Sunday, 7 June 2015

A Twitter row, a gospel passage - and why victim-blaming keeps coming back

It’s not, I accept, a common outcome to a row on social media. But, as I was cycling home on May 20 past downtown Brooklyn’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, my mind turned from a row I’d been having on Twitter with Rory Lancman, a New York city council member, to the New Testament. Specifically, I thought about an incident in the 9th chapter of the Gospel ofJohn.
Jay St: not an obvious place, I accept, to start pondering
the Gospel of John
The passage came to mind because Councilman Lancman wants to amend key provisions of the council’s Right of Way law, passed last year. The amendments would shift from the driver to police and prosecutors the burden for proving violations of the law were avoidable. That would make it far harder to use the law for its intended purpose of charging drivers who hit pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way. The councilman’s arguments to my mind suggest he thinks there are cases where motorists strike vulnerable road users acting legally and the crash is still ultimately somehow the vulnerable road user’s fault.

John Chapter 9 is a reminder of how long human beings have been battling that same instinct to assume people nearly always bring their misfortune on themselves. It details an encounter between Jesus and his disciples and a man born blind. The disciples assume the man must be suffering because of some wrongdoing either on his own or his parents’ part.

The efforts by Councilman Lancman and many others to shift the blame for crashes make far more sense, it seems to me, looked at in the context of millennia of instinctive victim-blaming than as a rational piece of public policy-making. The belief that victims deserve their fate continues to underlie thinking in a huge range of areas. While it clouds a huge amount of people’s thinking about road safety, it has still more invidious effects in thinking about class, race and, most obviously in the contemporary US, violence by the police. It is particularly invidious because it tends to be applied disproportionately to the powerless – the pedestrian or cyclist more than the motorist; the poor, unarmed black person killed by police more than the police officer.

“As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth,” John Chapter 9 reads. “ His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned - this man or his parents - that he was born blind?’”

A crash I encountered on Friday: since it involved two
motor vehicles, Councilman Lancman is spared
the task of working out how to exonerate one party.
Councilman Lancman, of course, doesn’t accept my interpretation of his proposed amendments. He insists that his concern is a purely technical one – that the law passed last year is wrongly being interpreted as a “strict liability” law: that drivers are charged irrespective of the circumstances and their culpability in striking the victim of the crash. The police are wrongly failing before making arrests to analyse whether the crash was somehow unavoidable.

An email he sent to fellow council members explaining his proposed amendments, however, suggests he simply doesn't think drivers are truly to blame for many crashes.

“Adding a provision to the bill to require an analysis of due care will penalise drivers who hit pedestrians out of recklessness and gross negligence, while sparing drivers when accidents are caused by poor road conditions, bad weather and scofflaw pedestrians,” he wrote.

The email suggests strongly that many motorists who strike pedestrians and cyclists moving legally and with the right of way are somehow helpless victims either of circumstances on the roads or of the negligence of those they hit. Since it’s impossible that a pedestrian crossing the street with a walk signal can be crossing the street illegally, Councilman Lancman seems to be suggesting that, for example, a motorist might be let off charges for striking him or her if, say, the victim was talking on a mobile telephone.
Two pedestrians in this Meatpacking District crosswalk
are on their phones. That makes them fair game, right?

The email also suggests an entirely mistaken conception of a driver’s duty to exercise due care. In poor road conditions and bad weather, it’s a driver’s responsibility to drive more carefully. If a driver has blindspots, he has to compensate for them by looking more carefully. To assume that the vulnerable have to assume all the blame is to make a crude assumption that might is generally right.

The true obscenity of the councilman’s proposed amendment, meanwhile, is that it’s seeking to stamp out a “problem” that barely exists. According to Streetsblog, between the introduction of the Right of Way Law last August and the end of April, only 22 drivers had been charged under it, out of 8,000 collisions between motorists and pedestrians or cyclists. His proposed amendment would usher in a system where even that minuscule number of prosecutions would inevitably fall to nearly zero. It is no comfort at all that the councilman's proposed amendment and some other recent legislation aimed at gutting the Right of Way Law seem to be aimed at ensuring that more members of Transport Workers' Union Local 100, which represents New York bus drivers, escape arrest when they hit pedestrians.

It’s hardly as if, after all, there isn’t already a firmly-established paradigm in the heads of police officers and district attorneys that pedestrians and cyclists bring their fates on themselves. On May 18, for example, a driver struck and killed John Torson, 89, at the corner of 1st Avenue and 61st Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and claimed that, while she had done her best to stop, he had “just hobbled into the middle of the street”. Extraordinarily, the New York Police Department appears to have accepted this improbable excuse for hitting a man of 89 who was crossing with the right of way. The NYPD let it be known that Mr Torson had been “crossing outside the marked crosswalk”. Pictures of the scene showed the car stopped only just beyond the crosswalk, suggesting that he must at least have been very close to the marked lines.

Mr Torson was killed only a few blocks from where a turning cab driver killed Amelia Sterental, 76, on May 9 at 60th Street and Madison Avenue. That crash – which also involved a turning driver and someone crossing the street with the walk signal - has yet to produce any charges either, suggesting that the police in that case have also found some improbable excuse for the driver’s negligence.

