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Episode 03

Tom Vanderbilt is a writer on design, technology, and culture, Tom has consulted for a variety of companies, from ad agencies to Fortune 500 corporations. He has also served as a visiting scholar at NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and as a research fellow at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. On this episode of the PFF Podcast, Tom talks with Jeffrey about the impact the pandemic is having on the mobility infrastructure of cities, the fate of mass transit, interventions such as the creation of cycleways, and experiments with new forms of transportation.

Transcript

Welcome to the Piaggio Fast Forward podcast. Join the conversation by subscribing to the PFF podcast at https://www.piaggiofastforward.com/podcast.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Welcome to Mobility+, the PFF Podcast. I'm your host, Jeffrey Schnapp, chief visionary officer at Piaggio Fast Forward. It's my distinct pleasure to introduce today's guest, Tom Vanderbilt. Tom is a frequent contributor to such publications at Slate, The New York Times Magazine; London Review of Books, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, Design Observer, and Art Forum. He's the author of several books, including; You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice, the 2008 bestseller Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America, an architectural travel log of the nation's cold war past. And The Sneaker Book; A Cultural History of the Athletic Shoe. For coming in January of 2021, is Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, published by Penguin Random House. In addition to his work as a writer on design, technology and culture, Tom has consulted for a variety of companies, from ad agencies to Fortune 500 corporations. He has also served as a visiting scholar at NYU's Rudin Center for Transportation Policy & Management, and as a research fellow at the Canadian Center for Architecture. Welcome, Tom Vanderbilt to the PFF Podcast.

Tom Vanderbilt

Great to be with you. Thank you.

Jeffrey Schnapp

You and I first met up and got to know each other around your book, Traffic. I want to get to the argument that you make in that book, but it seems inevitable to start with the non-traffic that has characterized the last three or four months of city life. How have you experienced the pandemic with respect to the impact that it's had on the cityscape?

Tom Vanderbilt

Yeah, that's a very good question. It's been revelatory in one way. On the one hand, it's one of the worst conditions we've ever lived through in my lifetime, and there have been a few in New York City, but on the flip side, there's this moment where there's almost this urban utopia. And just to set a little bit of context, I live in Carroll Gardens, which is a brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood, very walkable. It has a 100% score on the walk score website, but still we have all sorts of issues relating, normal issues that cities have involving traffic. But that traffic, of course, since early March, basically cratered. I mean, a lot of it just vanished.

It's now creeping back, but - so suddenly, you have this situation where the streets were largely empty at all hours. It felt like a permanent summer weekend just any day of the week. And there was no such thing as rush hour, except for the emergency response that was happening, which was all sorts of haunting. But, we'd walk around the, and we still do, walk around the neighborhood at night, and there are certain streets that have now even been partially blocked off or reserved for local traffic only, a shared space scheme. And that's created some new little social dynamics where a driver might have to enter that street. They'll temporarily get out of their car and move the police barricade away. And then if they're polite, they'll put it back, but we're still figuring this out. But you've seen all these remarkable things of hearing birdsong, seeing people in mass sitting on their stoops drinking wine and socializing. And it just seems like I've closed my eyes and woken up, and I'm in Jane Jacobs' 1950, Greenwich Village. Because a lot of those things, actually, even though it's in New York and Brooklyn, they hadn't been there. I rarely saw people socializing on their stoops, even though it's there, the forum's there, it should happen. But for whatever reason, they were busy with work. They were somewhere else that just wasn't happening. People are now stuck at home. The local has become so important.

But I think one of the striking things that emerged though, is that when you have this radical pause, you're given a moment to step outside of the normal situation and look at, hey, how the way things really are. And you start to wonder about all this space that's given to this mode that does not belong to the majority population in the city, and the majority of people in New York do not own cars. It's a tremendously wasteful enterprise, just, the automobility. And as you're trying to turn to walk down the sidewalk and dodge people, and stay the six feet away, often impossible because you're talking about a seven or eight-foot wide sidewalk. That introduced a whole new social ballet.

It just became obvious have we given too much space over to this mode, particularly the parking and storage of vehicles, which occupies a lot of expensive real estate. Yeah, anyway, it's a little bit back to the future in some ways, but it's been quite remarkable.

Jeffrey Schnapp

By some estimates, we devote something like 20% of the footprint of cities to the storage of cars in the form of parking or parking lots. Do you have hopes that the vacation that our civilization has taken from an automobile centric model will have sticking power in the post pandemic world?

