Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A Concrete Plant Park chat, a Roosevelt Drive rollover - and why I may be becoming a New Yorker

The brief conversation in the park was rather different from many of the on-street discussions I have with New York City drivers.

“Hi there, how’s everything going?” the elderly man asked me, with such enthusiasm it took me slightly unawares. “Good,” he replied when I assured him things were going pretty well. “You have a good day.”
Concrete Plant Park: a park that used to be a concrete plant -
with older gentlemen speaking in Spanish

Having wished him a good day in return, I pushed my bike towards a bench, rummaged in my pannier bags and got out my lunchtime sandwiches. I ate my lunch contemplating the scenery – if that’s not too strong a word - of the Bronx River. The older man continued an animated discussion with a friend in Spanish.

The interchange in Concrete Plant Park was one of many joys of my bike ride this past Saturday almost all the way across New York, from my home in Brooklyn, to City Island, in The Bronx. I enjoyed stunning views, weather a little less stifling than the city summer norm and arrived at a charming New England fishing village strangely marooned in the city.
The Hutchison River: not most people's idea of
what The Bronx looks like

However, the aspects of the trip that stood out weren’t those I’d been anticipating. I’d expected to explore New York’s relationship with the inlets of the sea, rivers and islands that define the city’s unusual geography, confining high-rise Manhattan to one small island and allowing other parts of the city to sprawl.

I came back with a still more powerful sense of the city’s remarkable atmosphere – of its people’s readiness to engage, their straightforwardness and their sense of fun. My only regret is that the city still hasn’t properly harnessed its people’s vigour and enthusiasm to a serious effort to make its streets safer. That feeling is all the more intense because I came on my way home on the aftermath of a car crash. While it seemed to have had no serious consequences, it could easily have killed someone.

I headed out partly because I was lonely, after my wife and children went to visit family in the UK, and because I wanted to regain some fitness after being off my bike for two weeks in June with a broken foot.
Financial District skyscrapers, reflected in the East River:
giraffes round a watering hole - or something.

I planned my route to take in all the city’s boroughs, except for Staten Island, and a series of different land masses. I would start on Long Island, where I live, cross over onto Manhattan Island, then the twin, linked Randall's and Wards Islands in the East River. Then I’d cross onto the US mainland in The Bronx and finally out onto City Island in Long Island Sound. I was particularly determined to have a positive experience after someone suggested to me I always made New York sound an appalling place when I wrote about cycling here.

I had the idea for the route because I’m struck by how it’s the areas where it’s impossible to build – the East River, the Hudson, New York Harbour – that give the land in the city its sense of place. Some of the city’s densest, highest-rise areas are crowded round the water, as if the buildings were so many giraffes, crowding round a drinking hole. The meandering Thames and the city’s other rivers and canals give parts of London a similar feeling. But there's nothing there quite as spectacular.
The 103rd St bridge: drama - and a passing New Yorker too

The moments of greatest drama were indeed bridges that swept over key canals and inlets of the sea. The Pulaski Bridge carried me over Newtown Creek from Brooklyn to Queens, with a dramatic view of midtown Manhattan to my left; the Queensboro Bridge soared high above Roosevelt Island in the East River; the graceful 103rd St foot and cycle bridge carried me from Manhattan onto Wards Island, in the centre of Hell Gate at the junction of the East River, Harlem River and Long Island Sound.

I was struck anew as I rode – but not surprised – by the influence over the city of Robert Moses, the powerful – unelected – official who shaped planning for New York City and state between 1924 and 1968. Moses was a passionate fan of open-water swimming, roads and parks. It was unmistakeable how that trio of interests had led him to make particularly wrenching changes to the bits of the city nearest the water. As I rode up by the East River in Manhattan, I was pedalling at one point on a promenade that Moses built above a section of East River Drive that he designed, looking across towards Randall's and Wards Islands, which he entirely reshaped, and at his Tri-Borough Bridge.
 
East River Drive, Tri-Borough and Wards and Randalls
Islands: Robert Moses' influence on the city, crowded round
the East River
But a different sensation started to creep over me. It began with the driver in Cobble Hill who carefully waited for me to start when some lights changed and I was stuck behind a car. “You goin’?” he asked politely, before letting me move off. It continued with the man in Concrete Plant Park. Then I noticed a man ahead of me as I rode along the Pelham Parkway in The Bronx. He was an almost laughably complete picture of how people would imagine a cyclist from the area that first spawned rap should look. His baseball cap faced backwards and his BMX bike was so tiny he had constantly to stand up. Yet he was looking, like me, to get somewhere particular, as fast as he could.

Orchard Beach?” he asked me as we waited at a crossing over a road. He was referring to a vast beach that Robert Moses created just north of City Island. “Where dat at?”

I advised him to follow me.
 
The Bronx River, from Concrete Plant Park:
can there be nature that's also grittily urban?
Again and again as I rode, I was aware of how the city’s people were working as hard on this hot, not-too-humid Saturday at enjoying themselves as they would during the week at their jobs. As I returned home through Concrete Plant Park, I stopped to fill my water bottle at a drinking fountain and interrupted a girl – maybe three or four – filling a vast pile of water balloons. Her mother, who was assiduously helping her, told her in Spanish to wait while I filled my bottle. Then the great task – whose ultimate goal was unclear to me – continued.

Other parks were full of the elaborate barbecue parties that will be familiar to anyone who knows New York. Moustachioed fathers were lugging big grills into position while women fussed over coolers full of marinating meat. Sound systems blared Latin music.
 
City Island: different from most outsiders'
perceptions of The Bronx
It was almost an anti-climax after immersing myself in the vibrant, multi-ethnic atmosphere of The Bronx’s parks to ride over the bridge onto City Island and find a neat suburb of clapboard houses and seafood restaurants. I rode down to the island’s tip, took some pictures of the seagulls flocking round the seafood restaurants, then rode back up the island to the Lickety Spit cafĂ©. The ice cream felt well-earned.

The impression of New York as a vast, crazy communal effort grew on me still further as I headed home. I puzzled a group of young, African-American men just after I left City Island by asking if they needed any tools for the bike they were trying to fix. It was fine, one of them assured me. He looked up, however, and added: “Thank you, my brother.”

