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The New Yorker Versus Vision Zero

October 27, 2014

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.


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.

  1. October 28, 2014 11:06 am

    i’m only a dog (iOAD™), but i have yet to say any estimate of how much reducing the speed limit to 25 mph will reduce traffic deaths. It could be zero, or it could be significant. So we are in the position of guessing that reducing the speed limit might or might not have the desired effect, at the expense of annoying large numbers of people. Issues that arise are (1) to what extend are current traffic deaths due to disobeying current laws (speed limit or otherwise)?; (2) to what extent will lowering the speed limit cause others to disobey the new limit? If the answer to either of these questions is “Significantly”, we might guess that the new limit will have a very limited effect. Certainly, the answer to (1) is something that can be answered, at least partially. If deaths are due to the fact that drivers are, say, exceeding the current 30 mph limit, then of course lowering the limit to 25 mph ain’t gonna do much.

    • Samanth Davis permalink
      October 29, 2014 12:04 am

      The effort to reduce deaths/injuries by lowering the speed limit is not a vacuum. Other measures are being taken in simultaneously, such as speed cameras. In the past, it was nearly impossible (or too costly) to enforce speed, so lowering the speed limit would have not had the intended effect. As you say, there would be very low levels of obedience. Reducing the limit together with automated enforcement will be effective.

      This is a change of culture, and drivers will get used to driving slower, and will actually like it in the end because they will feel more relaxed and patient.

  2. October 28, 2014 11:06 am

    Remember that iconic New Yorker cover? It just occurred to me yesterday that the view is from 9th Ave looking west. No other boroughs in sight. That’s pretty much what this piece was about.

  3. Booshka permalink
    October 28, 2014 11:25 am

    Does Nick Paumgarten long for the days of coloreds only bathrooms and water fountains too?

    I don’t even understand why anyone is upset. It isn’t like the NYPD is going to enforce this speed limit any more than they enforce the current one.

    I have never been in a cab that does the speed limit more than twice between lights. Once when they pass it heading for 50 and then briefly when they slam on the brakes because they aren’t going to make that two second red light.

    • Jim permalink
      October 28, 2014 2:02 pm

      Nor should they enforce it. It’s literally insane.

  4. dporpentine permalink
    October 28, 2014 12:15 pm

    Part of what I hate–hate–about that Paumgarten atrocity are the incredibly superficial references running through it that do nothing but show what a callow, detached husk of a human being slapped it together.
    I mean, you have this incredibly offensive line: “In a city of lost time–there’s never enough, never enough–any chance to regain some is sweet.”
    And the two Proust references in it–what are they there for? Absolutely nothing. Just to flatter the audience and prove that Mr. Paumgarten knows enough to be a first-year student at Columbia.

  5. wkgreen permalink
    October 28, 2014 12:59 pm

    How much time does Paumgarten expect will actually be lost? A 5 MPH difference in the speed limit will not make any appreciable difference, especially when, as often as not, we end up rushing ourselves into the next traffic jamb. That “smooth open road” that he implies we all crave might actually become LESS rare, and the average speed in most parts of this city may, as a result, go up, not down!

  6. ruby_soho permalink
    October 28, 2014 1:08 pm

    “In a city of lost time–there’s never enough, never enough–any chance to regain some is sweet.” That is probably also said by families who have lost a loved one to reckless driving.

  7. New Yorker permalink
    October 28, 2014 1:58 pm

    Paumgarten is still the author of my favorite Talk if the Town ever….

  8. Jim permalink
    October 28, 2014 2:01 pm

    People drive for a living in NYC. They make deliveries. They need to get to important meetings. None of it can be done at 25 MPH. Just checking in from the real world where lunatic ‘progressives’ don’t seem to live.

  9. October 28, 2014 2:07 pm

    If you need to get to an important meeting and you’re worried about the speed limit slowing you down, leave earlier.

