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Biking around town with Randy “The Ethicist” Cohen

A few years back, Randy Cohen, writer of the NY Times Magazine "The Ethicist" column, visited the Streetfilms set for a unprecedented interview with Mark Gorton about "Transportation Ethics.".  Well we wanted to talk more, so this time we got out of the studio to take a two-wheeled jaunt around New York City and visit many of his favorite spots and take in the alfresco enchantment of the capital of the world.

As you'll see during our ten mile journey, Mr. Cohen offered up some very decisive opinions about car-free Central Park, weighed in on the ethics of  "bike salmoning" (riding wrong way in bike lanes), whether he stops for red lights (you might be surprised by his answer), and comments on how transformative our streets have become for pedestrians and cyclists.

He also doesn't hide the fact he has a massive "policy crush" on NYC DOT chief Janette Sadik-Khan.

[intro music]
Randy Cohen: [0:02] Cohen: Manhattan is long and lean. Like me. I'm riding a bike. [0:10] What's up? To see a car in the park is like seeing someone pelt the Mona Lisa with mud. There's just no understanding of the beautiful, joyous thing we have.

[0:22] My name is Randy Cohen. I write "The Ethicist" for "The New York Times Magazine, " and I've been biking around New York for, jeez, I guess 25 years. New York is compact, and it's pretty flat, so it's just an ideal biking town.

I work at home, so I'm not a daily commuter. But I use the bike for errands, for whenever I have to go somewhere, for meetings or appointments. When I travel, if I can, I travel by bike. And this is my preferred route: [0:37] the West Side Greenway. I'll do a couple loops of the park pretty much every day. If it's dry, I ride.

[music]

Randy: [0:59] The hours and parts of the park that are car-free continue to expand, and that's all for the good. But, that there are ever cars in the park seems to me just astonishing. It's a park. It's not just "a" park. It's a park in a city that so desperately needs green space. It's the most beautiful urban park on Earth. That there is ever a car in it is the most astonishing squandering of this urban treasure. It's unimaginable. [1:28] One of the brilliant things about the way this bike lane is designed is the normal pattern is parked cars, bike lane, traffic. But by reversing it this way, it solves two problems. You don't have to worry about a car cutting in front of you to park, and the cars provide this physical buffer to protect you from traffic. How can you not fall in love to someone who would bring that to New York?

[1:50] One of the ways in which the DOT has changed under Janette Sadik-Khan, for whom I sound like a ridiculous, kiss-ass cheerleader, but former regimes used to count how many cars were moving down the street at any given moment. But the point of this exercise is not to move cars; it's to move people. Once you can count, not, "Oh, there are 50 cars," but, "Oh, there are cars. There are buses. How many people do we actually move along per minute?" it changes everything.

The other thing she's done that's so splendid is to conceive roads not just as conduits for travel, but as public space, and how do you allocate it. A big problem for urban life is having people get around. That's DOT's main brief: [2:17] how do we get around? But it's also what we do when we get there. She's increased the supply of human happiness in New York City, and she's done it while speeding up traffic flow and cutting down accidents.

So the question comes up: [2:44] is it ethical to ride against traffic in the bike lane? You're going the wrong way, pal. Ethics concerns the effects of your actions on other people. And the bike lanes are pretty narrow, and if you ride against traffic, you put the other riders in jeopardy. Where it's just a painted bike lane, you force them out into the traffic. Where it's a buffered bike lane, here, they have nowhere to go. And you can't buy your convenience at the expense of someone else's safety.

This is not a law-and-order position. It's a consequentialist argument: [3:12] what are the effects of your actions on others? And I'll deny this in a court of law, but I almost never stop at a red light, except when I might endanger another person or myself. If I'm driving along, and there are no pedestrians who want to cross the road and there's no car traffic to endanger me, I slow down, look both ways, go through the light. What are we, Germans?

[music]

Randy: [3:42] There's studies that suggest that contentment with life is inversely proportional to the length of your commute. I mean, time spent in a car is horrible. It's physically unpleasant. It makes you miserable. To make the kind of daily journeys you have to make in New York on a bike makes you happier. It's healthy without striving for health. It's exercise without attempting to have exercise. Who doesn't love it? [music]

[4:09]



Clarence Eckerson, Jr. has been making fantastical transportation media in NYC since the late 1990s. He's never had a driver's license and never will.

