My wife believes that this started coincident with the rise to power of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and accelerated invisibly during the coronatime, but recently there are more people positing the theory that civil society as a whole is fraying in ways large and small but increasingly tangible.
In the city, this is perhaps most noticeable at the boundary between the world of cars and the world of humans. Mostly because cars are an outsized expression of the people driving them. A mechanized exoskeleton roaming the streets. So if the person driving the car is an asshole, as apparently so many more of us are now, then behind the wheel, they’re literally a giant asshole.
This chiefly affects people in the city, by which i mean humans outside of vehicles, either living there, working there, or visiting, but existing as vulnerable fleshy meat sacks. Obviously fleshy meat sacks mingling with cars on two wheels have grown accustomed to expressions ranging from non-benign neglect to hostility, but in this age of excess, it is a problem for every person. Every car that roars down small streets, squeezes a pass down a one-way street, parks or starts at random, blows through a crosswalk, accelerates through a red, or hurtles blithely through a right-on-red is a threat to every fleshy meat sack. My three-year-old knows this, and yet i stress about him not knowing it well enough.
It’s got to stop. Many years ago, i talked with a BPD officer who mentioned that something like 600 people (including cyclists) a year were struck by cars in the city. It doesn’t make headlines, mostly, so I guess lots of people survive this, but the escalating speed and escalating hood height on trucks are going to try and improve on that record.
In my extremely humble, biased opinion as a bike-commuting, kid-having, city homeowner (who still has a car that he street parks), it boils down to this:
Cars should act like guests in the city.
Guests in a home take their shoes off, behave with decorum, tread lightly, ask before doing things, and are appropriately mortified if they offend their hosts.
But of course, that’s not how cars see it. They are either coming from outside the city to do whatever, or are at work in the city and looking to do their work as efficiently as possible, without a lot of regard to that which isn’t their problem, as they see it. So this would have to be impressed upon them.
But how? In the before time, we talked about discouraging gridlock through institution of a congestion charge, which never got much momentum because our car-loving governor hated it, but also had real problems of being potentially pretty regressive in nature. In any event, post-coronatime, this is less of a priority for congestion’s sake alone, but i think the location-sensitivity of this is important. Simply put, just as exurban neighborhoods put up SLOW, KIDS AT PLAY signs that people by and large respect, that should be the case in basically the entirety of the city. But it hasn’t been implied, even, not that implication would be sufficient. No one would heed that sign here. So how can we turn my neighborhood’s streets, teeming with kids, dogs, and non-adorable pedestrians, into a place that drivers respect?
In short, enforcement, and enforcement on the scale that modern technology permits. Red light cameras, sure, but also cameras on crosswalks and stop signs and driveways. Speed guns to keep people from blazing down back streets. Noise sensors to catch the visiting nuisances with Harleys or fart pipes. Pressure plates to catch people driving in the bike lane. Beg buttons like at crosswalks, but for pedestrians to signal human operators to peek at some transgression that just happened (because my wife’s solution of carrying rotten eggs to throw at cars probably isn’t a good one).
And with this, i say, you fine the shit out of people. And i don’t mean giant, crippling fines. This can’t be regressive; people drive to make a living, too, but those people also must drive better. I’m talking about little ones, but a lot of them. And a lot more of them if you and your car are an asshole together. Your first red light running is $5. If a month later you speed down a small street or right-turn-on-red without stopping it’s another $5. If all is well, you cool down, but if this is a habit, it goes up. And if it’s more, more often, then it goes up fast and starts to get real. Ideally if you and your car are a consistent menace to people in the city, then it becomes prohibitively expensive for you to be caught driving in it. You’re not welcome here and you may not continue to terrorize the people that live here and visit here.
But doesn’t this basically create an Orwellian police state? Kinda. But also Americans conflate car-hood and person-hood. People have rights. Driving a car is a privilege too often taken for granted. A necessity, too, and a chief aim of this should be to drive infrastructure that makes it less of a necessity. We should take the funds generated from this enforcement and get people out of cars with every tool we have.
But isn’t it still regressive? Maybe. Maybe it imposes too heavy a penalty on gig delivery drivers who are pinched from all sides already. But those industries are a menace. Those drivers, i’m sure, are doing the best they can with the parameters they have, but they’re in a hurry, in a city, and constantly starting and stopping in unusual places. They need to do that safely, and ideally their employer pays for their mistakes and trains them well; after all, it’s their employer that aligns their incentives against the public good..
Wouldn’t new cameras and sensors and the like just induce different bad behavior? A common argument with red light cameras is people flying through them to escape them. In a city with lower overall traffic speeds than larger intersections and faster roads, and coupled with the comparatively low and slow-escalating fines, I’d expect this to be mitigated, and also expect that the speeding would also get flagged so you’d be escaping nothing.
Doesn’t it also foster a huge bureaucracy? And a huge human burden to implement and referee? Doesn’t it introduce a lot of ambiguity? There’s certainly going to be a lot of design to this, which is why i find it interesting, of course. I would liken the human element to VAR in soccer (you know, something universally well-loved), wherein ambiguous, appealed, or user-flagged incidents are reviewed selectively. Probably not a fun job, but the technology for this exists. Again, with the stakes for this reduced (i.e. the fines are mostly low unless you’re already an asshole), then the job is easier and the calls for it are reduced.
Wouldn’t this discourage people from visiting the city? Would employers move out? I picked up $60 worth of speeding tickets for slight infractions in France a few years ago and have still gone back. The next time, I drove the speed limit exactly, and not the customary American 10mph over. Again, honest mistakes happen. They should be deterred through the awareness of the tiny penalty, but honest people are not what this is about.
Wouldn’t traffic get worse? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe some traffic lights that are competitive would get a little locked up. This might be a different matter in pre-COVID times, too, but now, somewhat ironically, cars are more likely to be moving, at least on surface streets, and seemingly willing to do anything to continue moving. Ultimately I don’t care. For innumerable reasons, not least the rising seas, we need to get people out of their damn cars, and if this helps, let’s do it.
It’s safe to say there are all kinds of details i have paid insufficient attention to, and any number of personal biases that i’ve paid too much to.
But my main bias is having to be crossing with a walk light and then have to pick up my little boy and his scooter and run us out of the intersection because some car can’t be bothered to share a tiny, busy, dangerous space with us properly. I say, simply, punish that driver. Lightly, then heavily. Use the money to make the city better.