Monday, 7 April 2014

Miserable subway passengers, a grouchy runner - and a lesson from Bob Dylan

It’s one of those tasks that’s so difficult it’s become a kind of fascination to me. When I ride over the Manhattan Bridge towards work each morning, I’m generally passed, at a gap of just a few feet, by a B or D subway train taking commuters into Manhattan. The passengers stare out the window, blankly, apparently staring straight through those of us labouring up the slope to the bridge’s summit or speeding down from it. The stares are so blank that I’ve taken to waving at individual commuters to see if I can get a reaction.

A subway train passes a cyclist on the Manhattan Bridge:
the subway passengers can't see the cyclist. Fact.
The net result so far, from scores of waves, is one half-smile – and she might just have been reacting to a witty lyric on her iPod. The experience of being in a subway train seems to be so utterly different from the experience of riding a bike that the people on the subway trains can’t react to a human being outside their train on a bike.

Yet the reaction of the subway commuters to cyclists, it’s dawned on me, is only one example of a far more widespread city phenomenon. Big cities are full of people moving around conscious almost solely of their own environment, their own needs and their own sense of right and wrong behaviour. We’re mostly gliding around in little bubbles of our own distinct worlds, over and below each other, avoiding contact as far as possible. But quite a few of the crashes in cities, it strikes me, are cases where, almost literally, two worlds – two contrasting sets of expectations about norms and behaviours and who should give way to whom – collide. This makes it a phenomenon worth noticing and exploring.
Two cars collide in Northern Manhattan - but so, quite
possibly, do two competing expectations about who
gives way to whom.

The driver I encountered on 55th street in Manhattan 10 days ago illustrates the most obvious form of the problem. I’d spotted that he was driving erratically as he left a parking space near Broadway. He then squeezed past me, dangerously, driving in a parking space, only for me to catch up with him at the traffic lights at 9th avenue. His window was rolled down and he was deep in a conversation on his mobile phone. “Stop talking on your phone!” I shouted at him. “It’s making you drive like an idiot.” He gave me a dirty look and slowly rolled up his heavily-tinted window. I was an unwelcome intrusion from outside the two worlds he was carrying around with him – the world inside his sports utility vehicle and his interaction with his interlocutor in the telephone call. His reaction was to close down his interaction with the place where he was physically present – and where his driving presented a serious danger.

There are multiple ways that people pursue the illusion that their cars are private spaces. They can blast out music so loud that any outside intrusion is inaudible. They can choose to drive a car so large or so fast that it intimidates other road users. They can talk incessantly on the telephone to people outside their immediate confines. People want to drown out the mixture of stress and boredom that comes from sharing a city street with a host of other people with competing claims on the space. Their desire to do so makes the street a little less safe for pedestrians, cyclists – everyone outside their world-in-a-car.

The little bubbles in which people move around also reflect their culture. At my son’s school, it’s mostly the parents with the mild, mid-western accents of hipster incomers that arrive bearing their children on long bikes, tandems and other unlikely bits of cycling apparatus. If I see children spilling out of some huge SUV – there’s a family that arrives daily in a Cadillac Escalade, one of the biggest vehicles on the road – I’m far more likely to hear a traditional Brooklyn accent calling out after them.

Inhabitants of Duffy Funeral Home's world worry about
where they're going to park. Other users of Park Slope's 9th
St worry where they'll ride their bikes. Here's where those
worlds collide.
The cyclists, I suspect, mainly mix with the other cycling-inclined families and have firm views about the environment, physical fitness and cluttering up the area with cars. The Italian-American SUV drivers come to the school from outlying areas of single-family homes. Many, I suspect, feel that a big car is both a status symbol and a way of keeping one’s loved ones safe. I'm sure they tut-tut quietly at the risks the rest of us are taking.

We maintain our contrasting cultures while sharing the same bits of road partly through the impermeability of a big car’s steel sides. It’s no coincidence in my view that cars that keep the outside world at bay are far more popular than, say, convertibles for city driving.

But it’s not only the motorists that are travelling around in little bubbles of their own worlds. Look on the average city street and nearly everyone is cutting him or herself off from the wider street. Headphones – once limited to discreet earbuds – are now often a large and obvious symbol that the wearer wants to be left alone. Mobile telephone calls and texting take the participant away from his or her immediate surroundings. For many runners, they seem to form an almost indispensable aspect of the experience, providing the rhythm and focus that interaction with the wider world might take away. A pedestrian cursed at me the other day on the Lower East Side for riding, perfectly legally and safely, onto a bike lane across a small city park. It's no coincidence, I think, she was a runner sequestered from reality by her headphones.
A cyclist, runners and motor cars in Park Slope: sure,
they look close together. But they could be worlds apart.

The question, of course, is how far any of this is a bad thing. Would New York City – or any other big city – be a better place if subway commuters were waving to me every morning? Should I expect that runners eschew headphones to try to make their runs as pure an experience as possible of interacting with the city? I’m inclined to say no. When a behaviour is as widespread as this retreat by city dwellers into their private worlds, it suggests a deep need. This is part of how inhabitants of big, densely-packed cities get by without assaulting each other or rioting more often than they currently do.

I'm struck, however, that it’s often the people least cut off from the reality of the city around them – cyclists out on the streets, intensely aware of all that’s going on – that are disproportionately involved in campaigns to make the streets safer. It’s a serious safety issue that so many vehicles allow their users to cut themselves off so thoroughly from events outside. It’s hard not to imagine that people with clearer views of pedestrians and cyclists and fewer barriers to hearing street sounds might be less likely to run them over.

I have no immediate policy magic wand to wave to bring about that change of perception.

But an idea came to me the other night as I undertook a late night ride home past the still-buzzing bars and music venues of Bleecker St, the Greenwich Village street where Bob Dylan performed many of his earliest gigs. In Talking World War III Blues, one of the songs from that early era, he describes a dream about being the lone survivor of a third world war. Then he remarks, in the last verse, that many other people seem to have similar dreams.

"Everybody sees themselves/ Walkin' around with no-one else," he says.

Not everybody’s dream can be right, he says.

"I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours," he drawls.