Tom Vanderbilt

Well, the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, just tweeted recently that he was suspending, again, the alternate side parking requirement, which for those who don't know about this, you have to move your car from one side of the street to another one day a week so the street can be cleaned. He touted this as a victory for all New Yorkers. I have my skepticism, but we are, let's say, at a crossroads. And there are, on the one hand, I've seen more bikes out on the road than I have in a long time. And not just the typical people you see on bikes, but all sorts of new users riding new configurations. I mean, these E-cargo bikes with three children on the back or pulling cargo, and just all sorts of pedestrian traffic, which was always there. That's not so different.

But the other side though, is that as public transit has also cratered and there's something like a 90% drop off, I think, you have a lot of people that were not car owners. These are die in the wool New Yorkers and they are considering, or have already purchased cars because, number one, they're afraid of getting on the subway again. And number two, the options for getting around without a car and without the subway are often not so good. And you can just say, "Get on a bike," but as a long-time cyclist and a long time New York City cyclist, I am well aware that this is not often the most user-friendly experience.

I think we are at this crossroads, and if you let everything default to people's individual behavior, that might not be the most optimal thing for the system. And the mayor again has said, "Well, people are going to have to improvise," and that's not exactly a word you want to hear used in the context of regional transportation. I'm cautiously optimistic, but traffic levels are also tied to the economy, so that there's just a one to one ratio between times of recession and traffic fall off. If the economy comes roaring back, traffic comes roaring back.

But now, I'll just finish by saying now is the time to make these interventions. It's only experimental interventions as we've seen in many places around the world, temporary bike lanes, giving roads over to more modes, because it's often hard to achieve those, to create those test beds in normal time.

Jeffrey Schnapp

On this question of the fate of mass transit, and the potential for a nightmare scenario of "return to a new normal", which might consist in people fleeing mass transit for private automobiles, what do you think the odds are that that nightmare scenario, rather than the scenario that many of us have been dreaming of, which is a return to the Jane Jacobs sense of neighborhood, of place, of re-engagement, of walking.

Tom Vanderbilt

It's hard to lay odds because on the one hand we're waiting on events. We're now seeing the second wave of the virus, of course, throughout the United States, but New York City has already gone through the worst of it, hopefully. People's decisions are driven by not only their real sense of fear, but the perceived sense of fear. I think it's almost a day to day situation as to... and I should say that with the perception, the science, from what I've seen, is still a little bit unclear as to how much the subway itself is an actual vector for transmission.

I mean, common sense would say it must be somewhat, but again, if we were to envision a new system with more protection, maybe it would not be at all compared to some other activities to envision this mass migration to automobility in New York City. I mean, for the one hand, it's one of those things that people talk about, but it's also not that easy to undertake. I mean, number one, a car is a very expensive proposition. It's a very painful proposition in New York City. And I say this as a car owner, who, an occasional car user, mostly sits there and then I have to move it with the full street cleaning.

But to paraphrase the role, like the car owns you. It is rarely the most rational option within the city to use that car. I generally use it as a weekend escape pod, if you will. And the other question is that you just can't have everyone driving a car in New York City, that it's physically not possible. There was some wonderful projections done a long time ago by a guy named Michael Fruman, who estimated that if everyone who rode the New York City Subway system in the morning were to commute via car, New York's Fifth Avenue would have to be expanded by 200 times. The Queens-Midtown Tunnel would have to be something like 160 times larger. The geography, the landscape is not there.

Then you get the question of, well, can we manage that demand? You can't tamper with the supply, how do you manage the demand? And there is a wonderful way to do this that other cities around the world, including Singapore, since the 1970s, have done, which is congestion charging, which has been sitting in New York City's Halls of power for a couple of years now, basically held up for lack of political will. That tool is there. That's one thing, if the traffic does come roaring back, how do you at least put on some sort of measure. In normal times that has been a political non-starter, although it's been gaining momentum.

Jeffrey Schnapp

One of the defining features of the way that you approach the topic of traffic in your 2008 book, is that I think as several of the reviewers of the book pointed out, it's really a book, not so much about traffic per se, as it is about it's subtitle, which is Why We Drive the Way We Do (and what it Says about Us), especially that parenthetical "about us." And so, precisely within that framework, I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about forms of traffic that are non-automotive since one of the questions we've been talking about is this whole issue of who will be the protagonist of the 21st century city? Will it continue to be the protagonist of the 20th century city, which was undoubtedly the automobile.

