If you paid attention to the coverage of Vision Zero in 2014, you may have noticed one of DOT commissioner Polly Trottenberg’s most frequent refrains:
“One of my favorite lines comes from the former DOT commissioner from Massachusetts: ‘Culture eats policy for breakfast,’” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, “Culture is much more. You can change policy overnight. You can’t change culture overnight.”
Here it is again, in a different interview:
“Culture eats policy for breakfast,” said Trottenberg. “That’s one of my mantras in this business … meaning you can change policy, but culture is a more complex thing to change, and something that often takes more time and more effort.”
The phrase “Culture eats policy for breakfast” traces its roots to Peter Drucker, an influential Austrian-born business management consultant and author who died in 2005. Drucker actually said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, technology for lunch, and products for dinner, and soon thereafter everything else too” but that lengthy quote has been adapted and simplified as it’s flown around the corporate world.
In any company, organization, or even social movement, there’s always a conflict between those who would implement sweeping change quickly and those who feel that a piecemeal, step-by-step approach is more prudent. If you’re the head of a large city agency with a direct impact on the lives of millions of citizens, striking a balance between these two competing philosophies is key, lest big and noble policy goals get destroyed by something as simple as bad timing or a small group of people who simply aren’t ready to change.
But something always rubs me the wrong way anytime I hear Commissioner Trottenberg repeat her line about culture, policy and breakfast. When I match it up against the absence of truly innovative and original bicycle projects from DOT in 2014 — most of the protected bike lanes installed last year originated under the Bloomberg administration — it seems that what should just be a catchy piece of business advice may actually be a core philosophy that’s holding the city back from taking biking to the next level. “Culture eats policy for breakfast” has become a self-perpetuating, defeatist mantra that ignores how far the city has come, where it wants to go, and who wants to take it there. It removes design and engineering as primary drivers of cultural change, defers too much to those who seek a kind of selfish comfort in the status quo, and has consequences for other important policy goals beyond bikes.
Here are what I see as the biggest problems with “Culture eats policy for breakfast.”
1. The last administration changed the menu.
In the waning months of Mayor Bloomberg’s final term, an August 2013 New York Times poll showed widespread support for bike lanes, bike share, and pedestrian plazas.
Even as far back as March 2011 — the same month Neighbors for Better Bike lanes filed their Article 78 lawsuit to remove the Prospect Park West Bike lane — a Quinnipiac poll showed that 54 percent of New York City voters viewed the expansion of bike lanes as “a good thing.” By July that number had risen to 59 percent. In August, a Marist poll showed 66 percent of New Yorkers supported bike lanes. Again, this was in 2011, when New York Magazine asked “Is New York Too New York for Bike Lanes?”
The New York Times poll proved what many advocates and policy leaders had long known, that the media-generated bikelash that had dominated the headlines for years never matched the reality on the ground. “People are voting with their feet, they’re voting with their pedals, and they’re voting with their dollars,” former DOT commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan was fond of saying. Howard Wolfson, who had long gone to the mat for the Bloomberg administration’s livable streets agenda, gave this valedictory comment late last year: “At some point it became obvious that this was a popular policy, that people were using bike lanes, that Citi Bike was being used. (Emphasis mine.)
“Culture eats policy for breakfast” takes the momentum accrued under Bloomberg and runs the risk of squandering it. The language accepts the idea that popular policies are still up for debate. Even worse, it reintroduces a debate that was settled a long time ago.
2. There’s more than one way to define culture.
Consider the following quote from DOT Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs Josh Benson about the agency’s choice to install extra-wide parking lanes on streets with more than enough room to accommodate robust bicycle infrastructure:
“People in the community might not initially value the importance of a street to the bike network until there’s some initial calming and the character changes,” DOT Director of Bicycle and Pedestrian Programs Josh Benson said, citing Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights and 44th Drive in Long Island City as examples where DOT later converted extra-wide parking lanes into bike lanes. “People don’t necessarily envision a street as a bike-friendly street,” he said. “Once you make an improvement, people take to it and opinions change.”
Riverside Drive, for example, is a major cycling route both for points along the Upper West Side and for recreational cyclists heading to the George Washington Bridge. Safe streets advocates have been packing community board meetings on the Upper West Side on all manner of traffic-calming and bike-related projects for months, oftentimes outnumbering opponents by a lot. So who is Benson talking about? Not that one should ignore people in the local community who can’t or don’t want to envision the benefits of a complete street, but incorrectly or imprecisely defining words like “culture,” “people,” and “community” fuels a myth that New York still isn’t ready for bike lanes. It makes “Culture eats policy for breakfast” a self-fulfilling philosophy.
