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Too Fast or Too Furious?

More people are dying in traffic crashes. Is pandemic rage to blame?

Over the past few years, car accident deaths in the United States have spiked dramatically. Journalists and commentators have been quick to point to pandemic-induced stress and anxiety to explain the increase. But is that account too pat? On episode 44 of The Politics of Everything, hosts Laura Marsh and Alex Pareene talk with three guests about road design, automobile regulation, and what’s wrong with blaming crashes on reckless drivers. Guests include Charles Marohn, the author of Confessions of a Recovering Engineer; Jessie Singer, the author of There Are No Accidents; and Jason Slaughter, the creator of the YouTube channel Not Just Bikes

[News clip] A woman has died, five others were terribly hurt after a car crash in Queens this morning.

[News clip] Four people, including three children, have been hurt in a crash on the South Side.

[News clip] Three people have died in a wreck in Dekalb County that completely mangled their car.

[News clip] Breaking news to get to our chopper over this deadly crash in West Phoenix. You can see that red car right there—it smashed through the corner of a wall.

Alex Pareene: If you have been driving less since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, you are not alone. In 2020, American auto traffic was down 20 percent, according to a recent study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Laura Marsh: That significant reduction in driving, however, has had an odd side effect: It made an already dangerous activity even deadlier.

Alex: The National Safety Council estimated that 2020 saw the biggest single-year spike in traffic deaths in a century. Thirty-six thousand, six hundred eighty people died on the roads in 2020. 2021 was somehow even worse. 

Laura: Journalists have sought to explain this by turning to cognitive scientists for neurological answers and blaming drugs and alcohol. The pandemic is said to have made us more reckless, more anxious, more stressed, and more likely to make bad decisions behind the wheel.

Alex: But can pandemic stress explain why other countries haven’t seen the same skyrocketing numbers of traffic fatalities? Can it explain why pedestrian deaths in the U.S. have been steadily rising for more than a decade, even as they’ve declined in peer countries? 

Laura: Is the problem our feelings or is it the streets themselves? I’m Laura Marsh. 

Alex: I’m Alex Pareene. 

Laura: This is The Politics of Everything. 

Alex: When the pandemic started, one thing that happened very quickly—that I think most experts would have predicted—was that traffic fell. There was less driving going on. Charles Marohn is the author of Confessions of a Recovering Engineer and the founder of Strong Towns, an organization devoted to building more resilient communities. Thank you for joining us today, Charles. 

Charles Marohn: Hey, thanks for having me.

Alex: Another thing I think experts would have predicted was that with less traffic there would be fewer crashes and fewer traffic fatalities. That’s not what happened.

Charles: And it’s left people who deal with traffic safety scratching their heads. The entire basis of our traffic safety system is predicated on buffers and armor and padding. The idea behind having lots of padding and armor is to protect us from driver mistakes. You put airbags in, you put seat belts on, you make lanes wider, you give lots of room for people. In theory, when there’s less traffic, there’s more room to move, and things should be safer for everybody. The idea that there would be more crashes with fewer people driving is just an anathema to the whole system as it’s theoretically set up, so the people who look at this theory and look at the fact that crashes and deaths were going up had to come up with an explanation. 

Alex: So what explanation did people reach for to explain why crashes would go up with less traffic? 

Charles: The only tool they have in their arsenal is that it’s caused by human error. The humans must be broken in some way that they weren’t before the pandemic started. 

Alex: You recently wrote about this, and you described some pieces from The New York Times and CNN; some of the terms they use there—they’re blaming the surge in pedestrian deaths and in traffic deaths on social disengagement and arousal breakout. They’re basically making it psychological, as you just described. But before we get into your theory, it should be pointed out that the entire world experienced the Covid-19 pandemic. Did the entire world have arousal breakout and social disengagement, leading to greater pedestrian deaths and traffic fatalities? 

Charles: No! This is a pathology exclusive to Americans. What we saw in European countries is that as driving went down, crashes went down; as driving went down, fatalities went down; there was not the correlation we saw in the U.S. By the way, those places have lower rates of death per mile traveled than we do. We have very dangerous roadways, we have very dangerous streets. European countries have lower rates of crashes and fatalities than we do. 