A van driver swings through a crosswalk
on Sixth Avenue. If he hits a pedestrian,
in many circumstances, Rory Lancman
will have his back
New means of suggesting pedestrians and cyclists bring their fate on themselves are constantly emerging and need to be slapped down, like some strange game of cultural whack-a-mole. One snowy morning in early 2014, I shouted at a cab driver who honked at me to try to get me out of a crosswalk. When he got out to confront me, I told him impatient driving like his explained the city’s poor road safety record. He asserted – even though I had not been using a phone – that pedestrians’ mobile phone use that explained the spike in crashes. I have seen abundant commentary recently on the risks of pedestrians' mobile phone use - and far less on the far greater danger posed by distracted drivers.

In the UK, Bradley Wiggins - for whose sporting achievements I feel the greatest respect - recently made the latest of a series of poorly-judged interventions on cycling safety to say cyclists "have to help themselves" by wearing "helmets and things". The Metropolitan Police shamefully failed to charge the driver who fatally hit Michael Mason on Regent’s Street because, although his bike was well lit, he was wearing neither a helmet nor high-visibility clothing. Most dispiritingly, I once had a lunch with a UK road safety minister who, when asked about cyclist safety, said cyclists were "their own worst enemies".

The persistence of such thinking is all the more extraordinary given the mental leaps that should be required to accept this narrative. Research regularly places the main blame for between two-thirds and 80 per cent of crashes involving vulnerable road users on the driver involved. Yet the victim-blaming narrative suggests cyclists and pedestrians either don’t know themselves to be vulnerable or consistently throw themselves in front of deadly, speeding vehicles heedless of the dangers.

The desperation to exonerate motorists reflects not only a desire to blame victims but to exculpate the powerful of wrongdoing. Last week, for example, after a driver mounted a sidewalk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and mowed down Oscar Chen, four, the police were quick to dismiss this appalling piece of driving as “just an accident”. The four-year-old was saved, to judge by videos, only by being by a tree – which fell over and protected him – when the vehicle hit him. The distasteful rush to exonerate contrasts sharply with the police’s desperation to accept the false account of Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha, the driver who killed three-year-old Allison Liao in a crosswalk in Queens in 2013. The driver said Allison had “broken away” from her grandmother while crossing the street – a version of events that subsequent evidence has shown to be entirely misleading. Allison's family are constituents of Rory Lancman's.

There are similar forces at work in the effort to vilify Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed last year by Cleveland Police, and make excuses for the police officers who killed him. It’s not too much of a stretch, I think, to see the victim-blaming, power-exonerating dynamic at work in much of recent decades’ US economic policy. The rich need the carrot of lower taxes if they’re to be persuaded to work harder. The poor need the stick of withdrawn benefits.

The victim-blaming narrative, after all, has huge implications. If we all primarily determine our own fate on the roads, there should be a presumption of minimal intervention by the police, prosecutors and licensing authorities in drivers’ freedom to do as they please. If, however, people’s fates depend predominantly on the behaviour of others, the presumption in favour of freedom should be significantly eroded.

It’s striking for how long these moral and intellectual battles have been fought and refought, however. In the Jewish scriptures, the book of Job recounts a man suffering a series of afflictions whose friends falsely assume his own wrongdoing has somehow brought them on him. In John Chapter 9, meanwhile, Jesus firmly rebukes his disciples.
Parking outside Brooklyn Basilica: how would Jesus park,
do you think?
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he says.

The story in John has a far happier ending than many collisions on New York’s or London’s streets or between angry police officers and vulnerable African-Americans. Jesus says that the blind man is blind "so that the works of God might be displayed in him". That is, I accept, a problematical idea. But Jesus goes on to put mud on the man’s eyes and have him wash it off. Afterwards, he can see.

Such a moment of eye-opening doesn’t yet seem to have come to Councilman Lancman or many other policy-makers or law enforcement officials worldwide. It hasn’t, sadly, even come to some of my fellow contemporary followers of Christ. As I cycled home on May 31, a little over a fortnight after my row with Councilman Lancman, I headed as usual down Jay St past St James’s Cathedral. I came up short when I found the bike lane was blocked. People attending an event at the cathedral had arrived by car in large numbers and decided, entirely illegally, to park diagonally to the kerb, blocking the bike lane in both directions. Cyclists were forced out into a busy stream of rush-hour traffic, endangered to provide more convenient parking for the congregation.

