19 August 2008

Take It to the Street

Class Clash on Seventh Avenue

Fighting over street space is nothing new. Before the Model T made driving an everyman’s game, New York police had little tolerance for the automobile crowd, viewing them as arrogant, wealthy scofflaws who treated the city like their private playground. Now we’ve entered a different era—a neo-Gilded one in which the wealthy scofflaws ride road bikes, and working-class cops are willing to go outside the law to protect the working-class driver’s exclusive ownership of the right of way.

This era has been a while in the making, but it found a symbol in late July, when a rookie NYPD officer viciously body-checked a bicyclist to the ground and was caught on video by a Times Square tourist. The incident occurred during the monthly ride of the New York incarnation of Critical Mass, a disorganization that champions the right of cyclists to ride on public streets unmolested. As the video, cited by the New York Times and replayed by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, clearly shows, rookie cop Patrick Pogan knocked Christopher Long to the ground as the cyclist rolled down Seventh Avenue among a pack of activist pedalers. Worse, Pogan and his partner then arrested and jailed the injured Long, charging him with assault. Were it not for YouTube justice (1.5 million views and counting), they’d likely have gotten away with it.

Pogan’s brutal act replicates the class envy that would have had his great-grandfather swearing blue streaks at drivers, not bikers. Pogan’s father and grandfather worked hard for the NYPD to achieve a degree of middle-class comfort—complete, presumably, with a couple of cars in the garage. Meanwhile, Manhattan has become unaffordable and much of the rest of the city is now filled with people who look different from all those presidents on the money. That wasn’t so bad when the bridge-and-tunnel crowd could cruise freely around their pedestrian- and cyclist-free suburban idylls. But a $4 gallon bites hard in the tailpipe. And so we watch Pogan lash out at his supposed antagonists, the two-wheelers who are just a little smarter and more fit for having found a way to hold on to the privilege of class even as poor mileage drives so many to the poorhouse.

Critical Mass began sixteen years ago in San Francisco (where else?) and is now a regular event in more than a dozen cities worldwide. The monthly rides can attract hundreds of bikers, and they find safety in numbers. Regulated street intersections—those with stop signs and traffic lights—tend to thin out the pack of cyclists. To stay together, riders will take it upon themselves to “cork” or block intersections, a particularly irksome practice for drivers. Critical Mass riders make the news when they come to blows with drivers. But as any cyclist will tell you, the battle for street space is constant, fought daily in small ways by unaffiliated individuals. The dynamic resembles the slow, uneven process of racial integration and the fight for gay rights. Perhaps only when everyone either suffers their commute on a bicycle, or knows someone who does, will things change.

That will take time, because the road embodies the ideology of American Freedom. Never mind that the road is the most highly regulated of all public spaces. So ingrained is our experience of traffic laws (we are, after all, a nation of drivers) that even those who rail against government—especially those who rail against government—have internalized the rules of the road. Surely the motorist’s right of way is enumerated in the Bill of Rights.

Before the automobile, though, most urban roads were multifunctional social spaces, conduits, public theaters, playgrounds, and markets. The urban street as capillary in a vast circulatory system serving the central business district was a newfangled concept in the early 20th century. Making it a reality depended on, among other things, turning urban police forces over to the task of regulating intersections. “Broadway’s Finest”—officers chosen for their verticality—began waving traffic along as early as the 1860s. But when the automobile came, police and the lower courts had to regulate its use almost to the exclusion of all other duties. Only the wealthy drove the city’s streets around the turn of the century, and those they tended to kill were working-class children playing in the only open space available to them.

In the turn-of-the-century struggle over street space, the NYPD’s Commissioner Francis Greene came down firmly on the side of the high-class automobile owners. Greene, a veteran of the War of 1898 (still often called the Spanish-American War), promulgated a new traffic code in 1903 at the behest of William Phelps Eno, the scion of a prominent New York real estate family. Eno was obsessed with bringing order to urban life—ex chao ordo was his motto. When he failed to interest city aldermen in his traffic scheme of one-way streets and “gyratory” intersections, he found that the NYPD already had enough authority to institute a new traffic code. The central idea was to get pedestrians and cyclists out of the way. (Eno had earlier promoted a scheme for elevated walkways to leave the streets free for carriage traffic.)

Eno’s gyrations were only the beginning. Highway engineers soon supplanted the dilettantes; they measured their success in traffic flow volumes and speeds. They made some seemingly technical choices that have had a profound impact on the way we think about and use street space. Chief among these is the idea of intersection control, first by officer of the law and later by his robotic replacement, the traffic light. It didn’t have to be this way. For example, British intersections are far more likely to be unregulated, relying instead on drivers to work together and police themselves. Where American traffic engineers put stop signs, the British paint a large dot in the middle of the road. Our black-and-white rules allow us to drive without doing much thinking, which is in a way a good thing, since we drive younger and with less training than our industrialized counterparts.

But New York is a more organic place than most of America, having grown over nearly four centuries into a teeming, tri-state metropolis. Efforts to bring order to the vibrant chaos of New York have not gone well: witness the scar that is Robert Moses’s Cross-Bronx Expressway. Erudite planning language masks an anti-urban, anti-immigrant, anti-intellectual, anti-democratic approach to land use.  Reformers and planners with the best of intentions have teamed up with developers (with the worst of intentions?) to move pushcarts off the streets and move stickball and stoopball to playgrounds, all to make the city safe for the automobile.

Of course, the NYPD rank and file came from the same immigrant groups Eno, Green, and Moses considered chaotic troublemakers. Happily, they were eventually able to move to the promise of a better life in the suburbs; sadly, that promise is now going the way of a discounted mortgage and cheap gas. The working class has become more dependent on their automobiles than the wealthy, who can afford to live near schools and work. The motorless commuter, regardless of his actual class position, has become a symbol of the privilege that comes with prime real estate.

No one can say for sure why Patrick Pogan attacked a biker, least of all Pogan himself. But drivers who feel besieged every time they have to fill the tank, or watch a cyclist slip by while they sit in traffic, just might identify with Pogan’s attempt to stop the world from leaving him behind once again.

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