Laura: So what is it that makes American streets particularly dangerous?

Charles: To me it’s very simple. Our roadways are designed based on the precepts that we developed and gave to engineers at the end of World War II, which are all around mobility. If we can move a high volume of traffic at a high rate of speed, we can have increased mobility, and increased mobility—particularly in the postwar era, the couple of decades right after World War II—was tied to things like economic growth. The more places you can drive, the more jobs you can attain, and the more products that can be consumed. When you focus on speed and volume, what you do, from an engineering standpoint, in order to attain that, is you create buffers. You get higher speeds by widening out lanes, adding shoulders to the sides of roads, by removing things from the edge of the roadway that would create visual friction and slow things down. You basically create a highway. In America we took the knowledge that we had gained from building safe highways and applied that to our local streets. On a local street you don’t have the simplicity that you have on a highway. You will have cars that randomly switch lanes, that turn in and out of traffic, that pull out of driveways—and that’s just the cars. You also have people walking, people in wheelchairs, kids that chase the soccer ball. The challenge with our streets is that when you combine speeds that are above 20 miles an hour with random complexity, you get a high degree of collisions, traumatic injury, and death. 

Alex: So the existing state of U.S. streets was already very dangerous prior to the pandemic, but then we took a bunch of cars off the road and they somehow got worse—and you have a theory as to why. 

Charles: Prior to the pandemic, the one ubiquitous condition that we experienced across North America is high levels of traffic congestion. What congestion does from a traffic standpoint is it slows everything down. It calms traffic. You can’t drive fast because there’s someone in front of you, and because you’re limited to how fast you can drive, all of that overengineering and overdesign to get you someplace quickly goes away. Well, now get to March 2020 and remove the congestion, and what happens? The only people on the road now are driving with a relatively low volume of traffic compared to what was prior but a high volume of traffic compared to what you would see during non–rush hour. They’re essentially driving in the most dangerous conditions, which is a medium volume of traffic, at high speeds, with lots of complexity added in.

Alex: You’re saying we’ve designed non-highway roads like highways to get cars through as efficiently as possible. Back when everyone was commuting, there was so much traffic you couldn’t help but drive slowly. What the pandemic did is that it made people drive at all times of day, instead of just at the morning and evening rush. They were now driving on less congested streets that are designed like highways but that have a lot of the complexity and randomness of city and town life in them. 

Charles: That’s exactly it. It’s important to recognize that for years our fatality rate has been coming down. Engineers and safety officials have pointed to things like airbags, seat belts, and the safety quote-unquote improvements that they’ve made to widen out lanes and create more space and buffer room as the reason for that. But it also correlates with an increased amount of congestion, because during the same period of time when crashes have been going down, congestion has been climbing grotesquely. It’s gotten to be this epidemic in cities—you have eight hours of level of service F, which is the term traffic engineers use to describe where traffic is almost at a standstill. 

Laura: This gets back to that red herring about people driving recklessly because they’re angry. When you have a lot of congestion people actually are angry, but they don’t have the ability to drive recklessly because they can’t really move. When you’re quite happily zipping along—that’s when you may be at the highest likelihood of causing a really bad crash.

Charles: Congestion is frustrating, but there’s no outlet for it—that’s why it becomes very frustrating. One of the things that’s been reported is that a lot of these crashes are people who have been smoking marijuana or drinking. The reality is that those people exist in the traffic stream today—they just can’t go very fast. There’s a limit to the mayhem they can create in a system that is really overcongested, but remove that congestion—give them lots of buffer room, lots of room to move—and they’re going to wreak havoc.

Laura: Something I want to ask you about is the design of roads—particularly in towns—which you’ve talked about and worked on a lot. What does a very unpleasant, very dangerous thoroughfare look like, and what would be the features of an unsafe street?