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  • http://www.galfromdownunder.com Galfromdownunder

    Great stuff Clarence! I have to admit Randy's column is the first ... sometimes the only (if I'm too busy) ... thing I get to read, when the NYT lands on the step.
    I was secretly hoping to hear him say something wickedly sardonic about bikes a la his famously pithy column, but I guess that's not common in the realm of bike advocacy - probably more the oeuvre of bikesnob!

  • http://walkbikejersey.blogspot.com/ Andy B from Jersey

    A great piece as usual Clarence. I was grooving to that hard and heavy a la' Led Zeppelin beat at the beginning. Nice shots of folks packing in the new public plazas.

    Still, I have to disagree with him on his take on red lights. I'm not totally innocent either on this but the cross street has got to be a totally empty of any crossing traffic for me to begin to consider going through the red and only after a complete stop. Also wide avenues are always a no go on red and once you leave the city, traffic lights are always to be obeyed (it just seems totally wrong out here). And really? Are you in that much of a rush. Does it really hurt that much to stop and look around every once in a while?

    Finally, I'm still wondering if he can find bike parking in his employer's new fancy building when he does ride to work.

  • http://walkbikejersey.blogspot.com/ Andy B from Jersey

    Oh yeah, I totally agree with him on that "cars don't belong in the park" bit. Philly's Fairmount Park has a BIG automobile intrusion issue too, worse then any in NYC. Back in the day the PA railroad and Schuylkill River Expressway were literally built in Philly's premier urban park. On top of that, both of the park drives (MLK and Kelly) have been turned into arterial thoroughfares complete with speeding traffic that is simply passing through. And there is a history of automobiles killing park users. It's just horrible!

  • J. Mork

    Disagree with the Ethicist -- unconscionable!

    Fun video. What are we, Germans?

  • Clarence Eckerson, Jr.

    I've been riding bikes for nearly 20 years in this town. I pretty much follow his rule about red lights with one exception - unless I am in a very neighborhood-y, very low-traffic section of Manhattan, I do not progress thru red lights in the boro. Wide Avenues and Streets are a little tough. In Brooklyn or Queens I am a little more likely to go for it. But his advice is pretty much sound - I mean pedestrians and cars first if you DO NOT have the light, then make sure you are crossing safely. Let's face it, we see it every day.

    To be honest: I think diligent, keep-pedestrians-first, calculated and safe red light crossing is far less of a problem then bike salmoning (for both cars and other cyclists.) I'd be all for a crackdown. On Clinton Street the other day there was a cyclist wipeout thanks to a cyclist going the wrong way. Amazingly the cyclist who went down was very understanding, I would not have been so.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/Jeff Jeff

    Haha, Germans...

  • Lover of Policy

    Isn't it great that you can have a "policy crush" on someone who works in the industry? Best term in a long time to enter the vernacular.

  • Katie

    I love this interview - he is hilarious! Great perspective on transportation. I agree that "salmoning" is more dangerous than cautiously going through red lights. The only bike accident I ever witnessed in NYC was when a biker riding the wrong way hit a pedestrian who stepped out to cross the street - of course she didn't look in the direction that traffic was not supposed to be coming from.

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/urbanplanner45 Mike Lydon

    Not a surprise, Clarence. The Clinton lane, south of Atlantic, is a substandard 4ft. next to park cars...it should be removed and replaced with a sharrow, or the parking should be removed and replaced with a curbside lane, ala Henry Street.

    Another great Streetfilm!

  • http://bikemandan.com BikeManDan.com

    Awesome especially the last few quips at the end :)

  • Ray

    Please come to Center City Philadelphia and do a similar film on bicycling behaviors. Film the astounding number of bicyclists who: ride on sidewalks, roll through red lights and stops signs, and ride against traffic, all of which are illegal and endanger pedestrians. Film these occuring in front of police and then interview the police as to why they do not enforce the law.

  • Sean

    Unless there is a public law that cyclists can roll through red lights, but motorists must stop, I'm afraid Mr. Cohen's policy leads to trouble. Cyclists "cautiously" going though red lights encourages motorists to "cautiously" go through red lights. It becomes a download spiral where no one bothers to follow rules because no one else does. And in this kind of environment, those of us on 30 pound bikes, not the ones in multi-ton vehicles, are going to be the losers.

    As much as I usually like hearing his viewpoint, I'm afraid Mr. Cohen comes off as more of a limousine liberal in this video that a rational ethicist. It's too bad.

