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 to the latest Podcast from the Ethicist, Randy Cohen:

[audio: http://podcasts.nytimes.com/podcasts/2010/12/16/17ethicist.mp3]

Cohen refers to two core principles to frame his list of ten reasons why driving in Manhattan is a bad choice:

First: Ethics involves the effects of our actions on others. There can be solitary sin. You can sit alone at home and covet your neighbor’s ox. But if you want to be unethical, you must  get up, get dressed, go out, and steal the ox. Ethics isn’t ethics until other people are involved. When you drive in Manhattan, you harm those other people. A lot.

Next: Ethics involves actions that are volitional. If you live in Atlanta or Phoenix or Dallas and you want to buy a newspaper or visit a friend or hold a job, you must drive. Here in Manhattan, you can walk to the corner for a paper, take the train to Brooklyn to visit your pals, bike to work. In Manhattan, driving is done by choice.

As for the choices we make while cycling, Cohen gives a great explanation of the wrong-ness of wrong-way riding in this Streetfilm from earlier this year.

  • Josef

    Are the ethics of driving into Manhattan the same for non-Manhattanites who, for example, choose between driving to a train station to take the train in and driving all the way in? What about low-income people who live in transit poor locations, due to cheaper house prices? Do the ethics change with individual circumstances or are they the same for all?

  • Urban mobility can and must be made significantly practical, comfortable, and low-cost to eliminate all reasons for using cars in the city.

  • J.J. Hunsecker

    In the Manhattan-centric view of the Times, the answer is “who cares?”

    Seriously, Randy Cohen deserves a less snarky answer. Outer-borough and suburban people driving to train or bus stops are making the better ethical choice — and usually the better financial choice — for going into Manhattan.

    Those folks out in places like the Poconos more typically drive to bus stops or PATH parking rather than Manhattan, usually because it’s more economical — it also happens to add less congestion, making it the ethical choice as well.

  • “Ethics involves the effects of our actions on others. There can be solitary sin. You can sit alone at home and covet your neighbor’s ox. But if you want to be unethical, you must get up, get dressed, go out, and steal the ox.”

    This comment is not related to transportation, but I can’t help mentioning that The Ethicist is ignoring an important issue in the history of ethics.

    Classical ethics were based on virtues and vices that could apply either to others or to yourself. Gluttony is a vice, even though it hurts no one but yourself. Likewise, covetousness is a vice, and it hurts yourself even if you do not act on it and harm others.

    It is only beginning in the seventeenth century that this was replaced by ethics based on rules that prevent you from harming others. The first major example was Hobbes’s social contract theory, based on the idea that people act selfishly in the state of nature, and we need rules to prevent them from acting selfishly.

    Classical virtue-based ethics tried to help people live their own lives successfully and happily. Modern rule-based ethics tries to prevent people from harming others. This is why ethics has gotten a bit of a bad name: we think of ethics as rules that make our own lives less pleasant but that are necessary to protect society.

  • Joe R.

    @Charles Siegel,

    You actually hit the nail on the head regarding the problem with modern rule-based ethics – namely the idea that we can PREVENT people from harming others. Maybe to some extent certain laws can provide a deterrent, but the problem is when things are taken too far. The law should only punish when actual harm has been done, or at worst when an action has a very high likelihood of causing harm ( say driving a car at 70 mph on local streets ). If instead you start doing what we have done, namely making a gazillion mindless laws which punish people for doing things which have only a minor potential for harm, but in most cases are harmless, then you breed resentment for the rule of law in general. Case in point is the infamous 19-176 law which prohibits sidewalk cycling. It can easily be shown that sidewalk cycling is generally not an activity which is harmful the majority of the time. The proof of this is the many places where it is regularly practiced, particularly in Asia. Sure, sometimes people get hit or even killed by sidewalk cyclists. And once in a while they get killed by lightning ( actually the latter is probably more likely statistically ). So why the blanket prohibition? It makes no sense from a statistical or public safety point of view. It would make more sense if the prohibition were only conditional, perhaps prohibiting sidewalk riding over 20 km/h, or riding in such a manner as to require pedestrians to get out of your way instead of the other way around. We have lots of silly laws which basically prohibit actions which are harmless 99.9% of the time. In essence we have resorted to treating the entire population like the least common denominator. And when you treat adults like children incapable of exercising any judgement, then that’s exactly how they’ll eventually behave.

