The 'E' Word

By Tom Vanderbilt

One didn't have to read too far in a recent New York profile of New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan before, as if adhering to some kind of natural law, the 'e' word was invoked. No, I'm not talking about extremist--though that was used as well. I'm talking about 'elite.'

"Why does transportation reform have to feel so elitist?" the article's author wondered. "There is a sense of the elite telling the everyday people what's good for them, and that's simply not appreciated," said Council Member John Liu. "I think she's an anti-car extremist," said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. "It's kind of easy for Ms. Sadik-Khan to be holier than thou and tell people they have no business driving. She may live down the block from the subway station—but most people don't."

There may be no more abused word in contemporary political discourse than "elite." It last surfaced, of course, in the presidential campaign, when various aspects of Barack Obama's personality (curiously, it was less often applied to his policies) were deemed 'elite' and 'out of touch.' As the cultural critic Thomas Frank has noted of the "elite" pejorative, "it is by this familiar maneuver that the people who have designed and supported the policies that have brought the class divide back to America--the people who have actually, really transformed our society from an egalitarian into an elitist one--perfume themselves with the essence of honest toil, like a cologne distilled from the sweat of laid-off workers."

And so it has been that the recent initiatives of the New York City Department of Transportation--installing new bike lanes, its wildly successful "Summer Streets" program, its intensely scrutinized temporary makeover of Times Square--have been criticized by some as an upper-crust revanchist takeover of the city's streets, an act of oppression against the city's long-suffering automotive proles.

A few facts--"stubborn things," as Reagan called them--are in order. The most obvious thing to note is that car drivers make up a very small portion of the commuter population--16.9 percent of travelers into the proposed "congestion zone" of Manhattan, and that includes trucks. And as the New York City Independent Budget Office has found, those people who do drive into Manattan have a median annual income that exceeds other commuters by some 28.6 percent. And yet it's the cyclists who are elite.

Council Member Liu complained that Sadik-Khan's job is not to be a "visionary." Rather it's to strike a "balance between all the entities competing for street space." Well, let's think about that "balance" under the status quo so beloved by Liu. In regards to the Times Square project, the space under consideration currently hosts nearly seven times as many pedestrians as vehicles. And yet how much space was devoted to those pedestrians? 11 percent.

What has been happening in Times Square, among other places, is a built environment echo of the economic policies of the right over the past few decades--while a "culture war" is used as smokescreen, the actual apportioning of resources becomes further skewed between the majority and a truly elite minority. New York itself recognized this problem, in a more instructive 1980 article by the famed urbanist William H. Whyte. Discussing a number of improvements that would free up traffic space, he argued, "it should not by default revert to privileged car owners. It should be given back to the pedestrians from whom it was taken in the first place."

The economist Lant Pritchett has a shorthand by which he describes the evolving patterns of social acceptance of so-called "big ideas": Silly, controversial, progressive, then obvious. Remember, it was "elite" reformers that helped overturn slavery and enable women's suffrage--to name just two once-acceptable, now unthinkable social conditions.

"Kill the street," the Modernist architect Le Corbusier once declared in a manifesto for a utopian city built around the car. Generations of traffic engineers did their best to oblige. But the street is coming back in New York--the street built for many users--and someday, if not quite today, it won't seem silly, controversial or even progressive. It will just seem obvious.

Tom Vanderbilt is the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us) as well as the blog, How We Drive.