Commuter Ethics in a Disaster Zone

I’ve lived in New York through September 11th the black out of 2003, the transit strike of 2005, and now Hurricane Sandy.  In the days after those events, I’ve ridden my bike many times through a downtown Manhattan without power.  One thing has always been true – people behave better.

New York can be an aggressive place. Cars will cut you off when you’re trying to cross the sidewalk, cyclists routinely barrel through red lights and jaywalkers will casually walk across four lanes of traffic.  The roads of New York can be chaotic and perilous.  But this morning, when the street lights of lower Manhattan were out, the subways were closed, and there were thousands of inexperienced cyclists skateboarder, roller-bladers and razor scooter riders on the streets things went remarkably smoothly.  Even at the many intersections where there were no police, cars gingerly inched forward and cyclists waited patiently for their turn.

It was as if with the rules governing our behavior removed, we decided to act more ethically.  Perhaps because of some altruistic feeling brought on by the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, or perhaps because of some internalization of the categorical imperative – i.e. if I behave reasonably that asshole is more likely to behave reasonably and I won’t end up getting killed on 8th avenue.  I am cynical enough to think it is most likely the later.  But either way, it made what could have been a very dangerous ride to work a little less terrify.

Immanuel Kant, whose complex and nuanced theory of the categorical imperative I have entirely mangled in this blog post.

Now let’s see what this evening brings when we all repeat the experiment in play nice road sharing in the dark.

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