To the nearly 370,000 urbanist geeks around the country who follow Vignesh Swaminathan on Tik Tok, he's known as "Mr. Barricade."
For almost a year, the mustachioed Indian American urban planner and CEO of Cupertino, California-based Crossroad Lab has been using popular Tik Tok trends to make videos teaching people everything from urban planning principles to the racist history of redlining to how head-scratching feats of engineering like dams and bridges work.
While most civil engineers like him tend to go for the usual ad or PR campaign to get the message out about their unique expertise, Swaminathan chose the more Gen Z approach of Tik Tok.
"For a lot of young people like me, we know we can fix our urban environment," Swaminathan said. "We may not want to live our lives in a car. We want to plan our life differently. Tik Tok for me is a way to get that word out there that cities can be built differently, and people are noticing."
So for the past decade, he's been designing bikeways and pedestrian areas that put regular people — not cars — back into focus, without breaking the bank.
Instead of pouring expensive concrete to buffer terrified bikers from fast-moving cars, Swaminathan has spent the last two years designing bikeways and convincing Bay Area cities to use plastic bollards, signs and painted traffic lines to prevent the kinds of accidents that make people think twice about pedaling.
Anyone from San Jose who has stumbled upon his account will no doubt notice the protected bikeways at San Fernando Street and Almaden Road, which he proudly features as testament of his work to make cities more biker friendly.
Never too serious, Swaminathan also spends a lot of time standing inside storm drains doing his signature #DrainGang dance or just acting goofy on camera to clips of popular songs known as "sounds" to the Tik Tok community.
His strategy of using the app's algorithm to his benefit has led to some hilarious situations: Look up the song "White Girl" by Shy Glizzy on Tik Tok and you'll find dozens of cutesy dance videos suddenly interrupted by a suited-up urban planner teaching you about protected bike lanes.
"At first the account was just me dancing and listening to my kind of music, maybe pulling on my moustache for comedic effect or something," Swaminathan said. "Low-key, I wasn't trying to be famous. Once I read about how the algorithm works, I realized that using the same sound that a pretty girl is using meant people would scroll and see me using that sound too."
So why "Mr. Barricade?" Swaminathan said it all goes back to his times as a civil engineering intern with the city of San Jose. Whether it was the city's Jazz Fest, the annual marathon or an impromptu block party, Swaminathan was in charge of managing events downtown, trying to turn a car-centric urban core into a temporary walkable haven.
"I was the guy who managed the cones and barriers and I'd draw diagrams of how to set them up," Swaminathan said. "I worked with event coordinators to see what they needed to shut down the streets downtown. People at that point started to call me Mr. Barricade."
Swaminathan said he never thought the account would get as big as it did, and he was also surprised by the racist comments he got from random people when he first started the app. He was memefied as an Indian person and gained most of his following from the "young, racist side of Tik Tok" hellbent on turning his whole educational endeavor sour.
"Tik Tok was super weird to me at first," he said.
But eyeing an opportunity to educate, Swaminathan made videos about racism and why saying racial slurs isn't OK, and slowly pivoted to teaching his followers about the racist history of redlining and how wealth inequality is deeply tied to urban design via exclusionary zoning rules and segregation.
"When I was dealing with a lot of racism, I didn't know what to do," Swaminathan said. "I started to talk about historical inequality, redlining, urban design issues. Now the followers I had that were harassing me for my race are saying 'hey, he's kind of a cool dude.' "
Whether he'll admit it or not, Swaminathan is a leading figure in the emergent school of "new urbanists," the urban planning trend popular among millennials and Generation Z that aims to return "cars rule" American cities back to their pedestrian and transit-oriented pasts. Decades of driving on highways to distant suburbs have made their mark on Americans' concept of a city, and Swaminathan is hoping his Tik Tok account will inspire the next generation of urban planners and teach people to embrace change.
But despite his nonchalant attitude about his newfound reputation as a "new urbanist" influencer, Swaminathan is a deeply passionate urban designer whose mission is to get more people involved in sculpting the built environment around them and learning about the history that has shaped the way cities work today.
Unlike many cities that have embarked on years-long projects to make bikeways safer, Swaminathan is showing how using readily available materials any public works department has handy can do the job just as good as concrete. It also allows planners to make changes to bike infrastructure quickly, catering to the needs of people who use it every day.
"When I work with communities on projects, I deal with a lot of people who are ignorant about the road," Swaminathan said. "You see them at community meetings sitting quietly because they don't know or they talk a lot because they feel like they know everything. For me, Tik Tok and social media are the best ways for me to help educate everyone about this system and what they can do."
Peter Bennett, an urban planner who has worked with Swaminathan on San Jose's bikeways, said Swaminathan always seemed eager to subject himself to the sometimes long and arduous community outreach process required for infrastructure projects. And, he's impressed that Swaminathan's Tik Tok account has become a tool to continue that outreach.
"He has people responding to him on Tik Tok and saying 'I don't understand downtown streets,' " Bennett said. "It doesn't surprise me that his explanations are especially popular. The way he produces them is no accident. They have quick cuts and meme-related content that's actually really great at conveying often boring subjects. It's not dry textbook material anymore, he's making it fun."
An avid biker himself, San Jose Department of Transportation spokesman Colin Heyne said he's impressed with what Swaminathan has been able to do with his Tik Tok account in highlighting the city's robust bikeway network. Heyne is familiar with Swaminathan from his work designing bikeways in the city, and even before Heyne's time with the city when he was part of the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition.
He said the city has had a couple of "lucky twists" by being featured in Bicycling Magazine and other outlets, but Swaminathan's Tik Tok is certainly the most unique press the city has gotten lately. Heyne said he appreciates the exposure Swaminathan's Tik Tok is bringing to San Jose.
"Tik Tok is a great use for visual storytelling and I'm glad it's putting our infrastructure work in a good light," Heyne said. "I love when people come from out of town and seeing them so surprised with what they find downtown. His account shows people that though we are built as a car-centric city we're trying to give people safer and cleaner options to get around without having to get in a car."
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