The South Bronx: battered by Robert Moses,
but unbowed
The streets grew more and more crowded as I headed south and the sun sank in the sky. In East Tremont in The Bronx – an area where Robert Moses’ cross-Bronx expressway wreaked particular social devastation – there were little knots of people out on the streets, gathered round attractions whose significance I didn’t understand.

I was feeling, I realised, the flipside of the atmosphere in New York that makes drivers short-tempered and intolerant. Its being a hard and uncompromising place to live, I began to feel, gave many of the city’s people a directness and determination that felt life-enhancing and exciting to be around. New York has a way of pummelling the timidity and shyness out of one.
 
East River Drive: it's possibly to drive too directly and frankly
Yet, perhaps inevitably, I was to come across a reminder that that frankness and directness don’t always mix well with being on the roads. As I rode along the East River shore of northern Manhattan, I noticed an unusual number of emergency vehicles heading south on the adjoining East River drive. Rounding a corner, I found a group of them working to turn back upright an car overturned in the lanes nearest the cycle path. “It just started turning over,” I heard the clearly stunned – but thankfully not badly hurt – driver telling an ambulance crew.

“People think they can drive any speed and nothing will go wrong,” I remarked to another onlooker, trying to put across a road safety message.

He wasn’t ready to hear.

“Yeah,” he replied. “But to walk away from that – impressive!”

It was a response that, under some circumstances, I could have found depressing. It’s dispiriting that so many people focus when thinking about their road behaviour on what they can walk away from, rather than what’s rational for them and those around them. I could also have grown frustrated at how many of the miles of waiting drivers I subsequently passed were leaning on their horns, as if their frustration would make the emergency workers go faster.
 
The East River Promenade: nice enough to make one forget
the city's shortcomings.
But, even as I rode past the honking vehicles, I was taking in the different – but still positive – atmosphere of this far more prosperous part of the city. People sat on benches looking over the East River watching the powerful currents that tear through the area around the tip of Roosevelt Island. Residents of the Upper East Side wandered along the esplanade so calmly and contentedly in the setting sun that it felt almost like riding through an idealised architect’s drawing of a perfect urban scene. I noticed as I rode across the Queensboro Bridge how beautifully the bridge was reflecting in neighbouring glass buildings.

It was, in the end, a round-trip of 56 miles on a day when temperatures reached nearly 30C. I arrived home hot, sweaty and feeling a keen need for the Chinese food I’d put aside that morning.

But I’d worked at enjoying myself just as much as the grill-lugging fathers I’d seen in the parks, and I came home feeling more connection with the city’s alternately infuriating and endearing people than I’ve ever felt before.

Perhaps, a voice inside me suggests, I am becoming a New Yorker.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A Chinatown honker, an interborough trip - and how city cycling betrays my kids' innocence

It wasn’t, in most respects, a particularly exceptional piece of abuse. The man leaned loudly on his horn, squeezed his vehicle through a narrow gap to my right, leant out his window and gestured towards the kerb. “You should be over to the side!” he shouted.
 
A clear incitement to driver rage
But the abuse felt different for one reason. I wasn’t riding last Saturday on my own, as I usually do, but with my wife, the Invisible Visible Girl, 12, and the Invisible Visible Boy, six. The driver was harassing two children who’d been given limited choice about whether to come with us. He threatened them, effectively, with being run over for turning left. It was one of several incidents of low-level harassment we suffered as we rode from home to a Hudson River playpark and back, more slowly and cautiously than I would on my own.

It felt – not for the first time – as if I was giving the children a harsh introduction to the hypocrisies of the adult world. They’ve heard at school and on television about how they should look after the environment and how cycling is a good way to do so. I’ve stressed to them the importance of responsible behaviour on the road. They’re led to believe that most adults want to protect children.

Instead, we faced some motorists who felt entitled to scare us off the roads by brute force. While we tried to keep to the rules of the road and respect others, we found motorists turning across our path, driving dangerously fast and generally treating their legal and moral obligations to other road users with contempt.
 
The Invisible Visible Boy and trailer bike:
it's OK; you're allowed to smile at us
The overall atmosphere even made me feel irritated about one of the positives of riding with children. After they’d done a double-take at my son’s trailer bike, many passersby would smile or even give us a thumbs-up, responding to the sense of joy and freedom that children seem to feel when cycling. In light of the other behaviour, the friendly gestures felt somehow irritatingly superficial.

It speaks volumes about quite how superb an experience cycling in a city with children can be that we still thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Part of the problem is that few parents in New York or many other big cities – including London, where we used to live – would even countenance undertaking a 12-mile, cross-city round-trip with two children by bike. I’ve read suggestions that parents who cycle with children in London should be prosecuted for child abuse. I remember one disapproving woman in London who saw me negotiating a junction in London (on foot, to reduce the danger) with my son and his trailer bike. “That’s so dangerous!” she said in a stage whisper.

The thought’s the logical extension of the common, mistaken notion that cyclist and pedestrian negligence causes crashes, while speeding, telephone-using motorists are the hapless agents of fate. Parents who cycle with their children are somehow meant to be the only living creatures on earth who don’t care if their progeny survive. The disapproving woman in London presumed she cared more about my son’s welfare than I did. Drivers’ behaviour around cycling families is unlikely to improve until they’ve had more practice encountering them.
The view from Pier 25: worth a few hassles to cycle there.

I'm carefully balancing the risks and rewards when I ride around with the children, however. I’m partly looking to the long term, when the likelihood is that a cycling habit will extend their life expectancy by far more than the risk of a crash will curtail it. I also undertake careful risk analyses. I thought carefully on Saturday about whether the roads would be quiet enough over a holiday weekend for the whole family to follow the route I take to work each day. We then headed a little further to Pier 25 on the Hudson.

The trip brought immediate benefits. As soon as we set off, I was being treated to a burbling stream of the boy’s observations on life and the passing city. When might he fit his older sister’s old bike? Were we in Chinatown yet? Were we out of Chinatown? Why was it called Chinatown? Which floor in that building was my office? My wife, following behind, had the pleasure of hearing the Invisible Visible Girl, riding her own bike, reflect on the shops along Prince St in SoHo.
 
