Seeing Red at the Traffic Light

The New York Times recently featured a piece particularly interesting to those of us obsessed with cataloguing US-Europe cultural differences, one by Elisabeth Rosenthal headlined Across Europe, Irking Drivers is Urban Policy. “The methods vary,” Ms. Rosenthal writes, “but the mission is clear – to make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally-friendly modes of transportation.” Why, how dare they?

The article is datelined Zurich (sic; the place properly spells its name “Zürich”), and most details about this supposed pan-European conspiracy against the automobile do come from out of that city. But now Zürich has caught notice and offers a reply, in the form of this editorial by Martin Meyer in its flagship newspaper, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, for which the headline writer – probably not Meyer himself – latches onto the available racy double-meaning to craft the snappy title “Zürich, Red-Light District.”

Goodness sakes – to paraphrase the way Meyer starts out his piece – Zürich is front-page news on the International Herald Tribune*! How come? Why, it’s because of the “torture” (Folter) we impose on our drivers! Making them stop repeatedly at deliberately-unsynchronized red lights! Slowing them down to a snails’ pace – when they’re allowed at all – near main city squares! He remarks on the behutsam empörte Verblüffung (“circumspectly indignant bewilderment”) of Ms. Rosenthal’s writing-tone, saying that “like Gulliver in the Land of the Giants, she gradually submits to a morality that, in the name of a philosophical superiority, knows what is right and what is wrong.”

Then again – is Zürich truly in the avant-garde when it comes to “transforming cold asphalt on-the-move into blooming zones of [pedestrian] comfort”? as Meyer asks elsewhere. His civic modesty here is touching, but he also has a real point: other European cities would have made better case studies. (You have to pay just to drive into Oslo, for example, or into London for that matter!) In other words, there was really no need for Zürich to gain this minor, but still probably undesired international notoriety in the eyes of the IHT’s/NYT’s affluent, influential readers.

* Yes, it’s strange that Meyer mentions the IHT when in reality Ms. Rosenthal’s article originated with the New York Times, which provides most of the IHT’s content! Was it just a mistake, or can it really be that the IHT name still carries more prestige in European circles?

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