That's the nearest I have to a solution. I'll let you be in my street-world if I can be in yours.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A frightened old man, an angry taxi driver - and why one big thing I fear is fearlessness

It was a rare moment when I felt sorry for a New York motorist. The elderly man, clearly confused about where to go, had got out of his car to assess where he was meant to turn at the Manhattan end of the Manhattan Bridge. But it was 11.30pm on a Friday; other drivers were impatient and he was blocking the left turn from Chrystie St into Canal St in Chinatown. “Honk!” “Hoooonk!” “Haaawnk!” His face expressed an emotion that’s all too familiar to me – fear of aggressively-driven cars. “What if one of these cars just slams into me?” he seemed to be thinking. “How can I most easily escape all this honking?”

New York City traffic: it certainly looks intimidating
The scene resonated with me. I’d not long before had an online conversation with someone who’d expressed regret that, although there was a new Citibike bikeshare station outside her house, she was too fearful to cycle in New York City. It just felt like far too great a risk, far too great a worry, she told me.

The exchange had heightened my awareness of the fundamental scariness of New York’s fast-moving traffic – and my own reaction to it. I feel concern when I hear a car speeding down a narrow, one-way street behind me. “Is it going to slow down when it reaches me?” I ask myself. “Will it tailgate me to intimidate me?” I worry when I ride through downtown Brooklyn in the mornings about anticipating the unpredictable behaviour of the drivers. The click in a car door that someone’s about to open sets off a spike of panic. People in other circumstances must feel something similar at hearing the cocking of an unseen gun. I used to feel similar alarm about cutting across the lanes of traffic around the Oval cricket ground in London during my commute to work there. “Get me out of here,” I’d think. “Any moment now, some idiot will come speeding round the blind corner.”

But my awareness of fear has also made me realise how year after year of daily cycle commuting in multiple different cities has changed my experience of the emotion. I’ve learned, I think, to manage my fear, to train it to push me towards the right decisions. I wish cycle commuting weren’t as stressful as it sometimes is and I know that riding a bike in a city isn’t nearly as dangerous as it sometimes feels. I also recognise that the health benefits from cycling on average outweigh the risks.

For the moment, however, I’m embracing the way my worries set off ancient fight-or-flight responses. I treasure how they keep me focused on riding as safely as I can amid what sometimes seems an almost unmanageably chaotic environment.

Smith St: challenging even on days without freezing rain.
That doesn't mean I wouldn't like a better cycling route to work, just as I yearned for improvements when I lived in South London. I head off each morning down Smith St in Brooklyn navigating round long lines of vehicles whose drivers clearly aren’t paying enough attention. They’ll lurch suddenly in or out of parking spaces. They’ll open doors unexpectedly. Drivers spot the side street they want and turn into it, oblivious to the idea they might be crossing someone else’s path.

The short – and generally less busy - section in Cobble Hill is still worse. Drivers floor their accelerators, speeding up like greyhounds released from traps. There, I look warily over my shoulder, knowing that, if I have to pull out of the narrow bike lane to avoid a car door, a pothole or a delivery truck, the cars could be moving too fast to avoid me. Then it’s back to a chaos of illegally double-parked cars, stray pedestrians and inattentive drivers. My stress levels and emotions swing wildly between the sections where I’m cut off from cars and can concentrate on riding – the Manhattan Bridge bike lane and Allen St in Manhattan – and the rest.
 
Allen St, Manhattan: believe it or not, this is one of the
least stressful spots on my daily commute
When I’m riding among motor vehicles, I enter a state that sometimes feels like hyper-consciousness. My attention has to dart from checking a set of traffic lights and the openness of the road ahead to focusing suddenly on the state of an individual car’s wheels. It’s badly parked and the driver’s just got in. Is it about to pull out in front of me? Oh, and just how deep is that new pothole? There’s no denying it’s so intense as sometimes to be invigorating.

I can't remember when the fear started pushing me towards safer, more sensible riding options. Once upon a time, I’d have let drivers scare me into riding right by the roadside even in the narrowest sections, where a passing car posed a serious danger. I’d let a car on my tail harass me into being uncertain about my line on the road, exasperating the impatient motorist more. I’d move back to the side of the road after swinging round a parked car as quickly as possible, without checking for obstacles in the bike lane or other riders. I’d ride in the door zone – the area where opening car doors are the biggest risk.

My anxiousness, I find now, makes me more resistant to shifting over to the side with a car on my tail, keeps me firmer in my line and makes me more cautious about making sudden changes of direction. My fear has become far better trained. It impels me constantly towards behaviour that every manual suggests is more likely to keep me safe than my former nervous, scared responses.
 
Hudson St, lower Manhattan: sure, you see
a magnificent urban thoroughfare. I see a
cycle lane I know is constantly blocked
by deliveries, food trucks and taxi drivers
So far from being a regrettable instinct in an urban cyclist, it strikes me, a well-trained fear is actually vital. It pushes me to go faster when the best way to avoid a motorist behind is to outrun him or her. It prompts me to go more slowly – with a better chance of stopping safely in an emergency – when in close proximity to seriously dangerous behaviour. It sometimes prompts me to pull over and let an aggressive motorist past on a narrow road – but only when I can safely do so.

My well-trained fear may even, it’s no exaggeration to say, have saved my life one morning in February. I was riding fast down Smith St’s cycle lane but scanning the cars. My gut instinct for when stupid behaviour is most likely had warned me of potential trouble. Sure enough, as I was almost upon it, the driver of a Ford Ranger pick-up truck pulled into my path, fast, without looking. Thanks to my inherent suspicion, I was already on my guard, aware of my surroundings and prepared to swerve left to get out of the way. I screamed “Stooooop!” at the top of my very loud voice. But I still felt a moment of certainty that I would land in the road. A mixture of my brakes, my screams and the driver’s belated response brought both of us to a halt only inches apart.

This well-trained fear, of course, isn’t going to keep me safe indefinitely. I already had it in 2009, when a car came from behind me in London, turned across my path and knocked me off. Most bike/car crashes are the motorist’s fault and there will be many circumstances where the cyclist can do nothing to avoid a motorist’s stupid behaviour.

Nor is there going to be mass cycling in rich world cities as long as things remain this intimidating. I’ve learnt how to train my fear because I have an itch to cycle. I might not have developed the itch to cycle if I’d known how scary it might sometimes feel.

But the most immediate downside to being hyper-aware of the risks one’s running is that it can produce a rather obsessive focus. That led me last Thursday into a position almost as dangerous as the ones I spend so much time avoiding.

