City Journal

Jonathan Foreman
Toward a More Civil City
When the mayor improved New York’s quality of life, the city benefited hugely. Here are three easy ways to enhance it further.
Winter 1998

Innovative suggestions about fixing New York's then-ragged quality of life that Nathan Glazer, George Kelling, Peter Salins, and other urban thinkers outlined in a special issue of City Journal six years ago influenced one of the great successes of Mayor Giuliani's first term. City Journal's authors argued that seemingly trivial irritations—from aggressive panhandling and lackadaisical garbage collection to public drinking, excessive noise, and de facto decriminalized drug selling—gave citizens the impression that things were falling apart and hinted, almost subliminally, that they were vulnerable to greater harms. "If the city doesn't care about one aspect of its citizens' lives," former City Journal editor Roger Starr wrote, "it probably doesn't care about others." The inevitable result was soaring crime. The devil-may-care atmosphere emboldened wrongdoers, and a pervasive demoralization made ordinary New Yorkers anxious, pessimistic, alienated from civic life, slow to go out into the city for pleasure, and quick to leave town for good.

In response, Mayor Giuliani directed the police to enforce aggressively the laws against low-level crimes—so-called quality-of-life offenses or what used to be called "victimless" crimes. It turned out that there really was a victim: the social order. The most visible, dramatic consequence of the mayor's new policy was the drop in crime to levels unknown since the early 1960s. Just as important, law-abiding New Yorkers began to feel that their city belonged to them once again. No longer did they have to watch thieves flaunting their invulnerability by selling their booty in full view of impotent passersby on Columbus Avenue or St. Mark's Place; no longer did every subway ride make them cringe under the aggressive mockery of graffiti-scrawled trains, proclaiming that lawlessness ruled; no longer did every walk on the sidewalk involve facing a gauntlet of deranged or drugged beggars; no longer did motorists have to submit to extortion by squeegee at every intersection. Central Park, Tompkins Square Park, Bryant Park all became pleasant and safe. Trade picked up at the city's restaurants and theaters. Hotels burst with tourists, formerly repelled by Gotham's crime and grime but now drawn by its newly restored metropolitan glamour. New Yorkers no longer believed that their city was poised on the brink of anarchy; instead, it had a future.

What can a second Giuliani administration do to improve the city's quality of life further? It can make New York a more civil place. Civility sounds old-fashioned, calling to mind Victorian gentlemen tipping their hats, and the word is alarming to those who believe bourgeois values are a prison from which we have recently, and thankfully, escaped. Indeed, for three decades a culture war has raged against bourgeois civility, under attack from moral relativism and multiculturalism, from the idea that people should be "authentic" rather than conventional, from the growing primacy of rights over duties, and from the fractiousness of identity politics. But civility is the preeminent urban virtue: both "civility" and "citizen" derive from the same Latin word for "city." Civility means behaving in a non-aggressive, mutually forbearing way toward your fellow citizens. Since cities draw together large numbers of strangers in a small area, civility is the mutually respectful behavior required of all if urban life is not to become disordered and dangerous, as it did over the last three decades.

The mayor should focus on three main civility-enhancing strategies. First, two large classes of the public incivilities that infuriate New Yorkers—dangerously inconsiderate driving and excessive noise—are in fact illegal, and the mayor should push the police to enforce existing traffic and noise laws seriously. This is an extension of his first term's quality-of-life strategy of enforcing already-existing but largely disused laws. Just as taking minor crimes seriously sent the message that the authorities really were in control, so too will increased police attention to cars with ear-pounding sound systems. Stopping motorists from skidding around corners and cutting off pedestrians in crosswalks will send an equally salutary message. Right now, the fact that you can get away with me-first, in-your-face behavior that isn't just thuggish and inconsiderate but plainly illegal encourages people to let loose their thuggish but legal impulses, if only in retaliation. Enforcement would underline the principle that society has standards for your behavior toward fellow citizens.

Second, the mayor should demand civil behavior from all city employees, who should be models of right conduct for the public. If the representatives of public order show no respect, then why should anyone else? Third, schools should teach the rules of good behavior, as they did in the recent past. Contrary to the romantic ideology of the day, children are not born knowing all moral truths intuitively.