It’s a casual example of the arrogance of the powerful against the weak. Were Jesus present on earth in the same sense as 2,000 years ago, there would, I’m sure, be issues that would cause him still more concern. But there's a moral responsibility to park a car - just as there is to move it - in a way that poses the least possible risk to others. When people undertake even such minor acts in a fashion so casually contemptuous of the interests of others, it strikes me as deeply at odds with the solicitude for others that Christian faith – or the true practice of Judaism, humanism or any truly ethical belief system – should inspire.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A changing junction, a political bike ride - and the progressive case for cycling

As I ride home from work in the evenings, an intersection in downtown Brooklyn often prompts me to ponder New York City’s attitude to cycling. The southbound bike lane on Smith St at Fulton St used to move out gracefully round a waiting area for taxis and car-service vehicles. Then, recognising that the lane was constantly blocked by parked vehicles, the city decided to repaint the lane so that the parked taxis would no longer block it – though cyclists would have to perform a dangerous swerve out into traffic to round the parked vehicles. More recently, it’s been repainted yet again – and the lane’s now back to guiding cyclists smoothly through the junction – and once again perpetually blocked.
Smith St at Fulton: as it was before it became a symbol
of the city's vacillation about cyclists.

The intersection is a beautiful concrete – or asphalt – illustration of New York City’s equivocal attitude towards encouraging cycling. The city has been prepared to paint bicycle lanes on streets – although it’s now retreating even from that in favour of the dreadful “extra-wide parking lane”. But the city has been far less ready – particularly since Janette Sadik-Khan left as transport commissioner at the end of 2013 – to recognise that to accommodate cyclists well in a given road space it is also often necessary to inconvenience motorists. There has lately seemed to be a waning of the confidence under Michael Bloomberg, the previous mayor, that by promoting cycling the city was making progress towards being a better city.

A bike ride last Thursday prompted me to ponder further the politics of this change. I rode with members of New York city council’s progressive caucus from Brooklyn Borough Hall across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to highlight the importance of cycling. A Manhattan delegation, having ridden from Union Square, met us at City Hall. As I rode with Brad Lander, Carlos Menchaca and other left-leaning individuals, I got into discussion about the “progressive” agenda for transport in the city and how intimately cycling is linked to making the city better for all its inhabitants.
Brad Lander addresses the bike-to-work ride outside Borough
Hall: a reliable progressive enthusiast for cycling.
I came away convinced that there are many progressive politicians in the city who recognise that the way people get about significantly affects how equitable and safe a city is for all its inhabitants. But I also left worried that some other progressive politicians fail to grasp what a big role changes to those patterns of mobility could play in achieving their wider goals.

Even the term progress is a pretty significant stumbling-block when thinking about these issues. The term implies that humans are learning from previous generations’ mistakes to make the world a steadily better place. It’s a view of the world that sits uncomfortably with the multiple areas where the world appears to be going into reverse. Among those are the rise of vicious Islamist radicals like the Islamic State and the takeover of the US’s Republican Party by groups that appear to reject the reliability of the scientific method for deducing facts about the world. The term also calls into question what “progress” is. Does it entail everyone’s growing steadily richer and buying ever more cars and consumer goods? At its worst, the goal of pushing towards “progress” has justified appalling acts of political repression.

Nevertheless, I’m confident that in most industrialised societies people’s political instincts divide fairly neatly into conservative and progressive camps. Conservatives tend to believe the past was better than the present and that society’s existing power structures are there for fairly good reasons. Progressives tend to think the future can be better than the present and question the power structures currently in place.
I don't know the politics of these people waiting to participate
in last week's ride with progressive city council members -
but it's a fair guess many would call themselves progressives.
It’s no surprise that many cycling activists, as I do, place themselves broadly in the progressive political camp. Since cycling currently accounts for only a small proportion of journeys in many rich countries, arguments for cycling are by their nature arguments for building a future that’s better than the present. Conservatives such as Boris Johnson, London’s elected mayor, are rarer – but often seem to value the bicycle as a symbol of how things were done in the past. Far more conservatives - including Jeremy Clarkson, formerly of the BBC’s Top Gear franchise – seem to identify with car culture.

But that point doesn’t fit with recent shifts in attitudes towards cycling in New York. Following the election in late 2013 of Bill de Blasio – a Democratic mayor about as far left as any conceivable mayor of the US’s main financial centre – it’s clear that cycling has moved well down the city’s list of political priorities. Compared with Michael Bloomberg, his far more conservative predecessor, the current mayor seems to see little reason to encourage cycling to work or the completion of the city’s cycling network. In fact, the fading paint on many of the city’s cycle lanes is a neat illustration of how fragile progress in such an area can be. With less active support for cycling promotion, the previous gains are almost literally fading away.

It wouldn’t be surprising, in fact, if the mayor were a little distrustful of those of us who lobby for cycling. The mayor fought the election on the basis that he would campaign for the second New York that had been neglected during the Bloomberg years. From the perspective of poor neighbourhoods far out in Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, those of us from brownstone Brooklyn and nice parts of Manhattan who lobby for better cycling provision must seem like representatives of the elements in the city that are already well catered-to.
Poverty-stricken Coney Island after Superstorm Sandy:
cycling promotion probably wasn't on many locals' minds after
this catastrophe.