  • Jen Petersen

    i have the same helmet as Randy C!!! woo hoo!

  • fafacious

    Ich bin kein Deutscher.

    Or something like that. I'm glad to see someone who is honest about how most cyclists ride in NYC. The vast majority of cyclists run red lights after yielding to pedestrians or motor vehicle traffic.

  • Toonces the Cat who could drive a car

    Sean,

    Come on. You are entitled to your own opinion but using the term "limosine liberal" for a guy who rides a bike everywhere is just plain goofy...times 2!

  • John Harshbarger

    I defiantly have to disagree with Randy on traffic lights. One should ALWAYS stop at a red light. For one it's not safe even if one thinks the road is clear and second it's the law. Also whats wrong with Germans!

  • Sean

    Toonces,

    "Limousine liberal" is just an expression meaning that a person wants other people to do something (in this case, obey traffic laws) that they don't actually do themselves.

    I thought it was an expression that most people would understand so I used it. My use of it doesn't have anything to do with actually riding in a limousine, or even liberalism.

  • http://walkbikejersey.blogspot.com/ Andy B from Jersey

    I should have chimed in on this earlier about Germans.

    He shouldn't knock on us Germans too much. By following the rules Germans have created an incredibly safe country to walk and bike despite the fact that Germans drive very fast out side of towns. In town, strictly keeping to the increasingly common 30kph speed limit has allowed almost all urban streets to be reclaimed by the local residents.

    Sorry but you can't have it both ways. Either everyone follows the rules or its a dangerous free-for-all!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclesonly/ BicyclesOnly

    I have to disagree about "either everyone follows the rules or its a dangerous free-for-all!"

    In NYC, no one follows the rules, but most people follow the one (unwritten) rule of "don't endanger or disrespect others." that is, after all, the rule that all the other ones, that are written down, are meant to effectuate.

    As a German steeped in traffic planning, Andy B. knows that there are cities like Drachten where traffic is designed around that one rule--don't endanger or disrespect others--with all the traffic lights and other little rules thrown out.

    Here in NYC, we take the same approach, after a fashion, although our streets are not engineered for it. In practice, "don't endanger or disrepsect others" means that most motorists stop for the entire length of the red light, most cyclists treat it as a stop sign, and most pedestrians ignore it unless there is a motor vehicle with the right of way coming. Everyone follows the rules, but it is not a free-for-all.

  • http://walkbikejersey.blogspot.com/ Andy B from Jersey

    Wow!

    I will have to totally disagree with you, BicyclesOnly on this one. You really don't think the streets of NYC aren't many respects already a dangerous free-for-all?!?!

    Cars driver are probably the worst offenders of this, routinely speeding well beyond the speed limit. In such an environment where drivers of multi-ton, high powered vehicles flaunt the law with law enforcement willfully looking the other way, its no surprise that Streetsblog reports just about every day of pedestrians and cyclists being mowed down and killed, even when in the supposed safety of the sidewalk. On top of this a driver usually needs to be high or drunk to even get a minor summons when they kill people! I don't find this an environment of where "don't endanger or disrespect others" is a common mantra. It more like "Look out for #1!" It's no surprise that in this environment bicyclists see no problem with disobeying red lights and other traffic laws. Peds too.

    As for woonerfs and other shared spaces pioneered by Hans Monderman and commonly employed in Germany, you shouldn't be surprise to here that they are only used in about 1% of streets and roadways in Germany (my estimation from years of visits and observations). While they work very well, they are far from the predominate road form in Germany.

    Again, in Germany its about following the rules. However it should be noted that in Germany, traffic lights are constantly being removed in favor of round-a-abouts, stop signs are not used in favor of the rule of yielding to the driver on your right and where driving is truly considered privilege and the government has no problems stripping you of that privilege for life. The driving environment there requires much more thinking on part of the driver (the roads aren't dumbed down like here in the US) and as such require drivers and others to follow the rules.

    Peace!

  • Oemissions

    No cars in any city parks.

  • Clarence Eckerson Jr.

    Of course, do not forget about the Idaho Stop Law for cyclists...

    http://vimeo.com/4140910

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/bicyclesonly/ BicyclesOnly

    The NYC roads are definitely dangerous, but it's not a free-for-all. Most people (about 2/3) follow the small subset of rules that are enforced by the NYPD against their mode-group, and don't do things that are otherwise extremely dangerous. That leaves plenty of people (the other 1/3) to cause most of the serious injuries and fatalities. I don't call that a free-for-all. There is a definite order to traffic in NYC--pedestrian, bike and MMV--it just doesn't track the explicit rules very well.

