A police state, but for cars

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.

What it’s like

i’m seeing a little bit of an undercurrent of ‘suck it up’ from some of the commentary on assorted media, social and otherwise, on our recent dumping of snow.  i am sure that some of it is that they’re probably a bit sick of seeing it as top story on the evening news, but hey, at least nobody’s shooting anyone here.  Related, i think, is my continuing disappointment with most of the photos that i take, which is consistent with my observation of most other photos (with a few exceptions).

None of it does it any justice, and if you’re not here dealing with it, you can’t be expected to understand.  So Montreal and Buffalo deal with more snow routinely, but do they have as many people living in as dense an area?  And it’s easy to compare numbers and say A is greater than B, but this is something you have to be living, to be immersed in.  A situation where you have to be experiencing the friction this applies to everyday life to really understand.

  • Starting with things that actually affect me, let’s talk about getting to work.  Primarily, i drive, and i don’t have a bad commute.  Think about all the individual actions that are involved in your drive to work, and picture that two lane road missing one lane.  Think about that intersection that moves quickly because everyone’s turning right on red, and imagine what happens if they can’t see far enough to do it.  Picture your least-favorite high-speed merge and replace a guardrail with a 6′ snow wall.  Never mind the actual condition of the road surface (days later, still variable), you can’t help but move slowly.  Multiply this to every single route in a metropolitan area of millions.
  • Or what about parking?  The people who parked on non-snow-emergency routes are entombed, for the most part.  Those who shoveled out made themselves elaborate snow revetments for their cars, but I doubt very much if they keep them for long, since space savers are not a thing in the Back Bay.  Me, i parked on the somewhat plowed emergency routes (Beacon St. normally: 3 lanes, parking on two sides; Beacon St. for the past two weeks: 1-1.5 lanes, parking on one side).  But of course you can’t do that during snow emergencies, so i began by hiding my car at work, where there’s a nice garage.  Unfortunately, once the commuter rail started letting me down, this stopped being an option.  Then it turned to putting the car in the Prudential garage for the reduced rate of $12 a day.
  • So you can quickly see that for a comfortable middle-class asshole in a nice neighborhood like myself, this just costs me time, inconvenience, and money.  But other nice middle-class assholes I know, who live in further-flung neighborhoods are spending two hours on trains and buses, or have their commutes multiplied 3x, not 1.5x.  Or they’re stranded at home, using up their boss’ goodwill at a worrying rate.  And that’s the people without kids, kids who keep not having school because who the hell knows where the buses will stop.
  • What, then, of the people who can’t pay to make their day possible?  A hypothetical cashier at the Dunkies in Haymarket, for instance, who can’t get there from Dorchester in any reasonable way.  Missed hours, missed days, probably a few lost jobs.  When the whole thing’s tallied up some warm day this summer, we’ll think about all the collapsed roofs and lost productivity, but how many people got fired, missed payments, got evicted?
  • And even for those of us who can pay to make this whole situation less shitty, to get to work, to buy groceries, and not wind up stranded or have your car towed or whatever, it’s still the sort of thing where you wake up one day and realize you haven’t seen your friends in a month.


Blizzard of 2015 Panorama

old man winter #bosnowTraining doesn't take a snow day

Before the snow came...Hang on to mom's hands, kids...

Maybe you should've worn pants

In favor of the Olympics in Boston

Why on earth do i, essentially alone among my friends, think that having the Olympics in Boston is a good thing?

  • Optimism.  The opposite of pessimism, i mean.  It makes me sad to hear everybody talk in such grotesque detail about all the ways we’re going to fuck this up.  The inevitability of it.  The completely nonexistent possibility that the smartest city in the country can’t get something like this right.  Sorry, but that’s fucking bullshit.  Even with corrupt organizations like the IOC involved, it is possible to put well-considered words and numbers on a piece of paper and have a wide range of organizations abide by them, plus or minus a reasonable tolerance.
    Sure, if the fancy people from Switzerland insist on being treated like royalty, we’d best make damn sure that it’s kept to a minimum, and paid for by the likes of NBC and Coke.  And if they’re making unreasonable demands for the overall effort and facilities, then it truly isn’t a deal we want to make.
    But i am sick of this defeatist attitude, this idea that it has to go wrong.  Smart people make plans, smart, honest people watch to make sure that ulterior motives do not ride roughshod, and, and smart, honest, capable people like we pass on the street every day can make this look easy.
  • A stick.  A lousy metaphor, really, since there is no carrot.  But there’s a stick, and that’s the looming deadline, and it’s a deadline that causes us to get a whole bunch of stuff done that we’d spend the next ten years talking about, instead.  At best.  And this is difficult work.  Transit projects, road projects; these things do have your Property Brothers-style surprises lurking underground.  Unlike building a temporary stadium in an empty lot, these things do drag out, do get more expensive.  The difference is we need them.  We need more, really, but to the extent that this can get us a bigger South Station, an opened-up Fort Point Channel, a West Station, maybe two whole new neighborhoods put back together with the rest of the city.  If half of that pans out, it’s still worth doing.
    It’s the sort of big, ambitious investment in stuff that’s good for Everybody that we just plain don’t bother with otherwise because our priorities aren’t usually so aligned.
    Simply put, if we were the sort of society that looked at overflowing (green | red | orange) line cars and did something about it, i would feel a lot differently about this.  But we aren’t.
  • Ambition.  Do we or don’t we actually want to back up what we feel in our hearts, that this is a great city worthy of standing toe-to-toe with any other.  Because here’s a chance to not just say it, to not just beat your chest when the Red Sox win a ‘World Championship’, but to undertake a difficult task and stick the landing with the actual world watching.  Choosing not to do that means that you don’t truly believe it.
  • Because It Would Be Cool.  At the end of all the work, maybe the oft-stated party for a bunch of people from other countries is a damn well-earned party for us, too.  When the Olympics leave town and we’ve got late summer days to enjoy in shiny new parts of town, and overhauled big pieces of this city to be ready for the next four hundred years.

