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Talking Headways Podcast: When Driving is Not an Option

Talking with the great Anna Zivarts about non-drivers, car seats, and the week without driving.

This week, I’m joined by SPUR’s Laura Tolkoff to interview Anna Zivarts about her new book, When Driving Is Not an Option: Steering Away from Car Dependency (Island Press, 2024). We chat about non-drivers, car seats, and the week without driving.

Click the player below to listen, or if you prefer consuming news with your eyes, there's a full transcript here and an excerpt below the player:

Laura Tolkoff: I really appreciate the insight that having good transit and good options for mobility allow you to just "be," instead of having to explain, which I think is an important thing. One-third of Americans cannot drive. Can you share a little bit more about who non-drivers are, what you eloquently describe in the book, and what do you really mean when you use the term "non-drivers"?

Anna Zivarts: I started thinking about this when I came back to Washington State and took a job in the video production team at Disability Rights Washington. I started to hear so many stories of other people who couldn’t drive. And that was exciting for me. There are actually a lot more non-drivers than I had thought. And I had previously worked in the labor movement and so knew that there were many people who couldn’t afford to drive. And I wanted to know sort of all together how many people were out there. And I wasn’t really finding good data. There’s data on the number of people with driver’s licenses in our country and that’s about one-third of people in the U.S. do not have driver’s licenses. But you know, that’s, it’s not really as simple as that. There are people without driver’s licenses who do drive and there are people who have a driver’s license and can’t drive.

And so I knew that that wasn’t really the number. And so I started pushing for research on how many non-drivers, we got a study funded in Washington state that got conducted by Toole Design to look at the percentage of non-drivers. And that study found that about 30 percent of our state are non-drivers. The state of Wisconsin had similar research there. Their state DOT collects vehicle registrations and driver’s license data in sort of the same database. And so they were able to pull that number pretty easily and they found that 31 percent of their population are non-drivers. And so based on that and based on what we can sort of see in other, you know, cities that have this data, it really is around a third of the population, can’t drive, can’t afford to drive, is too young to drive, is aging out of driving.

And that’s a lot of people. And I think there’s not a recognition that there are that many people who are so poorly served by a system built around driving everywhere, around car dependency.

Jeff Wood: And a lot of people don’t believe it, right?

Anna Zivarts: I think it scares people when they hear that number. When I was talking to the folks in Wisconsin who pushed for this research to happen there, they said that when the DOT realized that it was 31 percent of their state population were non-drivers, the folks of the DOT were like, "Oh my gosh, like we’re designing these systems and these roads and they’re not working for people and we’re engineers and it is our job to make systems work for people and we’re failing at this because we just didn’t recognize that there are so many people who aren’t served by driving."

Jeff Wood: Also in the book, you’ve collected a lot of stories from folks, a lot of really good anecdotes and also people’s experiences trying to get to where they’re trying to go. How much did your past kind of help you gather those stories?

Anna Zivarts: I spent some time working at the ACLU on a team with the LGBTQ in HIV AIDS project. And there, some of the folks that I worked with, some of the attorneys thought that, you know, the legal work they did was really important, but what they really needed to do was narrative change work and changing the hearts and minds of people so that the things that they were pushing for in court had broader public support as well. And so they helped me sort of think strategically and start to realize how important it was to find the right people to be your spokespeople and have those stories really out there in the public and help change the narrative about what people needed to be full members of the community.

And so I sort of took that lesson and brought it to the disability rights work I did. And I think, you know, it’s, it’s really when you find someone who is willing to put themselves out publicly, which is a big ask too, and who is willing to take that risk, you really can start to change the narratives we tell about who matters. And I that’s sort of where it came from.

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