Vilnius Mayor: Tanks Will Roll On Our Streets Again

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And he's serious. Sort of.

The Eastern European mayor who made himself an Internet video sensation by crushing a parked car with a tank says he's doubling down on the stunt from earlier this month. More armor is soon to hit the streets of Vilnius, Lithuania's capital city, as part of his comical but earnest campaign against illegal parking.

Arturas Zuokas, car-crushing mayor of Vilnius (photo by Todd Zwillich)

The bit has earned over 3 million hits on YouTube so far. "I'm impressed even myself!" Arturas Zuokas exclaims from across the table in a spacious 19th-floor office suite overlooking the ancient city. Now he's trying to capitalize on all the attention by letting the tanks roll once again. Zuokas says he's about to rent at least one more armed personnel carrier and station it near places notorious for illegal parking.

The point? Intimidation. And also a laugh. Zuokas' video got the residents of this town of 550,000 talking. It's more worldwide attention than Vilnius has gotten since -- well, possibly ever. Now Zuokas wants to increase pressure on illegal parking. Scofflaws earn a warning sticker on their first offense. Second offense brings a fine, and the fines are about to go way up.

The third offense? The tank, Zuokas says, will be moved around the city to remind drivers--particularly the wealthy--that it may be too terrible to imagine for this status-obsessed town.

"We hope it will not be needed to crush your car," Zuokas says with a laugh.

He's not going to crush your car. Zuokas is having fun playing the populist, but as far as Benz- and Beemer- bashing is concerned, that's about as far as it goes. Internet viewers worldwide hailed Zuokas for sticking it to the rich by flattening the rich guy's Mercedes in the video. In fact, Zuokas says, he bought the 12-year-old sedan himself and staged the stunt for about $4,000 USD. The army provided the armor via a local military museum. And the hapless "rich dude" seen in the video emerging, stunned, from a Benetton store on the city's swankiest shopping drag is a friend who, Zuokas says, was a decent visual archetype of luxury car drivers in Vilnius.

Staged as the video was, the message was clear. "I hate it when rich guys with very expensive cars, they park where they want," Zuokas says. "My idea was to show to them there exists limits. It doesn't mean if you have a big, expensive, car you have more space in the town."

"I want this guy"

Zuokas' media savvy stems, at least in part, from his former career as a television reporter and war correspondent. To many, the Benz-crushing was a symbol of working-class revenge. Bicycle enthusiasts saw it as a blow against car culture (the Mercedes sits parked in a bike lane when its destroyed.) Bike-lane supporters in cities like Washington, DC, and New York were particularly gleeful at the stunt.

Others saw it a symbol of effective government. "I want this guy to be mayor of my town!" one commenter wrote on YouTube. "Let's do it in London!" wrote another.

Vilnius bike lane (photo by Todd Zwillich)

The former television reporter is, of course, now a politician. Zuokas is happy to let people see the video as they please. He admits to driving "good cars" himself and says he counts the city's wealthy luxury car drivers as his friends and political supporters. "They know me and I know them," he says, when pressed on whether he's going to crush any cars really owned by real rich guys.

But he's quick to turn the discussion of his media fame to transportation policy in this increasingly-congested city.

Vilnius is preparing to roll out city-wide bike sharing next year -- similar, Zuokas says, to fledgling programs in Washington and New York. It's the second try for bike sharing in Vilnius. The city deployed 1,000 orange-colored shared bikes a decade ago but had to abandon the program. "The citizens, they destroyed them or they stole them in two months," Zuokas says.

Vilnius also has a pilot program of electric scooters parked at charging stations in a few spots around the city center. There are 20 "e-bikes" deployed now, with 25 more soon to follow. The bikes look like souped-up, battery-powered Razor scooters once popular with kids. Over four days in Vilnius several people were seen gazing at the bikes at their stations but none was seen riding one.

E-bikes in Vilnius (photo by Todd Zwillich)

Zuokas also says he wants to bring back a program that outfitted several city buses and electric "trolley buses" as homages to famous composers. A portrait of a composer would be on the outside, while his or her music plays over high-quality speakers on the inside. Zuokas says this time he's willing to be flexible about the lineup, since some bus drivers complained before a similar program was dropped by the previous administration in 2008.

"Some of them all day, they don't want to listen to Wagner," he says.

Parking and Populism

Zuokas says he's serious about transportation policy -- and indeed, kept talking about it long after an aide told him he was late for other appointments. He says the tank stunt brought a new focus to parking and other transportation issues that don't have much sex appeal on their own.

Not all the attention has been positive. Last week the Associated Press retracted a photo of the event released by Zuokas'' office because it had been digitally altered, one of the riders on top of the tank removed. Zuokas says the photo was an innocent mistake by a hired photographer who was unaware he was committing an ethical breach, but the city issued an apology.

The AP flap notwithstanding, it's perhaps no surprise that Zuokas is continuing his Internet-fueled tank gambit by deploying more armor on the city to nudge (if not crush) drivers into compliance with parking laws. The Lithuanian army is no longer interested in playing along, so the next heavy vehicles will be rented from private collectors, the mayor says.

It's a recipe for possible parking improvements and almost certainly for more media attention, both of which seem absolutely fine with Zuokas.

In the interview, New York's Michael Bloomberg and several lesser-known transportation technocrats rounded out a list of policy makers who've publicly cheered the video on. Earlier, Zuokas and an aide began the list in near unison: "Ashton Kutcher!"