It must also make a great deal of sense looked at from poorer neighbourhoods for the mayor to focus much of his transport energy on the Vision Zero programme of reducing road deaths. A disproportionate number of those who die on the roads are people like Noshat Nahian, an eight-year-old child of Bangladeshi immigrants killed by a turning semi-trailer truck on Northern Boulevard in Queens, or Amar Diarrassouba, the six-year-old son of immigrants from Cote d’Ivoire killed by a truck in February 2013 as he walked to school in East Harlem. There’s no doubt that trucks and cars – which predominantly support the lifestyles of New York’s richer people – exact a disproportionate toll in death and injury on poorer New Yorkers. The mayor is quite right to try to address that.

Yet it’s a significant failure of imagination not to try to do more than that. Because New York state’s gas tax and other fees for driving cover only 56.1 per cent of the cost of providing the state’s road system, poor state taxpayers without cars are forced to pay much of the cost of maintaining the road system. That’s even before considering all the other costs that the road system imposes – the costs of crashes, congestion, atmospheric pollution and noise, all of which are shouldered by ordinary taxpayers. Any effort to make New York City less car-dependent is inevitably a progressive step away from the regressive effects of the current system of funding for roads. It would also make perfect sense for a progressive mayor to support Move New York’s sensible plans to charge all vehicles entering lower Manhattan a fee that would be used to support the city’s subways and other alternative means of transport. The higher charges would fall predominantly on the city’s wealthiest people, while a great many of the benefits would flow to the city’s poor.
The Manhattan Bridge bike lane on bike-to-work day:
I don't want to see more bike traffic jams like this - but there's
a clear progressive case for encouraging these people
to keep riding their bikes.

An increase in the number of people cycling would serve many of the political goals for which the mayor and many other progressives purport to be aiming. It would reduce the cost burden of maintaining the road system, reduce pollution – another ill that disproportionately harms the poor living by arterial roads – and improve New Yorkers’ overall health. Despite some high-profile incidents, it's also far safer for pedestrians to be around people using bicycles than people using cars.

There is no good reason either why, with better cycle provision, people in some of New York’s more central public housing projects should not take to cycling far more than at present.

Yet the scene at the corner of Smith and Fulton illustrates the challenge. The Department of Transportation was prevailed upon to change the bike lane arrangement at the corner in the interests of preserving a single parking space. The city’s willingness to get people cycling has melted in the face of a backlash by those who see parking spaces as their own private property. There could scarcely be a more reactionary force than groups determined to preserve the right to store their private luxury items on-street for free, but their indignation seems for now to have intimidated many progressive forces into leaving parking spaces well alone. Vested interests can also push the apparently progressive side towards reactionary stances. Both Ben Kallos and Robert Cornegy, council members who turned up at last weeks’ cycling event, have backed a bill supported by transport workers exempting them from legal penalties if they hit pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way.
Whatever the precise politics of Jay St's cycle lanes,
they certainly feel regressive
Such equivocation about improving conditions for cycling explains a great deal of what the ride from Brooklyn Borough Hall experienced on the first section of our ride to the Brooklyn Bridge. We left the Borough Hall by way of Jay St and found ourselves jostling among heavy traffic, including at least one double-parked car in the bicycle lane. It wasn’t hard to see, taking in the scene, why only 1 per cent of New Yorkers’ commuting trips are currently by bicycle.

New York and many other cities would be a better, fairer place if more of its citizens were getting about by bicycle. Increasing the share of journeys made by bicycle should, consequently, be part of the progressive agenda alongside more obvious causes such as improving urban education and housing. But, if progressives continue to lack political courage when tackling car-dependency or conservatives stay entrenched in power, it’s hard to imagine conditions improving dramatically in the immediate future.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

A wary pedestrian, getting metaphysical in SoHo - and why I'm a frustrated street communicator

The young man looked at me distrustfully. I gestured to him to head across the pedestrian crossing where I’d stopped my bike for him. He again looked warily to his left, in the direction from which cars tear at high speed down Hoyt Street, in Cobble Hill, in defiance of the area’s 20mph speed limit. Having finally decided that it was safe, he crossed and I was able to resume my journey.
A New York City pedestrian: understandably wary.

The incident on Friday night was one of the clearest illustrations I’ve encountered recently of the difficulty of communicating with other road users. Such communications are often obstructed by noise, by the challenges of communicating with people inside a metal box and by people’s varying expectations about how other road users will behave. The young man I encountered was fearful of my effort to help him cross the road precisely because no-one else stops for that crosswalk, which links shops on Hoyt St to the Gowanus Houses public housing on the other side of the road. My stopping was so out of step with other road users’ behaviour that it must have seemed like some kind of practical joke.

The communication barrier facing cyclists seems particuarly high in cities like New York and London where cars dominate the streetscape. In such big, industrialised cities with only modest cycling levels, few other road users have the inbuilt sense of how cyclists might or should behave that they have with motorists and pedestrians. The scope for severe mutual misunderstanding is significant.

Yet roads remain intensely communal places, where the different users are entirely reliant on each other for safety. Cyclists, drivers and pedestrians all need to decode a complex series of verbal and non-verbal signals to work out each others’ intentions and likely future behaviour. The communication barriers play a big part in ensuring that roads remain such dangerous places. But almost no-one addresses the obstacles that the obvious and growing barriers represent.
Prince St at W Broadway, Manhattan: a venue where I often
have to practise my new communication policy with drivers.

