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, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
“Where is Robert Moses when you need him?”
Cruising along a San Diego interstate, the driver marvels at the sheer amount of space: six wide lanes on each side, with a 70 mph speed limit—a highway engineer’s fantasy.
“Now this is mobility,” declares the motorist, who’s shooting a video off his phone.“I’m in an air-conditioned steed, driving forty miles per hours, and so are thousands of other hard-working Americans.” He pans his phone to the shoulder. “Six lanes each side, and we have plenty of sagebrush over here. We could make it twelve on each side. More lanes, better.”
Don’t get worked up, urbanists: The video is satirical, as are dozens of other videos posted on YouTube under the handle “War on Cars.” Half are like this one, praising the genius of super-sized, car-centric transportation planning. The other half are faux-outraged “exposés” of bike lanes and sidewalks, complete with a horror film’s screeching violin soundtrack.
Reached via email, the creator of the videos prefers to remain anonymous—we’ll call him Bob, in honor of Bob Gunderson, Twitter’s leading fake anti-urbanist. But he describes himself as a retired businessman and engineer who grew up on the beaches of Southern California. He’s been an avid bike commuter on and off since the late 1970s, and now splits his time between New York City and Munich, Germany, where dense and transit-friendly development patterns draw much of his mock indignation.
At a suburban train station in Munich, for example, Bob zooms into a bike shelter and remarks with a Colbert-ian sneer: “These cars have to bake in the sun and get snowed on at this suburban railway station, while the bikes get a road and a covered place to park. The war on cars is evident everywhere.”
On one well-traveled cycling path in Germany, he decries the “end state desired by the anti-car zealots” and pities those “forced to ride on these bicycles.” He spots pedestrians “bullying” a car in a city square. Surveying Munich’s gorgeous, grassy riverfront park, he wonders, “Where is Robert Moses when you need him?”
Meanwhile, in California, he piles on praise for a commuter rail station that boasts “five or six hundred parking spaces at grade”—and no bike racks. Bob gushes again at a La Jolla intersection of two six-lane surface streets whose crosswalk stripes are half-eroded. “This is truly a beautifully designed, walkable neighborhood,” he concludes.
Breaking character, Bob reflects on the larger aims behind his one-man campaign of pretend reverse urbanism. In his time on both American and European streets, he says, “It's been my observation that so many anti-active transportation people are unfamiliar with long-since proven solutions, such as pedestrian zones and cycling infrastructure.” When these are proposed, “howls arise because, ‘How could shops and restaurants possibly get deliveries?’”
Most viewers seem to get the joke (though at least one commenter doesn’t appear to). Bob hopes his videos will help those aren’t familiar with the upsides of dense, bike-oriented, “human-scale” urbanism feel a little less fearful of car-free planning. “In American infrastructure, there is a certain prevailing giganticism which the colossal is favored over the humane,” he says.