I'm still a hero when I can fix the Invisible Visible Girl's
bike, if at no other time
It was as if the simple act of getting on our bicycles had wiped away the generation gap in perceptions and enthusiasms within the family. Cycling’s an activity for which many children feel an infectious enthusiasm. It lets adults – myself included – give free rein to their inner child. It’s one of the first activities where children exercise the adult responsibilities of getting about independently. It’s an activity where my modest mechanical expertise continues to give me hero status with my daughter, even as she draws close to becoming a teenager. I’m handing on to my children knowledge about bikes that I learnt from my father and that he learnt from his father before him.

Because of how the experience bonded and relaxed us, I felt guilty when I lapsed into my stressed adult self at a few points in the journey. I found myself gesticulating, exasperated hands aloft, as a truck overtook us then swung right across our path at Spring St and Broadway. I gestured frantically at motorists lining up at the scary intersection of W Houston and West St not to try dangerous overtaking moves. It always feels unfair when I let the children see the more anxious, stressed me of points in my workaday life, rather than the in-control daddy I try to give them.
 
The Invisible Visible Boy absorbs another family interest
Yet, after 45 minutes or so, we had reached the calm of the bike-only Hudson River Greenway for the short ride down to Pier 25. The boy splashed in the water to cool off from the 90F heat and humidity. The girl, who normally has her head in a book or her iPad, briefly tried out a climbing wall. We visited an old lighthouse tender moored by the pier, where the boy made my heart sing by taking a close interest in the triple-expansion steam engine. Looking up at the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, it felt a privilege to be on bikes in this spectacular city.

The incident with the honking driver – in Chinatown, as we returned to the Manhattan Bridge – detracted only a little from the day.

It was hard, nevertheless, not to feel wistful as we returned home that the experience could not be easier and more straightforward. While I’m prepared to take the boy most places in the city on a trailer bike behind mine, I’ve so far turned down his requests to be allowed to ride alongside us on the sidewalk on his own bike on short, local trips. The girl, older and more attuned to the risks of the roads, never much likes riding into Manhattan because of the challenges of the traffic and impatient drivers.

It would take relatively little improvement, I’m sure, to coax far more parents to get out their children’s bikes for family trips, rather than resort to the subway or a car. Even on Saturday, there were parts of the journey – on the Allen St protected bike lanes, on the Hudson Greenway, on the Manhattan Bridge – where I had no worries about the children’s safety. With further work, I might start feeling more confident about letting the boy ride on his own. With only minor improvements, I might start acknowledging on their own, friendly terms the thumbs up and smiles of well-meaning passersby.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

A broken bone, a painful boot - and how I plan to act towards the older me

It put the injury I’d sustained in a whole new light. My neighbour looked down at my foot as we stood in the elevator and gave me a pitying look.

“Yes, it’s easier to do that kind of thing as you get older,” he said. “And it starts to take longer to heal.”

It was the first that I’d thought of the misfortune of the broken bone in my foot as anything other than simple bad luck. I broke it, I think, in April and limped around all May in varying degrees of pain. Since the injury was finally diagnosed on June 3, I’ve been lumbering around in an orthopaedic boot, desperately hoping for the injury to heal.
My favourite conveyance, next to one I
dislike intensely: my bike and my
orthopaedic boot

But the moment I thought of my misfortune as a kind of memento mori – a portent of my steady progress away from birth and closer to death – I couldn’t unthink it. My injury made me, I realised, temporarily a person far older than my 44 years. It’s made me realise how apt my fellow New Yorkers – and I myself – am to judge someone by a superficial change to their appearance such as the sprouting of an ungainly plastic boot. It’s an insight that I hope to retain after the blessed day when the boot comes off and my bike once again leaves its resting place by the living room closet.

But I’d still far rather none of the sorry mess had happened.

It started with a dull pain I noticed in my left foot while cycling. It hurt when I put the foot down during stops at traffic lights. I assumed that, like most such aches and pains, it’d get better. Then, on the visit to Michigan that I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I walked around, putting weight on it, and found myself hobbling in agony. That pain was alleviated only when I returned to New York, resumed cycling and found the pain receded to a minor irritant. Then I went on a second cycle-less trip, to Colorado, resumed my agonised hobbling and realised I’d need to get it properly checked out.

The second doctor I saw worked out what was wrong.

“You’re broken clean through there,” he said, pointing on my x-ray to a bone that I now know to be the proximal phalanx in the fourth toe on my left foot. His colleague ten days before had pronounced the x-ray “normal”.

Is that car stopping or going? It's a question that's grown
more stressful for me lately.
The doctor produced an intimidating-looking boot and, over my protests that I’d cycled to the appointment, told me I’d be wearing it for at least two weeks.

It transformed my sense of myself. Now I was unable to do it, I realised how light and easy cycling feels to me. I feel much of the time as if I’m skipping round town on my bike. I suddenly felt slow, lumbering and foolish. I didn’t even have a heroic story. I don’t know for sure – beyond thinking I might have carelessly kicked a kitchen chair in bare feet – how I broke it.

That was before I even tried crossing the street.

When I approached crosswalks, I found all the things I normally took for granted – the ability to get across quickly, a confidence in facing down cars, an ability to take evasive action – had diminished. My stress levels rose in ways they never normally did over decisions about whether to cross when the right countdown clock showed, say, 10 seconds.

Even worse, I found some motorists seemed not only less solicitous than normal but actually less patient. When moving more slowly, I seemed to represent a greater possible obstacle. I became someone motorists were even keener than normal to have out of their way.
 
An odd kind of pain relief: my orthopaedic
boot, complete with inner tube lining.
On the subway, my boot seems to be invisible when I'm standing and need a seat, but to become hyper-visible if I'm delaying someone on the stairs.

I in turn have found myself growing still crankier than normal. The air sacs in the boot I was given turn out to be prone to puncturing. With the air sacs deflated, the boot rubs painfully against my ankle. The pain is like chilli powder rubbed into the open sore of my bad mood over needing the boot in the first place. The only comfort is that I finally hit on the solution. I’ve put a bike inner tube inside the boot and now use it to keep the boot comfortable.

The most shocking street-crossing incident came as I walked my son to school one morning, him on his bike and me hobbling on my orthopaedic boot. At a crosswalk near his school, I waved and shouted in frustration at a van whose driver barged through the crosswalk as we tried to cross. That served to irritate a driver behind, who lent out as I crossed to shout at me, “Why were you shouting?” When I stopped and turned round to answer him, he drove his car towards me to get me to move.

