Right Of Way manifesto

Poe's story "The Purloined Letter" turns on the idea that sometimes the best way to hide something is to leave it in plain sight. The idea is amply illustrated for New Yorkers by two glaring scandals that can be seen in action, any day, on any streetcorner, by anybody who ventures outside his house:

  • There's an unacknowledged crime wave of lawless behavior by drivers -- a crime wave that takes the lives of 250 or so New Yorkers every year.
  • In a gigantic theft of public property, the car-owning minority of New Yorkers has stolen the streets from the non-motorized rest of us.

Thugarchy, the rule of the road

Stand at a busy streetcorner in midtown any weekday morning and just watch what happens. You'll see a dozen dangerous crimes a minute: drivers "squeezing" the light or just plain ignoring it, drivers bullying pedestrians out of the crosswalk in a very lopsided game of "chicken," drivers stomping on their accelerators and peeling out of a stalled lane into another that offers an irresistible ten feet of Open Road, only to shudder to a squealing stop half a second later.

Enforcement is essentially nonexistent: when was the last time you saw, or heard of, a driver being ticketed for not yielding the right-of-way to a pedestrian? Or for reckless driving after forcing a cyclist off the road? It just doesn't happen.

Speed limits, of course, are a standing joke; most drivers in New York couldn't even tell you what the speed limit is. Whenever there's an opportunity for drivers to open it up and make time, God help the carless. And quite apart from the nominal limit, the concept of "reckless driving" simply has no meaning at all to drivers and police alike: cars roar down narrow side streets at thirty miles an hour, desperate to make a light; they may, by chance, be under the limit, but they're way above what is safe and prudent.

Obviously, nobody cares: not the Mayor, not the cops, not the District Attorneys. The police have an informal, though freely acknowledged, rule that a driver who kills a pedestrian has to be violating at least two laws before he'll be charged with anything. So the vast majority of killer drivers roll away from the scene of the crime without even any points on their license.

Not only do the authorities not care, but most New Yorkers simply accept these conditions, without indignation, as an inescapable fact of life; the Purloined Letter principle at work.

But this tyranny of motorized criminals is not a law of nature. It could be otherwise. It will be otherwise when people wake up to the reality of what is being done to them. So the first of our goals is this: to make the invisible visible.

Who owns the streets?

Everybody knows the theoretical answer: the streets belong to all New Yorkers. But reality is quite a different matter.

The reality is that the Department of Transportation has one priority: to move as many cars as possible, as fast as possible. All other street users -- pedestrians, cyclists, skaters, people in wheelchairs or children in strollers -- are an afterthought at best.

Again: try the experiment for yourself. Go to a big, busy intersection and time how long the "walk" lights last. Go to 95th and Riverside, where people crossing from one section of Riverside Park to the other are expected to walk around three sides of a square, crossing four streets, in order to facilitate the lordly progress of cars to and from the West Side Highway. Or look around in your own neighborhood: you're sure to find a similar example of through-the-windshield engineering.

Consider the Queensboro Bridge, where the lane for pedestrians and cyclists was recently confiscated for car use. The reason given, of course, was to reduce congestion -- although all traffic engineers, by now, know the dirty secret that increased capacity results in more traffic, and thus increased congestion.

Think how much public space is devoted to free parking. Everybody knows how expensive New York real estate is, yet we reserve a huge amount of it for drivers to leave their cars in, and we don't charge them a penny. How much would you have to pay for another hundred square feet of space in your apartment? That's what a car takes up at curbside.

All this in spite of the fact that car owners are, by a substantial margin, a minority of New Yorkers: around 40% of households (not individuals!) City-wide, considerably less in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

But car owners, like gun owners, are regarded by politicians as a constituency. The carless are not so regarded, because they have -- so far! -- no consciousness of their status as a disenfranchised majority.

This, then, is the second of our goals: to awaken the sleeping giant -- the majority of New Yorkers whose civic patrimony has been stolen from them for the benefit of a greedy few.

What do we want?

Bringing cars under control is not an insoluble problem. Cities elsewhere have done it. There's a well-understood set of techniques for the purpose.

  • Enforcement. Easy, and obvious, and it pays for itself in fines. Are you in the intersection after the light changes? You get a ticket. Brush a pedestrian out of the crosswalk? Get a ticket. Driving faster than is safe on a narrow side street? Get a ticket. A few hundred dollars per driver later, our drivers will be the envy of the world for their tameness and civility.
  • Reduce the flow. One reason drivers are so hysterical in New York is that there are just too many of them trying to fit into too little space. Sure, there are people who really have a legitimate reason to be driving. But there are plenty who don't. There are lots of ways to sort out the two groups. One technique is simply to charge drivers what they really cost: including their costs in land use for roads and for parking, the costs of road and bridge maintenance, and the indirect costs of noise, pollution, policing. The list goes on and on.
  • Traffic engineering for people, not for machines. It's time the Department of Transportation woke up to the fact that not everybody gets around in a car. Much can be done just by changing a few settings on the traffic light controls. For example: four-way reds, so pedestrians won't be chased out of the crosswalk by turning cars. More pedestrian signal buttons, and a quicker action for them. "Walk" signals that last long enough so you don't have to be an Olympic sprinter to make it across the street.
  • Education. Drivers believe they own the road -- and who can blame them, since nobody has told them otherwise? Time to start telling them. Paint "YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS" in every crosswalk. Put public-service spots on TV, and make it clear in no uncertain terms that pedestrians, cyclists, and skaters are also on the street by equal right under the law, and morally by an even greater right, since their road use is less costly in every way.

The bigger picture

American car-madness has taken its toll throughout the country, not just in New York; indeed, in some ways New York is relatively fortunate (we still have a functioning public transportation system, for example, at least for the time being). These larger social costs include the waste of open space, the decline of community, the pollution, and of course the Vietnam's worth of deaths every few months. Who hasn't lost a friend, or more than one, in the killing grounds of the American highway system?

We can't change all this overnight. But we can make a start. And there's no better place to start than New York City, where alternatives to the car are already used, every day, by the majority of our citizens.

It can be done. And, as so often in the past , New York can show the way.