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.
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.
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?
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]