    We need to seriously punish and take away the driving privileges of the bad 1/3.

  • Rob

    It is amazing how many of us have a "policy crush" on JSK. In 100 years, there will be statues of her sprinkled around the city.

  • maaaty

    "Limousine liberal" has a well-established origin and meaning, and I don't think you're close to it, Sean.

    There's no hypocrisy, as he's not stating that he breezes through red lights in all modes of transportation. You could infer that he stops at red lights when he's in an auto. It's not about him -- it's about the class of vehicle.

    And I don't get how you would like his column if you're a straight-up, letter-of-the-law thinker. Not much room for ethical debate there.

  • CR

    Would it be possible to find a spokesperson who's more full of himself? Christ on a cracker - was Sarah Palin not available? Was Ahmadinejad opening for Pearl Jam or something? "Going the wrong way Pal" - Oh dear G-d in heaven please make it stop!

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/lecola RC

    I really enjoyed this one, cool guy and honest about his red light habits. Policy Crush... I think I'll steal this one if you don't mind! :-)

  • eric

    Ray, watch this video shot in Center City and than ask yourself who the problem is:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BpRfUh1Dzlw&playnext_from=TL&videos=FGLCigdNAfI

  • ddartley

    Ugh. The print version of today's Metro uses this in a very bad way.

  • Ray

    Eric, I viewed the video when it first came out. It was produced by a bike retailer who advocates that bicyclists, many of whom I presume are his customers, to break/ignore certain bicycling laws. To advance his argument he thought it smug to observe motorists doing the same. In that video there were bicyclists also ignoring the same stop sign with flashing red lights, he said nothing. One of those two-wheelers did not even deign to slow down; just full speed ahead. There are streets in Center City with dedicated bike lanes and the bicyclists in those lanes still endanger pedestrians by not stopping at red lights. Cars may roll through stop signs, such as at this intersection, but it is probably 1/100 of 1% of motorists who would roll through a red light controlled intersection. It is the rare bicyclist who does not.

  • eric

    So I guess it's ok for over 50 cars and trucks never stop at an intersection with three stop signs and flashing red light because its an isolated case.

    The dealer in question who shot this video did so when certain city council members wanted to impose fines and penalties in cyclists far in excess to someone driving a car would get.

    Put up or shut up. Back up your invented statistics about no cyclists stop at red lights and cars only represent 1/100 of 1% of the problem.

  • Ray

    Put up or shut up? What’s next, fisticuffs? No wonder why these message boards degenerate so quickly. Of course, I gave an opinion as to the number being 1/100 of 1%. It could be 1/10,000 of 1% or whatever. I still claim the overwhelming, vast majority of motorists obey red lights - meaning stopping and staying stopped - because there are financial/legal consequences for not doing so. The overwhelming, vast majority of bicyclists do not. Stand at any intersection on streets with bike lanes: Spring Garden, Spruce & Pine Streets, and see for yourself. Even though I pointed out the bicyclist offenders in the video, I never claimed it was ok for the motorists in the video to ignore the same stop sign, it is not.

  • eric

    Put up your own video. A five-minute video shot on a camera on a tripod with no editing. Just like the video that I posted the link for. If cyclists are really the problem you claim they are this should be easy for you. Otherwise shut up, your statistics are a product of your imagination with nothing credible to back them up.

  • Ray

    Eric, I appreciate the challenge and I just might. FYI: Last Friday afternoon around 7pm, I watched a group of ten bicyclists riding east on Race from Broad to 4th Street, every one ran a redlight when they could, and from 7th to 4th they collectively hopped on the sidewalk and pedestrians had to get out of their way. In that entire stretch not one car ran a redlight, not even the taxi I was in while following these jackasses on two wheels.

  • eric

    Ray, It is now time for you to shut up. Come back when you are ready to put your video matching the same parameters as the one I posted. What you saw is anecdotal, when I drove in Philadelphia last week I saw five cars run red lights.Is what I saw an isolated case or can we assume that this represents the majority of the car drivers in Philadelphia.

  • Duncan Idaho-Stop

    Things become much clearer when you stop thinking that traffic laws have something to do with ethics. They aren't moral prescriptions a la the 10 commandments, they are a set of practical conventions balancing safety and convenience.