3. It diminishes the importance of past institutional experience.
The Vanderbilt Avenue traffic calming project mentioned by Benson above began with the installation of wide parking lanes in 2006 before an upgrade to class 2 bike lanes in 2008. With everything that’s changed since 2006 — The Ninth Avenue bike lane, the city’s first on-street protected lane, wasn’t installed until 2007, for example — the interim step of installing wide parking lanes to build community acceptance for bike lanes may no longer be necessary. After all, none of the doom-and-gloom predictions that preceded previous bike lane installations came to pass, so DOT should by now be well versed in swatting down most community board complaints, including those related to the loss of parking. (More on that later.)
4. It removes DOT as a prime agent for rapid culture change.
It’s said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The same might be said of livable streets. Endless community board presentations and tabloid arguments about whether or not New Yorkers will sit and enjoy themselves in pedestrian plazas tend to yield diminishing returns. Instead, the debate can easily be settled by setting up some traffic cones and buying cheap lawn chairs at a hardware store. As former DOT policy director Jon Orcutt recently tweeted, “If your policy changes infrastructure, it will change culture.”
5. It fails to fully seize the moral imperative behind Vision Zero as a catalyst for change.
Some cities justify the expansion of their bike lane network because it will attract young tech workers and help the economy. Fairly or not, many people only thought that Bloomberg and Sadik-Khan wanted New York City to be like Copenhagen. Not that these are bad reasons to build bike infrastructure, but they’re unlikely to satisfy longtime residents who think that young hipsters are coming with their bikes to take away parking spaces.
Vision Zero, on the other hand, arms DOT with a very powerful justification for reconfiguring streets. Ending all fatalities and serious injuries must trump petty concerns about small amounts of free parking spaces.
Of course, Families for Safe Streets has fully seized this mantle, changing the conversation and earning a marathon-like victory to lower to the default New York City speed limit to 25 mph. But Families for Safe Streets can’t fight every fight, especially since they have their eyes trained on some pretty big fish this year. It’s going to be up to DOT to explain at the community board level why some concerns simply don’t warrant serious consideration in light of the moral urgency of Vision Zero.
6. There are consequences to waiting for the culture to change.
The most obvious consequence of deferring too much to some notion of a change-resistant culture is that people will die. While we’re waiting for “the community” to get used to seeing Riverside Drive as a part of the bike network, people on bikes are still using it, more exposed than they need to be.
There are other consequences, some small, some big. The mayor has set a goal of 6 percent mode share for bikes by 2020, just five years from now. It won’t be achieved with extra-wide parking lanes. And if the city can’t touch parking to stop people from dying or get more people on bikes, then good luck removing all the spots needed to install a real bus rapid transit line.
* * *
“Culture eats policy for breakfast” does not and should not mean that one drifts in the tides of culture, waiting the for the currents to change. I don’t think Trottenberg sees it that way either, and it was certainly important to concentrate her department’s efforts on the speed limit change and the arterial slow zone program, but it doesn’t follow that bikes needed to get the short shrift as they did in 2014. DOT needs to use its power for positive change as well as the moral imperative of Vision Zero to demonstrate that there is no daylight between pedestrian safety projects and bike safety projects. One contributes to the other.
As I mentioned at the top of this post, “Culture eats policy for breakfast” originated in the business world, so I thought I’d turn to the business world for a deeper look. Here’s Bill Aulet, director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, writing at Techcrunch:
Some may believe that culture cannot be “engineered,” and that it just happens. It is true that culture happens whether you want it to or not. It is the DNA of the company and is in large part created by the founders – not by their words so much as their actions. So the very decision to not try to create a corporate culture, or worse, to not have company values, is in fact your choice of what culture will prevail – and not for the better.
“Culture eats policy for breakfast” is not a philosophy. It’s an observation. It’s advice, and, applied correctly, fairly good advice at that. But if it’s allowed to be the guiding principle by which DOT operates, then eliminating all traffic deaths by 2024 — just nine (!) years from now — won’t happen. Remember John F. Kennedy’s 1962 announcement that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade? And remember how we did just that in 1969? It took boldness, experimentation, money, and manpower. Vision Zero needs to be like the Apollo program, but for streets.