And yet over the course of the past decades, there's been a revolt against the automobile, the growth of activist movements promoting walkability as the core value. We've seen tremendous examples, like the cities like Copenhagen that have placed the bicycle right at the core of the mobility system and developed entire traffic systems around cycling that are at least the equal of the infrastructure for automobiles. I'm curious to hear your thoughts about traffic with respect to a world where perhaps bicycles were to take the place of the automobile as the master of the cityscape.

Tom Vanderbilt

Well, it would be wonderful to put it bluntly, but I mean, the question first of all, is that word cyclist, which is an innocent word, but it raises the question. When you say that word to an American and often people have an image of Lance Armstrong or a person wearing Lycra, or a delivery person in New York City. It's not associated with just everyday people, the way the word driver, maybe it's a person on a bike, which again, is something I've seen more people on bikes during the pandemic and people trying out this new form of mobility.

And it's very clear they're trying out because they're a little bit wobbly, but it's something that obviously has a long history, but the city went through this shock of dealing with this new wave of transportation that was the future of the automobile. And of course, every city in the world went through this, even though cycling meccas like Copenhagen and Amsterdam. If you look at images from the early 1970s, they look like any American auto dependent city, the canal side streets, thronged with car traffic.

That took quite a bit of activism and government intervention, and cultural change. And that's a harder sell for many, many reasons in the U.S. but and a slower sell, but globally at the moment, it's an undeniable, right? The mayor of Paris is talking about the 15 minutes city where everything you need should be within a 15 minute mobility sphere. And that's not automobile mobility, but walking or cycling. The city of Oslo famously had zero cycling fatalities last year, and again, through a multipronged approach.

Because that's the thing, again, as with the subway, you have to get over the perception and reality of fear. I mean, New York City already in the month of January, I think had more cyclist fatalities than Oslo did all last year. It needs to be something that's normalized. And so, you need to have people doing it. And it's a bit of a chicken and egg problem here with infrastructure and people doing it. Sometimes people will do it anyway, but those are the early adopters, people are willing to take on more risks. You need to have a system that I feel comfortable taking my wife and daughter on, not just myself.

Because otherwise, people will just default, and that's one of the things about transportation behavior. It's one of the most habitual behaviors and humans, of course, driven by habit, right? But there's an old cliche among traffic engineers, is that the strongest predictor of the trip you take today is the trip you took yesterday. It's hard for people in their normal lives to think about ways they might do things differently. And that's, again, what this pandemic has brought up, is this great pause and maybe people might begin to think.

Like when you go on vacation, you might drop some bad habit or pick up a new habit, because you're freed from your normal environment and context, and have a fresh way to think about things. I mean, that's not going to be enough, the interruption, but if the interruption paired with real infrastructural change, I'm talking about things like segregated cycleways as they have in Netherlands, not just painted on street bike lanes, which always amuses me. You read in the paper about people getting upset about on street bike lanes in New York City. And it's just paint that drivers mostly violate anyway.

They're deeply symbolic and I guess better than nothing, but there's a... I like to think of them as a placebo, they make us possibly feel better without actually making us better.

Jeffrey Schnapp

You mentioned the lack of a consolidated civic image of who a cyclist is as a citizen. The fact that Americans, if they think about cycling at all, their image is of competitive cycling, Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong. What would be a successful mythical construction in your mind that would persuade ordinary Americans that cycling is not just okay, but that it's a rational, sensible choice, a reason not to reach for the keys to the car?

Tom Vanderbilt

It's a great question. Yeah. I mean, I'm reminded of a tweet I just saw from the Netherlands, which showed that country' queen going to some civic function on a bicycle. I mean, you know, dressed to the nines, but just looking so incredibly elegant and relaxed, and just not some fearful commuter with a racing helmet and clips around their pants, and all hunched over and frenetic. But just this wonderful, upright, shining beacon. In America, I mean, what would be ideal? I mean, let's say demographically, it would be an older woman. It does break down often among gender lines. If you look at who does ride a bike as a commuting form or for errands, I'd say it's young males very often.

Like someone coming back from a grocery store with their cart filled with groceries, that would begin to scratch at it. It's interesting with the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and a friend of mine just wrote a piece about the role of the bicycle in the protest. And that's been interesting, because on the one hand, it's quite heartening people almost riding Critical Mass style, taking over the roads and doing these mass protests. But on the other hand, I wonder if it, given that the profile of those protesters is very young, I wonder if it almost re-marginalizes the bicycle as this thing that, okay, there's these protesters and they're doing this, it's not necessarily a mainstream activity, although perhaps protests is now mainstream. And just for listeners to know, there have been these over the last few weeks in New York City, nightly rides down the street, often accompanied by police or with some blocking of traffic, of just cyclists out, not going anywhere, but just with signs and often getting support, ironically, from the drivers in the other lane who are stuck in traffic, but they're honking and putting their fists out. If that message is equated positively and then the people riding bikes, that somehow fuses with that. And maybe perhaps there's this magic moment that we really are envisioning not only a new politics, but a new way to move around the city that is less of a marginalized activity.