Now that New York has the lowest violent crime rate of any major American city, residents are less afraid of being mugged and more afraid that they or their children will get run down crossing the street. They feel under constant assault from motorists who run red lights, cut them off, or honk at them in crosswalks. They know that they have to walk defensively, because the near misses they experience every day sometimes turn into something really dangerous. Motor vehicles kill 250 pedestrians in New York annually and put a startling 13,500 more in the hospital. By comparison, Tokyo, with 12 million people, averages around 150 pedestrian deaths annually. London, with a population close to New York's 7.5 million, experiences the same. Even Paris, noted for its crazy drivers, and with 2 million more people in its metropolitan area, has fewer than half New York's pedestrian deaths. Gotham's streets are the most dangerous for pedestrians in America, and lethal for children: every year, motor vehicles injure 3,500 kids between the ages of 5 and 14 in the city.

Enforcing the traffic laws would make New York's streets a lot less anarchic—and a lot safer. Traffic engineers point out that a decrease in vehicle speed from 40 to 30 miles per hour—the speed limit on New York City streets, though few motorists know it and very few signs proclaim it—increases the chance a pedestrian will survive being hit from 40 to 70 percent, so just slowing speeders down will lead to fewer lost lives. A city with fewer speeders will be less scary, not only to the elderly, to parents, and to out-of-towners but to all New Yorkers.

Oddly, the New York Police Department does not see traffic enforcement as a priority, despite the pedestrian casualties. Police issued a mere 650 summonses for failure to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks in 1996—fewer than two a day—despite the 70 percent of traffic fatalities that occur there. Police should punish crosswalk violations ruthlessly. Despite the regular speeding on city streets of the city's 2 million motorists—on Manhattan's upper Broadway, the Department of Transportation alarmingly discovered, vehicles regularly zoomed by at 50 miles per hour—90 percent of the city's 84,227 speeding tickets were for violations on the city's limited-access expressways, not its pedestrian-heavy main streets, though more pedestrians than motorists die in city accidents. The NYPD hands out only 44 speeding tickets a day on the five boroughs' local streets, and it should aggressively increase that number. As John Kaehny of Transportation Alternatives explains, "the police feel overwhelmed by the general lawlessness of the streets"—but their ticketing policy makes them complicit in the chaos.

New Yorkers must especially beware of the city's buses and taxis, which frequently operate with little concern for the law. Buses, in particular, terrify motorists and pedestrians. Bullying juggernauts of the road, they pull out from the curb without regard for oncoming traffic, plow through red lights—causing gridlock along with endangering lives—and straddle lanes with impunity. Such reckless driving may well stem from a sense of legal invulnerability: police almost never ticket bus drivers, who share unionized civil servant status with them—albeit under state, not city, jurisdiction. And municipal bus drivers who have injured or killed people in multiple accidents still ride the streets, for civil service rules make dismissing them next to impossible. But when bus drivers, as civil servants, flout the rules of the road, it sends exactly the wrong message—that the official representatives of society have contempt for the law. More reason, then, for the mayor to direct the police to enforce moving violations against them vigorously.

By contrast, the police shower taxi drivers with tickets, but not for bad driving—though taxis often careen through the streets as if traffic laws didn't exist, frightening pedestrians and passengers alike. Cabs killed 48 New Yorkers in 1994 and 1995, 70 percent of them pedestrians or bicyclists, and 5,000 taxi accidents occurred annually from 1988 through 1993. Yet most taxi citations are for ripped seats, parking illegally while the driver looks for a bathroom, or letting passengers get in at a bus stop. To take only one month as an example: of the 1,500 summonses police gave taxi drivers in April 1995, only 38 were for moving violations. If police would intensively penalize reckless taxi drivers now, they could ease up in the future, just as strict enforcement of the pooper-scooper law when it was introduced changed dog-owners' behavior permanently, even though enforcement has now greatly relaxed. If word got out that police no longer tolerated irresponsible taxi driving, taxi drivers would drive lawfully and civilly—and other motorists would get the message too. Instead, the NYPD's Traffic Control Division—which includes taxi enforcement—operates at half strength.

