Congestion Charges Come at a Price

Michael Bloomberg's plans for curbing traffic in Manhattan have unsettling repercussions for civil liberties

As part of his recently released plan for New York by the year 2030, entitled PLANYC: A Greener, Greater New York, Mayor Michael Blooomberg is actively promoting a scheme for congestion pricing in the busiest parts of Manhattan. Modeled on programs in Singapore, London, and Stockholm, the system is intended to curb vehicular traffic (and raise money for public transportation) by imposing charges ($8 for cars and $21 for trucks) to enter the borough below 96th Street. The proposal has the support of virtually every bien-pensant urbanist in town, although it has met some resistance, particularly from the outer boroughs and suburbs where car dependence is highest and public transport thinnest. And there are many who suggest that the burden of the charges will fall disproportionately on the poor.

I certainly support radical measures to reduce traffic in Manhattan, and congestion pricing has a good track record in the cities that have tried it. But there is something disquieting about the system. The arguments that it will be a trivial burden to the man in the Mercedes and a serious one to the busboys in the battered banger have real merit. But what really chills me is the means by which the system will be run. As in London, routes into the city are to be monitored by cameras that will photograph all incoming cars and record their license numbers, information that will be used to generate the necessary billing. And the system will presumably be capable of other levels of photographic observation and will surely be linked to other networks and databases administered by our anxious state.

Tracking cars and people

Recently, the front page of The New York Times carried a story headlined, "Police Plan a Web of Surveillance for Downtown—Like London Ring of Steel—A Call for 3,000 Cameras—New York Seeking More Antiterror Aid." These cameras would join close to 5,000 private and public security cameras already in operation in Lower Manhattan. Technologically speaking, the plan is identical to the apparatus for congestion pricing—for its reliance on cameras and license-plate scanners; its potential to incorporate face recognition software and other suspicious algorithms; and the massive, largely unregulated, database it will compile. While the police disingenuously offer that a closed-circuit TV camera on the street is equivalent to an additional cop on the beat, civil libertarians suggest that there is an important difference between simply being observed in a public place and having information about your movement, activities, and whereabouts recorded, stored, and shared.

The authoritarian risks of such systems are thrown into particular relief by their congeniality to more unabashed authoritarian regimes. The Chinese government is in the process of installing more than 20,000 CCTV cameras in the city of Shenzhen (with face-recognition software provided by a U.S.-financed company, China Public Security, incorporated in Florida) that are to work in tandem with new I.D. cards for all residents.

Storing lots of information

These cards will have embedded chips (again with software from China Public Security) that are to contain staggering amounts of information, including work, credit, and reproductive histories; religious and ethnic data; medical insurance status; transit payments; landlord phone numbers; police records; and room for lots more. And the Shenzhen police already have the capacity to track the location of all cell phones in use in the city. Clearly, such invasive systems threaten any reasonable idea of a right to privacy.

This transformation is fundamental. Cities—and the organization of space in general—are key media by which we sort out the boundaries between public and private; the public side of the equation is increasingly squeezed. The dramatic acceleration of surveillance post-9/11 is one marker of the contraction, and police agencies—public and private—are enjoying virtual carte blanche to intrude both in the traditional public realm (the streets of the city) and in the private, as well.

As geographer David Harvey observes, "The 'war on terror' has everywhere been deployed as an excuse to diminish political and civil liberties." The profusion of data-mining, phone taps, biometric screening, DNA testing, and other intrusive technologies are political and cultural developments of truly frightening implications, erosions of our most basic freedoms, including what Henri Lefebvre has famously called "the right to the city." The supportive incorporation of "terror" as part of the standard repertoire of architectural and planning due diligence—like fire or seismic protection—is astonishingly sinister and far exceeds any simple utilitarian account. As a profession, we are far too compliant in advancing this threatening regime.

Spaces of free access

The contraction of the public realm, however, extends beyond these Orwellian developments. Public space is produced from the private: In democracy, the commons is always a compact about what is to be shared, what reserved; about where we choose to interact with the other. There's been a lot of criticism from certain academic quarters about traditional notions of public space, about overidentifying the idea with streets, squares, parks, and other historic settings for face-to-face interactions. This critique is predicated both on the idea that these spaces fail to acknowledge the existence of multiple publics and that a purely spatial definition of public space is inadequate in the Internet age (or any other). While the idea of a one-size-fits-all public arena surely risks its own oppressions, spaces of free access are foundational to civil liberty; winnowing them, whether for nominally progressive or out-and-out reactionary reasons, is very risky. Public space that excludes the civic—supporting only private forms of exchange—puts our democracy under radical threat.

Consider Starbucks. The problem with Starbucks isn't the instance but the aggregate. I've just returned from several weeks in the suburbs, and Starbucks was a lifeline. Not simply the only source of decent coffee for miles, it was also an oasis of conviviality with its comfortable chairs, free newspapers, and relaxed vibe. The Starbucks I frequented was part of a big shopping center, sandwiched with a couple of other smallish shops between a monster supermarket and a gigantic Lowe's box. Not that we had no choices: Another local supermarket had a kind of satellite Starbucks right inside the store, along with a pharmacy, a bank, and various category-stretching elements of the supermarket itself: bakery, liquor store, deli, hardware, florist, and so on. Being there, I felt a little like Nikita Krushchev on tour, visibly staggered by the sheer scale of the operation and of the choices on offer in American capital's most perfectly staged spectacle of consumption.

A genuinely public realm

The problem with the suburbs (and, increasingly the city) lies both in the homogeneity of their formats and the frequent elusiveness of a genuinely public realm, the fact that a coffee always comes from Starbucks or Dunkin' Donuts and that the street on which these stores sit is always a parking lot or supermarket aisle. The difficulty is not the lovely houses and gardens in the suburbs, nor the qualities of neighborliness they can produce, but an interstitial tissue that is only negotiable by car. This is a toll even more severe than the downside of congestion pricing—financially, in the alienating effects of hours spent sealed up alone, and socially, for those people it excludes. Over years of visiting elderly parents in the suburbs, I have watched their possibilities contract in a system in which a carton of milk or a visit to a friend require an increasingly perilous drive on the highway.

It's Sunday in New York, and I've just returned from a walk to buy a coffee—at Starbucks. There's one a block away and, as I've mentioned, the coffee is tasty, despite the foolishness I feel when forced to order a "grande" instead of a medium. While strolling over, I've counted the security cameras on the single block between here and there. There are 15 visible to me. Fifteen. This paranoid voyeurism by the authorities surely contracts our relationship to the spaces over which we—whatever "public" we happen to belong to—exercise proprietorship and in which we feel comfortable and "at home". The line between the friendly cop on the corner and Big Brother is not obscure.

Too high a price

I'd love to get some traffic out of the neighborhood, but those cameras may be too high a price to pay. Such are the ambiguities of unfreedom that the exclusion of cars on the one hand and their indispensability on the other can be servants of the same agendas of monitoring and control. At the same time, their use (or nonuse) remains emblematic of the freedom at the core of what makes both cities and suburbs desirable to their denizens. Technology is a human artifact, and its role in culture is neither autonomous nor neutral. I have no doubt that we are at a watershed not simply in terms of the way in which we deploy technologies of surveillance, mobility, and control, but that the character of the public realm is under enormous threat from both too much government intervention (by the get-government-off-our-backs creeps in power) and the concession of too much of the public realm to private interest. A shopping mall is not the same as a street, and a security camera on every corner is not your pal.

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