Jeffrey Schnapp

What you were just describing, to say the least, contrasts rather sharply with my experience of the first Critical Mass rides through downtown San Francisco, where the atmosphere was pretty much on the verge of a popular uprising against the cyclists.

Tom Vanderbilt

Yeah. I mean, and this gets into something essentially about psychology, that cyclists for so long have been perceived as what's known as the out-group, and out-group behavior varies differently from in-group behavior. And one of the classic tropes of that out-group behavior is that people feel this pressure to behave even more nobly than the in-group, because they don't want to be tarred with this brush. It's something I often feel as a cyclist, as if I possibly roll through a red light after coming to a stop, I wonder as I commit that act, am I dooming other people that ride a bike to this image of lawbreakers. But yeah, it's a dynamic that comes up quite a bit. Also with pedestrians as well.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Do you think that the outlaw cyclist ethos, which I think in New York City, a lot of people associate with the delivery and messenger cyclists, many of whom are riding potted up E-bikes that are themselves illegal. Do you think that's a symptom of the marginality of cycling to the core mobility infrastructure of a place like New York City or is it a sociological expression of a different kind?

Tom Vanderbilt

I mean, I suppose it could be both really, but I tend to think that the nature of a place has a huge influence on the transportation. New York, famously... it almost has this the self-regarding myth over the last several decades as this tough place, driven, fast, no mercy, everyone's hustling, the city that never sleeps, yada, yada, yada. Why shouldn't the cyclist be this urban warriors, the bike messenger mystique expressed in films like Premium Rush, which is incredible stunt cycling. But it raises another point which gets back to this out-group behavior, which is that there are actually many different types of cyclists.

People riding city bikes to drop off some books at the library. There are delivery guys on E-Bikes, there are kids riding BMX bikes on the street. There are really a number of different things, and this is something that obviously in the world of driving, of cars, there are many different types of drivers also. There's a person dropping off their kids at school, there's a guy in a Lamborghini going 110, there's truck drivers, there's a wide range, but somehow we don't associate drivers with only one type of person, which I think does happen much more often in cycling, again, precisely because it's an out-group and people tend to associate a much stronger and narrow stereotype with out-groups than in-groups, who are just everyone, regular people. And I don't think we've fully gotten to that moment yet, in America at least, where the cycling is not an out-group, it's not the in-group. That's a lot of places in America, even walking is somewhat of a marginal activity. And that someone once told me on a radio show that he had purchased a dog because it gave him an excuse to go out walking in his neighborhood at night without looking strange. It was like this was his thing, he needed to feel comfortable. And when I tell people that I have been doing these long rides around the city on a bike, they'll sometimes say, "Are you training for something or is it a charity ride?" There's all these other things that cycling must be for other than daily transportation that we sometimes default to.

Jeffrey Schnapp

One of the ways in which cycling has begun to really emerge as a transportation option in American cities is, of course, the rise of bicycle sharing networks. But the sharing economy has really come under tremendous pressure during the months of the pandemic. Obviously ride sharing is on the ropes, Lyft and Uber are struggling to survive, but even the E-scooters that invaded sidewalks all over the United States, but also throughout the world. A number of the companies behind that kind of carpet bombing of sidewalks, like the Limes and the Birds are in trouble.

I'm wondering what your predictions are, what your sense is of the present and the future state of the sharing economy, which was once so ballyhooed and visions of the future of mobility. But of course, not just mobility, there's so many other sectors.

Tom Vanderbilt

Yeah. E-Mobility has been fascinating, in some ways it's early rise echoes the rise of the automobile. This new technology that was thrust onto American streets that weren't quite ready for. It didn't know what to do with it. You had most people regarded it as a folly, not really a serious tool. I mean, that of course didn't last very long. And in some ways, the bicycle went through that as well. And that was just an unfortunate collision of Silicon Valley business models, meeting American cities that are not the most flexible or open to change, as well as people's perceptions.

Where do these things belong? Are they meant to be ridden in the street? Are they meant to be ridden on the sidewalk? There's no third space for these things. And they have the unique capacity to anger both groups of people. And everyone at some point as a pedestrian and a lot of people are drivers, so that's a big group. They were already on the rocks a little bit before the pandemic comes along.

