Rod King and the Slow Driving Movement
By Ian Parker
Rod King, the founder of a British slow-driving advocacy organization called 20's Plenty for Us, took a walk on the Lower East Side not long ago, carrying a radar speed gun warily in one hand, and wearing a blue button-down shirt that had a twenty-miles-per-hour speed-limit sign stitched onto its front. The wind was coming from the east in aggressive little gusts, and so were the town cars leaving the F.D.R. Drive. King is a lean, sixty-one-year-old cyclist, with a vicarly manner, who had travelled to New York from Warrington, in Cheshire, to make a presentation at an anti-speeding conference; before that, he would discuss his work with N.Y.U. graduate students. He was planning to read them a poem that began "Where roads are residential, / Lower speed limits are essential / If we're to stay alive / and help community to thrive, / twenty's plenty, / thirty hurts me." The poem rhymed "congestion" and "question."
Standing beneath a sign on East Houston that read "Speed Limit 30. Speed checked by radar," King turned on the gun, which he had borrowed from Transportation Alternatives, the bike, pedestrian, and public-transit enthusiasts, who were organizing the conference. He handled it awkwardly, at waist height, saying, "I don't think it's good to point a gun-shaped object at anybody." To his possible relief, the battery was flat; the LED display read "dead." So King made some less formal car-speed calculations, saying, for example, "Probably thirty-five." He added, "There's so much pace here on the traffic. The mental attitude is: We're stopped, let's go as fast as possible before we're stopped again."
A few years ago, King gained a small amount of fame for his part in "Crap Cycle Lanes," a cult book of photographs showing bike lanes that ran directly into lampposts or phone booths. 20's Plenty, which King runs without pay, while managing his own small I.T. company, makes the case that restrained, good-natured driving in residential areas--tootling--is best achieved not by the fussy, expensive apparatus of speed bumps, chicanes, and school zones but, rather, by area-wide speed limits of twenty miles per hour, such as were recently introduced in Portsmouth and several other British cities, thanks in part to King's activities. (An opposing lobby, in the U.K., complains about an alleged "war on the motorist"; one Web site exists to publish photographs of automatic speed-detection cameras that have been deliberately set on fire.) New York City's Department of Transportation has announced that it will introduce an experimental twenty-m.p.h. neighborhood, somewhere in the city, before the end of next year.
At Houston and Avenue D, King stopped to speak to Crystal Ruiz, a school crossing guard, and he took the opportunity to note that British guards are known as lollipop ladies, because they carry stop signs on long poles. Ruiz said, "We're not allowed to hold anything, because of the wind. We could get hurt." It was a day that seemed to justify the rule. As King tried vainly to revive his speed gun, Ruiz described the problem of offering help to older people as they crossed East Houston: "Sometimes they don't want you to help them. They yell at you."
The cars on Delancey Street were barely moving. Murray Oak, a retired truck driver standing in front of T. & J. Auto Repairs, told King, "Twenty miles an hour? That's good enough!" as if auditioning for a public-service announcement, although Oak railed against the bike lanes on Grand Street: "It's asinine. Takes away a place to park." Around the corner, Vinny DeCarlo, who works in his cousin's uniform-and-linen-cleaning company, based in Copiague, Long Island, stopped mid-delivery to describe the temptation to drive like a maniac at the end of a twelve-hour day behind the wheel.
"At twenty, you'd actually save time," King said. "Going forty miles per hour doesn't change your position in the next queue, at the next traffic lights."
"You're right," DeCarlo said, and he nodded. "I'm a firm believer that, whether you do twenty or fifty-five, you're going to get to the same place at the same time."
A taxi was parked on Houston near Avenue A. Tashi Lama, the driver, was sitting in the back seat, the door open. King leaned in and made his case, pointing out that a taxi's average weekday speed in midtown is about ten miles per hour. Lama said, "But it's a cab, the meter is running! At twenty, you're getting more money"--per mile--"but you're wasting time. And we have a rush hour. If you can't kill the rush hour, you can't make it. If you kill the rush hour, you've got a chance." He added, "The F.D.R. limit is forty, but I drive seventy, because if I drive forty the customer says, 'What happened? You don't know how to drive?' "
At Elizabeth Street, the light was against King, and a delivery van was approaching, but he stepped into the street, calmly, and brushed away the panicked hand of a co-walker who was trying to save his life. The van accelerated slightly and steered toward him.
Submitted by kim on December 2, 2010 - 19:37. categories [ ]