Charles: The most dangerous street out there is something that we at Strong Towns call a stroad. It’s the street–road hybrid. We call this the futon of transportation because it tries to do two things simultaneously and does neither well: It tries to both move cars quickly through a place and also provide a platform for building wealth and building stuff within a place. Imagine a four-lane roadway with a center turn lane down the middle; traffic lights every quarter-mile—every three, four blocks—with strip malls and drive-through restaurants along the side; wide lanes, fast-moving traffic shoulders. This is the quintessential death environment in the U.S. because when you get up to 40, 45, 50 miles an hour, people are going to die. You can run tens of thousands of people through an environment like that and there’ll be no crashes, but statistically do that day after day, and someone is going to randomly do something that traffic analysis people call a mistake. You and I can just call it being human. Someone is going to do something very human in that space, and the fact that the space itself is designed in a really dangerous way is going to create this trauma and injury.

Alex: When you are talking about street design and safety in the U.S., you hear an argument a lot—I think from engineer types—that speed is safe. They will say things like the safest roads are highways. That’s correct, because highways don’t have those features you’re talking about. They’re designed for speed, and speed is safe there, but when we introduce highway design to other kinds of places, that’s where we get in trouble.

Charles: That’s exactly it. Highways are some of the safest transportation spaces we have in the world. Most of our deaths in the U.S. do not occur on highways. They occur on these mid-places that aren’t really streets but aren’t the fast highways where we’ve gotten rid of the complexity. Those in-between spaces—they’re deadly. They’re really, really dangerous.

Alex: I hope you stay warm in Brainerd, Chuck, and thank you so much for talking to us. 

Charles: Thanks for having me! It’s spring, so it’s warming up here and we’re all happy and in good spirits. 

Alex: I’m glad to hear it. We’ve been talking about the design of American streets, but what about what drives on those streets? After a short break, we’re going to talk about cars. 

Alex: We talked to Charles Marohn about how American streets are designed inherently dangerously. He has his argument for why traffic deaths and auto accidents have risen since the pandemic started. Triple A has another take. They had a study out recently—it’s been reported about in The Washington Post and elsewhere—in which they say dangerous driving is up because there are more dangerous drivers driving more. We’re joined now by Jessie Singer, who is the author of the new book There Are No Accidents. Jessie, thank you for joining us.

Jessie Singer: Thank you for having me. 

Alex: What is Triple A’s role in this debate? Why do they want to pin this on individual choices made by drivers? 

Jessie: Triple A is simply the lobbying arm of the automobile industry. Their interests are the same as Ford’s or Dodge’s. You could see why Ford or Dodge or Triple A would have quite a bit of interest in psychoanalyzing drivers, because it’s a wholly unactionable way of looking at the problem. It makes the problem of traffic fatalities about human error—the nut behind the wheel, the reckless angry driver—so there’s no systemic change to be made. The system is fine in this narrative; people are the problem.

Alex: There’s not a thing we can do to change that besides a law saying safe people must drive more or something silly like that. 

Jessie: And I get it. This narrative comforts everyone because it gives us a straw man—the angry driver—to blame. But the narrative also benefits Triple A, Ford, and Dodge, because if traffic crashes are a problem of angry drivers, then there’s nothing to be done beyond what we’re already doing, which is spending too much money on police enforcement. 

Laura: Take us through that, because there are two pieces here: One is people who are in cars crashing into other cars, and one is people who are walking around getting hit by cars. Why is it becoming more dangerous to be a person walking around? 

Jessie: The reason is because for the past 20 years our cars have been getting larger and more powerful under a pattern of almost no regulation from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There’s also been a significant lack of concern for pedestrians, which is one reason why in other wealthy countries pedestrian fatalities are declining and in the U.S. they’re skyrocketing. We don’t measure or test the safety of our vehicles for whether or not the impact is survivable for a person outside of them.

Laura: When you think about those videos of cars being tested, you see the crash dummies in the driver’s seat or the passenger seat, but there isn’t a pedestrian dummy.