I mean, it's funny about Bike Share, even before the pandemic, after a ride and not like a chronic hand wash or anything, but after a ride, I would always wash my hands because you're gripping these... I just had this weird sense that someone probably had just used this and I should probably wash my hands. I assumed that that sort of thinking is now going on much more intensely, and whether that itself would keep people away, I don't think so.

I mean, I'm a little bit hesitant to make a lot of strong predictions for the same reason that people who... you had people after 9/11 and predicting the death of the skyscraper, the death of cities, the death of cities has been predicted 20, 30 times from the invention of the Telegraph on, so I don't want to be engaged in too much presentist thinking. People are already resuming booking cruise ships travel again. I don't know how robust our fear will really be down the road, but E-Mobility is obviously tricky.

I live in New York. We don't really have it in the scooter sense for a variety of reasons. Mostly going back to that idea that we don't know where to put them. We don't have that much space. I mean, I think in theory though, a wonderful idea, execution could be a little bit better in terms of storage.

Jeffrey Schnapp

It would seem like a distinction is worth making between the dynamics of the kind of business strategies that were adopted by the Birds and Limes of the world in the rollout of their micromobility options versus the micromobility itself as a category. Which I think if you had asked urban planners a decade or two ago, to speculate about the future of cities, I suspect micromobility would not have been one of the defining features of the vision they would have unfolded for you.

And so, it's certainly been a surprise to see this explosion of something that isn't a bicycle and it isn't walking, and it isn't mass transit, that seems in many ways to fit the perceived and real needs of many people like a glove. And yet, there's so many challenges associated with it and its management.

Tom Vanderbilt

Yeah. I should just say that we should probably distinguish between the sharing of those devices and those devices alone, because in New York, and many other places, I've seen people really taking these things on, but taking them on under the ownership model. They are just riding them. And perhaps they of a size generally that it's not something where you have to worry as much about locking it up outside like a bike. I mean, a Bike Share, to me, has a real, especially an e-bike share, has a real functional need there, but a lot of these scooters are very portable.

The question is maybe you don't want to share it. You just want your own. And this gets into then you're not talking about these distribution problems and all the classic sharing models. And like you said, there's a learning curve going on here where a transportation form that wasn't even envisioned in documents from a decade ago is suddenly a real option. I personally just get a little tickle of joy when I see someone cruising on the street at a pretty good clip on one of these hoverboards. And you think about this old cliche of, "Dude, where's my flying car?" Flying cars, I think will never really happen in a meaningful way, but this to my mind, has a little bit of that futuristic mystique and it's here now.

Jeffrey Schnapp

And it's here now. And if you're in Santa Monica, it's probably right at your doorstep or pretty close, right? Or hanging in a tree or sitting in a ditch somewhere. Have you ever ridden one of those various kinds of e-scooters?

Tom Vanderbilt

Sadly, I've not. I've ridden Bike Share systems all over the world, but I was in Austin, Texas during South by Southwest, I think was one of the last times I can remember. Ironically, I was in the offices of Uber talking to someone from their flying car project division, and what these things were scattered outside, but I was pressed for time. And that this is one of these classic issues of transportation. How easy is it to use? How legible is the system? People will, again, default to what's convenient.

Uber app was already on my phone. I can dial that up. And this is one of the things I'm always banging on about with other forms of mobility, is that you have to make them the easy choice. I mean, behavioral economics, if it showed us anything, is that people will choose the easy option. When Citibank first came out here a number of years ago, the closest station to my house was exactly one mile away, which is a magic figure and transportation planning that people will not walk. They're roughly willing to walk half that to a transportation mode. Why would I walk to a Bike Share station a mile away when I have a subway station one block away?

I was the biggest fan of bike-share out there, but I didn't join the system because it just wasn't useful to me. A few years later, they finally built a station a block from my house, and then it became easy, legible within my psyche. Now I'm a big user again, but again, just things need to be made as easy as possible for people.

Jeffrey Schnapp

In fact, the topic of your last book, if I'm not mistaken, You May Also Like: Taste in an Age of Endless Choice is directly related to this issue of a kind of menu of mobility options, increasingly mediated by apps that aggregate the different options under a single umbrella. Do you think that that model, like assuming that micromobility is just one of a number of such options, including of course, city bikes or Bike Shares, ride sharing and so forth, could ever rise to the tasks that are typically performed by mass transit vectors? That's certainly a vision that has increasingly been bubbling up in some of the more radically minded, urban planning circles over the course of the last few years.

