I spent a lot of time thinking about what exactly bothered me so much about Ashley Halsey’s Saturday article on New York Avenue speed cameras, AAA’s response, and Cornell Professor Isaac Kramnick.
After all, on the merits, I agree with AAA. Speed cameras are an important tool to ensure road safety by making drivers slow down when there are pedestrians and cyclists, or when drivers would injure themselves. When placed in an area that’s more a freeway, it seems that revenue has trumped safety. Do that too much, and people start pushing for laws against speed cameras. Then they can’t make the roads safer.
So what’s so frustrating? In an email, Ashley Hasley sugested I clarify why we object so much to AAA getting quoted in the Post. Aren’t they exactly what they seem, a driving advocacy organization? Aren’t all their positions totally consistent with that?
AAA isn’t quite as honest as all that. Most of their members haven’t intentionally joined an organization that advocates against mass transit and bicycle facilities. Instead, they signed up for an emergency towing service. When Cigna started lobbying on health reform, everyone realized that they were a corporation acting in their own interest, maybe but maybe not the interest of their customers. Yet AAA isn’t treated the same way.
They also say the most outlandish things, or at least AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesperson Lon Anderson does, like that “community connectivity and walkability and minimizing ecological harm” are “gibberish” on the Greater Washington 2025 report, or comparing the Inauguration to the Civil War: “The last time the bridges were closed like this, Lincoln was president and was worried about an invasion by General Lee.”
Then there’s Isaac Kramnick, who distorts political philosophy into a drivers-only credo: “What’s happening at this [camera] site is violating the concept of freedom ... The automobile is the symbolic icon of freedom.” And “Kramnick points to renowned English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said in 1651 that freedom is the absence of hindrance to motion.”
But EdTheRed points out that “What Hobbes meant by freedom of movement was that peasants shouldn’t be tied to the land, not that some d-bag could drive his automobile as fast as he damn well pleases.”
Articles that talk about drivers’ pain often include colorful descriptions by the reporters themselves, like Halsey’s lede: “Drivers call it the “free at last” traffic light. After doing the stop-and-go head bobble all the way from downtown, when they reach the light at Bladensburg Road they feel they’ve earned their freedom from the purgatory of New York Avenue.”
Meanwhile, look at Bob McCartney’s intro to a terrific column about the value of Smart Growth at Tysons and elsewhere: “If you’re upset about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and want to do something to fight America’s petroleum addiction, support a local cause that would make a difference: transforming Tysons Corner from a snarl of suburban sprawl into a grid of transit-friendly, urban high-rises. If done right — a big if — it would curb reliance on automobiles while allowing continued growth of population and jobs.”
On the one hand, we have stirring words about freedom. On the other, an intellectual argument about the importance of reducing our reliance on oil. Does the urbanist crowd need some really vivid prose to stir the soul instead of making rational arguments about the need for better policy?
There are people who write that kind of stuff, like James Howard Kunstler. I personally find his palpable hatred of suburbs somewhat cloying, and have a hard time reading most of his books. But I also find Anderson’s language nauseating as well. Somehow, though, Anderson ends up in every Post article about traffic, and Kunstler doesn’t. Kunstler gets labeled as extreme and Anderson doesn’t.
My problem isn’t with AAA’s positions or their fairly effective press operation. My problem is that they get quoted all the time in traffic stories, but no nutjobs on the other side saying something equally insane about how all drivers are evil or something. The only case that comes to mind is Jim Graham calling Maryland drivers the “devil incarnate,” but that was reported only because it came from an elected official’s mouth, and Graham came under criticism for it.
What do we need? Should we create some crazy alter ego “Ann Londerson” who says all the things about drivers that some people say about cyclists? Who talks about drivers who habitually break some laws the way Glenn Beck talks about undocumented immigrants? Would that get quoted? Would that improve the quality of the discourse? Somehow I doubt it on both counts.
So why can’t we just declare Lon Anderson an extremist and start ignoring him? Maybe reporters lack an alternative quote source. Maybe The Hill is Home writer Nichole Remmert, who likes to drive but isn’t a complete lunatic, should set up an organization called American Association of Reasonable, Not Hateful, And Generally Lawful Drivers (AARNHGLD) that can get quoted in the press instead, sensibly arguing that this particular speed camera isn’t so well placed but not trying to stir up old North-South Civil War tensions because the Secret Service wants people to walk to the Inauguration.