Jessie: We’re not even testing for it. Another thing that happened is that we are buying more SUVs and light trucks. There’s an increase in the share of vehicles on the road that are large, a higher saturation of these megavehicles—which, again, are totally unregulated and keep getting bigger.

Laura: What accounts for that lack of regulation? Cars are regulated and designed in some aspects: They have to have seat belts and other certain safety features. Why isn’t size considered a safety feature that needs to be regulated like anything else?

Jessie: I would argue that in the U.S. our vehicles are sort of, kind of regulated—sometimes. Deregulation and the defanging of our regulatory agencies since the Reagan administration has taken a massive toll. There’s something like 40 cars that have been recalled in Europe but the exact same models are still allowed to drive on U.S. roads because they have not recalled those cars in the U.S.

Laura: Wow. There’s a direct point of comparison. 

Alex: There’s an interesting irony here. We’ve been talking about regulation and safety and people are buying larger and larger cars, in part because they’re being heavily marketed but also because of the perception of safety. That’s the irony here: In purchasing these cars because of the perception that the massive tank-size SUV is the safest way to get around, you’re externalizing the danger.

Jessie: It’s like buying a gun. You’re arming up for the war on the road—and it’s killing people. I think that’s absolutely true. 

Alex: When they market cars for safety, they’re talking solely about the safety of the person inside the vehicle. 

Jessie: You versus everyone else. I think it’s important to point out that income inequality—which is rising—plays a big part here, because cars on the road today are older than they were two decades ago, because people have less discretionary income to spend on a car.

Alex: I don’t think people know, if you’ve ever sat in a car that’s 30 years old versus a car now, you can see much less of the road around you directly through the window. 

Jessie: Absolutely. This has led to a rise in these extraordinarily horrible child pedestrian deaths. Pedestrian feels like the wrong word. They’re being called front-over crashes: where someone runs over their own child in their own driveway because they can’t see 10, 15 feet in front of the hood. Another thing that’s going on there is that as the vehicle gets bigger it needs a bigger engine to power that extra weight. That’s making the front of the vehicle much larger and is another reason fuel economy is much more strictly regulated in Europe. In Europe, the vehicles are smaller because they’re more fuel efficient, because they have less powerful engines, because of a concern for climate change that also benefits pedestrians and other people in older, less safe cars.

Laura: There was this video that went viral recently of someone in one of these cars, and it had a camera that you’re meant to look in. There’s a camera you can look at when you’re reversing sometimes, which actually seems like a great feature for parking, but this is a camera that shows you what’s in front of your car that you can’t see through the window. It seems like that kind of feature would just be a huge red flag to a driver. That you should need to keep toggling down to look at the screen in order to not hit something.

Alex: To know what’s in front of your car. 

Laura: How have car companies managed to market these cars to drivers without revealing how much they limit your ability to see where you’re going?

Jessie: I think that people trust our regulatory agencies to do their job. These vehicles we’re talking about have great safety ratings, but of course the safety ratings aren’t considering people outside of the car at all.

Laura: These SUVs look good and safe—they’re sort of fortress–like. If you get into one you feel like you’re up high and you’re protected, but that’s only one piece. Of course, the consequences if you hit someone and you’re responsible for their death for the rest of your life are severe. 

Alex: The safest way to drive through a city would be in a tank—you would just be a danger to everyone outside the tank. So regardless of its causes, we have a problem of traffic fatalities rising in the U.S. Can we police our way out of it? Is the solution more traffic stops? Is it to get all the bad drivers off the road, give them more tickets? Is that how we do it? 

Jessie: More police is never the solution, as much as we like to throw police at problems in this country. With traffic enforcement, we have very clear and direct evidence. A recent study looked at 12 years of traffic stops in 33 states—a massive realm of police enforcement data—and they could find zero correlation between traffic fatalities and traffic stops. None. 

Alex: I’ve always thought that you can tell what policing traffic for the police department is really about by the existence of the speed trap. If you were designing for safety, you’d have great big blinking signs that say there’s a copper on the corner monitoring your speed, and then everyone would slow down. Instead, we just wait for them to speed so we can give them the ticket to get the revenue.