Tom Vanderbilt

Yeah, I think so, because I mean, in a place like New York, you have choices and it's often hard though to analyze the weight of those choices to really put a lot of thought into them. And this goes back to what I was saying about habitual behavior. People are fatigued, they're in a rush. They don't want to sit there and analyze. They default to what seems the easiest to them. But even as someone who's pretty well familiar with transportation options here, there've been cases fairly recently where I was called upon to make some trip that I hadn't made before, and my mind just went blank. I'm like, "Oh, do I just call an Uber?"

And I'll just give you a specific example for an assignment, I had to do a sailing lesson in Jersey City across the Hudson River. And so, I started thinking, how do I get from Brooklyn to Jersey City? I could drive my own car, I could take an Uber, I could take a subway. And I think there's Ferries. I could ride my own bike, but then where would I park it? These are the sorts of calculations that you start to undertake. And so, I just opened a Google as one does nowadays, and it laid out this wonderful choice of simply taking a subway to the ferry stop and then catching this nice ferry right across the river. Thus, taking me away from what would have been a potential car trip, a more expensive car trip, I might add.

It just laid it out, like you said, aggregated, all the options, gave me estimated times, costs, boiled down this rather complicated process and gave me options that I wasn't even really aware of, even though I live here. Then you start to think about people who aren't as familiar with the city and the choices they may make. And so, I do think it's a wonderful tool that has never been there before, and often keeps people away from things like bus lines, which are notoriously hard to crack and then they're not legible. You don't know where they're going, when they're coming, how you pay, all these sorts of questions. The answer is an emphatic yes.

Jeffrey Schnapp

To live multimodality, these kinds of applications do seem like a savior because the complexity, the systems involved is just so great that no individual is going to have complete mastery over all of those different mobility options.

Tom Vanderbilt

I was just going to say, there are a lot of pain points there with things like transfers, which are notoriously the sticking point for many public options. Unexplained waits really make people anxious in queuing psychology. If you don't know how long you're waiting, it seems like twice the time you're actually waiting. Again, even if you are experiencing a transfer, again, these apps can at least give you that transparency and tell you exactly what is going on. Then you feel you've taken the pressure off and you can just scroll through the headlines on your phone and not worry about it in the same way.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Now, the assignment you were mentioning to Jersey City, I assume that was associated with the book that you're about to publish. Maybe you could tell our listeners a little bit about that.

Tom Vanderbilt

Sure. It was indirectly related to actually, yeah. And the book is called Beginners, and it's about essentially learning things at any age. And this was a task that I was put upon by my daughter who decided at age four, so that she wanted to learn how to play chess. And the only problem with this was that I had never really actually learned how to play myself. I might've been taught the moves a long time ago, but I had simply forgotten them. I started trying to learn online, which is a very possible thing, but I quickly discovered that she might be better suited with the presence of an expert. I hired a coach and we both started taking chess lessons, and I had this wonderful natural experiment of a midlife person and a very young person undertaking the same learning experience at the same time.

It raised all sorts of interesting questions, number one, who would do better? And to this day, I can report that it is my daughter who can generally beat me, even though I've sunk a lot of hours into the game of chess. Yeah, so it's about this question that I think a lot of us go through as you spend a lot of time in an endeavor that is your passion and you're quite happy with, and you have extreme competence in, but you begin to feel a little bit complacent or... and there's just this wonderful thing of learning something new or becoming a beginner that a freshness, a new way of looking at the world. Just a reminder, an ego check and reminder that you have something to learn that... and to my mind, it was all very... there was a certain life affirming quality to being really bad at something. Which sounds strange, but that's the gist of it.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Judging by the explosion in bicycle sales, there were probably a lot of beginners out there discovering the pleasures of being a beginner, as we speak. I suspect that most of the purchasers of those bicycles haven't ridden one since they were children.

Tom Vanderbilt

Yes. And that's exactly what I was... the feeling that emerges so often among people I talked to who were taking courses in things like drawing, or singing in choirs, these were things they hadn't done since they were children and things that they may have actually really enjoyed. But for various reasons, got taken away from them often by a tyranny of, let's say, mastery in that you're perceived to not be good enough in something to actually pursue it, so why bother. Forgetting that there's an enormous pleasure to be had in these activities, and cycling is the, riding a bike, as you say, is the prototypical kid thing you learned to do. And number two, it's the thing you never forget how to do, even though it looks like a few people almost have out of New York City right now.

