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Sorry, Mr. Mayor. Symbolism Matters.

June 2, 2017

Given the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Mayor de Blasio’s daily drive to the gym has been thrust into the spotlight. Today, “Charles from Manhattan” asked him on WNYC if he’d give up the practice:

“How about you stepping up your game, leading by example, getting out of your SUV armada?” Charles asked. “And if you need to go to the Park Slope Y five days a week rather than a gym near you, why don’t you take mass transit, or even once in awhile ride a bike, like the vast majority of your fellow New Yorkers, so you will know how we suffer under this transit system.”

The caller concluded: “One of the reasons we are in this climate crisis is because the average person see elites not playing by the rules imposed by elites on everyone else. And you’re not going to lead when you’re sitting in your SUV being chauffeured every day 12 miles from Gracie Mansion to Park Slope just so you can ride an exercise bike.”

Before I make a few obvious points, here’s Randy Cohen, the former Ethicist for the New York Times on the ethics of driving in a dense, transit-rich place like Manhattan:

First: Ethics involves the effects of our actions on others. There can be solitary sin. You can sit alone at home and covet your neighbor’s ox. But if you want to be unethical, you must  get up, get dressed, go out, and steal the ox. Ethics isn’t ethics until other people are involved. When you drive in Manhattan, you harm those other people. A lot.

Next: Ethics involves actions that are volitional. If you live in Atlanta or Phoenix or Dallas and you want to buy a newspaper or visit a friend or hold a job, you must drive. Here in Manhattan, you can walk to the corner for a paper, take the train to Brooklyn to visit your pals, bike to work. In Manhattan, driving is done by choice.

Cohen concludes that given the cost driving imposes on other people — danger, pollution, dominance of public space — driving when one has other options is unethical.

So, using the standard explained above by Cohen, we can reach two conclusions.

1. It’s okay that Bill de Blasio is driven places. 

Crazy thing for a biking zealot to say, right?

Any mayor of New York City has unique security concerns and a schedule that, unlike that of most New Yorkers, doesn’t have him sitting in his office from 9 to 5 every day. There are meetings with elected officials in districts far from City Hall, town halls in neighborhoods scattered across the five boroughs, ribbons to cut, parades to march in, and public appearances to make. Our mayor is call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year, so if driving makes it more convenient for him to take calls or do work while traveling from one appointment to another, great.

Put plainly, no one expects the mayor of New York City to get to all of these commitments by subway, bus, or bike, no matter what his PR flacks say.

All of the above is separate from whether or not Mayor de Blasio should be driven over 11 miles to the work out at the gym. Which leads us to conclusion number two.

2. It’s not okay that Bill de Blasio is driven to the Park Slope YMCA.

Being driven to the gym every day is the mayor’s choice, not a job requirement. And given the state of our climate and congested streets, it’s unethical and indefensible.

I get that the mayor wants to stay connected to his old stomping grounds by going to his gym and getting coffee with his wife across the street. There’s nothing wrong with any of that. But there’s also nothing about it that requires an eleven-mile, three-SUV drive five days a week and sometimes on weekends. It’s a practice that benefits the mayor personally but that other people pay for in their tax dollars, exposure to pollution, and time spent in traffic.

Consider this example, as reported by J. David Goodman and Emma Fitzsimmons in the Times in their story on the mayor’s gym habits:

Last Tuesday, for example, Mr. de Blasio traveled from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn, before reversing direction to head 15 miles north — straight past Gracie Mansion — to an event in the Bronx at 10:30 a.m.

The mayor went over 22 miles out of his way to go to the gym! Even on that day he couldn’t have worked out at home or – gasp! – skipped the workout? Such wastefulness can’t be excused away simply because he’s able to get work done in the car.

As far as traffic congestion goes, fixing our city’s problem will mean reducing the number of cars on the road. It will mean prioritizing buses with their own lanes and dramatically increasing the protected bike lane network, which means taking space from drivers. How can any mayor tell New Yorkers who feel that they have no choice but to drive that they should change their habits when he’s taking discretionary trips to a gym in another borough? It’s hardly worth it to get deep into Vision Zero, but let’s just say that reducing car dominance in New York must also be a part of the plan to eliminate traffic fatalities.

The mayor may dismiss cries for him to stop being driven from Gracie Mansion to the Park Slope YMCA as “cheap symbolism,” but at a time when people are being asked to make personal sacrifices to cope with climate change, reduce traffic, and achieve Vision Zero, the messages our elected officials send about driving matter deeply.

Symbolism matters very much because it’s the most outward expression of a politician’s priorities. I’d argue that a daily drive to a gym is itself a symbolic act, one that sends a message that the mayor of New York City doesn’t experience New York City as New Yorkers do.

Back in October, I wrote about the need for de Blasio to “educate himself about the day-to-day reality for the many New Yorkers who do not rely on cars.” At the time, I was writing about the danger many of us face when we bike or walk on city streets. This time, we need the mayor to feel the urgency of a different danger, climate change. He can show that he truly feels it by leading by example.

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