My sensitivity to the challenges of interacting with other road users has been heightened, I suspect, by a change in my own communication policy. In the last few months, I’ve become even more prone than before to using my loud, powerful voice to try to stop drivers from running me over. I do this most often by shouting at drivers trying to cut across my path at intersections, “Stop! Wait there!” While I’m sure that many of those at whom I shout have no desire to behave legally and respect my right of way, most drivers who hear someone shout, “Stop!” loudly in their direction seem to step at least temporarily on the brake pedal.

But I’ve also been struck by the policy’s shortcomings. It regularly leads passersby to shout mockingly at me, rather as though vocal communications in traffic were subject to the same taboos as speaking in a library or an ancient sacred space. People seem to resent clear, unambiguous communication across the cyclist-driver divide.
Pearl St, in Dumbo: good luck communicating
clearly with the driver if one of those cars
starts pulling out in front of your bike.

My shouts also seem to work far less well with drivers who are pulling out of parking spaces into my path. There’s a tendency for drivers creeping slowly into a bike lane while waiting for a suitable gap to pull out to believe their intentions should be clear to those around them. When I shout, “Stop!” at such a driver moving slowly into my path, his or her rejoinder is often to shout, “I saw you!” There’s a failure on the driver’s part to understand that his or her actions communicate the intention to pull out but not that he or she has seen me and is taking care not to hit me.

It’s because I recognise that my actions are my clearest means of communicating with fellow road-users that I seek, by and large, to obey traffic signals. I hope – and I realise it’s a fairly forlorn hope – that the example of my self-discipline will communicate itself to the drivers who pose the real danger. I think there’s a usefulness to having an agreed set of standards for how to act on the roads – albeit a severely flawed one – and to making a point of obeying it.

For the same reason, I try as I cycle around to make obvious, unambiguous movements. When passing a car parked in a bike lane, I don’t squeeze by hoping that other vehicles won’t pass me too close. I swing firmly out into the neighbouring traffic lane, showing following motorists that they shouldn’t overtake. I try to make eye contact with drivers when I can. I signal clearly where I’m going. I use my bell to warn pedestrians when I’m approaching – although, frankly, a follow-up shout of “Watch out in the crosswalk!” to people crossing against the light is generally necessary.
A rear-end shunt on FDR Drive: looked at another way,
it's a failure of two drivers to communicate clearly

Many of these efforts nevertheless run slap-bang into vast barriers. Some of them are cultural. New York drivers seem so used to the idea that they can pass a cyclist in a bike lane with only a tiny space to spare that it barely seems worth trying to communicate with those who do why their behaviour is so dangerous. I ran into similar challenges when I lived in London with drivers who simply didn't seem to realise they shouldn't block advance stop boxes at traffic lights.

The most inescapable fact of on-road communication, meanwhile, is that the modern motor vehicle is designed to shield users from the reality of their being involved in a social interaction. The interior of a motor car looks and feels more like someone’s home than a machine for transporting goods and people. Cadillac last year ran an advertising campaign showing a ring of cymbal-clanging toy monkeys surrounding a Cadillac CTS  expressly to boast how the vehicle’s sound-proofing, glass and even noise-cancelling equipment would silence the reality outside the vehicle. It’s no surprise that people riding in such vehicles might struggle to grasp the complexity of what’s going on in the streets surrounding them – or that they might react angrily to my rapping on the window to point out that they’ve nearly, by their negligence, run me off the road.

Inside that sensation-deprived space, there must be a heightened sense of frustration at the mismatch between the calm sounds of the vehicle’s clear stereo or white noise and the more chaotic pictures coming in through the windows. I’m confident that frustration explains many of the times I have motorists drive fast at me, blaring their horns. This silent, frantically pedalling cyclist must seem like a disorderly intrusion compared with the orderly sound world of the vehicle’s interior.

All of these obstacles play a part in keeping New York's road safety record poor, despite the current mayor's Vision Zero efforts. The position would, needless to say, grow easier if the city built more infrastructure to reduce conflicts, including more of a network of well-designed protected cycle paths.
A driver overtakes a cyclist: one of these people is in a box
sound-proofed to ensure he can ignore the other.

As it stands, people find themselves caught up in conflicts fuelled by misunderstanding - and seized of a powerful impulse to reach through the barriers and explain why they're frustrated. I saw it vividly one recent morning when a woman, wrapped up in her car’s smooth inner world, pulled out of a side street in front of a cyclist careering down Smith St on a single speed. The cyclist jammed on his brakes and landed in a heap. His immediate instinct was to spring to his feet and aim a defiant one-fingered salute towards the rear-view mirror of the motorist. I suspect she never had any inkling of the harm she had done.

I was caught up in a more complicated instance last Thursday when cycling home down Grand St in SoHo. A man in front of me was pushing a baby buggy (stroller, American readers) down the narrow bike lane, one child inside the stroller and another riding on the rear. His only reaction to my bell-ringing was to continue an exaggerated saunter, taking obvious pleasure in blocking my way.

