous or caustic take on car culture for its more than 227,000 members. On the War on cars podcast(Opens in a new window)which is supported by more than 1,700 people on Patreon(Opens in a new window)the show’s three hosts “fight to undo a century’s worth of damage done by the car.”
Why the pedestrian dignity movement should be your next accessibility goal
While these makers have been around for a few years or more, War on cars co-host Sarah Goodyear has noticed a recent increase in interest in making America’s streets safer and more walkable. Goodyear, a journalist who has covered city planning and road safety since 2006, says this curiosity is due in part to a decade of advocacy in cities, where local organizers pressured lawmakers to account for — and prevent — pedestrian deaths and cyclists. It also reflects the work of the climate movement to connect car culture to a worse future for the planet. And unexpectedly, the pandemic created a disturbing contrast between the relative calm of reduced traffic during lockdowns and the spike in fatalities as people got behind the wheel, often stressed and sometimes drunk(Opens in a new window).
Goodyear says the rise of social media over the past 15 years has made it significantly easier and more fun to talk about road safety in bite-sized chunks of content, such as memes, TikToks and YouTube videos. At the same time, it gives skeptics of a car-centric culture tools to connect with like-minded people who would otherwise feel alone in a huge, losing battle.
“Once the car blindness is lifted for you, you can’t see cars for what they are: big, noisy, dangerous, fossil fuel emissions, expensive and cumbersome,” says Goodyear.
Come for the memes, stay for the conversation
When Vignesh Swaminathan, aka Mr. Barricade, who launched his TikTok account in 2020, found algorithmic success. Swaminathan runs the civil engineering company Crossroad Laboratory(Opens in a new window) in San Jose, California, which designs and builds transportation projects across the state. That means he’s regularly on site, ready to turn an intersection into his TikTok classroom or dance floor. His performances are often set to rap and catch music, and his on-the-scene analyzes of traffic design elements typically include interchanges, signals, crosswalks, bike lanes, drainage ditches, and overpasses. Swaminathan specifically uses TikTok to engage the average person.
“If everyone is scrolling anyway, why can’t I reach them?” he says.
Swaminathan is particularly interested in engaging people who are new to the subject and don’t know how to pursue change, and those who are “completely disconnected” from the civic process because they don’t trust the government, live in marginalized or neglected neighbourhoods. , are undocumented or unable to participate due to barriers such as language or disability. People in those groups, he says, “learn, become aware and start to figure out what they want.” Swaminathan’s traffic planning and safety videos aim to highlight improved design elements such as secure intersections(Opens in a new window) and speed demons(Opens in a new window)that calm traffic and protect cyclists and pedestrians.
But the path to becoming a TikTok star for Swaminathan, who is of Indian descent, has also included a flurry of racial slurs and memes using his image. To stop the attack, Swaminathan invited his followers to drown out offensive content with their own traffic-related memes. His followers appeared in the comments with anti-racist responses and dance videos in front of road signs, drainage ditches and pedestrian bridges. Swaminathan says the nerdy traffic engineering jokes overshadowed the racist attacks, but the latter still surface in his comments.
“A lot of people really come for the memes and stay for the conversations.”
Swaminathan and his unique community of loyalists make road safety and design feel accessible, dynamic and even entertaining. Other influencers and groups also use humor to their advantage. In the Facebook group New urban planning memes for transit-oriented teens(Opens in a new window) (NUMTOT), co-founder Emily Orenstein says there’s significant overlap between educating members, debating solutions, and posting silly things like spinning a picture of children in the 1950s using a pulley system to cross a river(Opens in a new window) to a joke about public transport. In more serious posts, members often discuss “alternative futures” to the current status quo in which cars dominate and litter American streets.
“A lot of people really come for the memes and stay for the conversations,” says Orenstein.
Of course, online exchanges about cars, safety, and policy can get fraught, depending on whether the participants want to drastically reduce the number of cars on the road or believe it’s possible to navigate a way out of car-centric culture and reckless driving. In the subreddit diplomatically called Fuckcars(Opens in a new window)moderators acknowledge the hard-to-discuss nuances in this debate, including the fact that some people may love cars as beautiful machines but hate “car-centric” infrastructure.
Goodyear says the diversity of online accounts and groups is essential: “What we need is system change, and you don’t get system change with one form of activism, one way, with one community or one strategy, on one platform.”
Turning online conversations into real change
Activists say channeling online curiosity and anger about car-centric policies could include advocating new city council solutions, protesting deadly intersections, joining a traffic-related committee, participating in public city planning meetings, or research into the legality of implementing DIY security measures(Opens in a new window) like painting a crosswalk when the city refuses to provide one. Road safety groups exist in major cities in the US, including San Francisco(Opens in a new window), Chicago(Opens in a new window), New York(Opens in a new window), Minneapolis(Opens in a new window), Deventer(Opens in a new window)and Boston(Opens in a new window).
Nathan Allebach, a creator focused on creating walkable cities, says the online movement is policy-driven because those solutions have the potential to be transformative, as opposed to efforts that persuade individual administrators to do better. After all, Allebach says cars tend to turn even the nicest people into insensitive drivers when they’re late, stressed, or distracted, a fleeting or persistent superiority complex the movement describes as “car brain(Opens in a new window).”
“People are realizing that this isn’t a problem that happens to someone else — it’s all of us,” says Allebach.
In a TikTok video that has been viewed 1.4 million times, Allebach spends barely three minutes convincingly arguing for the resurgence of third places, which are community gathering places in walkable locations that have been largely decimated by car-centric urban and suburban schedule. One commenter complained, “This makes me so sad,” to which Allebach replied, “I know it can be disheartening, but the good news is that zoning and parking reforms are happening everywhere now! A brighter future is possible.”
Goodyear says she is encouraged by the enthusiasm War on cars listeners have to get involved through local activism and in each other’s advocacy campaigns.
“That’s the most exciting thing for me,” she says. “I think we’re part of a really genuine, active, super engaged community.”
For Bryan Culbertson, an engineer in Oakland, California, who has dozens of Not just cycling(Opens in a new window) videos helped shape his road safety activism. Last year, Culbertson helped found it Traffic violence Quick response(Opens in a new window)a basic movement(Opens in a new window) holding vigils for anyone killed by a car, protesting at dangerous intersections and pressuring city officials to improve safety. The group has over 40 members and organizes through Signal and Slack. So far, they have successfully lobbied the city’s transportation department and transit agency to reassess the city’s deadliest street, a main road where drivers routinely cross pedestrian crossings, especially near bus stops.
Culbertson is optimistic that more change is possible.
“If you talk to people from the perspective of a walk around their neighborhood and what they want that experience to look like, you’ll get a lot of agreement about whether they want to feel safe, want their kids to be able to ride a bike, or just point out the front lawn without the constant fear of, ‘Maybe they’ll run out into the street,'” he says. “If you talk to people about those experiences, you’ll find that most people are on your side.”