  10. Jim permalink
    October 28, 2014 2:12 pm

    Yeah sorry that’s not how the real world works. Try driving a cab 12 hours a day, worried that you’re ‘breaking the law’ driving 30. How utterly absurd. There are many jobs where time is a premium, take away half an hour of the shift a cab driver paid 120 for and you can easily cost him 5,000 a year. Real world, not progressive lalaland. 30-35 has never been speeding.’

    • October 28, 2014 2:15 pm

      Please join us in the real world. I suggest making that argument to Dana Lerner or any of the members of Families for Safe Streets.

      • Jim permalink
        October 28, 2014 2:27 pm

        I wouldn’t try. Vehicular deaths in NYC are at historic lows, it says so on the vision zero page of the TLC site. These people think punishing millions of hard working people by imposing a ludicrous unrealistic speed limit will ease the pain of their loss. De Blasio should be required to accompany ‘vision zero’ stats with job loss and stress related illness stats. If the argument were lowering the limit from 40 to 30, I would have no objection. 30 is the bare minimum to balance commerce (necessary for financial survival) with caution. 25 is literally insane.

    • ADN permalink
      October 28, 2014 2:58 pm

      Jim, In most of the “real world,” or, at least, the modern, civilized cities of Asia, Europe and, increasingly, South America, the progressives, conservatives and just about everyone in between are coming to understand that motor vehicle transportation in densely packed cities is inefficient, dysfunctional, destructive and not at all beneficial to business. The Partnership for New York City (are they “progressives” too?) estimate that traffic congestion costs New York City more than $13 billion per year in lost productivity. Keeping the speed limit above 25mph will do nothing to fix that. The only thing that will fix that is getting private motor vehicles off of NYC streets and developing more efficient modes of transport so that the business people who really do need to use motor vehicles to provide goods and services to the city can do so more easily. Your repeated need to label street safety efforts as “progressive” suggests that you are not to be taken very seriously. But if you’d like to dislodge your ass from its plush bucket seat and join us here in the real world, that’s the reality — the relationship between automobiles and cities is changing inexorably. Pushing for faster motor vehicle speeds in a densely packed urban environment, you may as well be advocating for the return of the horse and buggy.

      • Jim permalink
        October 28, 2014 3:42 pm

        This isn’t fantasyland, this is real life. I drive a cab in NYC. There’s nothing markedly ‘inefficient’ about it, and restricting the speed limit to one which is obviously too slow has a very real direct impact on my income. 30 is not at all speeding. Neither is 35. If you want to talk about lost productivity though, take a look at the havoc the bike lanes have brought to every major avenue. One double parked truck (they have no choice now) creates an instant traffic jam. Again, the ‘vision zero’ site clearly states that traffic fatalities are at record lows. This is complete madness, especially at a time when rent, gas, etc are more expensive than ever. btw, I ride a bike and am not anti-bike at all.

    • Simon permalink
      October 29, 2014 12:22 pm

      In most of the real world, the speed limit is already 25.

  11. ADN permalink
    October 28, 2014 4:05 pm

    I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Jim.

    In recent months we’ve seen your fellow New York City taxi drivers sever a young woman’s leg in a Midtown road rage incident…

    And run over and kill a 9-year-old boy crossing a street on the Upper West Side with the light, in the crosswalk, holding his dad’s hand…

    And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In both cases ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENED to the taxi driver. There was no penalty. In fact, the driver was out there driving his cab the very next day after both of these incidents. Given that you guys are allowed to kill and maim with near total impunity, I very much doubt that there’s going to be a whole lot of speed enforcement for you to worry about.

    Also, I should just take the opportunity to add: New York City’s taxi drivers are utterly unskilled and unprofessional. Your industry representatives — from the scumbag medallion owners down to the barbaric drivers — are consistently on the wrong side of every major policy decision. Someone simply needs to drop a bomb on your entire industry and rebuild it from scratch. I very much look forward to the day when you are replaced by a robot.

    • dporpentine permalink
      October 28, 2014 5:10 pm

      I’m not sure a robot could advance such stupid arguments. Nothing can replace Jim!


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