Keep on beeping - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

5 February 2013

Early last week I remember feeling a certain pleasure as I read a line on Monocle 24’s daily news agenda. It referenced an item that we’d be covering on The Monocle Daily and read simply: “New York honking ban”. Having now lived in New York for several years, occupying apartments on two heavily trafficked avenues, the thought of living in a place where frantic, alpha-dog horn honking was truly outlawed brought a smile to my face. But then I realised, as I should have when I first read the headline, that in this city of eight million, horn honking isn’t going anywhere. And I guess that’s okay.

The actual focus of the story I reference centred around an odd proposal by New York City’s Department of Transportation. Years ago, during the administration of recently deceased mayor Ed Koch, the city attempted to crack down on the flagrant misuse of one’s car horn. This, clearly, was an effort to eradicate a longstanding bad habit that defined many of the city’s nearly 60,000 taxi drivers. The result of Mayor Koch’s efforts, a sign reading “Don’t honk: $350 penalty”, ultimately proved itself altogether feckless. The proof is evident to anyone who’s ever visited New York.

The odd part of this story, and the reason it came into our editorial consciousness, came last week as the New York Times reported a new plan put forth by the Department of Transportation. In what it called “an effort to declutter the streets of often ignored signs,” the DOT publicised an initiative that would strip our roadways of all anti-honking signs by the year’s end. The DOT was quick to point out that the law itself had not changed but that the signs had proven misleading, if not altogether humorous given the actual state of affairs among drivers in the city. The most sensible reasoning put forth by a spokesperson for the city’s esteemed transportation division was that the presence of the signs in some but not all areas could lead drivers to assume rapid-fire honking was perfectly legal so long as there was no sign to tell them otherwise.

While I still find it an odd policy decision to randomly strip the city’s sidewalks of these signs on the heels of a decluttering campaign, I can’t say I’m entirely put off by the move. Sure, all of this signals a blatant failure on part of the city’s decades-long effort to combat rogue honkers. But the thought of living in a New York devoid of that single sound that proves so constant it’s almost paradoxically comforting – that’s too much to bear. I appreciate a certain degree of foolishness in the point I make here but the loud honking of New York’s famous yellow cabs is one sure sign that you’re well in the heart of a thriving global metropolis.

I’ve never much appreciated the 03.00 “Tag: you’re it!” back-and-forth horn honking that can sometimes prove truly disruptive but I’m not going to whine to the DOT for taking down these marginally effective road signs. Speaking practically, there’s little use in hanging banners outlawing a common practice that you cannot reasonably enforce. While there’s a certain sense of shame in New York’s clear admission of failure here, the errant sound of honking horns has come to define this city’s soundscape and I’ve strangely grown to appreciate that.

Barrett Austin is an associate editor at Monocle.


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