Downtown Brooklyn, from afar. Not pictured:
homicidally negligent double parkers, furious limo drivers
Tired and frustrated as I rode home, I spotted a limousine parked blocking the bike lane at the corner of Smith and Fulton Streets. Since the driver was lounging on the vehicle, which he could easily have parked somewhere less dangerous, and since I was tired of pulling out round illegally-parked cars into traffic, I pulled up behind him and asked him to move.

Meeting a volley of abuse, including assertions that the United States was a “free country” and that I should “back the f*** off,” I decided to take a picture of the driver and licence plate, send it to the Taxi and Limousine Commission and leave it at that. I quickly found myself confronting a still angrier driver, who made grabs for both my camera and my bike.

Aware now of my misjudgement, I rode off to collect my thoughts. “You’re a white devil!” I could hear him shouting as I pulled out my phone to email myself his registration number. I was no longer feeling the constructive, focused, well-trained fear I experience when navigating the streets. I was undergoing the humiliating fear of someone who’s run away from a fight. My hands were shaking.

It was partly because of that experience I felt such fellow-feeling the following evening at seeing the frightened motorist. I wish big, western cities' traffic conditions weren't so apt to frighten people.

But somehow I still feel more dread in the pit of my stomach at the idea of a day when snow will stop me riding than at a repetition of the row with the Angry Limo Driver of Downtown Brooklyn. I even accept with some kind of resignation that I might, in future, not avoid a badly-driven car and might suffer another injury.

I shrink from some of the individual battles, it seems. But in the long run, in the war to keep riding, I don’t want to surrender.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A snowy park, a wintry spin - and the joys of no longer being a flabby teenager

It’s not the kind of issue that normally preoccupies me while I’m cycling. But, glancing down at my bike computer, I could see my pace had dropped. Where shortly before the average speed figure had been showing 16.5mph, it was now showing 15.1. The dip gave me fresh determination. “Speed up!” I ordered myself. “Reach the top of the hill without dipping below 15!” A few seconds later, I crested the hill in Prospect Park, near my house in Brooklyn, with my computer still showing a 15mph average speed. Slipping my chain onto the biggest chainring, I sped up off down the hill towards Grand Army Plaza.
Prospect Park in the snow: however badly I ride round it,
it's a breathtaking backdrop for my humiliation

This wasn’t my normal kind of bike riding, however. I’d seen earlier in the day the forecast for yet more snow for New York City – it’s already the city’s seventh-snowiest winter on record – and I thought my chances of commuting by bike in the next few days were limited. I consequently decided, although I didn't have anywhere to go, to use a break in the weather to get some exercise. Checking that I had no immediate domestic responsibilities, I slipped off after church for a very brief bout of cycling purely for the physical activity.

I’ve found myself, when I’ve been undertaking these rides, involved in an activity that’s both entirely familiar to me and rather alien. I’m used, of course, to riding my bicycle (even if this winter has made that hard-going at times). I’m accustomed, however, to focusing on getting where I’m going in one piece – which can be demanding in a city full of angry drivers and bad road surfaces. I’m not used to focusing on the cycling – or its effect on my body – for its own sake.
 
A clear road amid deep snow: how Prospect Park has looked
for much of this miserable, long winter
I’ve been interested to discover how negative many of the associations in my mind of taking pure exercise are. As my pulse rises and my breath grows wheezier, I’m back amid the humiliations of a secondary school playing field. I feel the scorn of the teachers and my fellow, marginally less inept pupils for my uselessness at playing rugby union. As steely-faced weekend road warriors pass me, their wheels making the distinctive rumble of expensive carbon-fibre, I feel fat, lethargic and more than a little silly.

And, yet, I have to remind myself, it is this alien activity – rather than my daily transport cycling – that many people regard as the most authentic way to ride a bicycle.

This isn’t to say I’ve never cycled just for the sake of it before. My love for cycling developed substantially during my years at St Andrews University, when I’d ride off some Saturdays or Sundays towards Crail, Anstruther or one of the other nearby fishing villages. The whipping coastal winds would propel me one way. Then, after I started heading back, I’d have to dip my head down into the wind and speed along the quiet, undulating country roads across the moors.

That early, carefree exploration culminated in the summer of 1990, when I alternated between working at clearing out my recently-deceased grandfather’s house and spending days exploring Scotland. I’d head off in the morning for a ride that took me up the shore of the Gareloch – a ride made spookier by the area’s hosting the tightly-secured base for the UK’s nuclear missile submarines. I’d head back to Glasgow via the shores of Loch Lomond. I’d ride, pushed by the prevailing winds, from Glasgow to Dunfermline in the morning. Then I’d push down hard on the pedals and hunch down for a long ride back – via the Forth Road Bridge and into the wind - west.
 
"It's nice out here," remarks my bike during a rare trip outside
New York. "Why don't we do this more often?"
I didn’t find things too complicated back then. I wore no helmet, carried no supplies, rode a very basic Raleigh bike and worried about pretty much nothing. Caught in a tropical-style West-of-Scotland summer downpour? Dry yourself off under the hand dryers in the lavatories at lunchtime. Bit off more than you could chew with this 100-mile ride? Stop in every other village for a pint of milk to glug down.

I’ve had occasional bouts of just-for-the-sake-of-it riding since then, albeit the time constraints and obligations of adult life have curtailed them. When I lived in London, I’d occasionally make it to Richmond Park – the vast royal park in south-west London - where rides are enlivened by the possibility of a collision with a big, wandering deer. Last summer, with the family absent, I took two long rides over New York City’s boundaries, over into New Jersey and up into Westchester.
 
Bored with just riding round the park in circles?
Why not ride round it on a tall bike, like this guy?
But there’s something about riding in circles in Prospect Park – Brooklyn’s smaller equivalent of Central Park, non-New Yorkers – that feels far more self-consciously like Exercise - or Training, as it's now been rebranded - than any long trip to the different scenery out of town. The other riders in Prospect Park mostly wear the set, grim expression of a person battling to wrest back top spot on some Strava segment. Most seem to form a spooky unity of body, bike and clothing. Shoes merge into pedals, gloves into handlebars. The helmet might as well be some final, elaborate cap on top of the whole bike, rider, clothes ensemble, rather than a separate piece of clothing.