Laura: How useful are speed cameras, though? If you have a very long, very wide road that you can bomb down at 100 miles an hour, and then there’s a speed camera, does that really make people safer? It’s not like the whole road is monitored. You see people speed all the way up to the speed camera then slam on the brakes and slowly go through the zone where there’s a camera. I’m curious, Jessie, if you know how effective those cameras are—if they’re just a Band-Aid.

Jessie: Can they be both effective and a Band-Aid?

Laura: Totally. 

Alex: Things can be two things on this show. 

Jessie: In New York City we have a very large automated speed-enforcement program. Size-wise, New York City is a small city, so the whole city is really well covered in speed cameras. We’ve seen significant declines in deaths, injuries, and crashes, and also a significant decline in recidivism, where most people don’t get a second or a third ticket from these cameras. It’s a $50 ticket, no points on your license. That is a guaranteed low-level consequence, and psychologically that’s something we respond to. This is why police enforcement doesn’t work—because getting caught by a cop is pretty random. You could speed five days in a row and only get caught on one. What that tells you is that on that one day you were unlucky, which makes it more likely that you’re going to test it the next day and see if you could be lucky then. It’s not the level of punishment that matters, it’s the guarantee of the consequence. That said, I do think automated enforcement can be a Band-Aid and can be used in bad ways. We’ve seen this in Chicago, where the camera program selectively targeted the most dangerous streets, but because of decades-old racist planning processes, the most dangerous streets were in Black neighborhoods. I would like to see a policy where if a municipality doesn’t see a decline in speed camera tickets at an individual location over time, that municipality is fined for not redesigning the road to make drivers slow down. 

Laura: It sounds like what you’re also suggesting is that tickets should have two functions. One is to deter the person who gets the ticket from doing this again. The other is that they should also be a reflection upon the area that’s handing out all of the tickets. 

Jessie: Automated enforcement should absolutely be a reflection of government. To be honest, one reason I don’t love automated enforcement is it makes the problem about us instead of the system that should be keeping us safe. I mean, New York City could eliminate traffic fatalities in a year if it took the police budget and redesigned every road in the city. People make bad decisions because of the conditions they’re exposed to at the time, and there’s almost always a way to protect them.

Alex: Jessie Singer, author of There Are No Accidents. Thank you so much for talking to us today. 

Jessie: Thank you for having me. 

Laura: We’ve talked about some of the reasons why there are so many car crashes in the United States and why those problems are getting worse. But there are places in the world where traffic deaths are much less of a problem. After the break, we’re going to talk to someone who lives in one of those places.

Alex: We’ve pretty extensively covered what’s wrong with American streets and American vehicles. Other countries do things very differently, and we’re talking now to someone who lives in one of those countries: Jason Slaughter. His YouTube channel Not Just Bikes is about planning and urban design. He lives in the Netherlands. Jason, thank you for joining us. 

Jason Slaughter: Thanks so much for having me.

Laura: Is it safer to cross the street in Amsterdam, where you live, and why is that?

Jason: Yes. It is absolutely safer to cross the street here in Amsterdam—and really anywhere in the Netherlands—than it is in Canada or the U.S., and the reason for that comes down to the fact that the street design here is fundamentally safer.

Laura: What do the streets look like there? Describe to me what a safe street looks like and how you can move around on it.

Jason: Well, here in the Netherlands streets are very narrow. They’re very typically only one lane in each direction and will then branch out into turning lanes where appropriate. This allows so many things: you stay in your lane, you’re not moving back and forth.

Alex: You’re not jockeying for position. 

Jason: You’re not jockeying for position, either. One of the other big things here is this idea that there’s a road and there’s a street and there’s not this mixed-up thing in between that you see all over North America, the stroad. For example, here there will be a road, and a road will be usually one lane in each direction; it will go from one place to another place with nothing in between. There will be no driveways to shops. There will be no driveways to homes. There will be no side streets, or as few as possible. What you get is this very constrained environment. All you have to do is go down your lane. You’re not mixing with cyclists, you’re not mixing with pedestrians; they’re off to the side, or on a totally different route altogether. Then when you get into the city, you’ll get to traffic lights and you’ll be brought into more of a street environment—but then the lanes get even more narrow. Sometimes they’ll remove the center line. The philosophy here is you want a driver to almost feel a little bit nervous. 