The crosswalk run-in chimed with something I’d heard from an older neighbour who cycles but is currently injured after a fall from his bike. He’d been impressed one time recently, he said, when a motorist had been unusually tolerant in letting him cross a crosswalk. But the driver then lent out of his car and shouted, “Walk faster!”

There’s a malice about both incidents that goes well beyond New Yorkers’ focus on those using their own means of transport or an understandable desire to get about as fast as they can in a city that often doesn’t facilitate it. It topples over at times into a bullying impatience with the weaker based on what seems like contempt for their weakened state. It’s something that I imagine less mobile people in other big cities also experience. But I have a feeling it might be especially acute in New York City, a dark negative to the city’s remarkable, positive get-up-and-go energy.
 
Less dodging through blocked crosswalks for me
once this boot's off my foot.
The two-week minimum period the doctor prescribed for me in the boot concludes on Tuesday. I’m already picturing myself, if a new x-ray is clear, ditching my orthopaedic boot, rushing home and heading into the city on my bike. I will, I’m sure, feel a new appreciation for the privileges of being able to cycle in one of the world’s greatest cities, taking in the view each morning from the Manhattan Bridge and enjoying the feeling of speeding away from the traffic lights on Allen St.

I’m planning to be more solicitous once I’m free, however, of the needs of people who can’t get about as easily. I won’t be on the subway as much in future – but, when I am, I want to be one of the people who’s given me a seat, rather than one of the masses of people who’ve sat and watched me balance on my boot. I’m acutely conscious of how the boot seems to have changed how people react to me, without there having been any significant change in my personality.

In the hurly-burly of the city, I probably won’t live up to my intentions all the time.

But I should bear in mind my neighbour’s remark in the elevator. I’m fortunate that, for the moment, being less mobile is only a temporary state for me. Yet, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, I’ll one day be so much older that the effects are obvious all the time. I want to fix in my mind how, when I’m impatient of older pedestrians’ slow walk across a crosswalk or down a street, I’m demonstrating a bullying callousness I don’t want people to show the older me.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

An uptown ride, a Hudson incident - and why some safety messages spell danger

On April 25, instead of heading straight to the office, I cycled up the Hudson River Greenway to the ghastly Javits Convention Center, for an event grandly titled the World Traffic Safety Symposium. The centrepiece turned out to be a much-hyped announcement about improving pedestrian safety by David Friedman, acting administrator of the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Hudson River Greenway: a ride up here put me
in a sombre mood

A scene I encountered as I cycled there shaped my experience of the event, however. Around Pier 59 in Chelsea, I found a swarm of emergency vehicles blocking most of the cycle path, busy working at something in the river. It wasn’t hard to work out that they were retrieving something significant – probably a dead person – from the water.

The sense that I’d brushed someone’s tragedy on the way put me in no mood to listen to the convenient messages that their public relations departments had given the speakers to parrot about improving road safety. It fuelled my conviction that their approach to road safety had been infected by one of the signature thinking failures of the contemporary age. Faced with a big problem with complex roots, they had decided – by stressing everyone’s collective responsibility for safety - to blame everyone involved, rather than the people most responsible.

The indignation that overtook me was similar to what I feel when I hear or read, for example, that it’s impossible to tell whether Russia or Ukraine is more to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the wake of the revelations about the US National Security Agency’s excessive spying, I’ve read suggestions that, since America is less free than was previously supposed, it’s really no different from China or North Korea. Other cynics say that, since it’s hard to tell which of the various UK political parties at present is least bad, one might as well regard them as all the same.

Such ideas invariably serve to help the powerful and ill-intentioned – an authoritarian Russia against a democratic if flawed Ukraine; China’s repressive government against its own people and the UK independence party against less nasty groups.

Pedestrians in midtown Manhattan: crossing the street
almost as if it weren't their personal responsibility
to keep themselves safe from the poor cars.
But this act of intellectual surrender was all the more invidious because none of the speakers – who included the commissioner of New York State’s department of motor vehicles, New York City’s traffic commissioner and the New York police’s head traffic cop - seemed to recognise it as such. In fact, they presented their message – that everyone shares responsibility for making the roads safer – as if it were the plainest common sense.

“It begins with personal responsibility,” Friedman said, before going on to say how indispensable it was that everyone take ownership of his or her own safety.

“In a rush, we might cross against the light,” he said. “On our bikes, we might not stop at every stop sign. As drivers, being late for work can mean the temptation to rush into a crosswalk before the pedestrian does to get across and save a bit of time instead of waiting for them to walk safely by.”

Friedman invited us, in other words, to equate in blameworthiness nipping across a pedestrian crossing against the light when no vehicles are around, jumping a red light on a bike when one can see a phalanx of charging cars behind one and barging one’s car through a crosswalk of children walking to school.

Riding down the 9th St bike lane in Park Slope, Brooklyn?
Don't forget to exercise your personal responsibility
to keep yourself safe there.
Research into road crashes highlights such a suggestion’s preposterousness. Every bit of research I’ve read on crashes between motorists and pedestrians or cyclists attributes blame for between two-thirds and 80 per cent of crashes to the motorist. People’s gut instinct about where the power lies between a half-tonne speeding vehicle and a vulnerable cyclist or pedestrian already appears to be making them risk-averse around cars. In New York City, more serious pedestrian injuries seem to occur to people crossing with the light in the crosswalk than crossing against the light. People who cross when traffic’s clear but the light’s not in their favour seem to do better than those who rely on turning drivers to yield to them.

The effects of this misallocation of blame are real. Since New York embarked on its effort to eliminate road crash deaths in January, police in many precincts have stepped up harassment of cyclists and pedestrians but not policing of refusal to yield or speeding. When a driver hit and killed Nicholas Soto, a 14-year-old boy, crossing the street in Red Hook, a few blocks from my house, last Monday, the instant reaction was to blame the boy’s sweatshirt for obstructing his view. But the car involved seems to have been going far too fast and the boy was in a crosswalk. The implicit assumption that responsibility for road safety lies equally with the driver of a speeding performance car and a schoolboy running for the bus has led police to blame the victim, rather than the perpetrator.
Remember, folks: exercise your personal responsibility
in getting around the cars the police have allowed
to block the sidewalk and bike lane.

