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.
Before Saturday Night Live, the comic starred in a series of shorts as an angry SUV lobbyist railing against the pedestrianization of Times Square.
Ten years ago, New York City’s streetscape was on the brink of transformation. A massive bike network expansion was apace. Disused industrial sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn were set to reopen as parks. And to clear space for a 12-block pedestrian plaza, cars were about to be blocked from Times Square.
Not all New Yorkers approved of the people-first changes. One prominent Brooklyn leader feared the “zealots” in city hall would “stigmatize the use of cars.” A New York Post columnist equated the plans for Times Square to “the emasculation of the Crossroads of the World.” Predictably, Donald Trump felt the need to weigh in as well, in his circa-2009 capacity as a reality TV personality: He railed against the loss of the “100-year fabric of Broadway” on The Late Show with David Letterman.
A certain pearl-clutching, cable-news-hysterical tone dominated much of New York’s Bloomberg-era street backlash. And no one nailed it like Kate McKinnon, who played a totally aghast “auto lobbyist and SUV enthusiast” named Veronica Moss in three short spoofs by Streetfilms, a transportation-focused nonprofit documentary group. Then in her pre-Saturday Night Live days, McKinnon (credited as Kate Berthold in the first video) was still largely unknown as a sketch comedian. But her enormous talent was already obvious.
“Look at all this wasted space,” she clucks in a schoolmarm voice in the second of the shorts, in which Moss visits a freshly pedestrianized Times Square. It’s packed with people lounging in new seating areas and milling about the open space. “They could put an office building here,” Moss says. “They could put a car dealership here. A parking lot. Something.”
The videos captured a pivotal moment in the city’s transportation history, and buoyed hard-fighting advocates, said Paul Steely White, who was working then (and up until recently joining the scooter startup Bird) as the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, the city’s largest pro-pedestrian and cyclist group. Even as progressive transportation leaders were gaining ground (literally), “there was still a perception that we were losing the larger cultural war,” he said. “We were struggling with how to answer an opposition saying stuff like parking is more important than human safety.”
The outrage of McKinnon’s character shined a light on the absurdity of some of those counterarguments, said Steely White. And her talent helped raise the profile of a proudly nerdy community. “It was like the coolest girl in school coming to sit at our lunch table.”
How did McKinnon happen get cast in such an uber-niche trio of films? The Streetfilms production crew had come up with the idea of a mockumentary about a mythical creature called the Zozo that thrives in a car-free city. They wanted to include a car lobbyist character to defend the status quo, remembers the director, Clarence Eckerson, who now runs Streetfilms. McKinnon was approached for the role on the advice of then-Streetfilms producer Rebecca Jacobs, who had known McKinnon as undergraduates at Columbia University and had since seen her perform at Upright Citizens Brigade. McKinnon (who was not available for comment for this story) was “up for figuring out what role she could have,” remembered Jacobs, who is now a curator at the Museum of the City of New York.
Other than being a virtually lifelong New Yorker, McKinnon didn’t have any direct personal connection to the pedestrian safety cause, as far as Eckerson or Jacobs remember. But she took the concept and ran with it: “She brought her own wig and suit and jumped into the SUV and just started improvising,” said Jacobs. “I remember cracking up between takes because she is so funny.”
Eckerson remembers that first shoot similarly. “It was one the most magical experiences I’ve had as a filmmaker,” he said. “It was like, this lady is funny and smart and gets it. I was just trying to keep up with her.” She nailed it so well in “The Search for the Zozo” that Eckerson recut some of the extra footage into the first Veronica Moss exclusive. Later, he called McKinnon back up to film another short in Times Square.
In each video, McKinnon improvised most of her lines, Eckerson said. “You’re complicit in your own oppression!” she shouts at drivers abiding by a new no-left-turn sign in Times Square. Later, she demonstrates the horn on her enormous Lincoln Navigator. “If it’s an adult, I don’t even beep—I just swerve around them and scare them,” she says. “Because they should be scared. This is a big fucking car.” In a third film, when Moss “crashes” a Streetfilms event and is asked to comment on the leading cause of death for New York City children, which is traffic, she replies, “It’s not SARS?”
The Veronica Moss shorts found a larger audience than most of the 941 short films Eckerson has produced for Streetfilms in some 15 years. But none went especially viral. The second has 34,000 views on Vimeo—respectable, but far from the 482,000 racked up by “The Metamorphosis of New York City Streets,” a more straightforward document of the changes on which McKinnon was riffing.
Still, they reached the eyeballs they were meant for. Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s transportation commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was villainized by New York’s conservative media for the sweeping changes that she largely architected across the city. The films were intended as a sign of support for the commissioner and Times Square especially, Eckerson said.
Sadik-Khan, now the principal transportation consultant at Bloomberg Associates, remembers getting the message. “Veronica Moss was the first to laugh in the face of the anti-bike, anti-street hysteria and break the tension,” she wrote CityLab in an email. “She came out of nowhere for us and it and it felt like a cavalry.”
It wasn’t just what she said, it was how she said it. I loved her timing when she dismissed Times Square’s plazas saying, “This isn’t a…piazza.” And the disdain in her voice when she said that people sitting in plazas “fosters spontaneous interaction between human beings.” I mean who would want that? And her dazed expression, gazing out over Times Square like a suburban Irons-Eyes Cody, weeping over lost car lanes. Those few minutes really hung out the opposition to dry. Hating public space was like hating puppies.
McKinnon’s spoof was so convincing in the part of the anti-bike-lobby that more than one person who saw her live at the Streetfilms benefit thought she was the real deal, both Eckerson and Jacobs remember.
Ten years later, much has changed on the streets of New York: The city has gained hundreds of more miles of bike lanes, made the Times Square car-blockade permanent, and turned many more traffic lanes into pedestrian plazas. But critics are still airing the same old counterarguments to street safety projects. And there is much more progress left to make, advocates say, for even as traffic fatalities declined overall last year, pedestrian deaths ticked up, and a cyclist has already keen killed this year.
Where is Veronica Moss now? The urbanist internet has since produced similar satirical characters, such as beloved Twitter crank Bob Gunderson (who crusades “for wider streets, faster speeds & more parking everywhere”) and the nameless freedom fighter capturing “The War on Cars” on YouTube. But the original bike-hating car lobbyist has been long at rest. Meanwhile, McKinnon has become real-world famous for her scene-stealing impressions of Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, and the like on SNL, and for mining comic gold in feature films like Ghostbusters. But for a certain bunch of New York City transportation wonks, her best character will always be the one that came as an enormous encouragement in a critical moment of contention.
“I hope that Kate brings back Veronica one day,” Sadik-Khan wrote. “Dozens of cities across the country are facing down the same fights we faced in taking back our streets. I think people would get this cultural reference it in St. Louis as well as Seattle, and in Chicago, LA and Boston. And hey, if SNL wants to bring it back for a national audience, I’ll be there with bike bells on!”