Alex: You want to force them to pay attention. 

Jason: This is a psychological thing. It’s something that just happens when you’re driving—you don’t even notice it. You’ll be driving along and the road will narrow visually. There’ll be lines that get smaller, but also the sides of the road will come in; if there are parked cars, there will be no more parked cars by the crossing; and there will usually be some sort of speed humps. Sometimes the entire crossing itself will be raised up to sidewalk level so that you have to cross over it, or there’ll be a speed bump before it, so that it forces you to slow down before crossing. 

Alex: So the driver sees the road narrowing. What does it look like for me if I’m walking alongside the road? 

Jason: From a pedestrian’s point of view, you walk from the sidewalk and the curb extends a bit out into the road to make it narrower. You cross at the level of the sidewalk, in many cases, across a marked crossing. You only need to cross one lane of traffic at a time looking in one direction at a time. Then you have this island in the center where you can stop and wait to make sure that the drivers are stopping from the other direction. It’s the easiest thing to do. There’s no complicated crosswalks or multilanes. It’s really hard to screw it up. Crossing the street is one of these things that every time I go back to Canada, or if I go to the U.S. after being here in the Netherlands—I’m like, this is insane. The way that you do it there is absolutely, totally insane. 

Laura: You describe this idea that you cross one lane and then you have this island you can stop at if the light changes or something happens—your shoelaces are untied—and then you can cross the next lane. Whereas in the U.S. you can have these six-lane crossings, and they have a timer with the numbers ticking down, telling you that you’ve got eight seconds to make it.  

Alex: If you’re not across by the end of this, you’re doomed. 

Jason: The crossing I was talking about is one that wouldn’t have a signal, it would just be literally a road crossing. But let’s talk about signals, because traffic signals here in the Netherlands are so much smarter than they are in North America. 

Alex: This is a great topic. 

Jason: I don’t even know where to start with this on a podcast, but let’s just talk about it with respect to pedestrians trying to cross the road. One of the big things that they do here in the Netherlands is very often completely stop traffic in all directions when the pedestrian light is on. We don’t have right turn on red here because that is insane. I did a video about this: Statistics were done from three different cities in the U.S., and I think it was a 69 percent higher chance of pedestrian injury when you have right turn on red. I mean, it’s insane. 

Laura: You said traffic signals in the Netherlands are so much smarter. What makes them smarter? 

Jason: I was just out today in a very suburban area at a meeting; I was watching this traffic light and I’m just blown away by it, because the way that it operates is that buses and trams almost always get priority in the Netherlands. The bus gets a green light and never even needs to slow down because the system knows that bus is coming. Many seconds before the bus arrives at the intersection, the system will turn the lights red for everybody. It’ll turn the light green for that bus or that tram, which goes flying through the intersection, and then immediately—as soon as it’s done—the traffic signal goes back to what it’s doing. The system will also do other things. For instance, you’ll come up to the traffic signal with your car; you’ll be in a small platoon of cars. The system will turn green for you right before you get to the intersection in many cases, and if you’re watching cars go through, as soon as the last car crosses the stop line, it immediately turns red because it knows there are no more cars coming. This is an efficiency thing, but it’s also a safety thing. If you’re coming up to an intersection on a bicycle, it can see that there’s no car coming—the system knows within the next couple of seconds that there’s no car coming. It will turn the light red for those cars in that direction. It will turn green for you as a cyclist. You go through. It immediately turns red for you, and then goes green again for that direction of the cars. Not only is it more efficient, it’s safer, because it’s stopping all those points of conflict. 

Alex: Obviously it’s always been this way because the Netherlands is more enlightened than us, and they love their cars less, and they love driving less, and the U.S. just culturally can’t change. That’s sort of the American take. Has the Netherlands always been like this, though?