On a wider scale, both in New York and other parts of the world, failure to understand crashes’ causes leads police to harass groups that don’t cause crashes and leave alone others that do. In my native Scotland, the Scottish government last year embarked on an especially bizarre "mutual respect" campaign called "the Niceway Code". The evening before Nicholas' death, I'd even come across police supervising minivan drivers who were parking blocking a sidewalk and most of a two-way bike lane. It was as if they were trying to demonstrate unequivocally whose interests they represented.

Nor is it adequate to claim that, somehow, the misleading message about safety is effective because it overcomes drivers’ resistance to being told it’s all their fault. After a taxi driver honked at me to hurry me out of a crosswalk earlier this year, he told me that, no, it wasn’t the fault of drivers like him that pedestrian deaths in the city remained high. It was the fault of pedestrians distracted by their telephones. I wasn’t using a mobile device as I crossed the street. I am confident that he is one of many drivers who, when hearing that road safety is a shared responsibility, concludes it isn’t really his at all. It’s hard not to be reminded of the way some police forces used to combat sexual assault. Yes, men, you shouldn’t rape women. But, come on women, watch how you dress and where you go. Any message that disperses blame for a problem takes pressure off the most blameworthy party.
Cycle or walk responsibly through the intersection
of 54th Street and Broadway. Otherwise you
might not be safe.

The only comfort I could draw was that the sums being put into this new initiative are so small they’re unlikely to do much harm. Friedman had come to New York to announce awards of $1.6m – the price of a few rooms of a Brooklyn brownstone – for pedestrian safety, split between three cities. New York was to receive $800,000 while the remainder would be split between Philadelphia and Louisville, Kentucky. I had no time to follow the group to a nearby celebratory press conference. So, robbed of the chance to ask awkward questions, I headed back to the office.

It was to be a memorable ride downtown. I reached Pier 59 to find the emergency vehicles gone. Only two policemen remained, seated at a picnic table playing cards. At their feet was a sheet, hiding the unmistakeable outline of the body they’d hauled out of the river.

It was hard not to see the little tableau as a metaphor for how New York and many other cities treat deaths. We’re constantly surrounded by fatal tragedies – a young man who’s jumped off a bridge, or another who’s been hit by a car. Yet we seem all too often to be so distracted, impatient and easily bored that we don’t give their deaths the respect and reflection they deserve.

There are no easy solutions. A patrol cop in the precincts by the Hudson probably sees enough bodies fished out of the river that he can be forgiven his sense of ennui. It’s hard when driving to hold onto a full sense of one’s responsibility to those around.

But, at the moment, the rush after a fatal crash is all too often to assure the survivor that, no, he couldn't have done anything to avoid it, to heap the blame on the person whose life has just been taken away. As long as that's the instinct, there won't be much reduction in the numbers of the recently-deceased left lying in the street, hidden by only a sheet, for the medical examiner to take away.

Monday, 2 June 2014

An idle hour, worried taxi drivers - and why only the dumbest don't plea bargain

The man looked me up and down and, mistaking my light grey, Brooks Brothers suit for a sign I had an official role at the Taxi and Limousine Commission tribunal, asked me, “Are you the lawyer?”

“No, I’m a witness,” I replied.

A brief, awkward silence ensued.

“You are in favour of the driver?” he asked, in the accent of somewhere in South Asia.

“No,” I said. “The driver tried to assault me, so I’m very much not in favour of the driver.”
 
New York City taxi drivers, before humanisation
The man’s error, I realised during the 90 minutes I spent this past Thursday at the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, was an understandable one. We were all at the TLC’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings because of things that had happened somewhere on New York City’s streets. The steady stream of mainly South Asian men that trooped out of the elevators on the 19th floor of the TLC’s building in the Financial District had all, presumably, done something negligent or dangerous that would have infuriated or horrified me if I’d witnessed it. There’s an equally strong chance that, had we encountered each other on the street, we'd have been yelling at each other.

But, as I waited for my moment of courtroom drama, I found myself viewing the drivers, shorn of their yellow cabs or Town Car limousines, differently. They were hard-working immigrants worried about what their day at the tribunal would mean for their livelihoods. Once there was no obvious sign (apart from the pair of pannier bags at my seat) that I was a cyclist, I suddenly turned into someone who might make this bad day better for them. Off the roads, our shared humanity came to the surface.
 
The scene of, if not the crime, at least the breach
of Taxi and Limousine Commission regulations
Not that the reason I was there was touching or reassuring. I was due to attend a hearing over my complaint against a car service driver that I found one night in March blocking a cycle lane at a particularly dangerous junction in downtown Brooklyn. Since he was leaning against the car and there were plenty of legal alternative places to park, I asked him to move. After he angrily refused to do so, I tried to take a picture as evidence for the TLC. That sent him spiralling into a far more intense fury and he not only swore at me and called me a “white devil” but made grabs for both my camera and bike.

When I arrived at the office at 8.50am on Thursday, however, I recognised none of the drivers waiting anxiously for hearings. A short while later, a TLC prosecuting attorney emerged to tell me my driver had so far not turned up. If he hadn’t arrived by 10am, he would be in default and found guilty of all the charges. He apologised for making me wait.
A New York taxi cab in action: quiet professionalism

But I was already growing interested in the transactions I could hear taking place around me.

“OK, so the complaint’s withdrawn,” I heard a TLC official telling a woman I took to be a driver’s lawyer. “So he doesn’t have the points. You just have to make sure he doesn’t get two more points or he’ll get another summons.”

Another driver was standing, head cocked, listening carefully to a TLC attorney.

“This is the offer,” he was being told. “We give you a $300 fine and no points.”
 
There was then some discussion about whether the driver had been given a previous chance to consider the offer, before it became clear that he would accept it.

“If that’s what you want to do, we’ll go in front of the judge and withdraw everything else,” the official told him.

Would you feel like veering left round a limo parked
at this intersection? One evening back in March, I didn't.
The tribunal, I started to realise, seldom dealt in courtroom drama of the To Kill a Mocking Bird kind. I’d carefully taken pictures of the intersection involved to show the judge how dangerous it was to park in that bike lane. But I’d never been likely to get my moment in court. The tribunal dealt instead in the kind of mildly unsatisfactory plea-deal compromise that Maurice Levy would persuade a drug gang’s members to accept in The Wire. The transactional nature of the interactions was such that I even heard someone who seemed to work at the TLC shouting cheerily to someone who appeared to be a driver, “Nice to see you here again!”

