I stood up for nonsmokers’ rights—but does the law stand up for me?

Yesterday evening was cold, rainy, and wet in New York City. My wife and I had spent much of the evening with our two children—our three-and-a-half-year-old daughter and two-and-a-half-month-old son—on business in The Bronx, and we were getting home late. The walk from the subway station to our apartment is only about ten minutes—easy and pleasant enough when the weather is nice and we’re not too tired. But when we’re tired, or the weather is bad, or both like last night, we’ll opt to take the bus, which picks us up across from the subway station and drops us off on our block. So once we took the two elevators to the surface (this station is one of the quarter in the New York City subway system that are accessible—a feature that benefits both the disabled and those with strollers), we crossed one street, then another, to the opposite corner and huddled under the meager protection offered by the bus shelter and waited for our bus.

I caught the first whiff a few minutes into our wait. Then the smell became stronger, and then stronger still. I looked to my left and, indeed, someone was smoking in the bus shelter that we had crowded into with our two small children and another passenger waiting for the bus.

Section 1050.7(b) of the MTA’s rules of conduct states that smoking is banned in New York City Transit facilities and vehicles. But does that ban apply to bus stops?

Now, this has happened on plenty of previous occasions, in bus shelters and even on outdoor subway platforms. I normally give way, moving farther down the platform or outside the shelter. But this night, when I was cold, wet, and tired, and when I was waiting with my wife and children, I had had enough.

“Would you please not smoke in the bus shelter,” I called out to the hooded man with a lighted cigarette in his mouth.

In accented English he called back with something indecipherable against the din of the rain, ending with, “This isn’t a park,” referring to the fact that smoking has been banned in New York City parks since 23 May 2011.

“No, this isn’t a park,” I called back. “It’s a bus shelter, and smoking is still illegal here.”

“It’s raining, and I don’t want to have to stand out in the rain,” he replied.

“That doesn’t matter,” I said. “If you don’t want to stand in the rain, fine. But you still can’t smoke in the bus shelter.”

More indecipherable resistance, which prompted my wife to enter the fray. “Listen, you can choose to give yourself cancer all you want, but you don’t have a right to give it to my kids,” she said, with the sort of force and authority that only a high-school teacher can command.

“You don’t have to be rude,” the man shot back. Really? I thought. You’re the one filling the air I’m breathing with carcinogens, and you say I’m being rude? Please.

At that point, it was time to draw the line. “Either you stop smoking in the shelter, or I’m calling the police,” I warned. When this elicited no response, I got out my phone and proceeded to dial 311.

At this, the man finally relented and stepped outside the bus shelter to finish his cigarette under his umbrella.

As for me, I had finally stood up for myself, my family, and everyone else who deserves to breathe clean air. Which is all of us.

But here’s the conundrum. After some research, it’s a little unclear whether smoking actually is banned at bus shelters in New York City. Section 1050.7(b) of MTA New York City Transit’s rules of conduct clearly states, “No person on or in any facility or conveyance shall … smoke or carry an open flame or lighted match, cigar, cigarette, pipe or torch”. While this clearly applies to subway stations and platforms, including outdoor platforms, which are operated by the transit authority, bus shelters are installed and maintained by the New York City Department of Transportation. Do MTA NYCT rules apply? Such is the ambiguity engendered by transit facilities that appear seamless to users but that are in actuality owned and maintained by separate agencies at different levels of government (bus shelters: maintained by a city agency; the buses that stop at those shelters: operated by a state agency).* The signs at the bus stops outline conduct on the bus, including “no smoking”, but they don’t necessarily apply to conduct at the bus stop.

It’s time to end the ambiguity. More importantly, it’s time to stand up for the rights of nonsmokers. It’s time to ban smoking at bus stops—and to make it clear to all users. I stood up for myself and for my children. It’s time the law stood up for me, unequivocally.

* A similar example of the complexities created by the New York City region’s multiple levels of government and jurisdictions: when New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that banned smoking on outdoor platforms of the MTA’s railroads from 13 November 2011, the ban didn’t extend to Metro-North stations in Connecticut.

Photo: A bus shelter in Brooklyn by Bonnie Natko via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The American Dream is killing us

The American Dream has been defined for several generations now as an idyllic home in the suburbs, with a car to get you everywhere you need to go. But that dream appears to be something more of a nightmare, with Americans’ dependence on automobiles leading to increased rates of a variety of ailments, “all of which can impair the quality and length of life,” writes Jane E. Brody in a blog post on “Commuting’s Hidden Cost” at nytimes.com yesterday.

Ms. Brody’s piece highlights some of the facts many of us already knew (and that all of us should know). People who walk—to work, to school, to the grocery store, wherever—are healthier. People who spend long hours commuting alone in a car are less healthy, with higher rates of seemingly every ailment, including obesity, heart disease, social isolation, anxiety, and even earlier death. The post refers to several studies in both North America and Europe providing data that back up these claims.

She turns the idea of “independence” enabled by personal automobiles on its head. Referring to a new book, The End of the Suburbs by Leigh Gallagher, Ms. Brody introduces us to a mom in Massachusetts who drives 40 to 50 miles (65 to 80 kilometers) a day “just to get herself and her children around each day.” Ms. Brody continues:

Millions of Americans like her pay dearly for their dependence on automobiles, losing hours a day that would be better spent exercising, socializing with family and friends, preparing home-cooked meals or simply getting enough sleep. The resulting costs to both physical and mental health are hardly trivial.

Suburban sprawl “has taken a huge toll on our health,” wrote Ms. Gallagher, an editor at Fortune magazine. “Research has been piling up that establishes a link between the spread of sprawl and the rise of obesity in our country. Researchers have also found that people get less exercise as the distances among where we live, work, shop and socialize increase.

“In places where people walk more, obesity rates are much lower,” she noted. “New Yorkers, perhaps the ultimate walkers, weigh six or seven pounds [three kilograms] less on average than suburban Americans.”

The reality is that Americans’ lifestyles are leading them to unhealthy lives that end earlier than they should. Ms. Brody notes one study that found that people with lengthy commutes have lower rates of physical activity and cardiovascular fitness and higher rates of high blood pressure, obesity, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, depression, anxiety, and loneliness. She points to another study that “found that women who lived more than 31 miles from work tended to die sooner than those who lived closer to their jobs.” And the unfortunate truth is that the physical environment we have built in much of the United States makes this lifestyle the only option for a large number of Americans.

On a fundamental policy level, something has got to change.

But on a personal level, Ms. Brody’s post describes something more fundamental. It explains why I live where I live, and why I have chosen to raise my children in a setting very different from the one I grew up in in suburban Charlotte. “My twin grandsons, now 13, walk nearly a mile to and from school and play basketball in the schoolyard for an hour or more most afternoons, when weather and music lessons permit,” Ms. Brody writes. “The boys, like their father, are lean, strong and healthy. Their parents chose to live in New York, where their legs and public transit enable them to go from place to place efficiently, at low cost and with little stress (usually).” And that is exactly what I want for my own children.

Read more
“Commuting’s Hidden Cost” by Jane E. Brody
nytimes.com, 28 October 2013