The Mayor is cracking down on speeders. This is an extraordinary development! Historic, even! For it means that the Mayor has either witnessed or divined the presence of motorists within these five boroughs who, through some method that is beyond the imagining of mere mortals, are capable of exceeding the 5-mile-an-hour limit that has been imposed by the heavens above as punishment for those who ignore our splendid (if sometimes cranky and often poorly served) public transportation system.
Speeders in New York? In Manhattan? Could we be talking about the same sort of offenders who troll the interstate highways out there on the American mainland, pushing pedal to metal while scanning the horizon for Smokey? Bet you didn’t know we had them here, too. Of course you didn’t. Why would you? After all, this is the city that contributed the word “gridlock” to the English language.
Gridlock, of course, describes that state of affairs that occurs when too many cars traveling north and south join forces, always reluctantly and often violently, with too many cars traveling east and west. The people who monitor such things estimate that some 900,000 cars enter the central business district of midtown on any given day. Thirty years ago, that figure was about 600,000, according to Charles Komanoff, an economist with the Tristate Transportation Campaign. That’s a startling increase that, needless to say, has hardly been accompanied by a proportional increase in Manhattan’s landmass. Midtown is for automobiles what the Lower East Side once was for people-a place of horrendous overcrowding, where individual dignity is crushed by weight of numbers.
That the much-burdened New York City Police Department has found even one, never mind a few dozen, motorists capable of hitting double-digit miles per hour in such a mess seems almost impossible to believe. By which form of witchcraft have these menacing motorists overcome the tendency of automobiles to mass into one unyielding stream of metal as they navigate streets carved out in horse-and-buggy days?
Yes, ye lads and lassies of smooth skin, once upon a time, when Manhattan began to grow past the wilds of 14th Street, the city’s leading citizens decided that the process of making great fortunes would be enhanced greatly if goods could be moved from river to river as quickly as possible. Thus was the groundwork laid for those 200-odd straight and narrow lanes that now take us from east to west and vice versa with all the alacrity of a hard-shelled beast crossing Death Valley at noon on July 4.
Manhattan’s streets were not designed for the demands of the horseless carriage, which is evident every time a panel truck attempts to navigate a street lined with cars left at curbside by mysterious forces that are never actually seen engaged in the act of a parallel park. Still, we have yet to see from any administration a serious attempt to deal with Manhattan’s motor vehicle overpopulation problem. Various big thinkers have expended great bursts of windpower in discussions of tolls on the East River bridges and other forms of entrance fees. To no avail-the free market rules (emphasis on free).
“There’s no way to manage traffic in a rational way without using price incentives to rationally apportion finite road space among an infinite population of would-be motorists,” said Mr. Komanoff, who stencils outlines of dead bodies at intersections where pedestrians have been killed.
None of this is meant to suggest that City Hall’s crackdown on speeders is a useless exercise or even that it avoids a larger problem. Clearly there are moments, even in midtown Manhattan, with its hundreds of thousands of cars queued up in narrow lanes, when certain adventurous types (often seated behind the steering column of a particular sort of yellow vehicle) can accelerate to highway speeds. The results often are deadly, which is why lots of earnest do-gooders applaud this (if not some other) mayoral edict. “I hate to be too Pollyannish, but we love the Mayor’s crackdown,” said Gene Russianoff, a staff attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, an organization whose press releases concerning City Hall will never be confused with the editorial content of City Journal . “I live off Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, a road that always looked scary because it runs parallel to the Gowanus Expressway and people routinely go 60 miles an hour as if they were on the highway. But now that I have a 2-year-old, getting from one side to another seems impossible.”
So let the huzzahs be sounded for a Mayor who regards speeding as a quality-of-life offense, and speeders as child-killers in waiting. Make Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn safe for pedestrians and 10,000 families or more will be eternally grateful.
But it is not just the speeding motorist who is a danger to innocent pedestrians. Road rage, like speeding, is hardly confined to those places where eight lanes of white concrete are not enough to contain the restless spirit of the great American go-getter. In some places in this city, too many people drive too fast. But in another, very important part of this city-the heart of it, in fact-too many people drive. Period. Talk about fertile ground for a quality-of-life initiative.