My mind went back to my most recent journey in a New York City taxi – my first since I moved permanently to the city nearly two years ago. Arriving at nearly midnight at LaGuardia Airport ten days ago, I opted for a taxi over the late-night vagaries of bus and subway and found myself hurtling at 70mph along the uneven surfaces of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The driver hunched over the wheel of his Ford Escape, a hunted look in his eyes.

It was obviously dangerous driving – he tailgated other vehicles, drove too close to the concrete dividing barriers and generally, I eventually told him, drove like someone who would one day kill another road user. He didn’t seem in any way a bad person, however. He was remarkably calm and receptive once I started fully explaining to him why his driving terrified me. I slightly reduced my tip in line with my previous advice on how to shape taxi driver behaviour. But I couldn’t help wondering how well the endless transactions at the TLC fulfilled the wider goal of persuading drivers like mine to use their vehicles more safely.

Yeah, sure it looks like a clear rule breach
to you. What will it look like after a
plea bargain?
Yet, as my hour ticked by, it became clear I’d got into a row with one of the few for-hire drivers who didn’t understand how to play this game. My driver had been charged with three counts – a parking violation; harassment; and making threats of, or actual use of, physical violence. He faced points on his licence for the parking, a $200 to $1,000 fine for the harassment and a fine of up to $1,500 for the violence element. He could, in theory, face a suspension or revocation of his licence but the prosecutor made it clear the judges didn’t like using that.

Having listened to the other conversations, I’m confident the prosecutors had foreseen a deal dropping the violent element in exchange for guilty pleas to the two other charges. As it turned out, unless the driver can provide a good reason why he didn’t attend, he’s been found guilty of all the charges and could face the maximum penalties.

It was an outcome that initially pleased me. I headed back outside to find the Financial District bathed in bright, warm sunshine I’d been unable to see inside, unlocked my bike and prepared to head back to the office. I remain grateful to the TLC for taking my complaint seriously and acting on it. It’s better than the only previous time I complained to them, when they insisted they couldn’t identify the driver involved based on his licence plate number.

But Beaver St, outside the offices, was packed with cars, their drivers leaning impatiently on their horns. As I headed north towards the Hudson River Greenway, motorists were cutting inside each other, jostling for minuscule advantages with little regard to the danger or inconvenience their behaviour was creating for other people. As I rode home that evening, I once again had to dodge round a for-hire vehicle parked exactly where the driver I encountered had been. I hadn’t the heart to ask him to move.

I’d won one hollow, easy victory in the campaign for more civilised streets. But I got home far from certain the war was being won.

Update, June 10: I've just heard that the driver was indeed found guilty. He will have to pay a $3,050 fine and have four points on his licence.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

An angry off-duty policeman, a rainy night - and why the suburbs are coming for your bike lane

It was 8.30pm on Friday and I was battling my way home from Greenpoint, at Brooklyn’s northern tip, through a thunderstorm of the kind that reminds one New York’s weather arrives partly from the tropics. I’d just got south of the Williamsburg Bridge on Kent Avenue when, looking ahead, I could see there was a car parked blocking most of the bike lane.

I naively assumed for a moment that perhaps the driver had made a mistake. Perhaps, despite the clear markings, in the torrential rain the driver just hadn’t spotted the bike lane.
The Kent Avenue bike lanes: a great place to park,
if you're entitled and unpleasant.

Instead, I was about to discover an almost beautifully distilled summary of what remains wrong with attitudes to cycling and road law enforcement in New York City. Some of those attitudes are peculiar to this big, crazy malfunction of a metropolis, while others are frustratingly widespread across the industrialised world. Cyclists, according to this attitude, are an odd, fringe group whose concerns needn’t be taken seriously.

But that’s putting the cart of theorising before the horse of anecdotal evidence.

The car stood out because it was so obviously in the wrong place. The parking spaces along Kent Avenue are all in the road, while a two-way bike lane runs along the kerb. The car’s headlights were glaring back at me, through the rain, more or less right in my path. Every other car for blocks was neatly parked outside the bike lane. As I approached, I expressed my irritation by waving to the motorist to move. It was a waste of effort. Even so, I might have said nothing if the motorist had not, as I rode slowly past in the remaining portion of the southbound bike lane, rolled down his window and said something, which I didn’t catch, but sounded abusive.

The insolence of the gesture switched me into “Invisible Visible Avenger” mode. I rapped sharply on the now-closed window and told the driver, “Shift! You’re in the bike lane.”

When the window rolled down again, the face looking back at me was a man, probably in his thirties, solidly built and wearing a baseball cap. He looked unimpressed with being asked to move.

“I’ll park wherever I want,” he replied.

“It’s illegal,” I said. “You’re blocking the bike lane.”

His reply alone would make a fascinating blogpost on its own – and certainly a fascinating contribution to Sarah Goodyear’s recent piece for the Atlantic Cities about cycling and masculinity.

“I’m picking up my baby,” he said. There was a child in a car seat in the back.

“What’s more important – my baby or your faggot-assed bike?”

The weight of his cultural assumptions was suddenly crashing and swirling around inside my head as frantically as the rain was lashing down outside it. There was the tone of injured innocence, so typical of a certain kind of self-righteous motorist. “I’m trying to go about my life the way normal, respectable people do,” he seemed to be telling me. “Yet here you, cyclist, are trying to intrude and ruin it.”

The assumptions behind the “faggot-assed bike” comment are even more breathtaking. He was driving a Dodge Avenger – a mid-size sedan with a more powerful than normal engine and an aggressive look. The car was an embodiment of his assumption that real men drive fast, aggressive cars. I, in my human-powered earnestness, represented weakness so transgressive as not to be fully male. My behaviour was so strange that even my bicycle suddenly assumed a sexual orientation.

And, of course, his attitude was turning this into a battle of wills, which I wasn’t prepared to lose.

“What’s important is that you’re blocking the bike lane,” I told him. “Look. I can call the police if you like.”
 
I use this photo for balance. The NYPD isn't the only
emergency service that ignores bike lanes
It was a bluff, based on my knowledge that no NYPD officer would deal with a call about a driver's obstructing a bike lane, particularly in a thunderstorm. But it opened up a whole new front in the battle.