No-one would make that mistake with me. I arrived in Prospect Park last Sunday wearing woollen trousers, a cotton shirt and leather shoes. My waterproof jacket, trouser straps, helmet and gloves were my only cycling-specific clothing. And, of course, I was not wearing my clothes over a body honed by constant training for some forthcoming triathlon. I carry about in my body the evidence of thousands of late nights at work, followed by dashes home and swallowings of hurried dinners with wine. My clothes and body were both as floppy and aerodynamically-inefficient as many other riders’ were taut and tight-fitting. I look what I am - like a cyclist whose rides are nearly all, in sports cyclists' dismissive term, "junk miles".

That self-consciousness only rose as I started to ride, heading down the hill towards Flatbush, and sped along the road between the lake and the parade grounds at the park’s lower end. It became clear as I started climbing the hill – the ridge over which British and American forces fought the battle of Brooklyn in 1776 – that I was making an effort. I started to breathe hard and wondered why I always seem to have a cold. I briefly felt myself once again 15 and on a mud-spattered, rain-soaked cross-country run.

But much of the reward of this exercise is that I’m avoiding not doing it. In weeks when it’s been hard or impossible to ride, I’ve built up a deep twitchiness at my lack of activity, the shortage of time spent outside, a feeling of being trapped when commuting, sedentary, on the subway. Even a short, fast ride starts to scratch that itch.
 
Me - and my body - in The Bronx. There are
no excuses for my beer belly,
so I'll make none.
And, as I powered up the hill, I remembered that I was no longer entirely the unfit, unco-ordinated teenager. While my flabby torso isn’t much of an advert for commuter cycling, it sits atop a pair of legs that have spent years propelling me to 4,000 miles or more a year of riding first through South London and, now, daily between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Even if some of the weekend warriors overtake me on a climb, I generally gain the occasional, minor victory, pumping my legs up the hill past one of them.

I started to feel the pleasure of how a bicycle magnifies one’s effort. Pumping my legs, I climbed the hill smoothly by my standards, at around a steady 14mph. Down the hill, my biggest gears propel me to close to the park’s 25mph limit and I felt the childish sense of joy that always comes with giving oneself over to gravity’s acceleration. I started to feel a deep sense of contentment - the result, I imagine, of the release of endorphins, the exercise-related high that people keener on exercise for its own sake chase so hard.

I realised after a while that that feeling of contentment wasn't unfamiliar. I recognised how much of the time when I’m riding I’m running late, pushing myself to reach the next lights before they turn red, powering up the Manhattan Bridge to avoid being late for a meeting, switching to the big chainring to get uptown faster, accelerating away from traffic lights to get out of the way of that badly-driven taxi.

There’s no immediate danger of commuter cycling’s turning me into a lean, efficient cycling machine like the ones whirling efficiently round Prospect Park each weekend. But, as I turned out of the park again and prepare once again to tackle the indifferent conditions of New York City’s streets, there was no doubting that I was feeling better.

I appreciate with my higher brain centres the many more and practical reasons why more and safer cycling would make the city a better place. But the deep satisfaction that I felt flooding through my body reminded me that, no matter how deep my embarrassment, I retain a childish joy at the simple act of riding a bicycle. The day it starts to fade will be the day I feel as old as I look.

Monday, 17 February 2014

The C Train, my childhood - and why the subway still gets me excited

It’s not a term that many people would associate with a journey on the New York City subway. But, as I trudged up the steps on Thursday from the C Train station at Spring St, I felt a warm glow of admiration. I emerged onto Vandam St to find that day’s blizzard – which would eventually drop 14 inches (36cm) of snow on parts of the city – still in nearly full flow. The transit system had nevertheless transported me with what seemed to be insolent ease from an above-ground station in Carroll Gardens down into the tunnels to downtown Brooklyn then, on another train, across the east river to the west side of lower Manhattan.

Vandam St in a snowstorm: a contrast to the order
beneath the streets
The journey’s smoothness was a tribute to the virtues of forward planning, teamwork and operational excellence that make for a smoothly-running transit system. At street level, by contrast, a rental truck whose driver had got it stuck on a pile of snow was blocking the street, holding up a snow plough.

Yet, just the day before, it occurred to me, I’d been raving about how magnificently satisfying my cycle ride to work had been. I’d braved well-below-freezing temperatures and persisting patches of ice and snow to ride to work on both Tuesday and Wednesday, enjoying the challenge of the unpredictable conditions and taking in magnificent views of the city spread out before me.

Wasn’t there a contradiction, I thought to myself, about my two positions? If I enjoyed using perhaps the most individualistic of mechanised transport methods – the bicycle – wasn’t it odd I also admired such an obviously shared form of transport as the subway? Moreover, it occurred to me, why wasn’t I alone in my shared enthusiasm? Why did so many of the cyclists and cycling advocates I knew have a decided preference for subways and buses over cars in conditions when they couldn’t get about by bike?

Trying to leave an F Train when the track ahead is on fire.
I can tell you what it felt like - just be grateful I can't
make you smell the acrid smoke.
I should start answering those questions by making it clear that not all – possibly not even most – of the subway journeys I’ve been forced to take for weather reasons in recent weeks have evoked the warm feelings that my trip on Thursday did. I’ve had plenty of long waits for trains and other disruptions, including the two-hour journey home I mentioned in a previous post. Worst of all was my experience on the morning of February 3. After unwisely guessing that the F Train to West 4th St would be my quickest route to SoHo, I found myself trapped underground for 40 minutes. The live rail in the station ahead was on fire and power to our train was cut while the fire department tackled it. I don’t especially recommend the experience of standing in a confined space with emergency lighting, no air-conditioning and a growing smell of acrid smoke in the air.
 
A G Train on a snowy day. My background tells me
it took teamwork and organisation to get this train running.
I should also confess that part of my feeling for subway systems stems from my background. My late father, who taught me to ride a bike, devoted his whole working life to subways – first in London, then in Glasgow. While my journey to work last Thursday might have seemed easy to me, I know that subways do anything but run themselves. My dad, I recall, diverted the taxi taking him and my mother to their 20th wedding anniversary dinner to the subway depot. A train had derailed at a critical point and he wasn’t going to relax until he was sure it was on its way to being put back.

I associate the New York subway also with my grandfather, who visited New York as a seafarer in the 1920s and told us wide-eyed children decades later about the marvels of express and local trains and the other complexities of the subway system.

As I spot some complicated bit of lineside equipment or work out some intricacy of the New York City subway system’s workings, I often feel a sharp pang at not being able to share it with my father, who died in 2002. “My train was diverted over the disused express tracks, dad!” “I got a good look at the snowblowing train!”