It wasn't the first time I'd come across people deliberately blocking the lane on Grand St to prevent cyclists' using it. I've long since tired of giving people who deliberately obstruct me the tolerance I generally extend to even inattentive pedestrians. My irritation welled up when he turned to me at an intersection and sneered, “But we’ve got wheels. We’re allowed to use it.”
The Smith St bike lane: venue for a memorable
failure of communication

I started calmly, pointing out that it was irresponsible of him to block a busy bike lane and that someone could have hit him. It would have been irresponsible of me to hit him, he replied, so I was the irresponsible one. His deliberate, bullying contempt mixed in with my tiredness after a red-eye flight the night before and my dismay at the emerging British general election results. I felt the urge to communicate quite how deeply he had offended me.

I pointed out – accurately, I think – that he was setting a poor example to his children. I pointed out – again accurately – that his behaviour was making his wife slink away in embarrassment. I finished with a piece of more metaphysical speculation.

“Your soul’s shrivelling inside you because you’re so petty,” I shouted as I rode away.

I should not, clearly, have allowed myself to be provoked. But humans feel the need to connect and communicate with those around them. Far too many street and vehicle designs hinder, rather than work with, humans’ need to talk to each other. It feels like no exaggeration to say that's drying up many cities' souls.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

A midtown mechanical, a Hudson River puncture - and how my bike gives me a superpower

As I wheeled my bike along 58th Street in midtown Manhattan in a heavy rain shower last Wednesday, I noticed a periodic scraping sound from the vicinity of my rear brakes. Realising that one of the brake pads was rubbing a slight bump in the wheel, I delved into one of my pannier bags, pulled out a multi-tool and set to work. I marginally tightened the left-hand brake calliper and loosened the right-hand one about the same. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the sound had stopped and that, when I started riding down Lexington Avenue, the brakes were working as well as they ever do in the slitheriness of a spring downpour.
Shaped by 30,000 miles' riding: my Surly Long Haul Trucker
mediates many of my interactions with the world.

The incident made me realise how, even though I still regularly make comically silly mistakes when trying to maintain my bike, I’ve come to know its ways. My attempts to fix faults are growing steadily less disastrous. It also made me think, harder than I have for a while, about quite how intense and symbiotic the relationship between a regular cyclist and his or her main bike can be. My body has gradually shaped this bike – on which I’ve ridden about 30,000 miles over seven years – to fit its needs. I’ve steadily fitted tougher and tougher rear hubs after cheaper ones collapsed under the strain of hauling my tall, heavy body away from traffic lights. The bike, meanwhile, has shaped my body. My bulging leg muscles testify to hundreds of twice-daily climbs over the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges. If something on the bike changes - the brakes, say, are tightened - I find myself so used to how they used to be that it takes me some time to adjust my reactions.

My Phil Wood rear hub: a component so expensive one buys it
only after breaking every other brand available.
It’s because of this intense symbiosis, I think, that for many cyclists their main bike excites far greater passion than its status as a possession should suggest. A bike becomes one’s own more and more over time, much as a pair of shoes does. My Surly Long Haul Trucker probably shapes how I interact with the world more than any possession except my spectacles. It’s hardly surprising that, even more than dogs, bikes seem to start taking on an appearance similar to their owners’.

My midtown incident also, however, threw my mind back to the Thursday before Easter, when I encountered a High School student struggling with his bike on the Hudson River Greenway. He asked me to lend him a pump to inflate his obviously punctured rear tyre. Recognising that mere extra pumping wouldn’t get the young man all the way home to Williamsburg, I fixed the puncture for him. But I also felt grateful for the years of advice and training from my father, bike shop staff and fellow cyclists that ensure I’m never similarly forced to rely on the kindness of cycling strangers.

The downside, after all, of the elegant simplicity of a bicycle’s workings is that simple often isn’t self-explanatory. In an era when carmakers are warning customers that they shouldn’t on any account try to repair their vehicles because of the sophistication of their software and electronics, most bikes remain resolutely mechanical. They are still controlled by systems of levers and springs, actions balanced against equal and opposite reactions.
My bike's rear mechanism: action and reaction exemplified.
It requires some understanding of derailleur gears to grasp, however, that the cable for the rear sprockets needs to be tighter if the bike isn’t shifting easily onto the easiest gears. When I undertook my roadside repair last Wednesday, I was tensioning the spring in the left calliper and loosening the spring in the right one. I was using my knowledge and experience of how the two sides of the brakes push against each other.

It’s not only worth understanding these systems for purely practical reasons. There’s a poetry to the way a rear mechanism pushes a chain between the sprockets of a derailleur gear that is a powerful testimony to human ingenuity. It’s compelling evidence of how humans learn from their predecessors and make progress that I can now so easily adjust my brakes thanks to simple adjustment mechanisms. That was impossible with the bikes I owned 20 years ago.
My once-troublesome rear brakes: a delicate counterpoise
of springs
The sheer range of different ways of making a bike work also testifies to the dazzling range of different things people seek to do with bikes. I ride a bike with plenty of gears and a solid frame because it fits with the relationship I want between my body and the bike. When I had bikes with harder-to-change gears, I used to get sore knees from pushing on the pedals in a less-than-efficient gear. I shift gears hundreds of times every journey now and my knees suffer no longer. The frame of one old, alloy bike broke under me. My steel frame has withstood the stresses of one crash with a car, another with another bike, huge loads of weekly shopping and transporting, at different times, both my children. I marvel at how smoothly the steel frame copes with corners, removing the sense that I’m wrestling with the bike to get it to turn.