    As a bicyclist, I count on motorists following those conventions. Therefore, as a practical matter, I should also follow those conventions to fulfill my part of the social contract.

    Randy Cohen is dead wrong on this. I think the source of his confusion is trying to apply a moral filter to a set of rules that have nothing to do with morality.

  • http://www.usedvolkswagen.info Sibilla

    [music] Randy: [0:59] The hours and parts of the park that are car-free continue to expand, and that's all for the good. But, that there are ever cars in the park seems to me just astonishing. It's a park. It's not just "a" park. It's a park in a city that so desperately needs green space. It's the most beautiful urban park on Earth. That there is ever a car in it is the most astonishing squandering of this urban treasure. It's unimaginable.[1:28] One of the brilliant things about the way this bike lane is designed is the normal pattern is parked cars, bike lane, traffic. But by reversing it this way, it solves two problems. You don't have to worry about a car cutting in front of you to park, and the cars provide this physical buffer to protect you from traffic. How can you not fall in love to someone who would bring that to New York?
    +1

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/Green_Idea_Factory Todd Edelman

    Ugh, everyone is telling other people what to do and not trusting them, generalizations about "Germany".... anyway... what is Miss JSK doing about this logical and natural desire to "salmon"?? The streets in much of Manhattan at least are still designed for uniflow, but this turns A-to-B trips for cyclists into A-to-B-to-B-to-trips (hope that makes sense)! I am really sick and tired about these complaints about salmoning! We want to spawn, not be pawns in the yawn starring caw. Contraflow, more bi-directional streets and wider bike lanes and paths are absolutely necessary.

  • Poochiecakes

    Hi fellas!

    I've just signed up http://www.streetfilms.org and wanna say hi to all the guys/gals of this board!

  • testidoors

    hi,
    i am new member

  • http://www.livablestreets.com/people/chrismcnally Chris Mcnally

    I am coming around to Todd's opinion. Salmoning is dangerous when we have the tiny painted on the street bike lane, but whenever we build those nice "class 1" bike lanes, make them two way! Sometimes designers have to see how people naturally act and design accordingly.  And why are avenues one way ever? It's only to make them a speedway. Two way is natural and calms traffic.

  • http://www.greenidea.eu Todd Edelman

    @Chris: Thanks, always nice to have a convert. But to clarify: Two-way lanes on one-way major streets might be better for cycling than one-ways, but they present complications regarding signaling and whatnot. I realize that NYC DOT does these in certain locations such as some bridge approaches or of course PPW. Converting existing one-ways e.g. in Manhattan is not possible unless more space is utilized (and that begs the question of what will happen with the PPW path when it reaches capacity!).

    NYCDOT and many cycling advocates may see the related bike lane on one side of one way and dedicated bus lane on one-way major streets model as a good solution and it is for buses, but it will only perpetuate salmoning.

    So, without getting to specific widths and orientation or placement, perhaps the best solution for major Manhattan Avenues which still allow private vehicles traveling at a theoretical 30mph plus access for emergency vehicles and deliveries and for economic reasons have to have topside collective PT is a general two-way setup with wider sidewalks, protected bike lanes in both directions and dedicated bus lanes in one or both directions, and one normal vehicle lane in both directions for cars, taxis and deliveries (the emergency vehicles should be able to use the bus lane for going around stopped/slowed vehicles in the normal lane).

    Any extra space can be used for greenery, public seating or other amenities, additional normal travel lanes or parking or both.

    As the bike lane should have a top speed which does not threaten its slower users including children, cyclists who want to go faster should be able to use the normal vehicle lane.

    All of this is not politically possible right now but will be necessary for cycling to continue to grow in modal share past 5 or 10%, and to make walking better as well.

    Most of Manhattan and a good part of the other Boroughs were created with two-way streets with no semi-permanent storage and that retrofitting them for cycling and fast buses and keeping them extremely pedestrian-friendly is simply not possible using the current one-way mutant design.

  • Anonymous

    I loved cycling in NY, it was a great way to see the city.  I'm also with you on not stopping at red lights, what's the point if there are no Ped X'ing and no traffic crossing?  I spent 2.5 years riding around the world and we have it easy in the West, take a look at this short video I shot in Tehran, Iran when I cycled there. 
    http://youtu.be/AitAIeEuLH4

  • Guest

    Hooray for Paris stops!