Call me naive.  But at least i’m not chicken.

Accustomed to catastrophe

Beacon Street, abandoned

The other night, a couple of (brave, he adds redundantly) firefighters died three blocks away from me.

i weaved an unorthodox route home, conscious of traffic backed up from unexpected detours at rush hour.  i parked recklessly, knowing that i maybe wouldn’t get a chance to circle through the area where fire still burned, as i typically do.  i walked calmly across deserted, blocked, streets, unsurprised to see emergency vehicles form a galaxy of flashing lights.

After all, this happened a block away, albeit without the tragic results, a couple months ago.  Or the annual big snowstorm that feels as if the apocalypse bears down on us.  Or the Marathon bombings, when i biked down streets that were empty except for ambulances blasting the other way.  Or the sleepless night a few days later where the madmen toured everyone’s neighborhood before taking up residence in Watertown.

Point is, all this feels normal now.  It’s not surprising.  It’s not any less horrible, nor any less personal when it is your city, your neighborhood, your fellow citizens, but why do we feel so used to it?

Too much news?  A generation grown up watching Armageddon and Independence Day?

It’s not as if a fire, even a big one, compares with a bombing, or with, say, the landslide in Seattle, right now.  All the same, i can’t help but wonder why this all feels so routine and worry about what that means.

On Resilience

There’s something uplifting about watching your city endure a challenge like this past weekend’s storm, or last year’s blackout.  To me, it comes from the same place as does the urge to root for the home team, except in this case i’m rooting for me. And my neighbors that i mostly don’t ever see or talk to.  And the jerk that on most days would right-hook me into oblivion in the bike lane.  On days like Friday, i’m rooting for us all to be on the side of civilization.

On Friday, we all (okay, most of us) got off the roads and went home like we were asked.  We stocked up on groceries and booze (did we ever) and stayed in and cooked all sorts of elaborate things like the yuppie assholes we all were.  Some holed up in skyscraper apartments and had the Prudential mall all to themselves.  Others went outside on snowboards, skis, or bicycles. My sister and brother-in-law went and kept my mom company, knowing that the power would go out, because they’re better people than i am.  Obviously the girl and i went out and drank, but we made friends and applauded strangers for walking into the bar and out of the snow, and left crazy big tips for the wonderful people who poured us beer and made us food.  But the important thing is, we all stayed the hell off the streets and let the first-responders and plows do their thing.

And our reward on Saturday was a giant, bounteous fluffy coating of snow.  And even though it was cold as heck and extremely windy, people were out.  It seemed like everybody was out.  First, a few organized souls attacked sidewalks and cars.  A few were out driving before Deval said it was okay.  No one could really figure out why.  We shoveled the girl’s aged landlord’s sidewalk, i pushed a minivan down a thickly coated North End street, and everybody gawped at the sheer volume of it all, the unreality of it.

Piles of snow taller than i am, some not even from plows.  Minor streets completely untouched under two feet.  Major streets perfectly driveable, but utterly empty but for pedestrians.  Hanover Street with almost everything closed.  Walking into snowdrifted Big Dig tunnels.  Few cars, but people, people everywhere, in awe of it.  A snow day for everyone, liberated from the need, indeed the ability, to do anything but go out and enjoy it.  The Common was completely inundated with rosy-faced citizens, with sleds, skis, snowboards, and whatever careening down the hill up and over ramps and across sidewalks.  Nowhere to get hot chocolate, even, even as a 10˚ wind chill attempted to you it wasn’t really playtime weather.

And of course it’s sad that a couple people died from CO poisoning, something seemingly so preventable by comparison with a monumental snowstorm.  And it sucks that the T struggled to get back up and running.  And it sucks that some of those inundated streets are still not plowed yet.

But what warms the cockles of my heart is that we reasonable people all managed to handle something challenging in a reasonable way, and in most respects succeeded.  Not to say things are put back right yet, and not to say it doesn’t highlight things we wish could be improved, but generally speaking, even though we’re big drama queens about it, maybe the old New England resolve isn’t dead after all.