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Transportation Ethics

Who knew that Randy Cohen, a guy who spends most of his day analyzing right and wrong as the New York Times Magazine's acclaimed "Ethicist," turns out to be one of New York City's most captivating and articulate voices for Livable Streets.

The Open Planning Project's Executive Director Mark Gorton recently interviewed Mr. Cohen on the ethics of urban automobility. The result has been condensed here into a 9 minute talk that touches on a multitude of topics ranging from Congestion Pricing to Parking Policy.

StreetFilms hopes this inspires even more debate as we approach these issues from the angle of personal responsibility. We think you'll enjoy this.

[intro music]

Mark Gorton: [00:06] I’m here today with Randy Cohen who writes the Ethicist column in the New York Times magazine, and we are going to chat a little bit about, maybe the ethics of transportation. How did you get interested or involved in transportation?

Randy Cohen: [00:21] Ethics primarily concerns itself with the effect of our actions on other people, especially when you live close together. In a city it’s very easy for one person’s actions to have a profound effect on one another, and it seemed to me what was significantly undermining the ordinary daily happiness and health and economic life of both me and my fellow New Yorkers was the private car. We’re becoming a nation of fatties, in part because if you live anywhere but a few cities and you want a quart of milk, you have to take the car.

Mark Gorton: [00:56] When I got my first full-time job, I lived in Washington DC and I commuted practically out to Baltimore, and it was about a 50 minute drive everyday, each way. And I don’t think… you know I did this for two years, I don’t think it occurred to me for a moment that I was doing anything wrong. And now recently, you know, I’m much more conscious of my actions and every time I get in a car I kind of think about the consequences. So what are the things that people are supposed to be conscious of?

Randy Cohen: [01:23] If you leave these kind of decisions to matters of individual moral choice, we’re… I think there’s no solution possible. For two years you were a recent sophisticated educated person aware of your world, you were doing actions that now seem questionable to you. If we leave it to individual moral choice, here’s what people will do them. They’ll buy SUV’s. Yes. There’s no law that says you have to buy an inefficient car, or that you have to buy a car that’s particularly vile, there’s moral implications to rely on, by which I mean SUVs are more likely to harm other people than other cars. But if we as a culture, as a country, as a society are capable of making wise policy choices.

Mark Gorton: [02:03] I know people who live in the city who drive around the city to do, you know, even the simple errands. What’s wrong with that?

Randy Cohen: [02:11] Everything. But the word we ethicists use to describe the kind of the… the philosophy of your friend is espousing. That’s called being selfish. What’s wrong with it is they knock me down when I ride my bike. What’s wrong with it is they pollute the air. What’s wrong with it is the fumes from their cars destroy the façades of the buildings. It imposes this tremendous expense simply to maintain the roads. And it’s particularly vile, morally indefensible in New York City where there’s excellent mass transit. There’s absolutely no need for the private car in Manhattan. Other parts of the city it’s a more ambiguous problem.

Mark Gorton: [02:47] Right now one of the big issues is congestion pricing. And the people who oppose it talk about it in terms of individual rights.

Randy Cohen: [02:54] It would be misleading to say wise policy decisions never restrict individual freedom, they do. What’s civilisation is is the restriction of individual freedom. We have, for instance, fire codes. You can’t build your apartment out of kerosene soaked cardboard because it endangers other people. We have a thousand laws that restrict what an individual can do because it is singularly destructive to the larger community. This one is an interesting policy in that so many members from the community so overwhelmingly gain, and the unfortunate consequences of the restrictions and freedom are so tiny and it’s so exciting because we have actual examples of two major modern cities, London and Stockholm, where there was much objection to the plans, similar congestion pricing plans before they were introduced. And now we can see, we can look and see well did it work? That’s great, that’s pragmatism. And it seems to be quite a popular plan in both places now.

Mark Gorton: [03:52] I was talking to someone who had talked to several assembly members about this particular issue. And one of the things that they commented, all the of assembly members have placards which allow them to park wherever they want, illegal or legal. They all drive around the city almost exclusively. Their personal experience skews their judgement cos you tend to think everyone is like yourself.

Randy Cohen: [04:19] I think that’s true. In order to just do… to be good at your job, whether you’re a legislator or an administrator, you have to have a real intimate knowledge of how your decisions affect ordinary citizens.

