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We The Commuters: Should NYC Completely Eliminate 'Car Culture?'

Plus: We rode along with the subway's "happiest conductor." LaGuardia is makings its case for America's Saddest Airport. And the women's bathroom at Port Authority is a lovely part of some women's daily routine.

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(Amy Pearl/WNYC)

When I was 18, I ran a red light and t-boned a minivan.

I wasn't speeding. I was alone in the car, with my cellphone buried in my backpack and the radio volume low. I wasn't distracted by anything — I just spaced out for a couple seconds, and didn't recognize that the light had turned.

The first thing I remember after we collided was how completely the front ends of our cars collapsed into each other. It almost felt comfortable, like the hood of my Nissan caught the blow. Neither driver was hurt.

It was certainly a giant mistake on my part — both cars were sort of totaled, my insurance costs went up, and I'm still skittish about driving to this day. But there were no criminal consequences; the police didn't even give me a ticket for running the light. Drivers are imperfect, accidents happen, and as I'd just learned, cars are designed to handle crashes.

What did not occur to me in that moment was the possibility of a nearby cyclist or pedestrian. This was a wide suburban road in a wide suburban area. And while we had sidewalks and bike lanes, it was clear that this was a car town, and your job as a driver was to look out for other drivers.

It's debatable whether New York City is a car town. On one hand, it's obviously not — the majority of us take public transportation to work, cycling is at an all-time high, and there are people walking around at all hours of the day and night.

But the recent death of Jose Alzorriz, a 52-year-old cyclist from Park Slope, highlights a different reality about how the city is designed, and for whom.

Umar Baig, an 18-year-old from Rego Park, Queens, was allegedly driving a Dodge Charger 61 miles per hour through a relatively wide stretch of Coney Island Avenue. He ran a red light. He slammed into an SUV. And that SUV went airborne, fatally striking Alzorriz, who was waiting at the light.

The driver of the SUV — and a pedestrian bystander — were injured. And Baig, who was arrested yesterday, now faces 11 counts, including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide — both felonies — along with vehicular assault, reckless endangerment, assault, criminal solicitation, criminal facilitation, reckless driving, running a red light, disobeying a traffic device, and speeding.

"We have no desire to see this young driver spend years upon years behind bars. But at the same time, there has to be some severe consequences to such egregious reckless driving," Marco Conner, the co-deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, told Gothamist.

"The goal that the DA should seek is to deter and prevent future reckless driving. I hope that this sends the message that operating a multi-ton vehicle is an awesome responsibility that we have not fully recognized," Conner said. "Bringing these charges is a step towards recognizing that."

Operating a multi-ton vehicle is an awesome responsibility. Going 30 mph over the speed limit is egregious (because of a nearby school, Baig had entered a 25 mph zone). And in a city with such a robust bike and pedestrian culture, drivers here simply can't have the same mindset as drivers in the suburbs.

But as economist and longtime cyclist Charles Komanoff wrote this week in an op-ed for Gothamist, the individual decisions of reckless drivers are merely the "proximate causes" of these tragedies.

"The wellspring of cycle fatalities lies deeper, in driving’s culture and sheer volume," Komanoff writes.

Which is why he's joining several prominent officials, most notably City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, in saying we need to "break the car culture." That means making it far more expensive to drive in the city; less placating of reactionary community boards (see the cases of the 14th Street busway, or the Central Park West bike lane); and taking away huge chunks of space currently devoted to free or cheap parking.

It also means placing public transit, biking, and walking at the center of all city planning decisions. Incrementalism, says Komanoff, isn't enough. Adding a few miles of bike lanes here and there isn't bad, but it won't change the cultural assumption that cars reign supreme in New York City.

With the death of Alzorriz, bicycle fatalities in the city are on pace to exceed 30 — a figure that hasn't been seen since 1999. And while Baig faces up to 15 years in prison, The New York Times pointed out this week that most drivers who kill cyclists don't face criminal charges. If the driver isn't drunk and there's no criminal intent, a fatal accident is still an accident.

"You have penalties in society in order to create a deterrent," Jon Orcutt, of Bike New York, told The Times. "But I don’t think we’re doing that with regard to how people drive in the city."

Enforcement is important — the city does have fines for dooring cyclists and failing to yield to pedestrians. But our laws, and our cars themselves, are designed to accommodate crashes as a fact of life. That may not change unless car culture itself is replaced with something entirely different.

Meet the Subway's 'Happiest Conductor'

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Kenneth Burton makes passengers feel welcome aboard his "choo choo." (David "Dee" Delgado / Gothamist)

"Usually, I have lollipops with me, in case I come across [toddlers] in the strollers," Kenneth Burton, a 65-year-old 1 train operator, told Gothamist during a recent ride-along.

At a stop on the Upper West Side, he leaned out of the conductor’s cab to hand one to a kid on the platform.

He also called out "Christopher Street, Sheridan Square, NYU, and the famous Stonewall Inn," when the train pulled through Washington Square, and later told passengers to "get those umbrellas ready" when it started raining outside.