The range of different balances between body and bike came home to me on Saturday night when the Invisible Visible family and I headed the short distance from our apartment to the Red Hook Criterium, a cycling road race near our apartment. The race compels riders to use track bikes – light, brakeless and with fixed wheels – rather than more conventional, multi-geared road bikes. The trade-off was plain. The event teemed with cyclists with leaner, stronger, more efficient bodies than mine, honed to handle the rigours of a far less forgiving bike. We watched awestruck as these hyper-fit riders and their stripped-down machines negotiated the 1.25km circuit, ticking off some laps in less than 90 seconds and swishing by us at well over 60kph.
Crit riders warm up: a subtly different balance between body
and bicycle from mine
I’ll never zip round a track like these fit young men. Nor will I ever dance up Alpe d’Huez like Chris Froome, except in my imagination. But there is a similar satisfaction in the relationship between our bodies and the machines. For the Criterium riders, Tour de France participants and me, the bicycle magnifies our bodies’ efforts. For the Criterium riders, it was a question of a carbon frame's coping with the strain both of rapid acceleration and of being slowed down for a corner only through the rider’s resistance against the pedals’ spinning. My bike has to absorb the shock of a hidden pothole then let me skip swiftly away from the next traffic lights while the drivers are still looking at their smartphones.
Riders fly by at the Red Hook Crit: yes, it's entirely different
from my cycling but, yes, their bikes offer similar joys.

Even for me, being on a bike can resemble being in possession of a superpower. On an empty, flat road, it can feel when I slip the chain onto the biggest, fastest chainring as if I’m Mr Scott pushing the button to send the Starship Enterprise into warp drive. A range of new, higher speeds is suddenly at my command and my speed surges. As I labour up steep hills, meanwhile, I reach the lower limits of the lowest gears on my middle chainring. Then I feel a little surge of joy as I switch down to my smallest chainring, pedalling grows easier and nearly any slope is within my reach.

It’s on the offchance that I’ll enjoy such a feeling that I ride to work when I can even on days when the water in my bottle freezes on the way to work – and on days so hot the whole city stinks. Maybe in time the same feeling will inspire the young man I helped to persevere with cycling rather than giving up in frustration. I'd love to think that one day he'd join me among a fairly small minority of New Yorkers - the ones who, faced with rain and a faulty bike, say not, “Let’s take the subway,” but, “Where in my bag is that multi-tool?”

Sunday, 12 April 2015

A signpost note, anarchy in Fort Greene - and the misery of the idle motor car

It’s not often that I’m seized with the desire to deface a sign in a public space. But, on a walk with the Invisible Visible Woman on Easter Sunday, I came very close to hacking down the handwritten notice that a householder in Nelson Street, near our apartment, had attached to a pole on the sidewalk.

“Please do not lock bicycle here, Thank You,” read the laminated note.
A rare insightment: a sign that begs to be torn down

The sign infuriated me because it struck me as an arrogant attempt to appropriate the right to dictate what happened on the public street outside the householder’s home. As a New York City taxpayer who in theory is on the hook for the cost of keeping the pole in place, I experienced the appropriation as a kind of theft.

Yet the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I’ve recognised that the householder’s act stood out only in the explicitness of its expropriation of public space. Nelson St, where parking is free, as it is on the vast bulk of New York City streets, was lined on both sides with parked cars. They had together turned the street from a potentially healthy artery in the city’s road system into a clogged, ill-functioning one. With fewer idle vehicles, the street could have had wider sidewalks, extra space for moving cars or, of course, a proper bike path.

But the sign on Nelson St – which I suspect was put there to ensure the householder could park his or her car without worrying about a bike’s obstructing the doors – illustrates how many people fail to grasp the true nature of free, on-street parking. There’s a tone of outrage about any effort to remove or curtail access to on-street parking that suggests many people think of parking spaces as essentially their property. The sudden gaps in New York’s cycle routes – where protected lanes turn into painted ones or painted lanes degenerate into “sharrow” markings – illustrate how tenaciously some communities hold onto their precious storage spaces.
Police supervise vehicle parking in the Kent Avenue bike lane:
a stark illustration of the depth of the city's problem.
It's my strong suspicion, however, that the defence of parking arouses such fierce passions partly because the privilege is defensible only in emotional, rather than logical, terms. Motor cars in most developed countries, after all, spend on average 95 per cent of their time parked, taking up vast quantities of space given the paltry 5 per cent of their lives they spend actually moving. I suspect the idle time for many vehicles in New York City – where even carowners frequently commute by subway – is still higher than the average.

