A few months ago, I was pretty intensively playing Grand Theft Auto IV. As an urbanist, I was curious about its immersive, complex representation of the city — or maybe I just wanted to blow things up after a long day’s work.
Naturally I took an interest in the traffic life of “Liberty City,” which, like the New York that is its inspiration, is a multi-modal mix of pedestrians, cars, subways, motorcyclists, taxis — though, curiously, no cyclists (I thought it might be a programming issue, but there are motorcycles). Its protagonist, the amoral Niko Bellic, presumably not in the country legally, is also presumably an unlicensed driver (that’s the least of his legal violations, of course). At first, I drove quite cautiously, as I thought the omnipresent police might nab me for violating red lights, or even speeding. I soon learned, however, that traffic infractions were not part of the Liberty City PD’s bailiwick — even though, of course, a routine traffic stop might have netted them a gangster. In fact, you pretty much had to commit full-scale mass pedestrian vehicle homicide to even attract the attention of the police. For Niko the driver, Liberty City was pretty much a place where he was at liberty to disregard any rule of the road.
Hmmm… a city where one can routinely drive at high speeds, even in crowded urban environments, with little repercussion, where even striking a pedestrian will get you little more than a few pointed questions from the police (and in fact it may have even been the police that did it), where traffic signals are treated as optional… This is where the line between Liberty City and New York City really does get blurry.
To wit, via Streetsblog:
A new report from Transportation Alternatives confirms what New York pedestrians and cyclists have been forced to accept as a fact of life: A high number of drivers speed through city streets, regardless of the potentially deadly consequences for those around them.
“Terminal Velocity: NYC’s Speeding Epidemic” shows that 39 percent of observed motorists were driving in excess of the 30 mph speed limit. Using radar guns and speed enforcement cameras at 13 locations, TA volunteers clocked speeds in excess of 60 mph in school zones and other areas with heavy pedestrian traffic.
Most speeding drivers were traveling between 31 and 40 mph. While a pedestrian struck at 30 mph has a 60 percent chance of surviving a collision, the likelihood of survival drops to 30 percent when the vehicle is moving at 40 mph, TA notes.
The name Liberty City was well chosen by GTA’s creators as its NYC stand-in, at least in the case of many Gotham drivers: You are at liberty to ignore laws. Of course, as John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community” is “to prevent harm to others.” There’s plenty of harm, let’s get exercised.