Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
In backing the Vermont senator, the popular Facebook group “New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens” is leveraging some offline political clout.
When Juliet Eldred launched a Facebook group called New Urbanist Memes For Transit-Oriented Teens in 2017, she figured it might last a few months. Sharing irreverent memes about public transit, mixed-use housing, and other city planning fodder was just a way to blow off steam with friends as a geography major at the University of Chicago.
But NUMTOT lasted well past her graduation. Fueled by attention from increasingly influential media organizations, the group now counts more than 180,000 members worldwide. And they’re making their presence known in the offline arena of national politics. On Wednesday, Eldred and the group’s other top administrators, Jonathan Marty and Emily Orenstein, posted an official endorsement for Bernie Sanders in his run for president: “As transportation and housing professionals, as well as urbanists who are deeply invested in the social and economic welfare of our communities, we are committed to Senator Sanders’ vision of peace, equity, and justice,” they wrote.
Today, Bernie sent some love right back, in a statement posted to his campaign Facebook page: “Thank you NUMTOT for your support of our campaign, and for all you are doing to create the lasting and fundamental change our country needs.” Alongside the message of appreciation was a photo of Sanders boarding a bus—pure NUMTOT catnip. The comment section went wild, in its web-parlance way: “I’m s h o o k e t h,” wrote one member.
Although NUMTOT’s administrators state in their endorsement that they do not “purport to speak for the group as a whole,” Eldred sees many of Sanders’ specific policy ideas as aligned with the group’s founding ideals. “Proposing to build 10 million units of affordable housing, national rent control, working on dismantling the legacies of redlining, $300 billion for public transit—that’s all attractive to us from our particular point of view,” she told CityLab.
Still, some readers may be wondering why a hyper-niche Spongebob-meme-swapping forum would be endorsing anything, or why this is news at all. For Eldred, the answer lies in the increasingly powerful platform that the NUMTOTs command. Over the years, the group has gradually shifted away from urban-y riffs on Galaxy Brain and Distracted Boyfriend and more towards vigorous policy debate. (Recent topics: Should cities ban cars? YIMBYs—foes or friends to affordable housing? Henry George—genius or super-genius?) All kidding aside, the group’s composition alone indicates its get-out-the-youth-vote potential.
“We have 115,000 members in the U.S. and 90 percent of them are under the age of 34,” Eldred said. “That’s a big demographic of people who are not known for voting in high numbers, and in terms of numbers, it’s comparable to other progressive organizations that have put out endorsements.” In the run-up to November, she hopes to use her administrative powers to distribute voting guide information and remind people to stay engaged, regardless of their political preferences.
The lovefest with the Sanders campaign isn’t the first time NUMTOT discourse has turned into real-world action. The group’s members have attended public meetings, run for public office, changed college majors, and even tied the knot.
Eldred hopes their combined powers will help push urban issues further into the national spotlight, and she sees signs that they’re moving in that direction, from the past year’s focus on affordable housing among Democratic candidates to the New York Times’ recent story about experiments in free public transit. “These topics aren’t at the forefronts of everyone’s minds, besides occasional references to crumbling infrastructure,” she said, in reference to the Democratic candidate debates of the past six months. “But it seems like there is starting to be more momentum on that front. They’re not hot-button issues like healthcare, but they’re getting closer.”