But there are also plenty of things about transit systems that cyclists can appreciate even if they haven't got my back story, I think. While many motorists seem to view their car as an extension of private space, I recognise clearly when I’m on my bike that I’m involved in a complex social interaction. The difficulty of communicating with other drivers is one of the things I least like about driving. It’s less of a stretch for me than for a driver or habitual taxi user to have to negotiate the scores of interpersonal transactions involved in using busy subway trains.
Copenhagen's cycle rush hour: they could have got
a nice train instead, lucky people.

It’s certainly no coincidence that cities that are good for cycling also tend to have good public transport. Copenhagen has a magnificent driverless metro system as well as good suburban S-Trains. Amsterdam has a formidable tram and suburban rail network. In the US, Portland, Oregon, has both some of the highest cycling and some of the highest transit ridership figures. Washington, DC, also enjoys a combination of relatively good cycling conditions and good public transit (even if the Washington metro’s train frequency and reliability could do with improvement). The careful planning and forward thinking required to build a good public transit network also tend to produce the kind of civic-minded thinking that prompts cities to curb car traffic, police streets well and put in good cycling facilties.

A partly-cleared bike lane: cyclists and transit users
have both been getting spotty service
New York and London, the two cities where I’ve most recently lived, fall in slightly odd places on the cycling-public transport continuum. Both suffered years of underinvestment. The 1930s-vintage lines that I use most heavily in New York are some of the city’s newest; London's underground steadily deteriorated between the 1960s and 1990s. Both cities veered off for decades in the direction of encouraging motor car use – under Robert Moses’ leadership in New York, inspired by his example in London. Moses fought to ensure badly-needed new transit lines were never included in his vast road-building projects.

There are days when, sorry, even I can't cycle
The spotty service I’ve experienced in recent weeks in New York is consequently an excellent summary of how the city is faring in both cycling and public transport. There are moments when the smoothness and progress from the worst times seems like a miracle. There are others when the main improvements from the city’s darkest days seem to be that the ageing trains are no longer covered with graffiti. The fire that kept me stuck underground isn't the only one I've encountered lately.

The subway's challenges regularly remind me that I prefer to cycle when I can. I also enjoy the exercise, the fresh air, the views from the Manhattan Bridge and cycling's relative reliability. Cyclists also avoid some of the hassles that come in winter as the homeless and disturbed crowd onto subway trains for warmth.

But, on days when the weather gives me no choice, the subway reminds me of the excitement I still feel at living in this mad experiment of a city, scattered on the islands and peninsulas around New York Harbour.

"This is a World Trade Center-bound E local train!" -
words that still sound oddly exciting to me.
Even the littlest detail of the journey can send that welling up in me. There’s the rattling of an express train through a local station, its lights flashing as they pass the support pillars. There are the names that evoke a thousand novels, songs and films. There’s the bizarre mixture of all kinds of cultures and classes one finds crammed onto many subway cars.

All are summed up sometimes in the announcements that squawk out over the public address as I step onto the train.

“This is a Manhattan-bound A train,” I hear with childish excitement. “Next stop: High St-Brooklyn Bridge. Stand. Clear. Of the closing-doors!”

Sunday, 2 February 2014

A frozen water bottle, a crisis of identity - and why winter cycling keeps winning me back

My neighbour looked at me aghast as I wheeled my bike in through the door of our apartment building, accompanied by a sharp blast of the well-below-freezing air outside. “You’re officially crazy,” he said. The guy who sits next to me at work took a similar view another day, “You didn’t bike in today, did you?” He was persuaded I had only when I shook my water bottle – with lumps of ice from the freezing journey - at him. Yet another day, a woman from another department of my company, who never talks to me, approached me to demand, “Bet you didn’t ride in today, did you?”

Snow swirls in SoHo: definitely a "defying
the laws of physics" day as far as I'm concerned
All of my interlocutors shared the view of probably the vast majority of New Yorkers about cycling in the depths of a harsh winter – that it’s not only impractical but a little bit wrong or insane even to try. The sentiment seems all the more dispiriting for being so often expressed with a kind of glee: “Ha! So that’s put a stop to your little cycling experiment, hasn’t it?” Riding to work is only a hobby, go the none-too-subtly expressed subtexts. It’s a lifestyle choice that I can and should reverse at the slightest provocation.

However, the ferocity of the current New York winter – which has seen me cycle to work in temperatures of -13C (9F), with windchill making it feel like -23C (-9F) - has forced me to re-examine my view that I can cycle to work pretty much every day during winter. For a solid week recently, slush lay stubbornly on the roads, unmelted as temperatures remained below freezing, making any attempt at cycle commuting feel foolhardy.

I’m consequently working on a new principle. I’m happy to fight the forces of nature, I’ve decided, but won’t defy the laws of physics. The challenge now is to work out which days fall into which categories.

Piles of snow days after a snowfall. It's not
picturesque, but it's not dangerous either
It’s not all bad, after all, trying to ride a bike in winter in New York City. Last winter, my first as a New York resident, I was delighted to discover some advantages of the city’s winters over the less cold ones through which I’d cycled in London. Because the temperature would stay below freezing for days at a time, snow cleared from the roads generally stayed cleared rather than melting, refreezing and turning into icy slush. Because the air was less damp, on snowless days temperatures could plunge far below freezing without producing the thin coating of black ice customary on London streets in such weather.

Every night for a whole week last winter, I’d ride across the Brooklyn Bridge on the way home, glance at the big thermometer perched atop the Watchtower building by the bridge and see temperatures no higher than -8C (17F). I managed an 18-mile round trip in such temperatures by putting on more layers than normal, I told myself. What winter weather was likely to stop me?

It’s a question to which I’ve had a few clear answers this winter. One morning, for example, I decided that the previous snow was now so well cleared that it was safe to try riding to work. Part way across the Brooklyn Bridge, I discovered the peril of judging conditions by roads already warmed by hundreds of cars. The snow on the bridge, I discovered, had half-melted then frozen again as water on each of the hundreds of wooden boards making up the bridge’s walkway. Even walking the remaining mile or so across the ice sheet to Manhattan was a desperately slow, laborious process. Another morning, relieved to be cycling to work after a few days thwarted by snow and ice-covered roads, I emerged from my apartment to discover freezing rain was falling. The sidewalk below my feet was already slick with ice. Back to the apartment went the bike. Shoulders down and gingerly to the subway station went I. The morning my neighbour told me I was crazy, I was actually returning, crestfallen, from the briefest of attempts at cycle commuting. Finding that, three days after a big snowfall, residual snow on the road felt so slippery I was fearful of going any further, I was returning my bike to my apartment and heading, yet again, for the shelter of the F Train.

