Monday, January 14, 2008

Tree-lined streets of death

It was an early afternoon in May of 1997. My daughter's boyfriend and I were walking east on 20th Street; we were between Park Avenue South and Gramercy Park West, when an ambulance, siren wailing, turned on to 20th Street, obviously trying to reach Cabrini Medical Center, a block and a half away. But it couldn't make any progress because cars kept turning from Gramercy Park West on to 20th Street—the stop sign made no difference, the cars kept coming, simply ignoring the ambulance.

Out of frustration, I imagine, the ambulance driver began to blare his horn, his siren still on. Still, the cars kept turning. I could see by the ambulance driver's face that this was really an emergency, so I ran into the intersection and physically blocked the next vehicle, a white delivery van with a Chinese driver, who cursed at me and tried to proceed anyway.

By that time, I'd had enough—I reached into the van, grabbed the driver by his collar, and yelled at him, "That could be your fuckin' mother in there! What the fuck is wrong with you?". I held him there until the ambulance passed.

Then I finally I wondered where the police were, after all, the Police Academy, presumably full of the finest, is also on the next block. But ultimately, the NYPD is responsible for the bad behavior of New York's drivers—they've opted out of enforcing traffic laws—too difficult, too much time in court, and it slows down traffic. Nothing has changed since that incident over ten years ago, if anything, the situation has worsened. The brass sees traffic enforcement as a lose-lose proposition with no opportunity for praise in the press, and many of the citizens who might complain are dead pedestrian victims, victims for whom no charges were filed.

Now, congestion pricing might result in fewer motorists, but it will do nothing to improve the quality of those motorists—that's something that remains to be addressed, and something for which I will continue to fight.