Vélib’, the bike share system of Paris, will display this message at all of its 1,800 stations today. My French is terrible, but the caption for the cartoon on the right translates to, “Breaking a Vélib’ is easy…he can not defend himself.” The cartoon is by Jean Cabut, known by his pen-name of Cabu, who was one of the victims in yesterday’s attack on Charlie Hebdo.
It’s not for nothing that Vélib’ gets its names for the French words “vélo” and “liberté” – “bicycle” and “freedom.”
2014 has been a pretty good year as far as livable streets in New York City go, most notably with the reduction of the city’s default speed limit to 25 mph. It’s a huge step in the right direction, a major victory for Families for Safe Streets, and a sign of good things to come.
This past year was also an interesting year for me here on the blog and off of it. I was privileged to meet so many loyal readers in the flesh at various events and, much to my delight, every now and then during my rides to and from work. I truly appreciate everyone’s comments, criticism, tips, and friendly hellos.
For the curious – or in case you missed them – here are my three most popular posts of 2014:
- “Dawn of the Planet of the Longtails,” a look at the family bike that’s slowly taking over New York City.
- “The New Yorker Versus Vision Zero,” my response to Nick Paumgarten’s “Talk of the Town” piece on the new 25 mph speed limit.
- “Bored to Death,” a deep dive on Timothy Egan’s op-ed in the New York Times about what actually makes cities safe for cycling.
I’ll take that as advice for 2015 – apparently my readers like pictures of cute kids on bikes and long posts involving media criticism.
As this year ends, I’d be remiss if I didn’t put in a plug for the organizations that are working to make a safer city and that serve as my inspiration in so many ways. If you’re still looking to make a year-end charitable donation, the wonderful folks at Streetsblog and Streetfilms as well as Transportation Alternatives will put your money to good use. With all that we have left to do to advance Vision Zero and make a better New York City, I hope you’ll give them your support.
Have a safe and happy New Year.
Brad Aaron at Streetsblog has an excellent takedown of the new victim-blaming public service campaign from the MTA. While I’m a safe streets advocate and agree with Brad’s criticisms, my initial reaction to the PSAs was largely filtered through my professional experience as a TV producer and writer. My day job involves looking at images, writing words, and making sure that those two things add up into one coherent narrative. So when I saw “Cycling for Trouble,” a new bike safety public service announcement from the MTA, the first things I noticed were the glaring inconsistencies, ridiculous images, and downright incorrect information in its brief thirty seconds.
The ad begins with a young man getting ready for his ride. First he puts on gloves:
Note: gloves are not required when riding a bicycle in New York City. Yet.
Then he puts on his helmet:
Note: a helmet is not required for adults when riding a bicycle in New York City. Yet.
Then he makes sure his bike has tires:
Note: although not legally required, a bicycle equipped with tires is highly recommended.
Then he puts on his headphones and goes for a ride:
Look, I agree. Wearing headphones in both ears while riding a bike is Not a Good Idea… if you’re riding in the heart of Midtown, on Jay Street in Brooklyn, on in any other very congested part of the city. (Having an earbud in one ear is perfectly legal, however.) But on a pathway along an empty beach? Really? Is this the most effective visual way to convey that wearing headphones isn’t the smartest thing in the world? So even before the central message of this PSA has a chance to really get out there, any skeptic who stops to process this image – that is to say, any New Yorker – is likely to be taken out of the moment entirely.
Then there’s this mini-scene, where the guy slowly coasts through a quiet park – another place where wearing headphones isn’t really all that bad – as he points to perhaps to a pal or just someone he wants to notice him:
That’s quickly followed by this image:
The sequence above is very strange: A man who methodically prepares for his ride by putting on gloves, strapping on a helmet, and making sure his bike has tires suddenly morphs into a cocky-yet-clownish character from a bad comedy video? It’s just dumb and not very well thought out.
Then the man takes to the street where bouncing bold graphics tell us what he is listening to:
This, of course, is a total surprise if you can’t hear the techno-inspired beat that begins playing the moment the man puts on his headphones. It’s just so strange. Would listening to Serial or WFAN at a low volume be “Not Good”?
