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?

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.