Yeah, but the thing is, you see on these people's faces, though, is often just a big smile. Again, re tapping into this lost form of mobility and forgetting just how liberating it can feel to ride a bike. I mean, not to sound too mythopoetical here, but I've had so many conversations with fellow cyclists paused at traffic lights, for example, that in all my years of driving in New York City, I've never had a positive interaction with another driver.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Automobiles definitely don't promote a sense of conviviality from vehicle to vehicle the way that being exposed to the air on the back of a scooter or riding a bicycle, both do. But precisely along those lines, I wanted to transfer that same reflection to walking. When you look at walking statistics in a country like the United States, where the automobile remains such a defining feature of people's everyday lives, it's really astonishing to see that, on the one hand, the preference for walking as a mode of mobility remains very high, but the actual practice of walking remains remarkably contained, and in many parts of the United States, about as exotic as getting on a bicycle.

This is a domain Piaggio Fast Forward is particularly interested in. We're trying to create robotic vehicles that support pedestrianism as a mobility choice. The question I have for you is, as somebody who has thought deeply about mobility questions in relation to urban spaces, how do we really transform the cities that we've inherited from the past into walkable cities in the deep sense, not just in the surface sense that you can walk from place to place, but what is it that would really catalyze that kind of urge, ideal urge, to walk and turn it into a practice rather than just a thought?

Tom Vanderbilt

Yeah, that's a great question. And I mean, you talk about thinking about how people break habits, it often strikes me that you see Americans, in particular, going to European cities on vacation and a place like Florence, what seems to really energize them so much is the sense that they're walking everywhere. I say energized but also slightly terrorized, because I've read these things, these sort of travel forums or people asking questions like, "I'm going to Italy, what sort of walking shoes should I bring?" As if walking needs this special equipment as if it were this exotic sport that they've not really participated in that.

To bring that back though, I mean, the question is... and I'm directing this at that place, it's not like my 100% walk score neighborhood, in which I should say there are still challenges that the pedestrian faces in terms of safety, to those places that aren't as welcoming. Number one question is, is there a facility? I was just working, for example, on an article about the guy who wrote the book, The Blue Zones, Dan Buettner, which was this book studying long-lived populations around the world. And he has turned this into a crusade to make American cities more like some of these regions that report these huge numbers of centenarians.

And one of the activities those people engage in is walking. They're not going to the gym. They're not doing cardio. Walking is their main exercise, if you will. I was down in the city of Fort Worth, Texas, which like a lot of American cities, just went through this period where the automobile is king. The thing you notice is that in certain neighborhoods, there just aren't sidewalks. This is an obvious no brainer. At what point did we begin to just remove sidewalks from places?

This second point then is that what are those environments actually like, and there's a fascinating progression where, just to take one small example here, street trees, which are very important for making a place not only look better, but feel better and promote a more pleasant walking experience. Street trees used to be planted between the sidewalk and the street. Provides a natural buffer and a feeling of safety for pedestrians. But after World War II, usually at the behest of traffic engineers who decided that these were hazardous obstacles for cars who might crash into them, they moved them on the other side of the sidewalk.

Suddenly, you had the sidewalk often adjacent to the street, which creates a more unpleasant and risky sense of walking. Some of this stuff is just not rocket science at all, but I think a lot of it just gets into questions that haunt other forms of mobility legibility. Is it obvious where you can walk and how to get from point A to point B by walking? How long will it take? Is it safe? This is a thing you hear in a lot of neighborhoods. If it's not actually unsafe because of things like traffic, there's the perception that it's unsafe because of crime or other issues. Especially with other demographics, older people, women, so getting into those questions.

I mean, I'm all for any technology that's required to get more people walking, but there's more fundamental work that can also be done. But, to turn the tables, can I ask you what this mobility solution is?

Jeffrey Schnapp

Yeah, we develop mobile carriers. They're basically transporters that use optical navigation. They're follow-me robots. And they're designed to perform one very simple task, which is to carry the stuff that we move around with in the world. And to remove that as an obstacle to people choosing walking, instead of reaching for the keys to the car. They're vehicles that are designed for the ADA compliant world. In other words, the way cities are being built today and will be built tomorrow.

Our core hypothesis is that walking should be the foundation stone on which a mobility system is built. Second of all, that walking, unburdened, without carrying a backpack, without carrying bags, walking hands-free with an intelligent vehicle that uses all of the technologies that we associate with self-driving cars, but in the service of human mobility, not to replace human mobility. That represents not a solution to all humanity's mobility needs, but one piece in a larger puzzle that will contribute to the design of the kinds of cities we want to live in, the kinds of towns we want to live in.