A delivery cyclist in the snow: oblivious to his effect
on my self-esteem.
At its worst, this run of weather has left me feeling something not far short of a crisis of identity. I feel like myself when I ride my bike to work and not when I don’t. “Ha, ha, ha!” say my nastiest inner demons. “You present yourself as a tough, bold fearless cyclist and you haven’t been on your bike in a week! You’re probably on the brink of ditching cycling forever and commuting all the time by subway!” The lack of my wonted exercise has certainly left me feeling fidgety and sluggish a lot of the time. I even had a day off sick last week – for the first time in at least two years. I am, I tell myself, just another unfit, middle-aged man resenting a commute in the kind of proximity to strangers that I’d normally consider with no-one but my wife. At lunchtime, I’ve looked mournfully at delivery cyclists, marvelling at their ability to handle their bikes on the snow and ice and cursed myself for not being prepared to do the same. I’m even cursing myself by comparison with my past self. Is this, I ask myself, the same man who rode home from work through a blizzard in London in January 2009? Or is it a mere pale imitation of him?

Two full months of harsh winter gone by, however, and I am, perhaps, finally coming to some kind of radical acceptance. My caution, I keep telling myself, is largely warranted. Men of six foot five on touring bikes have, after all, a high centre of gravity and limited purchase on the road. It’s probably a risk not worth taking.

My readiness to withstand the low temperatures is also, I tell myself, a bit beyond most other people’s. On that coldest morning, when it felt like -23 C, I not only found that my water bottle had frozen solid by the time I arrived but that my gears stopped working properly, as the grease I’d used to lubricate them started to freeze. Mornings such as that have counterbalanced the days I’ve felt a failure for slinking off to the subway. While they wouldn’t seem extraordinary to cyclists from cold-weather cycle-friendly countries such as Finland or Sweden, they give a temperate-climate cyclist such as me the illusion of having achieved something by riding to work. I was delighted in a recent Transportation Alternatives video to find some other cyclists feel the same.

Hoyt-Schermerhorn station's A Train platform one recent,
snowy morning. This was on a morning when the subway
claimed to be offering "good service" on this line.
As for the feeling that I might be tempted to switch permanently to the subway, I’m always surprised by how quickly it evaporates. Certainly, the subway itself has done its part in that direction. On Friday, minor problems on the A Train produced vast crowds at the station where I needed to change trains. On the worst of the recent snow-affected nights, I found myself trapped for 40 minutes on a train stopped on a viaduct 50 yards from my house but unable to get off. The entire journey home – at most 45 minutes by bike – took two hours.

Yet being on my bike is a still bigger factor in changing my outlook. There remains a skill to riding in the cold even on the days when it’s not prohibitively dangerous. I’ll glide over this ice patch then swerve round the next one, I tell myself. I try to distinguish leftover snow from gritting salt. I devise strategies to get my gears moving again when they’re gumming up. Most of all, I enjoy how extreme cold brings out yet another face of the city. I see ice floes packed by the banks of the Hudson River and notice how professionally the city’s people wrap up for such weather.

Brooklyn in winter: sure, I took this picture from the subway
station. But days when I ride in winter I see far more
of this crisp, beautiful light.
It may, I suppose, seem a little crazy to far more people than just my neighbour and my gloating colleagues. There are mornings when I certainly feel less stressed to be letting the subway worry about the weather conditions for me. But there are other mornings. They’re mornings where I negotiate the ice patches at the start of the Manhattan Bridge bike path, ride out over the river and am confronted with New York in one of her most beautiful moods. Thin whisps of steam spiral up from chimneys into a clear blue sky and the low sun shines the crispest, clearest light imaginable on the city, casting buildings half into bright sunlight and half into deep shadow.

I ride over the crest of the bridge such mornings and down towards the star anise smell of Chinatown’s restaurants and tell myself: if this is crazy I barely really want to be sane.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

A new police commissioner, some dodgy statistics - and an open letter from me

William Bratton,
Commissioner,
New York Police Department,
1 Police Plaza,
New York,
NY 10038
January 19, 2014