Jason: The streets in the Netherlands were pretty much the same as they were in the U.S. and Canada into about the 1970s. There were a lot of people being killed on the streets in the ’70s—as there were in the U.S. and Canada—and this culminated here in the Netherlands with a movement called Stop de Kindermoord, which literally means stop killing children. A lot of people were protesting the fact that kids were being killed in the streets. This happened to coincide with the oil crisis and, quite frankly, they just got a little bit lucky with having the right people in government at the right time. What that resulted in is a fundamental change in the way they looked at their road safety. That kicked off, in the late 1970s, a program that eventually became known as Sustainable Safety. The idea was that the responsibility of making the streets safe is down to the street design itself. For what it’s worth, Sweden found a very similar thing at around the same time with their Vision Zero. They found that you can’t make the streets safe by wishing that they’ll be safer—by telling everybody that if they just follow the rules, we’d all be fine.

Laura: Like telling people, “Be safe out there!”

Alex: Or PSAs, right.

Jason: The educational solution you hear constantly in North America is personal responsibility, the idea that if everyone just looked out for everyone else, if we were all just considerate road users—but this is nonsense for so many reasons. Everybody will make mistakes at some point in time. So the philosophy here became, “We’re going to acknowledge that we’re humans, and so what we’re going to do is we’re going to make it such that the infrastructure allows mistakes to happen without those mistakes being fatal.” That is the fundamental philosophy that was taken here. This was made into countrywide federal rules on how the streets are designed. 

Laura: So there was a turning point in the Netherlands where they saw the problem and they decided they were going to try to do things differently. Here in the U.S., did we ever even try?

Jason: Now, the U.S. kind of did the same thing in the 1960s. They said things like, “Mistakes are inevitable for drivers.” In the 1960s, there were a lot of cases, for example, where the lanes were quite narrow, and cars might bump into each other. One of the things that was done in the U.S. was to say, “Well, we’re going to make the streets wider.” The problem with the U.S. is that they took that philosophy of, “We’ll allow people to make mistakes”—for instance, let them run off the road and not hit a tree—but that was only ever done for drivers. It was never done to let pedestrians make mistakes, to let cyclists make mistakes. I mean, if you are in a painted-line bike lane—what I like to call a painted bicycle gutter—along the side of a road with 60 kilometers an hour traffic next to you there’s no room for mistakes. You turn your bike the wrong way and you’re dead. 

Alex: Our listeners who love their cars and love driving might be thinking we’re zealots, and at least in my case they’re right: I am a zealot. But what you’re also describing is a system that is—as you point out in one of your videos—actually better for drivers. 

Jason: It’s so much better. 

Alex: If you want to drive places, this makes the entire process better, doesn’t it? 

Jason: First of all, the thing that’s so great about driving in the Netherlands is that it’s so much more calm. There’s not the insanity of all the cars around, and the road rage, and everything else that you get in North America. Also, there’s so much less traffic. People in North America will tell you that if you just make the road bigger and bigger, traffic will get better. Look, if that was true, then Houston would have no traffic. The truth of the matter is that the only solution to car traffic is viable alternatives to driving. That’s it. There is no other solution to car traffic, period. The thing here in the Netherlands is that there are viable alternatives to driving. They make it very easy and safe to walk. They make it very easy and safe to cycle. To live in a place where you have to drive to do everything—you have to drive to go to work, to feed yourself and your family—that sucks. It really, genuinely does. One of the things that people tell me all the time is they want the freedom to drive—well, I’ll tell you the real freedom is the freedom to not to have to drive. 

Alex: Jason, thank you so much for joining us and everyone check out Not Just Bikes. It’s a great channel.

Jason: Thank you so much for having me.

Alex: The Politics of Everything is co-produced by Talkhouse.

Laura: Emily Cooke is our executive producer. Keenan Kush did the audio editing for this episode. If you enjoy the show and you want to help support it, one thing you can do is rate and review it wherever you get your podcasts. Every review helps.

Alex: Thanks for listening.