In Favor of More Traffic Tickets

As always, it’s very likely that any ideas i come up with here are new only to me and/or have serious flaws.

In the angry northeastern coastal elite city where we live, it sometimes feels like our streets are a good barometer of the public’s goodwill for fellow humans. And right now, it feels pretty weak, on its way to being a distant memory.

Naturally i have a keen eye for this as a cyclist, but we’re not going to talk about that third rail of newspaper comments sections today. Let’s talk about the somewhat simpler interaction between cars, other cars, and pedestrians. Having said that, make no mistake, i’m still posing this as part of the War on Cars.

So needless to say, enforcing every traffic infraction is never going to happen. On highways, it mostly shouldn’t happen–speeding isn’t such a menace there and interactions are more predictable, and solely between cars. It’s on city streets where things get complicated, and where the interaction between impatient people’s most selfish impulses is becoming increasingly noticeable and increasingly dangerous.

Mostly, i’m speaking of a handful of things that have become rampant:

  • Speeding: Blazing down small side streets far above the city speed limit, gunning the engine from red light to red light, moving in confined spaces on contested, crowded streets with aggression that pays off in mere minutes at best. Minutes on your commute are not worth everyone’s safety.
  • Endangering Pedestrians: Not merely roaring through crosswalks (but definitely that), but also hooking right turns through reds and through walk signals with abandon. Pushing indignantly through clogged crosswalks against a heavily used walk signal. Honking when you don’t get your way.
  • Unpredictability: Ubers, Lyfts, cabs, and other poor, inconsiderate drivers who stop wherever they please without a moment’s notice and immediately form an obstruction, only to resume movement at an equally inconvenient time.
  • Running Red Lights: An epidemic problem here in Boston. Yesterday, while running home from work a busy intersection in the Financial District watched the light turn to ‘walk’, scores of pedestrians took a breath and looked, then proceeded, only to have white SUV sneak through seconds after the proverbial buzzer. At a running pace across a narrow street, i was less than a foot from impact, at no fault, but in great danger. And this was something that happened despite ample experience and sufficient paranoia; what happens when a family of tourists from middle America get hurt because someone needed to wait at the next light, not this one?

With modern technology and proper application of it, this feels solvable, though. There’s ample documentation of the ambivalent effectiveness of red light cameras–the extent to which the replace one bad behavior with another, and considering that the point of this is less about enforcement on any one individual than reducing the danger created by mass bad behavior, we don’t need traditional red light camera fines. But why can’t we use that technology?

Speed cameras and radars and traps get found out and enforce only localized, insincere good behavior, if you will. But the technology is sound, too, and relatively inexpensive.

It’s a matter of how we use it.

And since gone are the days where this requires an officer, requires a letter in the mail, requires a check, a stamp, a human to open the returned ticket and process this, there’s no incentive for this to be a large ticket, issued on your unluckiest day. Because we’re all apt to take the chance that today isn’t that day.

So what if these tickets were instead issued every time, with ruthless efficiency and high accuracy by vision systems and computers? Okay, but that gets expensive and onerous, doesn’t it? And what if the computers make mistakes?

So why does it have to be expensive, why can’t it just ping your EZ-Pass $10 for running a red light? Every single time. Why can’t speeding between blocks cost you $5, every single time? In the post iTunes 99c single, post-debit card, microtransaction world, this is trivial. After a handful of them pile up, won’t you stop it? And won’t we be safer? Maybe once you pile up ten of them you get a point on your license, too, because your insurance company ought to know about it, don’t you think?

While we’re at it, let’s spend all this money on mass transit.

You can argue that this is a massive invasion of privacy (and at a time when we suspect our government agencies of misusing information like this), but driving is not a right, it is a privilege, and it sure as hell does not supersede the safety of others.

Our behavior, as a society, is deteriorating, and nowhere moreso than where we have our two-ton steel killing machines operating at high speed in close proximity to each other. And while it’s unlikely that appealing to our better angels is going to have a meaningful improvement on our safety during our ever-increasingly insane commutes, can’t we at least use technology to tell the devil on our shoulders to shut up?