“Call the police if you like,” he said, grabbing a sheaf of papers from his dashboard and shoving them towards me. They bore the logo of the New York Police Department and looked like some internal police directory. “This is the police right here.”

It would be reasonable to ask at this point why I believed him to be a police officer. Suffice it to say that I had a run-in once in London with someone who claimed to be a Metropolitan Police community support officer. His claim never rang true and, sure enough, when I complained to the police they said he was nothing to do with them.

The arrogance, self-confidence and sense of entitlement of the Angry Avenger Driver of Kent Avenue struck me as far more convincing.

It would be still more sensible to ask why, faced with a homophobic, cyclist-hating police officer who thinks his role entitles him to break the law, I didn’t cut my losses and leave. That, I imagine, is how a more balanced, contented person might have behaved.

Yet by now the Invisible Visible Avenger was in sole charge.

“What’s your badge number?” I asked.

“You got room to pass, don’t you?” he asked. “I ain’t stoppin’ you.”

“Are you a police officer?”

“Yes, I am. You shouldn’t be riding in the rain.”
 
There are two ways to read the NYPD's decision to put
"Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect" on the side of their
vehicles. They're either wholly out of touch or - which I
prefer - have a brilliant satirist in their image department
“Tell me your badge number.”

“Stop ridin’ in the rain.”

“What’s your badge number?”

“I don’t have to tell you shit.”

It was the last I heard from him. Silently, recognising reason wouldn’t work, I strode over to a nearby wall, leaned my bike against it and started to get my camera out of my pannier bag. Recognising, I suppose, that his bosses might take a dim view of discovering his views on a whole range of matters, the officer made off into the dark, rainy night. My sole sliver of victory was that I’d got him out of the bike lane. I felt far less fearful than after some previous confrontations with recalcitrant motorists.

But, as I headed on homeward, water squelching in my waterlogged shoes, I felt depressed. The previous morning, I’d been delighted as I rode to work to see a police officer ticketing a driver parked in the bike lane on Jay St in downtown Brooklyn and had shouted my thanks to him. The Kent Avenue encounter made me think that other reports I heard last week – of the police ticketing cyclists for relatively harmless breaches of Prospect Park’s one-way rules, for example – were more representative of current police attitudes.

The officer’s self-righteousness bothered me most. The comment about how I shouldn’t be riding in the rain suggested a strong underlying assumption that cycling was a trivial, leisure activity while driving a car was the serious act of a responsible person. Illegal driving consequently trumped perfectly legal cycling.

My mind went back to when two City of London police officers stopped me in London, accusing me of cycling dangerously by squeezing past their vehicle. They and other motorists had been illegally blocking an intersection where I had the light. In both that and Friday’s incident, there was the sense that the police officers, in their car, were implicitly the responsible grown-ups.

The officer’s arrogant assertion of his right to park wherever he liked spoke to something similar to the previous day’s ticket blitz in Prospect Park. The traffic rules for some police officers seem unimportant on their own terms – as a means to prevent people’s being harmed – but a series of traps, like the Russian tax code. They’re there to use as a stick to beat whatever group one wants to beat today or to fill up an unfilled quota of tickets.
 
NYPD cruisers in midtown: five carloads of suburban
assumptions, coming your way
The proliferation on New York City cars of stickers showing the driver’s allegiance to this or that police benevolent association – lucky charms to ward off the evil eye of an arbitrary traffic stop – suggests others share my perception of police attitudes.

Not that, for me, the consequences were ultimately important. As a middle-aged white professional, I’m self-evidently a poor target for a harassment arrest. Had I been a younger black or Hispanic man, I would probably have made off the moment I realised I was dealing with the police.

Blacks, Hispanics, gays and many other minority groups face far worse than cyclists generally do at the hands of the NYPD. I’m certainly in a far better position than the 28-year-old mentally ill man who used to live round the corner from me. After he stabbed – but only lightly wounded – his uncle, the police pumped seven bullets into him, killing him.
 
Williamsburg, near the scene of my encounter: no vision
of suburban respectability
Yet I don’t think it’s a stretch to see in the dismissive attitude of police in London and New York to cyclists’ complaints a symptom of the disconnect between police and policed. In both cities, officers live in outlying, suburban areas where car use is a symbol of a certain kind of conventional respectability. It’s not hard to imagine such officers are fundamentally at odds with much of the reality of the urban life they’re policing, from casual, harmless use of illegal drugs to rising levels of cycling.

Both cities’ residents have fought long battles with their police forces – over their racism, their homophobia, their sense they’re above the law. Yawning gaps persist between police and public attitudes. This year in New York started with bold declarations about eradicating road deaths, I arrived home on Friday discouraged, feeling that some of the police who should be helping towards that goal are part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

An unbridgeably wide road, a rush hour jam - and why I won't be leaving for the suburbs

As the bus carrying me and a group of other journalists and analysts pulled up to the Troy Marriott hotel near Detroit last Monday night, I started doing what any self-respecting professional traveller would have done – looking for enticing dinner options. In an unpromising area, the only alternative I could see to the hotel’s own restaurant was a sports bar – imaginatively named “Champps” – just across Big Beaver Road. While it seemed unlikely to be a hidden gourmand treat, it seemed more enticing once I’d seen the hotel restaurant’s prices and depressing beer range.

Champps: enticing - sort-of - amid limited circumstances
Yet I ended up all three nights of my stay trooping down to the hotel’s restaurant and ordering mediocre, absurdly-priced food ($29 for a pork porterhouse cooked so that it’s almost impossible to cut, anyone?) rather than venturing out. Closer examination revealed that, while Champps was close geographically, without a car it might as well be in the next state. There was no pedestrian crossing to take me across Big Beaver Road’s six lanes of high-speed traffic. Big Beaver Road did have sidewalks, unlike some suburban American streets (or stroads, as such highway streets are sometimes known). But they were cut off from the road and appeared built on the principle that pedestrians walk only in straight lines. Champps didn’t look worth the risk of a dash across the traffic.

My near-yet-far experience with dinner options opened my eyes to how comprehensively some suburban areas of the US – and, to a lesser extent, some European countries too – are built around transport by car. I fully understood for the first time how oppressive the sheer lack of choice in such areas is. It made me appreciate how, whatever my gripes about London in the past and New York at present, I’ve at least lived in places that offer some transport freedom of choice.
Big Beaver Road: would you risk crossing?

