DC, I’ve found, is a city of extremes. As the nation’s capital, one might suppose that it’s fitting that it really seems to be such a microcosm of the country as a whole. You can take a five-minute walk between stately, million-and-a-half dollar homes, and homeless encampments under an underpass. You can also enjoy some of the country’s best bicycle infrastructure– or chance certain death with a trip down a major thoroughfare, where the cars of the city’s impatient, well-heeled technocracy and aristocracy speed, endlessly, unimpeded. America, the beautiful!
DC: Vision Zero, If Not For, You Know, Cars
DC has an ostensibly ambitious, but dubiously-implemented, Vision Zero plan. This may be a product of the fact that the city government doesn’t seem to know what to do with the large, relatively high-speed thoroughfares that move everyone from office lackeys or corporate shills like myself to presidential motorcades. The city doesn’t actually perform badly in terms of pedestrian fatality rates, even though it’s technically ranked #2 nationwide when compared to other “states.”
Last night, walking from Georgetown, a wealthy, normcore neighborhood along M Street NW just outside what might be “Greater Downtown DC,” I snapped a picture of a monstrous fleet of Escalades parked outside the Four Seasons. That’s, uh, the hotel, not the Total Landscaping. I find things like this funny. Pics like this often make their way into NUMTOT. They were parked all over the sidewalk itself as well as on the street in front of the bus stop.
It’s kind of a monstrosity in general, but especially so amid the context of Vision Zero. We know, for example, that bigger cars are increasingly lethal to pedestrians. Indeed, the 2022 Cadillac Escalade is a full 8″ longer than the 2020 model. It’s two inches wider, too, than previous iterations. If I compare this to my Honda Fit (RIP), it’s a full foot wider, 17″ taller, and 30″ longer. As they say, literally what?
Mostly, I find it valuable to juxtapose a really ridiculous violation of a pretty basic rule meant to protect public safety (so bus riders don’t have to walk out into traffic). Channeling St. Donald of Shoup here, it’s also bad for overall traffic flow. The Escalade blocking the bus stop means that the bus itself has no choice but to stop in traffic, which impedes traffic flow.
Almost needless to say, this casual phone photo on my part set off a shitstorm– of a team of burly, six-foot, 250 lb., livery drivers in black suits accosting me.
“We Have A Delegation”
“Why are you taking a picture of my car, bro? That’s my car.”
Yeah, so– I know it’s your car. And this is my phone. And this is our bus stop. On our street. The royal we, or the citizen’s “we.” (Let’s further point out in this pronoun that these folks had Virginia plates, so the ‘we’ does not extend across the river, since they’re not paying the taxes that we are in the District). And you’re very clearly parked in front of a sign that very clearly says, “no parking.”
I tried to explain this to Tom, Dick, and Ahmed, who were incensed.
“But you can’t take a picture of my car!”
“I mean… why not? It’s parked on a public street.”
“It’s my car.”
I thought it would have been unwise at this juncture to tell him that I had understood him the first two times he had explained this quite salient, yet nonetheless still utterly irrelevant point.
One driver, though, thought it’d be clever to try and turn the privacy question around on me: “I mean, can I take a picture of you? Would you mind if I did that?”
“You’re more than welcome to take a picture of me,” I replied, with a faint curtsy. I was, after all, standing on a public street.
“That’s a new approach to personal privacy,” carbro #2 said, cocking his head, as though impressing himself with the profundity of his comment.
I mean, here’s how it goes. You’re on a public street, right? I don’t really feel like you have the right to complete privacy when you’re, you know, walking down a public street. Perhaps that’s something I don’t understand. This is pretty well-established through case law and Constitutional yadda-yadda around the right to privacy. There’s no one who has ever (to my knowledge, at least) beat a murder charge that was caught unequivocally on video on a public street. Right?
Furthermore, I wouldn’t just take pictures of random cars parked on a random street. That would be weird. Would it be an invasion of privacy? Well, no– but I think it would be weird, unless I was focusing on, say, taking a picture of the street itself. You don’t have a right to privacy in public. I’m not going into your pockets. I’m taking a picture of a car that is highly illegally parked in front of a pretty central, pretty significant venue.
At this point, Carbro Prime decided that he didn’t want to chance a fistfight, so he got into his Escalade in a huff and drove off. The bus stop was now unimpeded by Escalade or other livery car.
As I waited, a new goon approached, identifying himself as a manager.
“Is there a problem?”
“Not anymore,” I replied, earnestly.
“Look, bro, we are just doing our job,” he said.
“Yeah, I get it. And I said there wasn’t a problem.”
“But you’re taking a picture of my guy’s car.”
“Your guy’s car was illegally parked in front of a bus stop,” I explained calmly, “and it’s not safe to make people walk out into traffic to get onto the bus.”
He then softened a bit and moved closer.
“You see,” he began, lowering his voice, “we have a delegation.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“A delegation. You know.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding as though I understood what on earth this dude was talking about.
Like, a delegation? Of UN ambassadors? Maybe? Someone fancy? Saudi Royalty? Look, mister. I don’t care if Joe Biden is holed up in there, doing shots with Pope Francis. You do not have the right to block a public right-of-way, idle a fleet of gas-guzzling, pedestrian-killing trucks, and you do not [clap emojis interspersed] block the damn bus stop. (Granted, cops do it all the time– but cops have guns, severe anger management issues, and qualified immunity. These guys definitely did not have the first one, at least).
Toward Safer Cities, Through Vision Zero– Or Telling Drivers Where To Get Off
In spite of how strongly I feel about a limited range of subjects, I’m normally extremely averse to getting into public confrontations, because people are crazy and it’s especially not nice to give service workers grief. Especially in this economy! To compare to other venues: I am a pretty easy patron at a restaurant or bar, for example, even when things go wrong. People are people. Be nice to them. There is no way that someone making $2.83 an hour with no benefits deserves any of the crap the average person is giving them. But even if a server screws up your order, spills your food all over you, and messes up your date, or whatever, this isn’t going to result in you getting run over by a car. In this case, I couldn’t abide by someone knowingly doing something that– even if perhaps especially emblematic of a broader societal problem in a way that I over-interpreted- was a direct infringement on the functioning of a safe urban environment.
Certainly, I didn’t lose sleep over this encounter. But I did take it as another microcosmic component of my “District of Columbia-as-America” interpretation. If you’ve got enough money– if you’ve got a delegation– you can block whatever you want. You can park your cars all over any sidewalk. Wheelchair users? Who cares. We have a delegation! If the dirty bus-riding poors don’t want to have to walk out into traffic, maybe they should work a little bit harder so they, too, can stay at a hotel where one night costs more than most people gross in a week.
The Circulator arrived, and I boarded. I was glad to probably never have to interact with these folks again.
In the meantime, I’m going to try and use this line the next time I’m asked to please not lock your bike to that fence, sir. “It’s ok,” I’ll say, “I have a delegation.”