Anyway, apparently the music is so loud that it causes the man to go blind, since he crashes into the same bus that’s been right in front of him for at least a block:
This is just dumb on top of dumb, and makes me suspect that no one familiar with biking in New York City, or even bicycles in general, was involved in this spot’s production. Part of the reason wearing headphones in both ears isn’t a good idea is because it makes it harder to hear cars or other cyclists approaching from behind you. On the Manhattan Bridge, what bike commuter hasn’t been stuck behind a person huffing up the incline with a set of earbuds wedged into his noggin? There’s no amount of bell ringing or “On your left” loud enough to get that guy to hear you and move over, so you’re more or less screwed until Canal Street. But its pretty rare that I see an earbud-wearing cyclist coming from the opposite direction on the bridge and think, “I better be careful. That guy who clearly has me in his line of sight can’t hear me.”
Oh, and another thing: there hasn’t been a documented case of a headphone-wearing cyclist rear-ending a bus, at least not one resulting in serious injury or death. Believe me, if an idiot died doing something like this, it would be on the cover of the Post for a week. And that’s perhaps the biggest failure of this spot: in presenting a situation so unlikely it’s less common that getting killed by a falling air conditioner after being knocked over by an exploding Mister Softee truck, the message gets totally lost and subjects the entire piece to the wrath of Gothamist. Even WNYC got in on the act. That’s probably not the outcome the MTA expected when the idea for this PSA began.
Then there’s this image and catchphrase at the end of the spot:
I guess “Stay alert. Don’t crush bicyclists and pedestrians with your multi-ton vehicle” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
Before you scroll directly to bottom of this post to leave a comment, here are some disclaimers: Speaking on a cellphone or texting while riding a bicycle is not something that I condone. On the busy and sometimes dangerous streets of New York City, you need all your wits and senses about you. When you’re on your bike, I do not recommend listening to music on headphones, staring into an iPhone, chatting with a friend, or taking a selfie. Eyes on the road, #bikenyc!
With that out of the way…
You may have read that New York City Council member Mark Treyger is poised to introduce legislation that would make using a cellphone while riding a bicycle illegal. At first glance, such a proposal sounds like a good idea. After all, given my disclaimers above, who would be against making it illegal to do something as potentially distracting and dangerous as using a cellphone while biking? Plus, Treyger’s bill doesn’t exactly seem like it’s all that punitive.
Tickets for texting or talking on the phone while biking will carry a $50 fine, which could rise to $200 for repeat violations.
But first-time offenders who don’t hurt anyone or cause property damage could avoid the fine by taking a bike safety class, which the city Department of Transportation and NYPD would be required to start offering next year.
Treyger said he proposed the classes to make it clear the ban wasn’t a money-raising gambit.
“We think we should be emphasizing education rather than collecting revenue,” he said.
This seems perfectly reasonable. Other cities, such as Chicago, have made texting-while-biking illegal, and the movement is gaining favor among legislators elsewhere in the country.
But there are lots of reasons to be suspicious of such a bill, Treyger’s motivations for proposing it, and how it might be enforced on the street. While I’m inclined to re-emphasize my disclaimer above — Please, don’t use a cellphone while biking — I’m also very much against Treyger’s bill. Here’s why.
1. It’s legislation by anecdote.
From the Daily News:
Treyger said he was prompted to introduce the ban when he saw a cyclist on Stillwell Ave. in Brooklyn texting and veering in and out of traffic, nearly causing an accident.
And the Post:
Councilman Mark Treyger (D-Brooklyn) says his bill was prompted by seeing a distracted cyclist nearly cause a multi-car accident near his office in Gravesend.
When considering such an account, one has to consider the source. Treyger’s most recent contribution to the Vision Zero discussion was to call into question the placement of a speed camera as nothing more than a “gotcha” trap against motorists. Since, to the best of my knowledge, Treyger has not previously sponsored any sort of meaningful bike-safety legislation, questioning his motives here as well as his account of this alleged near-accident is reasonable and prudent.
Chicago Alderman Margaret Laurino, who proposed that city’s texting-while-biking law, said that it was “‘common sense’ in leveling the playing field between bicyclists and motorists.” That idea — that cars and bikes must be held to the same standard — is a common thread in legislation such as this, and smells somewhat of a “no fair” reaction to the rise of Vision Zero and the safe streets movement: if drivers have to obey particular laws, then so do cyclists. Indeed, that’s what Tregyer told the Daily News: “If it’s reckless for drivers to do it – which it is – it’s just as irresponsible for cyclists.” But this is the logic of my five-year-old daughter, who thinks it’s unfair that I have different rules for her than I do for her 21-month-old brother. Again, I’m not arguing that texting while cycling is smart or all that safe on the mean streets of New York City, but it most certainly is not “just as irresponsible” as texting while operating a two- or six-ton piece of complex motorized machinery.