That's our approach. It comes out of an urban design paradigm rather than a technocentric paradigm. And the market will decide whether there's a need for such vehicles, but we see them as a piece of a larger mobility ecology that's well aligned with bicycling and other forms of micromobility. And, of course, when you start to move to a larger scale, to mass transit vectors as well.

Tom Vanderbilt

Well, that's great. It reminds me, very quickly, of a conversation I had with the people at Neuro, which is a autonomous delivery vehicle company that is trialing in cities such as Houston. Their goal is to deliver things like groceries. It's a little bit different and deliver at a larger scale, but it raises a fascinating question, if you have a vehicle that was designed from the ground up for cities and to not have a driver inside, well, there's all sorts of things you can do to that vehicle to actually make it safer for the people outside of that vehicle, as well as a more rational urban vehicle. I mean, you can reduce the size, you can make it lighter. You don't need crash protection. You don't even need rear view mirrors, which have a tendency to often clip cyclists.

It's a paradigm we haven't really had much before where you have this car that's designed in Detroit for... it's designed for the road, the prototypical highway and all these considerations that go into that, which are not particularly human friendly. And then that car just gets thrust into the same city that as it would anywhere else, in an inappropriate way. It's bringing a gun to a knife fight, if you will. Neuro, for example, raises this question, as you're mentioning of it, or just considering it more as a design issue, and how might things look differently once your whole rationale has changed?

Jeffrey Schnapp

Indeed. I think there's a lot of really exciting and pretty bold thinking going on in this realm of developing new vehicle types that would fit into an urban landscape that doesn't look like the automobile centered landscape that we inherited from the 20th century. And I think these small autonomous delivery vehicles, alongside the robots that we develop at Piaggio Fast Forward, alongside a whole bunch of new types of shuttles and other kinds of vehicles, it's going to be a domain where there's a lot of experimentation that goes on over the next decade or so.

One of the things I appreciate in your answers broadly, but also in your work, is that while you write in a focused way on design technology, science, and culture, you don't grant the technology a determining role the way that many people who, particularly journalists who work in the innovation field, almost inevitably focus on the technology as if it were the sole actor, rather than the presence of trees or properly designed sidewalks. Those old forms of infrastructure that are so fundamental to our experience and our use, and our interaction with an urban landscape.

And I share, needless to say, that view, I believe in the importance of technology, but I think it's a mistake to overestimate its ability to answer important substantive questions about the kinds of cities we want to live in.

Tom Vanderbilt

Yeah. I mean, the classic example here I think is the Segway, which had wonderful, amazing technology, but didn't seem to serve any use that wasn't accomplished by a $100 bicycle. I mean, why would you spend whatever the original price was to cruise around and look like Paul Blart: Mall Cop, to quote that movie, but again, this was an early micromobility solution that was just too technologically fetishistic. There were some interesting uses that eventually emerged, such as a mobility assist device for people who had lost the use of their legs, for example. But again, it was supposed to change the American city, if you read the early press accounts, and it was just too much technology in search of a use.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Just to come to a conclusion here, Tom, you mentioned that Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, is forthcoming in January of 2021. I assume that means that it is already in the pipeline. Are there any other future projects that you'd be willing to share some thoughts on before we conclude?

Tom Vanderbilt

Not really. I mean, because this was originally supposed to come out in September, most of my attention had been geared up towards some of those preliminary things, and then just doing some of the regular journalistic work. But to be honest, with the pandemic, like a lot of people, I've been put into a quasi sabbatical position almost, where there's just not quite as much to be done. Yeah, just more prepping for that book and trying to think of what's after that. But unfortunately, I don't have the “after that.” If you have any ideas, I'd love to hear them.

Jeffrey Schnapp

Well, it's been a pleasure to have you on the PFF Podcast. Tom Vanderbilt, thank you so much for joining us.

Tom Vanderbilt

Thank you. Great to be with you. Thanks.

Thank you for listening to the Piaggio Fast Forward podcast and come back soon for further lively conversations about walking, light mobility, robots and the design of neighborhoods, cities, and towns. The PFF podcast is hosted by Jeffrey Schnapp, sound engineering by Robert Allen, narration by Ryan Harms, produced by Elizabeth Murphy, web designed by Jerry Ding. Intro music is Funkorama by Kevin MacLeod. End music is Your Call by Kevin MacLeod. Special thanks to Tory Leeming. To learn more about PFF and gita, please visit piaggiofastforward.com.