Bikes join the motorized forms of transportation in terrorizing pedestrians, even more so since a Chirping Chicken bicycle deliveryman recently killed an elderly man on the West Side. The NYPD has cracked down on bicycle road-crime, issuing around 10,000 summonses to cyclists for running red lights, driving on sidewalks, and other infractions in 1997—an almost 50 percent increase over 1996. Of the 100,000 bicyclists on the city's streets on any given day, the messengers and deliverymen, rather than the amateur riders, scare pedestrians the most, as they whiz the wrong way down a one-way street or plow onto the sidewalk with somebody's Chinese dinner. Not surprisingly, they cause most of the city's bike accidents, according to Transportation Alternatives. Commercial bikes should prominently display the employer's name, and new laws should hold companies liable for the reckless driving of their cyclists, who work under heavy pressure to be speedy. Police should register all bikes ridden on city streets.

More than half the callers to the police department's recently established, though under-publicized, quality-of-life hot line (888-677-LIFE) complained about excessive noise. Some of the noise is designed to be uncivil: boom-box cars, for example, or motorcycles and "muscle cars" with engines altered to make them sound as loud and raucous as possible. Mayor Giuliani moved in the right direction when he signed into law a noise pollution bill last November. The new law trebles the penalties for excessive noise, with a maximum individual fine reaching $2,100 for a third offense. Police can now slap a riotous nightclub with a $24,000 penalty. But police need to take excessive noise more seriously: early in 1997, only five of Queens's and Brooklyn's 39 precincts had meters to measure whether a noise was louder than the 80 decibels within 50 feet established by city ordinance as legal.

One major noise problem needs a new law to rein it in. The piercing wails of car alarms serve no purpose in most of the city. As much as graffiti or squeegee men, they send the message that no one is in charge: burglar alarms wail constantly, yet no one comes, as in some dystopian science-fiction movie. The chronic false alarms proclaim the intensely uncivil message several times a day (and night) that the peace and quiet of an entire neighborhood weighs as nothing compared to the anxieties of individuals about their property. Though in 1992 the City Council passed a law requiring car alarms to shut themselves off automatically after three minutes, it should go further and forbid entirely the use of car alarms within city limits and permit police to tow offending vehicles.

The city needs to look at its sirens, too, and ensure that they are the least bothersome possible and that they wail only during real emergencies. This holds true of the private ambulance services, whose noise-making remains unregulated. The mayor should also push to curtail street fairs sharply. They have turned into honky-tonk franchises. The mayor can also send a message that the city will no longer tolerate stores that blast music out front, except during Christmas and with a special permit.

If New York's 200,000 public employees were to behave more civilly, it would soften some of the harshness of city life and set an appropriate example to citizens. Of course, the incivility of public servants is often systemic and impersonal. I once tried to report a broken fire hydrant and called the Brooklyn telephone number suggested by my local police precinct, but no one ever picked up. The fire department gave me another number in the same area code. It too rang unanswered in some dusty Brooklyn office. My experience was not out of the ordinary. One survey found that the city Finance Department put callers on hold for 27 minutes on average, and a 1996 City Council survey found that, out of 173 complaint and question letters sent to 21 different city agencies, only 31 percent had received the courtesy of an answer within six weeks. Of 16 letters sent to 16 agencies offering to donate books and other items, none received a response.

Sadly, if Mayor Giuliani tried to emulate his predecessor, Mayor La Guardia, and fire uncivil civil servants, he'd have a tough time. La Guardia, the well-known anecdote runs, once dropped by incognito on a Lower East Side relief station, where insolent officials ignored him. Eventually, one of the city workers went up to the angry La Guardia, who shouted, "Take off your hat when you speak to a citizen!" striking the hat from the bureaucrat's head. La Guardia fired the civil servant on the spot. These days, regulations make it hard even to reprimand civil servants, much less fire them. Yet regulations do not tie the mayor's hands completely. Managers can fire city officials "for cause," though the process is arduous. The mayor could make it a potentially terminal offense for a civil servant to be rude to the public. Symbolically, such a gesture would show what city government expects when its employees deal with citizens. Nor are all city workers civil servants: some work part time or on contracts, so civil service regulations don't shield them from public dissatisfaction.

