3/19/03: Alarmingly Useless

I'm listening right now to a guy fight with a meter maid down on Schermerhorn Street. They've been going at it for at least 10 minutes. One side of the street is 'no parking' and the other is lined with one hour meters. Ever since Bloomberg took office and the budget crisis hit home, it's been raining $55 parking tickets in Downtown Brooklyn. The city must be making thousands of dollars a day on this block alone.

I don't have such a big problem with this. When you take a good look at what we spend to maintain New York City's vast automobile infrastructure, it's clear that motorists don't really pay their way. Then consider that subway fares are about to go up to $2 a ride and bridges across the East River still have no tolls on them and, well, go ahead and write those tickets. My only complaint is that illegally parked cars really don't cause all that big of a problem. If the city is looking to hand out more summonses, why not give them to morons who rip down residential streets at 60 m.p.h., the dreaded horn-blasters, and trucks that refuse to stay on truck routes. And why not go ahead and tow cars with car alarms while we're at it.

Of all the ways that automobiles impinge on the lives of New Yorkers, few are as infuriating and unnecessary as the audible car alarm. It's hard to find an issue that generates such a visceral and unanimous response: New Yorkers hate car alarms. They make the city a worse place to live. Moreover, they are totally ineffective. There's no evidence to show that car alarms actually help protect people's property. On top of that, there are a bunch of new auto theft devices on the market that actually do work.

I've been doing some work with Transportation Alternatives on car alarms. We conducted a big study and last week issued a report called Alarmingly Useless. Check it out. We're calling for a total ban of alarms in the five boroughs of New York City. The response has been pretty intense. People feel strongly about car alarms. They hate them. One woman told the story of a car alarm that blared right outside the window of her church throughout her entire wedding service. Wouldn't that make you nuts? Others talk about spreading dog doo on door handles and breaking the windows of blaring vehicles. Imagine getting your car smashed because of the alarm. This technology is civic poison.

Telescoping a bit, car alarms are kind of an interesting issue in this day and age of "homeland security." At what point do we say that a person's right to protect himself and his private property is a threat to public space, the environment and other people's rights to health, happiness and productivity? At what point does security impose so much on quality-of-life that security just ain't worth it?

In the last year, a vast amount of America's public and private wealth has been channeled into protecting ourselves, our "homeland," and our "interests" abroad. I don't think we've really yet begun to grasp the cost of the version of "security" that's being put forward by the folks who run our country at the moment. I also don't think we've really done all that much to imagine altogether new, different, and less costly ways that we might begin to create safety, security and happiness for ourselves and for all of the other people and beings who use this planet.

On the micro local level, the proliferation of car alarms in the dense urban environs of New York shows us that when individuals run amuck with security measures, life is diminished for everyone. In the 2000 Census, former New Yorkers said that traffic noise and car alarms were a top reason why they left the city. As the security state grows, and as our cheap oil-powered lifestyle becomes more expensive, difficult and unpleasant to maintain, Americans are going to reach a tipping point. I think we're going to look around and determine that we're protecting a life and a lifestyle that's barely worth living.