The Fallacy of Neutrality

It is difficult to pinpoint a single idea or experience that led me to believe that our current allocation of street uses is inherently unjust. There was no epiphanic “a-ha!” moment, nor a sudden catalyst which concretized my convictions. This, unfortunately, makes it difficult to explain my perspective, which is admittedly quite distant from the conventional viewpoint. In light of this, any attempt to boil down the essence of my beliefs into a satisfactory starting point has proved to be quite challenging.

In my attempts to do just that however, I kept returning to this one point which is necessary to understand my views. That is, there is no such thing as absolute neutrality. Now, I don’t just mean this in the obvious sense, in that a person can never fully remove their own self-interest and personal experience from consideration in pursuing true impartiality. What I mean is that all systems, by their very nature, harbor implicit biases which favor some things over others. All systems have incentives and disincentives woven into their very fabric. Moreover, there is an implied balance of power in any given framework. To claim that something is neutral can only be true relative to a given system, not in any absolute sense.

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Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn illustrates how the lack of consideration for the inherent differences between modes creates a hostile environment for non-motorized transport, rather than a neutral environment.

I will begin with a very basic example. I used to believe that tools were inherently neutral, and that their moral consideration was solely determined by the manner in which their users wielded them. However, there exists an inclination towards a function imbued upon it by its very design. A knife is designed to cut just as a spoon is designed to scoop. Either could be used for the other’s purpose, but their intent is embedded into their respective design and clearly biases their usefulness towards one function or another. Based on the facts of human physiology, knives, by design, pose a greater risk to one’s wellbeing. That’s not to say that someone can’t get creative with a spoon, but the intersection of a knife’s design with the human body’s physical vulnerabilities means that before a moral agent has even entered the picture, the knife has a greater potential to harm a human. This is all to say that despite both tools being ostensibly neutral, with moral value bestowed upon them only with the end user’s intent, the fact that their design reflects an intended function predisposes them to greater or lesser harm to human wellbeing.

Advancing this idea to a higher level we can see how it applies in law. Equality before the law, while certainly a laudable idea, is subject to the same effects. This notion is well-explained by the following quote:

“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” -Anatole France

Despite the ostensibly neutral language in which laws are written, and their apparent universal applicability, the consequence of a law will vary greatly depending on how it intersects with the unique circumstance of each individual person. Usually what is meant by “neutral” is “neutral with respect to the status quo.” Yet this is anything but. The status quo is a messy, value-laden minefield littered with the remnants of competing incentives and ideologies. There is much to be unraveled here, but suffice it for the time being to say that wealth, class, race, gender, and innumerable other personal and contextual features will ultimately determine how exactly that law intersects with one’s experience of it.

Furthermore, this applies to the belief that a lack of intervention is a neutral action. But the failure to intervene is itself a decision which implicitly supports the status quo, and whatever power imbalances reside therein. That is to say, inaction is itself a decision with moral consequences, just as action is. An inaction cannot be scrubbed of its moral consequence by appealing to its neutrality, since its apparent neutrality is nothing less than an endorsement of the prevailing power structure.

It is from this starting point that I can say that an open, unmarked road is not neutral. A motorist, a bicyclists, and a pedestrian are physically very different and therefore each exert a different presence in that space. A motorist operates by far the most massive and expeditious of the three, and therefore exerts the greatest potential for bodily harm towards all others. That potential for harm represents the inherent power asymmetry between these modes, whereby all else equal, a motorist may force the behavior of others by the sheer power of their presence on the street. For example, imagine an unsignalized intersection where a pedestrian is attempting to cross a stream of motor vehicles. There is no way for a pedestrian to compel the vehicles to stop; the motorist must voluntarily cede the power inherent to their presence. Conversely, if a motorist was attempting to cross a continuous stream of pedestrians, they may simply muscle their way through and exert that power, with its implicit threat of bodily harm.

It is for this reason that a just street network must be designed to reduce the power, and therefore potential for bodily harm, of motor vehicles to the point where they truly are in equilibrium with other modes. A concept of justice premised on the neutrality of the status quo will always fall woefully short of equitable, especially in a built environment that has centered itself on the convenience of motorists for the better part of the past century. Rather, it will reinforce the existing power structures that place the convenience of motorists above the physical wellbeing of all others. I am not suggesting that every street become a woonerf, nor am I saying that there can be no roads primarily allocated for motor vehicle transport. What I am saying though is that urban streets and the network they comprise must be considered holistically, and with the understanding that the physics of fast, heavy objects and soft, human bodies must be accounted for in their design—that it is not sufficient to design streets to be “shared” with the implication of “equitably,” when their physical reality betrays that notion.

The myth of neutrality is indeed an insidious one that affects all manner of political discourse. My rejection of its existence has allowed me to more closely examine the structural biases baked into not only our transportation system, but in all human systems.

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