Burton said his style is, in part, a response to his dissatisfaction with other conductors' garbles.

"Sometimes when I ride the train to work, I can hear my coworkers. They be all fast. Now — I work with them, and I don’t understand what they’re saying."

While conductors are generally asked to stick to a script, the MTA has given Burton — whose train line is one of the few that doesn't use automated messages — leeway to be creative.

"No script can account for every possible scenario that happens on the rails each day," an MTA spokesperson said, "and we’re lucky to have outstanding employees like Kenneth who maintain such great rapport with our customers."

This story was reported by Ben Weiss

Best of the Week From Gothamist and WNYC

People trying to make their flights out of LaGuardia on Monday got out of their cars and started running to their terminals. Because of Sunday's storms, flights out of LaGuardia were rescheduled for Monday, which led to car traffic clogging all roads in and out of the airport.

An NJ Transit worker opened the train doors on the wrong side during Monday evening's commute, causing a passenger to fall onto the tracks. NJ Transit confirmed the incident, saying that the passenger suffered minor injuries and declined medical attention.

You have until September 2nd to vote on a new license plate design for New York State. Four out of the five plates include Gov. Cuomo’s favorite Latin word, Excelsior, in different fonts. Starting in April of 2020, drivers renewing their vehicle's registration will get the new plate.

A man accused of taking an upskirt photograph of a woman at a subway station is now wanted for unlawful surveillance. According to the NYPD, a 34-year-old woman was walking up the stairs of the 145 St A train station when a man "approached her from behind, lifted her dress and utilized his cellphone to take a photo of her before fleeing on foot to parts unknown." The police are still searching for the suspect, whose photo has been released.

What Else We're Reading

The shuttle between Grand Central and Times Square-42nd Street is getting a $266 million overhaul. The changes, which include adding wheelchair access and enabling trains to go from 4-cars-long to 6-cars-long, are designed to improve travel between the city's two busiest subway stations. The construction is expected to take 3 years, during which time the MTA is advising riders to take the 7 train instead. (AM New York)

The MTA is collaborating with a real estate developer to build apartments and retail space in Harrison, New York, a town on the Metro-North. Though the MTA has sold land to developers in Manhattan (e.g. Hudson Yards), this is the first project of its kind in the suburbs. By selling land in the Westchester town, the agency aims to bring in cash to combat its projected $433 million budget shortfall. (CityLab)

In October, NJ Transit will begin posting monthly reports on its website detailing how well its service is performing. Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order this week demanding that the agency report on every train cancellation, along with delays and their causes. (NJTV News)

News to me(n): "New York's hottest makeup counter" is in the Port Authority Bus Terminal women's bathroom. Round-the-clock attendants keep the second-floor bathroom clean. There are outlets to plug in a curling iron. And regulars say that waiting until they get to Port Authority allows them to focus on other things, like their families, before they leave the house in the morning. (The New York Times)


Some Credit Where It's Due:


Weekend Service Changes: Night of August 23rd - Early Morning on August 26th

This is a partial list of major service disruptions scheduled for the weekend. For a complete list of the MTA's Weekender updates, check here.

1 train service between 137 St and South Ferry in Manhattan will be replaced by free shuttle buses and subway lines nearby.

2 train service between 149 St-Grand Concourse, Bronx and Atlantic Av-Barclays Ctr, Brooklyn will be replaced by free shuttle buses and subway lines nearby.

All 3 train service will be replaced by free shuttle buses and subway lines nearby.

Saturday and Sunday, 5 train service between E 180 St, the Bronx and Bowling Green, Manhattan will be replaced by 2 trains.

Coney Island-bound F trains will run via the E line from Roosevelt Av, Queens to 5 Av/53 St, Manhattan.

Saturday morning through Sunday evening, J train service between Broadway Junction, Brooklyn and Jamaica Center, Queens will be replaced by E trains and free shuttle buses.

Check here for complete details about the Long Island Rail Road.

For NJ Transit, check here for the latest service advisories.


Upcoming Meetings and Events

Sunday, August 25th

Memorial Ride for Jose Alzorriz
Prospect Park — 10:00 a.m.

Tuesday, August 27th
Riders Alliance Bronx Bus Turnaround Campaign Meeting
Bronx River Community Center — 6:45 p.m.
RSVP for details

Sunday, September 8th
Transportation Alternatives' 30th Anniversary New York City Century Family Bike Ride
Central Park, Prospect Park — 6:00 a.m.
RSVP for details


Monday, September 23rd
Joint Metro-North & LIRR Committee Meeting — 8:30 a.m.
NYC Transit / MTA Bus Committee Meeting — 10:00 a.m.

Wednesday, September 25th
MTA Board Meeting — 10:00 a.m.

Registration for two-minute public speaking slots opens 15 minutes before the start time for official MTA committee meetings. To speak before an MTA board meeting, you must register 30 minutes early. All meetings are held at at the MTA's Board Room at 2 Broadway, on the 20th Floor.


We the Commuters is a weekly newsletter about transportation from WNYC and Gothamist. Sign up for essential commuting coverage delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

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