Everything There Is To Know

I just finished reading Dave Eggers’ The Circle, and i don’t want to say I’m spooked, exactly. While it’s intended as a cautionary tale, a forward-looking premonition of a 1984 of our own making, it’s wrong to draw a straight line from the services we clutch to our smartphones’ hearts today to the fictional über-service of the book’s tomorrow.

What’s spooky about it though, is that there are all kinds of ways that parts of it have happened, are happening, or are fervently sought-after today (and i don’t just mean that their Facebook-analog actually has a ‘dislike’ button). There are any number of creeping, meandering paths to this sort of Total Information Awareness, to borrow a catchphrase. And we’re making more of them, clamoring for more of them every day.

I harken back to my college years, and the years in a boring job shortly thereafter, wherein i spent too much time reading Slashdot and hung around with a lot of Linux nerds. A common theme of the then-rollicking discussions was of what could be done, the classic Jurassic Park moral of whether it should be done, be damned (Of course you want Linux, then DOOM on an iPod, even if it did have less space than a Nomad and was lame). The giddy coupling of cheap computing with boundless talent and enthusiasm brought to bear on stuff that, was useless on small scales but fascinating, then profitable on large scales. Extrapolating from my anecdotal knowledge of where these folks wound up, I might suspect this attitude is the very core ethos of the armies of ridiculously smart people working at Google and Facebook. “Let’s see if we can do this,” turned to “Let’s see what we can do with this.”

None of that’s terribly revelatory, but it’s that enthusiasm, that insistence that it should be done, and that we should be glad of the results, combined with a newfound thirst for new fuel in the form of data, that’s what makes my skin crawl. From Zuckerberg’s implication that ‘the age of privacy is over‘ to Google’s Eric Schmidt’s “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place,” the perception that what’s good for them is rewarding for you is the start of where the novel hits too close to home. The idea, hell, the reality that their product makes your life better the more you give yourself over to it, to them, is the same in both cases.

It’s not like Facebook and Google are their only targets, either. Yelp’s unwritten practice of complimenting and expecting one back is lampooned mercilessly. I just learned that Uber drivers are basically screwed if they get less than 4.5 stars, just like the characters in the book.  The irresistible allure and seamless integration, upgrading of perfectly designed products as Trojan horse is at least in part Apple’s contribution. The logical progression of Twitter’s always-on firehose sounds convincingly exhausting. The idea that “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” could befall any business anywhere, if enough people were reading some equivalent of Angie’s List.  What if they were the same hydra-headed beast?

But let’s face it, Eggers’ real target is Google, and i think the book is an implicit prediction on his part that they swallow Facebook at some point, and not the other way around. The difference is ambition, as expressed by their stated goals, and by the manifestations of it. Google’s the one building things that exist to help you funnel information to them. Fiber networks, glasses, phones, self-driving cars all serve that end.  Introducing new products of some sort or another every other week.

This thirst for information is terribly ironic, considering that the people like the people i know whom i assume work at these companies all have a healthy love of. cryptography, or did after reading Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, at least. Figure that one out.

So do i think this will all happen? Not in that way, probably not. Not just because things like tiny wireless video cameras seem like they will always be hamstrung by our old, infinitely fallible nemesis, the battery. We’re going to see people’s reaction to the first truly intrusive devices really soon now, with Google’s eyes soon to be nestled next to humans’. Honestly, i have a hard time picturing people putting up with it.

But it doesn’t take that. Soon enough, our phones, little tattletales in our pocket, will tell mall retailers where you shopped, where you browsed, and where you skipped. They’ll know if you were active or sedentary. They’ll report on what TV you watches, whether you woke up too late, and if you went straight home from work. They’ll know if your kid did their homework. And enough of any information is worth something.

Maybe some people are willing to make that trade. Or enough little trades that amount to total surrender. i often wonder if i have, and wonder what level of annoyance will cause me to go without something i maybe take for granted, if they’re selling my information too promiscuously, or littering my life with advertisements. Goodness knows we all have varying degrees of hypocrisy on this issue, says the man pimping his Kickstarter on every available social platform. Me, i’m just hoping there’s something left that’s comfortably between going full Unabomber and selling my soul to whomever’s buying. And i enjoyed reading about one logical conclusion of it all.