  • I think it is extremely arrogant that people would attach an ethical tag to driving. This drives a massive wedge between mass transit advocates and non-users in general. The best way to promote transit usage is by providing a useful system that gets people from point A to point B in a timely manner. Of course, someone who lives in Manhattan may have less of a need because the higher speed, higher capacity networks are optimized to connect Manhattan to other areas.

    However, many bus drivers drive to work. Many train conductors, motormen, and engineers drive to work. There are legitimate reasons for driving to Manhattan and they are numerous. Sometimes, the trip to Manhattan is part of a trip chain comprising several stops (not all of which may be accessible by mass transit).

    People use transportation to get from one point to another. When we get sidetracked on “save the whales” or “economic development” or “ethical reasons” for mass transit, you are not speaking the non-user language. When you explain to them that driving to and from work lengthens their work day because driving is work, they get it.

  • The best way to promote transit usage is by providing a useful system that gets people from point A to point B in a timely manner.


    When you explain to them that driving to and from work lengthens their work day because driving is work, they get it.

    Two very quotable sentences from JAzumah. Word on the Street, are you listening?

  • eLK

    Is it ethical for the Times Editorial Board to call for ticketing one category of law breakers when the are many other similarly dangerous categories?

    What is the ethics of calling for a food delivery, then calling for the food deliverer to be ticketed, and then calling and ordering food to be delivered again?

  • I think the point, as Cohen makes in his example of Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix residents, is that when one has zero choice but to drive, then it’s perfectly ethical to drive. If have sworn off bottled water for ethical reasons, it’s not necessarily a violation of ethics to buy a Poland Spring if I’m somewhere without water fountains and am dying of thirst.

    So I’m sure the same standards apply to the person who lives in an area without transit or who makes multiple stops if taking the train, even into Manhattan, doesn’t make sense. I’m also sure it applies to the bus driver or train conductor who drives to work since ironically a lot of the bus and train yards are in areas without a lot of transit. The point is to judge the overall effects of our actions based on the particular circumstances.

    It may come across as arrogance, but I didn’t take it that way. Since he’s writing as The Ethicist, why shouldn’t Cohen entertain the question of the ethics of what is an everyday activity for a lot of people?

    All that being said, I agree with you 100%, JAzumah. The best way to convince people of the efficacy of biking and transit is to emphasize the cost and time advantages. That’s why things such as congestion pricing and scaled meter rates depending on time of day work, because they introduce not the ethical question of driving but whether or not driving is worth it.

    I’d also agree that using ethics to market the alternative transportation “brand” is not going to gain a lot of traction anywhere. All but the most far-left anti-car zealot gets that. It’s probably similar to listening to someone talk about being a vegetarian. Speaking for myself, I’d rather listen to the health reasons rather than get a finger wagging from someone who thinks that meat is murder.

    I can’t speak for him, but I’m sure even Cohen understands that for most people the question of driving boils down to cost, time, and convenience. But you can’t blame the guy for using a great subject as fodder for a column. He’s not writing as a Streetsblogger, he’s writing as the Ethicist.

  • @Joe R, that was not my point. Laws obviously must be rule based, not virtue based – which doesn’t imply that we should make too many rules.

    My point was that The Ethicist ignored the possibility of classical virtue based ethics meant to make people live more successfully.

    If anyone is interested in this topic, check out my little book “Ethics: What We Still Know After A Skeptical Age,” which you can read or buy at

  • Larry Littlefield

    “My point was that The Ethicist ignored the possibility of classical virtue based ethics meant to make people live more successfully.”

    Right, and often classical virtue means not doing what is easy in the short run but what is better in the long run, for you and others. Bike commuting corresponds with classical virtue because it make you healthier and stronger.

  • Ethan

    At his talk at the Streetfilms fundraiser Cohen also condoned riding though red lights if it is done so carefully and respectfully. This illegal behavior of bikes seemed to be the most offensive to the NYTimes editors.

    We need to bike, walk and drive in a way that we want the world to be, while staying safe and respectful of others. If we don’t challenge the current balance of behavior and just abide by street laws and expected behaviors that are clearly not developed for bikes or pedestrains, we will never change the balance of our streets to be safer and more respectful for everyone.

    Certainly, the safest, most attractive and most celebrated streets in the world, have few traffic expectations or regulations.

  • Joe R.