It’s fine for some laws and public safety campaigns to be borne out of personal experience or observation — or even pet peeves — but they have to hold up under the weight of data and statistics. Which leads me to…
2. It’s a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.
Texting or using a cellphone while cycling has been a factor in exactly zero fatalities or serious injuries. Treyger has argued that such statistics aren’t collected because the behavior isn’t currently illegal, but that, of course, is hogwash. The NYPD and their surrogates in the tabloids report on all kinds of circumstances that allegedly contribute to crashes. Other more neutral agencies, such as the Department of Health, track all sorts of information as they relate to injuries and fatalities in NYC. If a texting cyclist had seriously injured or killed a pedestrian or caused a multi-car crash we’d have heard about it by now.
3. We already know what makes cycling safe.
Protected bicycle lanes that are separated from vehicular traffic. Green waves and signal timing that prioritizes the slow and steady movement of people on bicycles over people in automobiles. 20 mph speed limits. Bicycle-friendly cities are already doing a lot of simple things to protect people on bikes from death by car. Banning cellphone use isn’t even among the top 50 things on their lists.
4. It actually doesn’t apply equally to motorists and cyclists.
Treyger’s bill “would ban any use of a cellphone, tablet or computer except when attached to a hands-free device. It’s currently legal to fiddle with a smart phone while riding a bike.” Drivers are free to fiddle with GPS devices, dashboard touch-screens that require them to take their eyes off the road just to change radio stations or adjust the AC, and many other non-cellphone devices. These distractions have likely caused more fatal crashes than texting-while-biking. There’s also plenty of research to show that hands-free devices do little to limit a driver’s cognitive distraction. If Treyger wanted to save lives, he’d propose, or at least discuss, banning the use of a cellphone in any form, handsfree or otherwise, while operating a motor vehicle.
5. It’s a waste of resources.
The courts are already clogged with cyclists who have been cited by the NYPD for behaviors which are not actually illegal. Do we need to send more people to a courtroom — or even a classroom — for something that hasn’t been shown to cause a measurable level of harm?
Then there’s the question of limited manpower in the age of Vision Zero. An officer who spends ten or twenty minutes issuing a citation for a minor traffic offense can not spend that same ten or twenty minutes issuing citations for another, more serious offense. This is why many bike advocates are frustrated when the NYPD tickets cyclists for going through a red at a T intersection. It’s not that anyone condones any and all red-light running, but rather that by stationing officers at low-stakes locations, the NYPD is missing an opportunity to target more serious offenses, even against cyclists. Which leads me to…
6. There are serious concerns about how the NYPD would apply such a law.
Far from “leveling the playing field between bicyclists and motorists,” Treyger’s bill could have the unintended effect of tilting it against people who bike. Given how some precincts prefer fish-in-a-barrel ticketing against cyclists over measures that would actually make New Yorkers safe, there’s no reason to think the same thing wouldn’t happen here. Indeed, this was one of the chief concerns of advocates in Chicago:
The Active Transportation Alliance, a group which promotes biking, walking and mass transit use, supported the ordinance but was concerned that bicyclists, because they are more visible than motorists, would be more often targeted than phone-using motorists.
Additionally, we’ve seen time and time again that low-level criminal infractions are disproportionately used as a pretext for pulling over young African-American and Hispanic males.
…the facts in a recent CUNY Law School study show that from 2008 to 2011, the New York City Police Department issued more tickets in minority neighborhoods than in other neighborhoods to cyclists who rode their bikes on the sidewalk. Of the 15 neighborhoods with the greatest number of summonses for the crime of bicycling on the sidewalk, 12 consist mainly of blacks and Latinos.
That NYPD might abuse such a law is not reason alone to oppose it, but it is important to understand the context and stewardship into which such a law might be enacted.
Treyger’s bill may or may not pass. I can certainly see many in the advocacy community deciding to get behind it — or at least not actively opposing it — on the grounds that arguing against it is too nuanced a discussion for New York City right now. With cyclists Public Enemy Number One and even the DOT’s current strategy of protecting cyclists leaving many scratching their heads, coming out against what seems on its surface like a common-sense law might feel like a waste of political capital.