The city's managers can work at creating a culture of civility within their agencies. They should criticize boorish employees and lavish praise on those who treat the public as valued customers. Former Transportation Commissioner Ross Sandler recalls a senior transit executive who, whenever he rode the subway and heard a particularly friendly announcement, rewarded the driver with a star to wear on his uniform. The executive's gesture might seem corny today, but it expresses Management 101 common sense about human motivation. Wherever civil service rules permit, positive reinforcement could also take the more material form of promotions and pay increases.

Private businesses spent the last decade figuring out how to "meet and exceed customer expectations," as the management mantra has it, and businessmen have much to teach bureaucrats about how to be polite to taxpayers. The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles engaged Eastman Kodak to train DMV employees to see license applicants as customers rather than as irritating distractions. Kodak's program transformed DMV employee attitudes, with a happy result: the opening of the efficient, friendly, License X-press office on Manhattan's 34th Street. In 1993 the average waiting time in a DMV office was one hour. In 1996, after Kodak's creation of a new corporate culture in the department, the average wait shrank to only 11 minutes. Service companies offer other lessons from the private sphere that city agencies might borrow as well, including comment cards, 800 numbers, and monitored phone calls, to ensure satisfied customers.

The NYPD has already developed a civility program called "CPR"—"Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect"—which, properly instituted, could be a model for city government. But CPR has yet to permeate the entire police department, and it currently expresses more of a hope than a reality. Police, because they are the literal embodiment of the civil order, need to exemplify civility more than any other city employees. As the community's monopolists of lawful force, they must hold themselves—and be held—to the highest standard. They must strike a delicate balance, making law-abiding citizens feel that the authority of society is on their side, while inspiring fear in criminals—all while the policeman is himself apprehensive. Cops must be civil even as they inspire respect, and sometimes fear—like FBI agents, for example, who address adult members of the public as "sir" or "ma'am," even when they are about to arrest them, without in the least compromising their reputation: their very self-restraint is intimidating. The police force must not appear to be the meanest, best-armed gang in town, but something higher than that. Sure, this is New York, not never-never land, but when cops are rude or vulgar or dismissive to law-abiding citizens, whether rich or poor, it's as if society has surrendered to thuggishness.

Under Mayor Giuliani, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has also launched a commendable quality-of-life campaign to improve cab drivers' civility. The TLC banned burning incense in cabs and posted in all of them a "Passenger's Bill of Rights," which grants, among other things, a right to a quiet, radio-free ride. The city's yellow cab drivers now attend a mandatory four-hour course in customer relations at La Guardia Community College. The campaign has been a success, according to TLC Assistant Commissioner Allan Fromberg. Serious complaints are down by 20 percent. "We are getting more praise and pleased phone calls," Fromberg reports. "The business is getting more professionalized."

Any city effort to foster civility should have a public school component. Resistance would be fierce: New Yorkers who believe that school uniforms are fascistic doubtless will object that teaching children to give up their seats to elderly people or pregnant women on the bus embodies unacceptable cultural bias. Already, though, public school teachers instruct their charges about the wrongs of racism, pollution, and cruelty to animals. Surely, civility is somewhere on the modern moral continuum, even if up-to-date teachers do not avow it. Some schools teach "conflict resolution" to prevent fights—a last-ditch course in civility. Any civility course would in fact convey a basic principle essential to coexistence in the city: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Even teenagers in chaotic schools can understand that if everybody littered, held open subway doors or sprawled across two subway seats, talked in movie theaters, and blasted music, cities wouldn't work. Where schools have abandoned civics, as have all elementary schools in the New York system, the mayor should push them to reinstate it.

Teachers should teach civility as early as possible. With an increasing proportion of New York's school children arriving here from abroad, the need for such education grows more urgent, though many immigrant children come from societies that are far more civil than our own. Immigration's past success resulted in part from the schools' effectiveness in instructing newly arrived children in the norms of democratic urban life. New York will have fewer inflamed and resentful egos if all its citizens share a common ideal of civility.

Each of these initiatives is in the mayor's power to begin right away. Since he knows from the experience of his first term what valuable consequences flow from an enhanced quality of urban life, he'd be well advised to set them going now.

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