Of course, many Americans would say I’m showing my East Coast elitist or European thought patterns by viewing such conditions as problematic. Suburbs are popular, some transport thinkers tell me, because Americans just plain want to live in single-family houses with a big area of land around them. It’s mere snobbery for those of us who live in big, cramped cities to expect those who prefer the lower-density suburbs to adapt to living lives more like our own. There are plenty of similar trends among pro-car thinkers in the UK.

But my experience last Wednesday – when I went on a coach trip with other reporters and analysts from Troy to Toledo, Ohio, to see a car plant – suggested that the current arrangement wasn’t even working on its own terms. Because rain had slowed traffic, the tour bus was a good hour late arriving to pick us up. The driver then spent a further hour or so fighting through nearly-stationary traffic heading for central Detroit before he could drive at any reasonable speed on the way to Toledo.
 
Near downtown Detroit: not obviously a draw for traffic
Our hosts felt under stress throughout the day – and curtailed one of the most interesting parts of our visit in Toledo – because of the problems of maintaining our visit schedules on roads that made travel times unpredictable. I, meanwhile, sat in something like awe of the quantity of traffic disruption related to traffic heading into central Detroit. “What would this be like if Detroit were still a healthy city?” I asked myself, staring at the ranks of red rear lights on the Interstate. The vehicles were heading for a city centre where many lots remain vacant and whose population is only a third of its more than 2m peak. It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced big, severe traffic jams in Detroit’s morning rush hour.

The problems I witnessed are only an extreme example of the pressures that any city with low-density, far-flung suburbs with poor public transport and a dense inner city will tend to face. I had a taste of how even high-density New York struggles with such flows one morning in early April when a truck crashed on the Brooklyn-Queens expressway and closed both carriageways. I was suddenly sharing our neighbourhood streets with the vast lines of slow-moving car commuter traffic that outer parts of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Long Island suburbs generate. I normally see such traffic only from a distance, and generally only creeping towards its destination.

There’s a fundamental geographical problem. Distances in low-density suburbs are vast and forbidding for walking or cycling. But it’s hard to provide public transport for a place where the customers are all so far apart. When all those suburbanites jump into their cars to head for a city, the cars can’t all fit.
 
An abandoned Detroit house: can the people who left cross
the street where they live now?
The root of the problem is partly social. I was watching in the rainy Detroit rush hour partly a distant reverberation from the shattering explosion of Detroit’s 1967 race riots, which wrecked vast tracts of the city and sent many white people – and quite a few blacks too – scurrying for the perceived safety of places like Troy. It’s an essential part of the bargain of living in a big city like New York – or London – that one puts up with – maybe even celebrates – living cheek-by-jowl with people of different racial or economic backgrounds or very different outlooks on life. Race riots, second world war bombing or, in New York City’s case, the deliberate policies of Robert Moses have broken that contract down in the cities now facing the worst problems.
Downtown Detroit: hassly but hopeful

I’ve consistently voted with my feet on this issue. In my adult life, I’ve lived in dense, inner-urban areas of Edinburgh, London, Budapest and New York, prioritising convenience of walking, cycling and public transport over avoiding the hassles of inner-city life. Even when I visit the Detroit area or Fort Worth, Texas, I make a point of trying to stay in the inner city if I can. I’ve had aggressive panhandlers follow me and threaten me in downtown Detroit. But I still prefer the inner city’s challenges to the soullessness of the outer suburbs.

None of which would matter, conceivably, if the suburbs were actually satisfying suburbanites. But, even with the continued pull of better schools and leafy tranquillity, there’s mounting evidence that leafy places like Troy are losing out to asphalt-covered, brick-built places like downtown Detroit. New York City holds more people than it’s ever held, while suburban Long Island's population has grown more slowly in recent years than most of the rest of the region. It’s London – not the suburbs of Hertfordshire or Surrey – that’s looking to cater for millions of new residents over the next few years. Places whose residents don’t need cars are becoming more attractive.
 
My hotel window view: suburbanites' exercise yard.
I won’t pretend, of course, that inner-city Detroit – currently bankrupt, long corrupt and full of houses being reclaimed by the prairie – is a paragon that other cities should follow. But the growing activity in its downtown and the sprouting of cycle lanes and the sight of the occasional cyclist give me some optimism. It’s easier for me to see why the attractions of places like clean, leafy Troy – where the only walking most people do is across the parking lot – are starting to pale. It’s no surprise to me that the US’s most successful suburbs – the DC suburbs in northern Virginia – are working hard at putting in bike lanes, improving public transport and making people who want a congestion-free car commute pay for the privilege. It would be heartening to see suburbs elsewhere – like Troy or the most traffic-clogged bits of London’s commuter belt – following suit.

1st Avenue: sure, motorists don't know how to drive
there politely. But Big Beaver Road it ain't.
For me, meanwhile, the motor vehicle-dependence was at least temporary. I had a long wait on my return to LaGuardia Airport for a public bus but took pleasure in sharing it with others. I then transferred smoothly for my subway ride home, avoiding the chaos of the city streets above. I took still greater pleasure the next day in taking the day off work and heading out into the city under my own power.

The Queensboro Bridge: there are subways below, cars,
buses and bikes on the surface and even a cable car above.
It wasn’t, I admit, a complete joy interacting with New York City drivers as I headed north through Brooklyn towards Queens. My first ride up the new First Avenue bike lane on the Upper East Side was marred by the discovery that drivers are as reluctant to yield to cyclists there as elsewhere in the city. Even on my ride north and round the top of Central Park, I found myself sharing the roadway with cars whose drivers viewed the park’s speed limit as optional.

But, after spending most of the week by a road that was impossible to cross, I found it hard to feel truly angry. The best bits of the journey – the well-designed bike lanes up Kent Avenue, the bike and pedestrian lane over the Queensboro Bridge and the ride south by the Hudson – made me feel quite the opposite. What a privilege it was, I realised, to live in a city where few need feel wedded to their cars and growing numbers choose to get about by bike. As I embark on a new week of hustling for space and priority with the city’s drivers, I’ll do my very best to retain that feeling.