There is reason for optimism, however. New York City has certainly seen its share of go-nowhere, anti-bike legislation proposed by city council members who never before took an interest in cycling safety. Yet one of those city council members has since gone on to be a stalwart supporter of Vision Zero, lower speed limits, and safe streets. If David Greenfield can evolve into a Vision Zero hero, then there’s hope for Mark Treyger yet.
I’m working on a new and exciting (non-blogging) project with a partner and need your help! Do you have a great bike story? Something you’d want to tell in your own voice? Something amazing, terrifying, wonderful, interesting, curious, strange, scary, funny, or some other adjective that you’d like to share? Then I want to talk to you.
Ideally, your story is something that sticks out in your brain as highly memorable, the kind of thing you’d want to tell to someone the minute you walked into a room. Some ideas:
- “A helmet saved my life!”
- “Not wearing a helmet saved my life!”
- A strange encounter with a driver, fellow cyclist, pedestrian, or police officer.
- “I was riding with my kid when suddenly…”
- “You’ll never believe what happened. This guy rolled down his window and said…”
- True tales of breaking the law.
The above is by no means a comprehensive list. Anything goes!
Contact me at brooklynspoke [at] gmail [dot] com. Include a brief summary of your story — a short paragraph is enough — as well as your name, neighborhood, and contact information. I’ll try to respond to everyone who sends me something.
Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog over the last four years. My favorite part of doing this is interacting with so many smart and passionate people.
The default speed limit in New York City is set to drop to 25 miles per hour on November 7th, and because this is New York some people are not happy about it. Nick Paumgarten of the New Yorker, for example.
A week after Halloween, a new speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour will go into effect on every surface road in the five boroughs of New York City, except where stated otherwise. The idea is to make the streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians, a particular aim of Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Actually, the idea is to make the streets safer for cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers! (Please leave out that last part if you want to play up the “war on motorists” angle.)
Fourteen children were killed by drivers last year. You won’t find a citizen who didn’t wish that this number were zero.
Of course not. But what you will find are a lot of people who don’t want to do anything that could make that wish come true.
Smooth open road is so rare, at least in the denser parts of the city, that a lead foot can hardly resist the urge to hit the gas. In a city of lost time—there’s never enough, never enough—any chance to regain some is sweet.
You’re stuck in gridlock on your way to an appointment or event. Pot holes and winter-scarred roads make it nearly impossible to drive at a comfortable pace. Suddenly, a freshly paved, traffic-free stretch of pavement opens up before you. So, lead foot that you are, you hit the gas. I mean, who can resist, right? Then you hit a child in the crosswalk and that child dies a horrific and violent death, visiting immeasurable grief upon a shocked family and traumatizing dozens of witnesses, all because you had Mets tickets or an 8:05 curtain or something. If there is a philosophical opposite to Vision Zero, it can be found in the sentence, “In a city of lost time–there’s never enough, never enough–any chance to regain some is sweet.”
More cameras, more tickets, more squad cars lying in wait. Now we demonize speed.
Actually, we’re demonizing dangerous behavior. This is the result of greater understanding of the pathology of traffic deaths, as well as a growing cultural rejection of the notion that fourteen dead children per year — as well as dozens upon dozens of adults — are part of the cost of modern society. Take a time machine back to the early days of M.A.D.D. and imagine Nick Paumgarten’s 1980s counterpart writing, “More tickets, more squad cars lying in wait. Now we demonize drinking and driving.” That guy would look like an idiot now, right?
This feels funny: a city that has long identified itself as sleepless and fast, aspiring to everything lickety-split, is being asked to slow down. Slow food, slow money, now slow cars—the New York minute will henceforth be sixty seconds long.
This assumes a bizarro New York City where the taxi driver yells at Ratso Rizzo, “I’m drivin’ here!” As a service to Paumgarten, here are some things that are central to the city’s “sleepless and fast” identity that will remain unaffected by a 25 mph speed limit: Bars that never close. Mongolian food delivered to your door at midnight only ten minutes after you placed the order. Getting an egg and cheese sandwich from the coffee cart on one corner because the line at the coffee cart on the other corner is too long. Exiting the 2/3 just as the 1 arrives across the platform. Day trading. eBay Now. Buying a Crown Heights brownstone for $415,000 today and flipping it for $1.8 million tomorrow.
