The New Yorker Versus Vision Zero
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.