The Grass Is Always Dumber On The Other Side

Generally speaking, New Yorkers are obsessed with three subjects: housing, getting around the city, and the proper way to eat food. This is why most casual conversation and media content revolves around stuff like who pays what for their apartment and which neighborhoods are gentrifying, what the best way to get someplace is and whose fault it is that the traffic is so bad, and banal arguments about whether or not you should fold pizza or toast bagels. (And of course all of this is underpinned by a grossly inflamed sense of superiority, and that the rest of the country is somehow a wasteland because they haven’t perfected the art of preparing doughy gut-bombs like pizza and bagels.)

As a New Yorker myself, I’m no exception to any of this–especially when it comes to being obsessed with getting around the city. Of course my first loyalty is to the bicycle, but over the years I’ve availed myself of all manner of conveyances. I’ve owned cars, bicycles, and motorcycles. I’ve commuted by transit both public and private; I’ve bought Ten Paks of subway tokens and I’ve brown-bagged booze on the Long Island Railroad. I’ve hailed yellow cabs and I’ve pushed around on a skateboard. I was a founding member of Citi Bike. Depending on what I was doing, where I was going, how old I was, or what mood I was in at a given time, I’ve gotten around this town in innumerable ways–indeed, as frustrating as getting around this town can be, figuring out how to do it most effectively is part of the fun.

There is a difference, however, between figuring out the best way to get yourself around and figuring out the best way to get everyone else around; the former is a challenge, and the latter is borderline impossible. Sure, agencies such as the Department of Transportation are tasked with figuring out the bast way for everyone else to get around, which is why they’re detested and maligned by pretty much everybody. Then there are the advocates, who like to point out what everyone else is doing wrong:

I’m no polling expert, but this one seems slightly loaded:

Of course as a smug bicyclist myself I understand what he’s getting at: there are other ways to get around the city that don’t involve causing–and being–traffic, and to willingly forego them is to do yourself and others a disservice. It’s also ironic that people choose to sit in cars while watching subways and bicycles streaming over the Williamsburg Bridge.

At the same time, the more I think about it, the more absurd his question is. It’s kind of like looking at this scene and asking condescendingly, “How many of these people could have reasonably eaten at home?”

The correct answer is of course, “All of them,” because nobody needs to eat in a restaurant.

Paradoxically, an equally correct answer is, “None of them,” because clearly they all had perfectly good reasons to dine out. The food’s better, the drinks are better, they wanted to hang out with friends, they couldn’t deal with cleaning up, they were celebrating a raise or an engagement or a negative STD test result… It’s crowded, it’s noisy, and it’s expensive, but it’s usually not unreasonable to decide to dine in a restaurant.

To complicate matters further, any number in between “All of them” and “None of them” is also potentially correct, because anywhere from 1% to 99% of these assholes could at that moment be thinking to themselves, “This place blows, I wish I’da stayed home.”

Given all of this, the question is unanswerable, and therefore meaningless. Ultimately, you must reconcile yourself to the undeniable fact of their presence. Whether you’re standing on a bridge looking at the traffic or walking past the fogged-up windows of a crowded restaurant, you’re looking at people who made a conscious decision to be exactly where they are:

Now, you may very well think these people are idiots. Why sit in traffic? Why belly up to the bar and spend $13 on a cocktail when you can make yourself one at home? However, it seems to me the salient thing to note is not, “Wow, those people made a dumb decision” so much as it is, “Wow, I’m glad I’m not stuck in there with them.” They may think you’re an idiot for being on a bike, or a loser for not being in the restaurant. Sometimes we think the grass is greener on the other side, but more often we think it’s poison ivy.

At this point it may be tempting to point out that there’s an important difference between traffic and restaurants: the former takes a toll even on the people who choose not to drive (exhaust fumes, noise, collisions, etc.) whereas restaurants are part of the cultural fabric of the city and are something that bring us all together. Therefore, it’s necessary to criticize people who choose to drive and to discourage their behavior, whereas it’s unnecessary if not downright unfair to criticize people for their social activity and discretionary spending. (Remember the backlash when that congressman said poor people shouldn’t buy iPhones?)

This may be true–expect there was a time not too long ago when our betters decided dining in restaurants was also bad for public health. So first they closed the restaurants, but it turns out both people and the economy actually need them, so they let them open again, but only if they followed a bunch of really complicated rules, or let people eat near the restaurant instead of in it:

No doubt there are people who will claim that this was all for the better. No doubt there were also people who cultivated a newfound appreciation for dining at home, or discovered some new food delivery app that improved their quality of life during that time. For some this may even result in a permanent lifestyle change. For the most part, however, whether you thought it was wise or stupid, there was a general consensus that all this should be temporary, and that eventually we should get back to the usual state of affairs, that being a sort of free-for-all in which anyone who wants to pay for the privilege of stuffing themselves into a restaurant or bar may do so, and those who prefer not to can stay home and prepare vegan meals while listening to NPR.

I’m obviously in favor of bike lanes and bus lanes and improving public transit, and while I think it’s profoundly naive to trust the State of New York to handle money wisely, in theory anyway I’m also in favor of congestion pricing, in the same way I’m in favor of letting a restaurant owner raise prices. At the same time, the idea that you can decide that some people are “wrong” to drive or that you can enact some set of policies or charges that will convince them of the error of their ways seems unsustainable at best, in the same way it’s unsustainable for the restaurant industry to make people dine outside when it’s 25 degrees out or show medical papers to pop in for a quick bite. Great shifts in the way people move around the city seem less likely to come from annoying people out of their cars and more likely to come from some cultural or technological shift we’re unlikely to anticipate, let alone precipitate through some alchemy of guilt and tolling.

If people put up with traffic now as bad as it is then there’s probably no limit to what they’ll endure, barring the advent of a wildly more attractive solution. People don’t sit in traffic and deal with all the other crap that comes with driving in the city because they’re stupid. They do it because they prefer it. You can certainly tell people they shouldn’t do something, and you can remind them of the alternatives, but you can’t tell them they don’t prefer it if they do. It just makes you look like the idiot.

I know what it’s like to ride over the bridge, look down at all the traffic, and see it as a huge problem that would be solved if only everyone else would cooperate. I also know what it’s like to ride over the bridge, look down at all the traffic, and not give a shit about the problem because I already solved it for myself by riding my bike.

I realize it smacks of apathy and selfishness, but I much prefer the second one.

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