Mark Gorton: [04:29] Just about every elected official and a good fraction of the government workers in this city are given these placards.

Randy Cohen: [04:37] A blight on the landscape. And after such incivility, an act that so undermines what ordinary democratic ideals. The legal use of it is bad enough, the abuse is truly astonishing, that there is on my corner a car that has been parking two or three times a week for the last… I’m guessing five years. This fellow parks both with his front wheels in a crosswalk so that he’s only a little bit too close to the fire plug, with a police permit on his dashboard. It is of course illegal for him to use that police permit in that way. It’s a kind of permit that only allows you to park close to the precinct when you’re going to work. It’s a demoralising bit of petty corruption and cronyism with no traffic enforcement officer will ticket this guy. I think to the Mayor’s credit, he’s spoken forcefully about this and that to limit the number of these permits. He does not seem to have followed through very well on it. I like the Mayor in many ways. But he also has his shortcomings and one is I think this. That he’s talked a good game about this and I believe he’s actually cut down on the number of permits given, but I see very little evidence that he’s continued this.

Mark Gorton: [05:46] I think the biggest problem with a city based on the automobile is actually invisible. It’s the city that you don’t see. The city that could be if it wasn’t that way. It’s a city where kids are playing stickball and where, if you’re a parent, and your four year old walks out on the sidewalk you’re not terrified that they’re going to go four more feet into the middle of speeding traffic and things like that.

Randy Cohen: [06:08] Yeah. We can have a kind of Jane Jacobs neighbourhood, neighbourhoods that are less dangerous, less threatening, where you can quite easily walk to work, where you can see your neighbours, where kids can play. One of the interesting challenges in the city is that public space, open space, is really at a premium, there’s very little of it. And you have to make wise decisions about how you will allocate it. If any place where there’s free parking on a New York City street, you go, why is this good for the city that you get to store your personal property in public space? I don’t take my summer clothes, pack them in a foot locker and leave them at, you know, out in Central Park. Why are we allocating a four foot wide strip down both sides of West End Avenue, a lovely residential area, why is that free parking for cars? Why is that not two rows of trees? Why would that not be better for the city?

Mark Gorton: [07:02] Part of what you said is that as a society we want to set up incentives for people to do good things.

Randy Cohen: [07:08] Yes.

Mark Gorton: [07:09] And so with biking, if the city says, you know, biking is a green form of transportation, it’s good for your health, you know, all those sorts of things…

Randy Cohen: [07:16] Terrific.

Mark Gorton: [07:16] So then you have to make it safe.

Randy Cohen: [07:19] Absolutely.

Mark Gorton: [07:19] And you have to make a real…

Randy Cohen: [07:20] And to me you have to have some place to put your bike when you get to work, some place where maybe you can even take a shower every now and then, but many cities seem to have that with this problem in terrific ways and we can do it too and it’s actually what… I hate being optimistic cos it’s really… but it’s true. We’re in a moment in New York history where both the Department of Transportation and the wonderful Janette Sadik-Khan… she seems terrific, the Mayor seems genuinely sympathetic and he seems to have other administrators in place who have an analysis of the city, it’s quite sad, there is reason to be hopeful about biking.

Mark Gorton: [07:57] Every now and then you get a glimpse of what the city could belike otherwise…

Randy Cohen: [08:00] Yes.

Mark Gorton: [08:01] It’s like one of the… I don’t know if you remember when there’s a big blizzard or something and traffic is absolutely paralysed, and again you could just walk out, like I mean in the middle of the 5th Avenue or something like that and you’re like, wow, what a fantastic city this is. Or when there was the blackout and kind of traffic is paralysed. Whenever that happens, people come out on the street and you see what could be.

Randy Cohen: [08:21] Yes. People interact in ways that seems to make everybody much happier. This is not… again, we’re not preaching rectitude here, we’re preaching hedonism. What we’re talking about how people can be happier, I think that the capital age in just the ordinary happiness of daily life, that the automobile maybe the greatest crime [unintelligible 08:41] to, it affronts that. It undermines our ordinary daily happiness in ways we’ve even ceased to notice. That’s truly sad.



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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