    @Charles Seigel,

    I didn’t mean to imply that was the point you were making. Rather, your discussion of virtue-based ethics versus rule-based ethics reminded me of one of the big problems with rule-based ethics nowadays-namely the overuse of rules in a futile attempt to correct behavoir which has a deeper underlying cause. Of course rule-based ethics doesn’t necessarily imply that we should many too many rules. Unfortunately though it ends up being a narcotic to politicians looking for quick fixes, with the net result of living with far too many rules. It’s really the sheer number of rules which have given rule-based ethics a bad name in my opinion rather than the concept. Then again, when anything is overused there are frequently unforeseen results.

  • Joe R.


    I think you’re 100% correct here. Traffic laws, traffic control devices, and streets themselves are mostly designed for one purpose-fast, efficient movement of automobiles. When you throw other groups in, they are forced to operate suboptimally at the margins, or not at all, in order for as many cars as possible to drive as fast as possible. Your example of cyclists and red lights is probably the best example of this. The law stipulates that bicycles must obey traffic signals and signs. The law completely ignores the fact that a system of traffic lights designed for car speeds will, if followed by the letter of the law, frequently result in average bicycle speeds being reduced to walking speed or less, effectively negating any advantage of bicycles over walking. It also completely ignores the fact that any cyclist taking a reasonably long journey, say 10 miles, may not physically be able to stop and start perhaps 100 times ( or more ). And a stopped cyclist loses the ability to maneuver out of danger, putting them at greater risk if an errant motorist comes their way. Pedestrians face a similar set of issues, although in their case, the primary problem is that waiting out don’t walk signals may well double their journey time. In both cases, to nobody’s surprise, red signals are routinely ignored.

    Since this is so obviously a bad system for two out of three groups, why then don’t we use something else ( the ideal is the unmarked, unsignaled, unsigned streets you alluded to )? Well, we don’t because a string a traffic lights synced to allow continuous 30 or 40 mph movement allows cars to move as fast as possible, to the detriment of both cyclists and pedestrians. The motorist knows a green light means ( at least in theory ) zero chance of anything crossing their path, so they feel free to drive as fast as they can get away with. Now think if we went to uncontrolled streets. Even in the absence of a speed limit, it would be sheer suicide to drive faster than about 20 mph on streets like that. And you would have to look at each and every intersection, rather than assuming it’s clear because you have a green light. In short, traffic volumes and speeds would by necessity decrease. Even though such streets would allow pedestrians and cyclists to operate more or less optimally, motorists would perceive them as slower. Note the operative word here-“perceive”. In actuality a motorist is lucky to average 20 or 25 mph on city streets. Many times they average less than 15 mph. A road where they could proceed at ~20 mph, pretty much without stopping, might offer higher travel speeds most of the time. It wouldn’t seem that way to the motorist, however. For some reason those spurts of 50 mph stick in their mind more than the minutes waiting at stop lights.

    It’s clear to me however we need a major change in how we think of urban streets. When two out of three groups are marginalized so a minority in cars can have a ( seemingly ) faster journey, something is seriously wrong. And yes, sometimes the only way to affect change is to challenge the status quo. The only way cyclists and pedestrians can do this is by bending certain laws, but doing so in a respectful manner.

  • It’s a nice idea, Joe, but it doesn’t always work. You can see such a system in Santo Domingo, where the locals have figured out a way of speeding up traffic. Drivers honk when they come to an unsignalized intersection, and whoever honks first goes first! So if you keep honking at every block, you can go faster. It’s not much fun for pedestrians, let alone people who live along those streets and have to listen to all the honking.

  • Joe R.

    @Cap’n Transit,

    I’m not saying the idea will work 100% of the time. Sometimes you might need a yield sign here or even a traffic light there. What I am saying is the present system absolutely sucks unless you drive. Even then it leaves something to be desired. Really, the best solution is to get all vehicles except buses, delivery trucks, and emergency vehicles off the roads. That being done, traffic would be very light. Motor vehicles would be operated solely by professional drivers. The whole unmarked, unsignaled, unsigned streets idea would work perfectly in this situation. But what do you think the chances of that ever happening are? Even if we magically built comprehensive public transit in the outer boroughs, a lot of people would still find some lame excuse to drive.

  • Lizzzzzzzz

    The Ethicist is wrong on one point, Sidewalk Rage DOES exist, and I get it when I end up behind large groups of people walking slowly (usually tourists, but not always) who do not even imagine the possibility that they should move so people who have things to do can get to where they are going.

    The difference is, though, that on the sidewalk, I do not have thousands of pounds of motorized steel to hurt those people with. I usually settle for mumbling angrily.


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