The Other Marathon

by Michael J. Smith

(Another entry in the Not Fit To Print file.)

It's Marathon time again, and once more New Yorkers will be lining the streets to cheer the runners. Why, one may ask? What's so exciting about watching several thousand skinny people panting along the asphalt wearing a few scraps of synthetic fiber and an expression of anguish?

Partly it's admiration for the effort and achievement of the runners, but for me at least, there's another element too: I love to see public space reclaimed from cars, by people who are getting around under their own steam. I love the way it humanizes a streetscape that is normally either a lethal, roaring mass of hurtling metal hulks, or an ugly, reeking mess of stationary metal hulks.

We only have one Marathon a year, but there are any number of reasons why we need to enable more people to get around New York under their own power, not just on Marathon Sunday, but every day:

  • This newspaper has given extensive coverage, over the last few weeks, to the epidemic of obesity in the US. This is not a problem with a single cause, but car-dependence is certainly an important factor.
  • Most New York households don't own a car, but street space is overwhelmingly devoted to cars, either in the form of traffic lanes or ridiculously underpriced -- even free! -- parking.
  • The effect of car-dominance on the air we breathe is well-known, but other environmental insults -- noise, for example -- are so ubiquitous that they go unnoticed.
  • Motor vehicles kill several hundred pedestrians and cyclists every year, and this isn't even news. If the subways were killing people at that rate, we'd shut them down.

Yet policy and practice strongly favor cars, and throw up innumerable obstacles to those who seek other means of travel -- especially to cyclists. The biggest of these obstacles is official indulgence of threatening, aggressive behavior on the part of drivers. Studies have shown that many more people would like to cycle, but don't, because they believe -- with some justification -- that the streets are just too hostile.

Nevertheless, in spite of official antagonism and cultural obloquy, cyclists in New York account for as many person-miles every day as the marathoners collectively will this Sunday: about 800,000.

This daily, invisible New York City Marathon, not only unsung but widely execrated, is an unacknowledged boon for New Yorkers, whether they participate or not. These 100,000 or so self-propelled citizens are not taking up space in the subways or buses; much less hogging the hundred-plus square feet of pavement required to accommodate a car. The only fuel they are burning is their own breakfast. To be sure, they are not always as polite and law-abiding as one might like; but their capacity to do damage is considerably less than that of an SUV.

They are not alien beings: they include couriers, delivery people, white- and blue-collar commuters, children and the elderly, real athletes and recovering couch potatoes -- a cross-section of the city. Like the marathoners, each of them has taken a step that shows considerable gumption -- and in the cyclists' case, one that's good for the city, as well as for themselves. And like the marathoners, they deserve encouragement rather than abuse.

One of the inspiring aspects of the Marathon is that, as Dr Johnson said in another context, it enlarges our conception of the powers of humankind. That's an enlargement we very much need, not just as individuals but as a society. Change is within our power. Our streets need not be malodorous, cacophonous infernos; we need not lose hundreds of fellow-citizens a year under car wheels. If 30,000 of us can run from Staten Island to Central Park, then a lot more of us can get out of the car, climb on a bike, and bring some humanity back to our streets -- every day of the year.

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