Dear Commissioner Bratton,
Vision Zero and Statistics
            Congratulations on your appointment as NYPD commissioner. Like many New Yorkers, I feel optimistic based on most of your public statements that you’re determined to build on the progress made on public safety in your previous term at the department. I am particularly optimistic that you are determined, at last, to set about reducing the appalling toll of death and injury that motor vehicles exact from New Yorkers every year.
          I wanted to pick you up, however, on a puzzling statement on January 15 at the launch press conference for the mayor’s Vision Zero initiative. You said pedestrians contributed to causing 73 per cent of pedestrian-motor vehicle collisions last year and that pedestrian actions were directly responsible for 66 per cent of those collisions. It’s a figure that on my reading of the figures is demonstrably incorrect. I fear that, if the NYPD genuinely thinks this figure reflects reality, it could seriously distort the department’s efforts to reduce the grim toll of unnecessary suffering on our city’s streets.
Waiting for a new boss: NYPD officers
outside the new mayor's inauguration
I would be interested to know the basis for your assertion – and grateful if you could put the figure right if, as I am sure it is, it is mistaken.
            Your figure is implausible to start with. It implies that motorists - who stand almost no chance of injury in a collision with a pedestrian, often drive at high speed and are easily distracted – are more solicitous of pedestrians’ safety than the pedestrians themselves. That seems at variance with my experience of human nature as well as with my observation that pedestrians are generally watchful when crossing city streets and motorists often cavalier when driving on them.
            The statistic is also starkly at odds with all the research I’ve read either in New York or elsewhere on the causes of crashes between motor vehicles and vulnerable road users – pedestrians and bicyclists. For example, a study published in 2013 by NYU Langone Medical Center found that 44 per cent of pedestrians treated for injuries after collisions had been hit in a crosswalk while crossing with the light. Another 6 per cent were hit on the sidewalk. Given that some of the other victims will also have been the victims of driver negligence – hit in unsignalised crosswalks, for example – it is clear the majority of studied crashes were mainly drivers’ fault.
Typically dangerous pedestrian behaviour:
midtown Manhattan
            A more comprehensive study, published in 2010 by the city’s own Department of Transportation, attributed blame for 36 per cent of crashes that killed or seriously injured pedestrians to driver inattention. It attributed another 27 per cent to motorists’ failure to yield and said vehicle speed was a major contributor to 21 per cent of crashes. The DoT study reinforces the impression that, while pedestrians undoubtedly cause some crashes, they are probably mainly to blame for only a quarter or so of incidents.
            Around the world, a number of research studies have reached strikingly similar conclusions. Many have attributed blame for crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists to motorists in around 75 per cent of cases. For example, in London, where I lived and cycled for nine years until August 2012, a Transport for London study of every reported motorist-cyclist collision in 2010 attributed blame for around 74 per cent of the crashes to motorists. Motorists’ inattentiveness, excessive speed and impatience are the main killers in every industrialised country of which I’m aware. It's unlikely New York City is a freakish exception.
It might look to you like the outcome of negligent speed:
but there's an NYPD statistician who probably thinks
some pedestrian caused this.
            Your assertion also seems at odds with the evidence of the fatal crashes involving pedestrians so far this year. I’ve been able to glean enough information about four of the fatal pedestrian crashes up until Friday 17 to guess how blame might be allocated. In only one – the death of Xiaoci Hu, killed on January 2 when a car ran into the back of another car that had slowed down to let him cross mid-block – does the pedestrian appear to have carried even a portion of the blame. The driver who struck Mosa Khatun on January 5 in Jamaica was charged with failure to yield; the driver who hit Nydja Herring on January 11 in Parkchester has reportedly been charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated; numerous witnesses attest that the driver who killed Cooper Stock on January 11 hit him and his father in a crosswalk as they crossed with the light.
            Streetsblog, the campaigning website, calculates your department coded only between 7 and 8 per cent of crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists in the first 11 months last year as having resulted from pedestrian or cyclist confusion or error.
            My concern is that a mistaken understanding of the present crisis’ causes could lead the NYPD to pursue mistaken or counterproductive measures to halt it. If pedestrian behaviour were indeed the cause of most pedestrian/car crashes, it would be worthwhile and effective to work harder at changing pedestrian behaviour. I note there are already reports of a police crackdown on “jaywalking” around the area on 96th street in Manhattan where there has been a cluster of casualties this year. I can imagine it will be tempting for local police precincts to seek in any crackdown to tackle pedestrians and cyclists since they are, by their nature, easier to catch and prosecute than drivers of fast-moving cars.
            If, however, cars cause the majority of crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists, it will make far more sense to work at controlling drivers’ speed and ensuring they yield when required to do so. I am worried that, with the crackdown on the Upper West Side, you are beginning to pursue a pedestrian-focused strategy – one that targets the victims and not the perpetrators.
The new mayor during his campaign: before he had a police
commissioner to explain how pedestrians were
killing themselves
            My personal conviction is that a concerted effort to tackle the traffic crisis’ real causes could yield dramatic results quickly. During my nine years in London, I covered transport issues in the UK and elsewhere for the Financial Times, winning several awards. London, which has a similar population to New York’s and similar traffic volumes, suffers only half the annual traffic fatalities that New York does. Motorists’ adherence to speed limits and other road rules is noticeably more lax in New York City than in London. I see no reason why the introduction to New York of systematic speed enforcement and a general culture of respect for road rules should not quickly bring New York’s fatality levels closer to London’s.
            I look forward to hearing from you about your figure’s origin and how it is affecting your policies. I would of course be delighted to speak with you or your officials about my concerns.
The NYPD and other city agencies have it within their grasp to save hundreds of New Yorkers’ lives every year. It would be a tragedy if apparently mistaken data led you to pass that opportunity up,
Yours Sincerely,

 Invisible

Monday, 13 January 2014

A terrifying avenue, a new mayor - and how leaders should be handling traffic problems

It was one Saturday in November that I happened upon one of South Brooklyn’s most thoroughly dysfunctional streets. Seeking to take the Invisible Visible Boy for a trip to Brooklyn’s shorefront greenway, I naively followed the cycle route signs pointing me down Brooklyn’s 3rd Avenue towards the waterfront bike path. But, after a little while, as I rode southward with the boy behind me on his trailer bike, we found ourselves grappling with high-speed traffic heading onto and coming off the highways around us.
The sign that tricked me into cycling down
3rd Avenue. To be fair, it doesn't read
Sunset Park (via traffic dystopia).

Then, as we rode into Sunset Park – a stretch of Brooklyn along New York’s harbour front, looking across to Staten Island - 3rd avenue plunged into the shadow of the Gowanus Expressway. The din of overhead traffic always in our ears, we found ourselves constantly buzzed by high speed vehicles or cut off by cars turning into or out of auto repair shops. The street seemed like as complete an example as one could imagine of a street designed for motor vehicles with no thought for human beings.

Look at this picture, readers. Then remember, with astonishment,
that the man who forced this road down this route died feeling
New York City was insufficiently grateful to him.
So it was a shock when I discovered that, until 1941, 3rd avenue in Sunset Park was the heart of a thriving community. The street was famous for its restaurants and the food shops that supplied the area’s people – who were mainly immigrants from Norway, Sweden and Finland. According to The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s classic biography of Robert Moses, builder of much of modern New York, it was only in 1941 with the opening of the Gowanus Parkway - since substantially widened and turned into an expressway - that it started the decline into traffic-dominated squalor.

Moses insisted, despite pleas from the residents, on building his parkway above 3rd Avenue when it would have done far less damage above 2nd avenue, nearer the already industrialised waterfront. Moses dismissed the poor but proud community in Sunset Park as a slum and consequently not worth saving.

I’ve been pondering the Moses story particularly intensely recently as I've noticed how often powerful individuals shape places’ urban fabric – and particularly people’s ability to get around those places easily and safely. That’s in part because of the end of the term in power of Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York for 12 years until December 31, and the start of the term of Bill de Blasio. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, pushed strongly for the introduction of new, better bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, chipping away at some of the damage Robert Moses did by making the city so dependent on cars. Bloomberg’s successor has promised to continue making decisive changes on the city’s streets. It was part of his election platform – and critical to winning his endorsement by StreetsPac, the safer streets action group – that he promised to work towards eliminating pedestrian deaths altogether.
The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson:
the world's biggest political plaything?

