Publisher's Letter: Dignity
The ancient Romans had a concept they called "dignitas." It reflected the respect and honor due to a person, and was based on accomplishment in war and peace. Roman people would do anything to preserve their dignitas. They would kill themselves or others, including a family member, if that was what was required.
Less dramatically, personal dignity has a huge amount to do with what Transportation Alternatives is fighting for. It also relates directly to how transportation decisions are made and how people choose to travel. Everyday cyclists in our area experience regular indignities, not to mention outright danger. Motorists toy with cyclists lives by driving inches away, turning abruptly, and mindlessly opening doors into traffic lanes. It is the casualness of this profound disrespect by motorists that is infuriating. Pedestrians, even those with baby carriages or small children, regularly have to stare down aggressive turning motorists. They feel fear and anxiety as they wonder if they will be seen or even yielded to by an aggressive driver. This same disrespect is inherent to speeding, which creates a sense of menace and discomfort to residents and passerbys.
It is this insult to one's dignity that transportation officials are blind to. They respond to community complaints about speeding by noting that only 15% of motorists are speeding (an allowable share in their minds). They also emphasize that most drivers are observing the 30mph speed limit. What does not occur to them is that 30mph is way too fast for city streets?
These are familiar themes for T.A.. What we don't discuss much is the American obsession with the automobile. This is ironic since motorists are searching for the exact same preservation of personal dignity as cyclists and pedestrians. An automobile affords a sense of comfort, protection, and personal space. Motorists pick their own music, companions, and temperature, and they are in (perceived) control. An early, and prescient, observer said, "The automobile makes every man a tyrant." He was right, and this is the heart of the matter. Automobiles are very fast, very large, loud and take up a great deal of space. But drivers do not seem to notice this speed and noise. To them, everything becomes an impediment. Thus, the tyrant unleashes its power on everything else.
It is dismaying to know that motor vehicle traffic in NYC has increased 17% in the last five years. The result of this kind of unending traffic growth is a competition for space pedestrians and cyclists cannot win. What we can do is preserve our dignity, by fighting hard to overcome the widespread prejudice and complacency that has allowed an invading army of automobiles to occupy our city and neighborhoods.
John Lindsay, New York's mayor from 1966 to 1974, died on December 21. Lindsay was a great champion of cycling and walking. Pictured above, he is riding in April 1967 from Prospect Park to Gracie Mansion - probably the last mayor to take such a long and public bike ride. Lindsay created weekend and weekday car-free hours in Central and Prospect Parks (before there was a big citizens movement to do so). He also ordered car-free weekends on Park and Madison Avenues and restored the Brooklyn Bridge bicycle and pedestrian path. Amazingly, he achieved this while faced with strikes by teachers, and sanitation and transit workers, plus work slowdowns by the police.