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Some Thoughts on Speed-gate

February 20, 2014

I was called out on Twitter for questioning the motives of Marcia Kramer and her sudden interest in dangerous driving.  But I believe it’s a fair question.  When a journalist’s previous forays into the subject involved warning New York about the threat of bike lane terrorists and airing selective clips of an ambulance using a bike lane as an escape route, I think a little skepticism is in order even if her story turns out to be as simple as she asserts.  Journalists are nothing if not the sum total of their credibility, and when it comes to covering safe streets, Marcia Kramer doesn’t have a lot left.

In thinking about Kramer’s story, and the inevitable OUTRAGE! that it sparked, I began thinking a bit more about Vision Zero, the media, and what’s going to happen in the coming years.  Kramer’s report, for whatever merit it may have had, offers a preview.

Vision Zero encompasses many things, including engineering, enforcement, and education. But, it should be noted, it’s also highly political.  We won’t just all sing kumbaya and paint a bike lane and be grateful that we’ve saved a few lives.  No, we’ll likely see years of squabbles of all shapes and sizes over every inch of street space as we — thankfully, it must be said — have some serious discussions about who and what our streets are for.  These discussions will take place in political forums such as community boards and City Council hearings.  There will be no small amount of political horse trading to get Albany to lower the speed limit or to enact meaningful laws that will deter and punish reckless driving. In fact, nearly everything about this process will exist in a political realm. So it’s not for nothing that CBS 2 sent its chief political correspondent to cover a story about the mayor’s caravan, just as they sent the same political correspondent to run what amounted to hit jobs on Janette Sadik-Khan’s signature projects in 2011.

So why did Marcia Kramer cover this story?  First, the obvious.  Hypocrisy is a juicy subject for any political reporter, especially one who, at a 1992 Democratic debate asked the question about past marijuana use that led to the infamous Bill Clinton reply, “I didn’t inhale.”  It certainly makes for great TV to show Mayor de Blasio moralizing about reckless driving and then cut to video of his caravan allegedly doing the thing he just moralized against.  I do this kind of stuff for a living and even I was pretty impressed with how her team edited that one together.

But there’s more going on here than just a hot story about dangerous driving and political hypocrisy.  That’s because the changes Mayor de Blasio has proposed to driving culture under Vision Zero represent something even bigger than what began under JSK and Bloomberg.  Vision Zero is, for all its great intent, a gigantic threat to those who man the gates of Fort Status Quo.  And there are two reasons why.

One, Vision Zero has added a strong moral component to the ongoing quest for traffic safety.  The recognition that dangerous driving is a public health crisis has exited the orbit of the usual suspects of Transportation Alternatives volunteers and Streetsblog readers.  Kids are dying and their grieving parents are speaking out. Seniors are getting mowed down.  People are showing up to community board meetings, rallies, and vigils like never before.  Even police precinct commanders are getting in on the action, with my own local precinct taking a particularly strong early lead in the effort to rethink enforcement against dangerous driving.  To put it simply, this thing is big.  Changing our streets isn’t the pet project of that crazy nut job bike lady, her imperialist overlord, and their Twittering minions anymore.  So raising concerns about bike lane terrorists and Czarina Sadist-Con just isn’t going to work this time, if it ever did.

Two, Mayor de Blasio was supposed to be different.  After twelve years of Bloomberg, he ran as Not Bloomberg.  He waved his motorist flag proudly.  He had “profoundly mixed feelings” about Times Square.  He was against congestion pricing.  He was, in a word, safe for those who liked things the way they used to be, especially for New Yorkers of a driving persuasion.  Sure, he had a safe streets policy section on his website that satisfied a lot of advocates, earning him a StreetsPAC endorsement, but there was probably a sense in the political and mainstream media establishment that the changes to the city’s driving culture that began under Bloomberg would slow down or be reversed when de Blasio was elected.  But in the two short months since he took office, just the opposite has happened.  He’s made eliminating all traffic fatalities one of his signature policy initiatives, right up there with providing universal pre-k.  That’s probably made a lot of people very nervous about the future.  If you hated bike lanes and pedestrian plazas under Michael Bloomberg, you’re going to despise Vision Zero under Bill de Blasio.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that Marica Kramer was right and Mayor de Blasio’s caravan was, in fact, violating any number of traffic laws for no good reason.  Well, she sure got him.  Everyone from from politicians to journalists to advocates joined the scold brigade, chiding the mayor for not practicing what he preaches.  Even I took part.  That’s not to say such a scolding wasn’t deserved.  Reckless driving is reckless driving, no matter who is behind the wheel and it’s not too much to ask our politicians and police to obey the law.  But I don’t think we should be so naive as to think that Marcia Kramer exposed the mayor’s seemingly reckless ride out of any morally righteous sense that Speeding Is Wrong.

Marcia smelled an exclusive, one that had the added benefit of potentially taking the wind out of the sails of this fast-moving Vision Zero thing without making her look like a fool, and she ran with it.  Given her past reporting, she’ll certainly look for the next and best opportunity to do it again, but let’s just hope the mayor has learned his lesson and doesn’t give her any ammunition.

There is an upside to this latest bit of controversy: To the casual viewer, Marcia Kramer staked out a strong moral position against dangerous driving.  If you’re not an inside baseball type and are unaware of her past ridiculousness, she made it clear: speeding is wrong. Her report put the subject into the thoughts of every journalist, politician, and TV viewer in New York City.  You better believe that the mayor’s office will put out the notice to top administration officials that they are not to drive in any manner that could be considered even remotely dangerous.  Lots of people, including CBS 2 news reporters, will actually have to watch how they drive.

Stay tuned.

One Comment
  1. Jonathan R permalink
    February 21, 2014 10:23 am

    But is livable streets advocacy ready for a political approach to traffic safety? Our general approach is a technocratic, data-driven one: identify dangerous spots and call to adjust them to become less dangerous. I think the quick fixes you identify in the other post are particularly vulnerable to being politically undermined because they don’t focus directly on dangerous spots but instead on dangerous practices.

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