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Of Math and Personal Responsibility

January 3, 2011

I’m back from a week away, not only from blogging but also from New York. Thankfully, my family got out of New York one day before the big blizzard hit, avoiding an extended stay on an airport floor, and didn’t return until New Year’s Day.  We spent the week in Park City, Utah, a place where snow is greeted with joy, not outrage.

Despite how lucky I felt to be in such a beautiful place, there was part of me that grew wistful as I watched the national news or read reports of snow-covered city streets online last week.  I always love the city when it snows, and was a bit sad to miss out on the action this time around.  I think that’s part of what it means to be a New Yorker: sometimes we can’t wait to get out, but are afraid of what we’ll miss when we do.

What I missed, from my point of view, was that quiet peacefulness that settles over the city with the first big snow.  Cars and buses slow down, then disappear almost entirely from city streets.  One of my favorite memories of living in Manhattan is walking on a snow-covered 2nd Avenue and seeing people on cross country skis heading up to Central Park.  And this was at 24th Street.  The rhythm of the city changes completely and the city that never sleeps somehow seems like it would rather stay in bed with some hot cocoa.  While I’m not sure I’d always want the city to be like this, the calm that blankets the city with the snow is a powerful reminder that nature, not commerce, is the driving force of the world.

There’s often a great communal spirit that comes with bad winter weather, especially since the day and age in which we live which is otherwise so socially fractured.  With mass media split into hundreds of TV channels and millions of websites, weather may be the only shared cultural experience left anymore.

If there’s one thing I noticed as I watched the storm and its after effects from outside the city, it’s that that communal spirit seemed to diminish or vanish completely the minute any discussion of driving came into the picture.  And not driving as it relates to ambulances, fire trucks, plows, sanitation trucks or other vital services, but personal driving.  Yes, there were subway and bus disruptions, including horror stories of people trapped on trains for hours, but few seemed to generate the media outrage of those poor, maligned drivers who could not get their cars on–or off–the road.

To be fair, many cities, states, and other municipalities had the foresight to declare snow emergencies long before New York did.  While not rising to Katrina-level incompetence, Bloomberg missed a major opportunity to get out ahead of this storm.  But if one considers the financial situation in which the city found itself as a new year was about to begin, the pre-storm handwringing begins to make sense.  If it’s true that a blizzards costs the city $1 million per inch of snow, I can understand why the powers that be made a conservative bet on when to rev up the snowplows.

For me it boils down to two issues: math and personal responsibility.

First the math: you can not complain about tax increases, toll hikes, and higher meter rates and then stomp your feet when the city doesn’t have enough money to plow or maintain the streets as well as you think it should.  The money most people lost by not being able to get to work for a few days is still probably greater than any sensible tax increase and even possibly greater than what most people would have been spending to drive had the city instituted congestion pricing or tolls on the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges.  Yet the next time tax increases come up for a vote, they will be voted down.  And then it will snow again and we’ll repeat this whole process all over again.  It’s the circle of life.  This storm may not have had its “Get your government hands off my Medicare” moment, but it’s not hard to find the essence of that complaint in dozens of news editorials and in what must have been thousands of calls to 311.

And what about personal responsibility?  If I park a car in a private garage for $300 per month, I think I’m entitled to complain if the garage owners tell me that due to snow I won’t be able to get my car for a week.  After all, what is my $3,600 in annual costs paying for if not for the necessary maintenance to guarantee access to my private vehicle?  But if I park my car for free on public property year round, I have less of a right to complain when inconvenienced for a few days.  It’s simply the cost of getting an otherwise free perk.  It’s one thing to get outraged if your point of view was that emergency vehicles could not get where they need to go, and that’s a sense of outrage I will gladly share.  But why then was there so little outrage at the abandoned private vehicles that made it impossible for snow plows to do their job?

We can not expect the government to solve every problem, especially when we don’t want to pay the true cost of solving them.  And that’s where math and personal responsibility need to come together.  In the immediate sense, weather reports are as available to private citizens as they are to government leaders, and if getting somewhere is important I ought to think about making other arrangements or changing my plans if it looks like the city may be on the verge of shutting down.  (I don’t want to dismiss people in situations where driving was of lifesaving importance, but I am happy to wager that the majority of people who abandoned their cars on public roads were not on their way to cure cancer or take an elderly person to the hospital.)  In the long-term sense, I hope those who complained about being snowed in remember how much it cost them financially before they write an angry letter to the editor or call their city council member the next time someone proposes a tax increase.  Do the math.

From the outside looking in, the entire media coverage of this blizzard-induced outrage reminded me why owning a car in this city is more trouble than it’s worth.  Had I been here, I would have looked out of my window with wonder and thought about how much I love the city when it snows.  Sure, it wouldn’t have taken long before I remembered how narrow and slushy sidewalks get or how that clean white blanket quickly turns into a soot-covered and garbage strewn mess, but at least I would have had a few moments of joy at a city transformed.  How sad to think that a car owner’s first thought upon seeing snow is not one of child-like joy but instead is one of childish selfishness.

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