The Trafficist: An Interview With Randy Cohen

"It seemed to me that what was significantly undermining the ordinary daily happiness and health and economic life of both me and my fellow New Yorkers was the private car."
   –– Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist"

Open Planning Project Executive Director Mark Gorton recently interviewed New York Times Magazine’s "The Ethicist," Randy Cohen, on the ethics of urban automobility. The result has been condensed into a nine minute StreetFilm touching on a multitude of topics ranging from congestion pricing to parking policy.

Here is The Ethicist on congestion pricing:

It would be misleading to say that wise policy decisions never
restrict individual freedom. They do. What civilization is is the
restriction of individual freedom. We have for instance fire codes. You
can’t build your apartment out of kerosene-soaked cardboard because it
endangers other people. We have a thousand laws that restrict what an
individual can do because it is singularly destructive to the larger

This one [congestion pricing] is an interesting policy in that so
many members of the community so overwhelmingly gain. And the
unfortunate consequences are the restrictions in freedoms that are so

  • word to that

    Kudos Clarence, you’ve done it again. the well crafted conclusion is a tremendous inspiration!

  • Sproule Love


  • That was a fun view. I note Mr. Cohen’s remarks were specific to Manhattan. Would you do a followup with a more general perspective?

  • Gargamel Tralfaz

    Actually I would argue most of what Mr. Cohen said WAS from a more general perspective, excepting maybe the comments on Congestion Pricing. I think all of his ideas are useful in all big cities.

  • Jonathan

    Preaching to the converted. My personal opinion is that Mr. Cohen is a terrible choice of a spokesman for any movement, because his Times column is all about telling people what they should and shouldn’t do. It’s a fun 10-minute read once a week but I for one would hate to hang out with him because his holier-than-thou attitude and utter lack of empathy would get annoying pretty quickly.

    Would it be possible to find a Trafficist who was remotely empathetic with the confused tangle of justifications that most motorists have for their activities, yet able to serve as an aspirational role model for bikes, mass transit, and livable streets?

  • Maybe “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz?

  • Excellent footage, Clarence. Well done.

  • This movie knocked my socks thoroughly off — this might be my favorite street film yet. I love that it’s not just activists questioning the dominance of cars anymore — it’s anyone who thinks long and hard about the awfulness of their daily experiences in public spaces.

    It’s great to hear this ethical perspective, especially from someone as well regarded as Randy Cohen. I hope Mr Cohen continues to make these points!

  • Slopion

    The big problem with this as an argument to the larger public for congestion pricing, or other worthwhile reforms, is how Manhattan-centric he is. He basically uses the term “New York” and Manhattan interchangeably. Outer boroughs folks just love that!

    The one place where he does acknowledge a distinction is to say that owning a car in Manhattan is selfish, and in the other boroughs it’s “more ambiguous.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Well, yeah. But is the chief problem of NYC traffic really the guy who drives his car from Murray Hill to the Village to buy some cheese? If you want to reach people outside Manhattan, you’ve got to speak more directly to those “ambiguous” situations. Otherwise, all non-Manhattanites are going to hear is: Leave your car at home, you selfish bastard, so I can be more comfortable in Manhattan.

    I just don’t see how this guy speaks to somebody in a bus-to-subway zone in Queens, which is another way of saying, yeah, he’s preaching to the converted. Preaching eloquently, but still.

  • Jonathan

    Elly, “well regarded?” Mr. Cohen is a comedy writer, not a philosopher. Maybe Mark can interview Peter Singer (here opining on climate change) next.

  • Gargamel Tralfaz

    Randy Cohen from a Gothamist interview back on October 8th, 2004:

    How does the fact that you live in New York affect your ethics or affect the advice you give on the pages of the Sunday magazine?

    It’s reinforced an implacable hostility to the private car, which I believe is an immoral object. You know, somewhere along the way a fatal decision was made in Western culture in choosing the private car and nowhere does that reveal itself more starkly than in NY where one can get around perfectly fine without it. The fact that you can get around without a car reinforces its utter uselessness in general….

  • Steve

    Great interview/film. I think spokespeople who are good at telling people what to do (like Cohen) are fine. There’s nothing wrong with a didactic appraoch as one of many ways to get the message across. The rest of us can just set an example by biking or walking instead of driving. I also know lots of people who use their cars for everyday errands involving trips of 2 miles or less in NYC. I am sending several of them a link to this film.

    The “ambiguity” of the car issue in the outer boroughs is a fair way to characterize it, except perhaps for Staten Island. We really have come a long way in terms of bicycle access to the bridges. I live on the UES and I bicycle to Queens frequently, and quite a bit to the Bronx and Brooklyn as well. Long Island City and Astoria are a reliably shorter trip from my home than Soho or the Village, whether I take the Randall’s Island bridge ont he weekend or the Q’boro. Many bicyclists living in Astoria, Long Island City and the South Bronx have reliably faster commutes to employment in Midtown, and to Central Park and Museum Mile, than Manhattanites living downtown. It’s really a neighborhood-by-neighborhood thing.


The Trafficist

"It seemed to me that what was significantly undermining the ordinary daily happiness and health and economic life of both me and my fellow New Yorkers was the private car." –– Randy Cohen, "The Ethicist" Who knew? It turns out that one of New York City’s most captivating and articulate voices for Livable Streets is […]

Randy Cohen on the Ethics of Driving in Transit-Rich NYC

On Friday we asked why the Times editorial staff chose to call for ticketing cyclists after forgoing a few good opportunities to weigh in on the need for stepped-up enforcement of dangerous driving. Lest you think the Times just won’t publish opinions that note the hazards of driving or criticize car culture, have a listen […]

Bike Month NYC 2010

Wanna see a slice of the glorious NYC bike month that was? There were dozens of great events this May, from Bike to Work Day in the Bronx to the David Bowie Dance Ride in Manhattan to Bike to School Day at MS51 in Brooklyn. Of course Streetfilms couldn’t get to all of them, but […]

Support Streetfilms: Come to Our Fall Fundraiser on November 16

Streetfilms has been showcasing best practices in the livable streets world for nearly four years, producing over 300 informative films on topics such as physically-separated bike lanes, bus rapid transit, pedestrian plazas, complete streets, street transformations, and ciclovias in dozens of cities and countries.  Our films have been watched over 3 million times and have been […]