In London, it’s becoming steadily clearer that the efforts of the mayor, Boris Johnson, to provide both better cycling and walking conditions and faster journeys for motor vehicles are collapsing under the weight of their internal contradictions. In Toronto, it’s one of the emblems of Toronto’s general civic tragedy that its clownish, crack-smoking mayor has ripped out some important cycle lanes. Over the past week, I’ve been watching how political operatives in New Jersey used traffic congestion to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, a small town by the George Washington Bridge, apparently for supporting the wrong candidate in the state’s gubernatorial election.

Taken together, the various cases illuminate some core principles. It’s important that leaders have a clear vision for how they want their cities’ transport systems to work and that they’re prepared to tackle forthrightly the kind of obstructionism that almost any significant change to the urban fabric creates. But it’s also vital that those plans are based in a real, solid understanding of what’s going on at street level, that they’re flexible when there are serious concerns and that the plans are carried out within the rules of the political game. Leaders need to exercise the self-discipline to put long-term policy goals ahead of the need to have concrete successes to show before the next election.

Traffic stuck bumper-to-bumper on the Gowanus Expressway
on a quiet January Sunday: true testament to the success
of Robert Moses' road-building
Moses – who wielded power over aspects of transport and planning in New York State and City in various forms from 1924 to 1968 – provides the most spectacular examples of what can go wrong. In Sunset Park, he pushed the elevated highway down 3rd avenue because, he claimed, the existence there of structures supporting a recently-demolished elevated rail line would make construction along the avenue cheaper. But that probably wasn’t as decisive as his simple conviction that the people of Sunset Park were dispensable. It’s a principle he followed all over New York City and State when he encountered people or environments for which he didn’t care. The more one knows about Moses, the more one spots around the city problems – whether clogged, disruptive freeways, crumbling subway lines or ugly, unsuitable public housing projects – that could have been avoided if Robert Moses had been made to obey the same rules about planning and due process that others followed.
 
Cyclists pedal on a dedicated lane over Copenhagen's
Dronning Louise Bridge. Key difference between these
lanes and London's Cycle "Superhighways": those in
Copenhagen are good, effective public policy.
On a far smaller scale, Boris Johnson’s initiative in London to build “Cycle Superhighways” along main roads exhibits a Moses-like deafness to criticism. No cyclist shown plans for the “superhighways” – which are mostly simply painted blue strips along frighteningly busy roads – could have avoided concluding that riders using them would be terrifyingly vulnerable to the neighbouring traffic. The desire to have achievements to show in the mayor’s first term and a wish to devise a cycling policy distinctively different from that of Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson’s predecessor, seem to have trumped any urge for mature reflection, however. Livingstone had developed the London Cycle Network of quiet routes along back streets.

The Cycle Superhighways look embarrassingly inadequate when compared with the bike lane that Janette Sadik-Khan championed around a mile away from the worst of 3rd Avenue, along Prospect Park West in Park Slope. The two-way protected lane illustrates, partly, the value of clear thinking and good planning. The lane wasn’t built by pretending, as Boris Johnson has with the Cycle Superhighways, that bike facilities can be built with no effect on motor cars. It took away a lane of car traffic. Sadik-Khan, who had a strong record of listening to the community boards that provide New York neighbourhoods with a voice on planning issues, defended the decision to build the lane in the face of legal action that has now rumbled on for years but served only to highlight how well worked-out and widely supported the original policy was. Her stance puts Boris Johnson’s insistence on following incompatible goals in his roads policy to shame.
 
The George Washington Bridge's Fort Lee entrance
(albeit the bike, not car lanes). Taken last summer,
before politicians realised the scene's full potential.
Boris Johnson, however, has at least largely avoided the ultimate transport policy error – of taking steps for purely short-term political reasons. Those seem to have been the motives for the closure for four days starting last September 9 of two of the three access lanes from the town of Fort Lee, New Jersey, onto the busy George Washington Bridge to New York City. An official in the office of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s Republican governor, seems to have ordered the closures to choke Fort Lee with traffic after the town’s Democratic mayor endorsed the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Barbara Buono. The incident – which held up school buses and emergency vehicles, as well as thousands trying to get to work – was one of the most serious moral failings of transport policy practice I’ve ever come across. New Jersey appointees on the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bridge’s operators, seem entirely to have lost sight of the reason for the bridge’s existence and seen it purely as a political tool.

Bill de Blasio fortunately seems unlikely ever to lapse into such downright political cynicism. It was in a supportive spirit that I and some other people concerned about road safety turned up outside his inauguration ceremony on January 1 to remind him of his commitment to cut road deaths. There’s a clear sense of optimism abroad that Mr de Blasio and Bill Bratton, his new police commissioner, might have the courage to start tackling New York City’s appalling road safety record – at the time of writing, the city has already suffered nine traffic fatalities this year. Polly Trottenberg, Sadik-Khan’s successor, even came out ahead of the inauguration to talk to the Vision Zero activists and to hear the heart-rending stories of some of the bereaved parents who were there.
 
Inwood Hill Park: Robert Moses couldn't really understand
why anyone would think the road hadn't improved
this last patch of primeval forest in Manhattan
But, however optimistic the mood on January 1, I couldn’t help wishing I’d been able to take Mr de Blasio with me on the trip I’d taken the previous day, for a family trip to the New York Botanic Garden. To get to the garden, more than 20 miles from my Brooklyn home, I rode up by Robert Moses’ Hudson River Parkway, taking in how it had cut nearly all western Manhattan off from the city’s stunningly beautiful Hudson River waterfront.

I rode under the George Washington Bridge, glancing up to take in the traffic conditions. Then, towards Manhattan’s northernmost 
Two of the three cars that crashed in northern Manhattan
on Mike Bloomberg's last day as mayor: just another
part of the legacy handed Mayor de Blasio
tip, I encountered one of Moses’ most infamous pieces of civic vandalism – Inwood Hill Park, a stretch of primeval forest that he wrecked by needlessly driving a road right through its middle.

A scene we would have encountered on the way back would have been just as instructive. On Broadway, by the bridge leading from the Bronx – which Moses’ road was meant to free from traffic – I found a long traffic jam. At its head were three cars, crashed into each other.

This, I might have told the soon-to-be-mayor, is the legacy you’ve been handed. It’s a city still reeling from a mad effort to make it almost entirely dependent on the private car - and plagued by regular, serious car crashes as a result.

“Please remember the lessons of all the bad and weak leaders who made it like this,” I’d have begged him. “Please try to make it at least a little better.”