Manhattan is 13.4 miles in length. At twenty-five m.p.h., plus a grace tick or two, that’s a half hour, end to end. This seems about right, considering that to the Manhattanite the default timespan of a trip from any part of the borough to another, be it by car, bus, bike, long board, or train, is presumed (often incorrectly) to be thirty minutes. So maybe the new speed limit was devised with that in mind, the same way that the standard capacity of both the vinyl LP and the compact disk suited the length of Beethoven symphonies.
Or maybe the new speed limit was devised with science in mind. In fact, explaining such scientific theories might make a great New Yorker story. I hear that Malcolm Gladwell kid is good at explaining complicated subjects.
We’re all really heading somewhere. The Roosevelt Island tram goes eighteen m.p.h., which is a little faster than the elevators in the Empire State Building (15.9 m.p.h.). The Zamboni at the Garden does nine m.p.h.; the East River, at peak ebb or flood tide, hits half that.
The Cyclone goes sixty mph, which is a lot faster than a Rockette’s legs in the Radio City Christmas spectacular (31.8 mph). See how easy it is to pick to arbitrary “New York” things to illustrate a point? But only one of these stats is correct and neither of them are relevant to appropriate automobile speeds in a crowded urban environment.
In the revival of “On the Town” that’s just opened on Broadway, the number “Come Up to My Place,” in which Hildy the cabbie shows Chip the sailor the sights of the city, has Hildy driving a mile a minute—sixty an hour. That would now probably earn her six points (plus a fine for not wearing a seat belt).
In the musical “Guys and Dolls,” the number “Luck be a Lady,” in which Sky Masterson sings about betting his life on one roll of the dice, has Sky singing underground–in a sewer. That would now probably earn Sky Masterson a bite from a giant crocodile (plus a rare form of cancer for not wearing a wetsuit).
One day, we may all wistfully recall our own grim, turn-of-the-millennium on-the-town cab rides—hurtling home after a late night out, storefronts racing by in a blur, potholes rattling the hubcaps. No seat belt, either.
In 2001, there were 393 traffic fatalities in New York City. You could also smoke in bars!
The speed-limit change is another milestone in the ongoing struggle for control of the streets—our latter-day version of “The Pushcart War,” except that instead of venders with peashooters, aiming pins at the tires of big trucks, we have the Citi Bikers with Instagram accounts, tsk-tsking the cabbies and S.U.V.s.
POWER, THY NAME IS A WELL EXECUTED LOW-FI FILTER. #tsktsk
The most persistent objections come from the people for whom driving is part of the job. Delivery, plumbing, construction. You’re not going to use bicycles to build the Hudson Yards.
There are many New Yorkers, myself included, who rarely need to carry more than an iPhone. But when you need to make an argument for the preservation of unfettered motoring, suddenly everyone’s a delivery guy, plumber, or building Hudson Yards. Or they’re carrying watermelons everywhere.
“Nobody drives around the city more than me,” a master rigger (cranes) said on Monday. “It’s got worse with the people. It’s not the cars. The cars have been going the same friggin’ speed.
This might be a good time for to summarize “The Pushcart War” by Jean Merrill because I’ve never read it. Via, Peter C. Baker in, wait for it, the New Yorker:
Merrill’s main characters are pushcart peddlers in New York City. Their enemies are the big trucking companies, who want the roads cleared. Traffic is getting too heavy, and their trucks aren’t making deliveries as fast as they would like. For the trucking executives, the solution is obvious: get everything but trucks off the roads. The pushcarts are their first target, the opening salvo in a campaign to rule the streets of Manhattan. On orders from above, truck drivers start nudging pushcarts off the street, sometimes even smashing them. “The Pushcart War” is the story of the cart venders’ decision to fight back: they blow out truck tires with peashooters, lie to the police about it, stop traffic with marches, and generally do whatever it takes to stay in business.
According to one character, the trucking companies, collectively called The Three, believe that “the only way to get where you wanted to go was to be so big that you didn’t have to get out of the way of anybody.” This is known as the Large Object Theory of History.
Back to Paumgarten’s man on the street:
We have this diesel pickup, and it’s good to have a car with a big engine in the city, because when you come to a light the thing roars, and the people look up. And then they start to scatter.
This is also known as the Large Object Theory of History.