When they are moving, in addition, cars rely on a supply of free parking spaces at their destination. That must mean most cities have parking spaces to store far more cars than actually exist in the city. By definition, that’s space that’s taken away from actually moving things and people or generating economic value. The route to rational use of space and transport policy in many cities will almost literally have to run through the abolition of free on-street parking.

All that aside, I nevertheless feel some sympathy for motorists living in big cities over the stress of parking. There’s a purgatorial edge to the experience of trying to end one’s journey yet finding oneself desperately circling, running later and later for that meeting, and unable to stop.
It’s certainly no coincidence, I suspect, that a recently highly-publicised incident in New York where a police detective unleashed a tirade of racist vitriol at an Uber driver started when the detective was under the strain of looking for a parking spot.

I remember one resident's telling me in Fort Greene, when I was working on a story about the introduction of Citibike to the area, how he resented the loss of two parking spaces for a bikeshare station on his street. He already frequently spent half an hour circling looking for a parking spot at the end of a journey.

“What do I have to do?” he asked me. “Sell my house and move to where I can have a driveway?”

Who needs loading zones when you can get your watermelons
out in the middle of a busy street in The Bronx?
New York City also imposes on drivers the deeply-resented ritual of alternate side parking. Vehicles are banned for certain, brief hours each week from being parked on a certain side of each street, so that street cleaning machines can clean right to the kerb. When I first arrived in the city, I was baffled occasionally to see cars lined up, double-parked, on the wrong side of the street, their drivers patiently waiting for the sweeper to pass.

But it’s also easy for those used only to New York’s odd ways of doing things to lose sight of quite how anarchic the city’s parking culture is. When I lived in London, because most local shops had designated loading and unloading zones, it was rare to have to dodge round double-parked unloading trucks. In New York, double-parking is so endemic that Joel Rivera, a city council member, in 2013 introduced legislation, thankfully unsuccessfully, to make it legal for parents picking up children from school to double-park briefly.

Right by an intersection? Check. In the bike lane? Check.
Challenging weather? Check. The NYPD leads in New York's
parking chaos by terrible example.
When I visited Fort Greene to write about Citibike, local residents complained that residents of farther-flung parts of the borough drove to Fort Greene, parked on its streets and took the subway into Manhattan. Where I lived in London, the rules restricting some parking to holders of residents’ parking permits or their guests made it far harder for commuters to clog up local streets.

On my morning bike ride to work, even turning traffic lanes are clogged with parked vehicles which, because they are displaying the badge of some law enforcement agency, will be left unmolested, no matter how dangerously they are parked. I had never encountered such blatant abuse of official position - sadly a fairly standard aspect of NYPD behaviour - when living in the UK.

Five vehicles double-parked nose-to-tail in a rush-hour bike lane.
In other news, New York's cycling rate seems to be stalling.
The effects of New York’s parking anarchy and the reluctance to tackle it are far-reaching.  It’s thanks to parking’s being sacrosanct that I’m so often forced to ride up streets with narrow bike lanes painted in parked cars’ door zones – the most dangerous place to ride on the road. The lanes would be far better if more parking spaces were removed. Free on-street parking condemns vast swathes of land to producing no economic value at all. In many cities, congestion is one of the biggest external costs of motor vehicle use – and the presence of parked and double-parked cars on streets can only add significantly to the hold-ups.

It significantly adds to the shortcomings of New York’s often inadequate bike lane network that vehicles park in many parts of it – both those segregated from traffic and painted lanes – with impunity. Cars parked right up to intersections frequently obscure what’s going on at intersections, increasing the risk of collisions. The sheer unpredictability of grappling with the constantly-shifting landscape of illegally-parked vehicles adds significantly to the stress of cycling in New York – and surely helps to account for the miserable proportion of trips in the city made by bicycle.

Nelson St: if you see the bikes locked to that pole and think
they're ruining the place, you'll fit right in.
There are few mysteries around how to alleviate cities’ parking problems. I remember my parents scrambling 40 years ago to buy parking tickets on my grandparents’ street in Edinburgh in Scotland under a then-new scheme to bring order to the city’s parking. It’s impossible to imagine so many New Yorkers would hang on to barely-used cars with dubiously-legal out-of-state registrations if parking cost a realistic amount in the densest parts of the city.

Yet I’ve heard since spotting the sign on Nelson St a week ago of a similar sign on another post elsewhere in the city. I see no evidence of any politician’s being willing to tackle the misery created by the wholesale storage of idle cars. New Yorkers continue, it seems, to accept the many problems created by motor vehicles but to express rage at the presence of far more space-efficient bicycles. Until that fundamental dynamic changes, many streets look set to continue to be like Nelson St – choked by the status quo, but full of residents raging at the prospect of change.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

An unexpected rhythm, a stressful ride to Midtown - and why I feel I'm waltzing with the city

When I’m riding my bike home in the evenings and have come down the long, spiral ramp off the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, I often find myself waiting at a pedestrian crossing nearly right under the bridge’s first girders. Given that the bridge carries four busy subway tracks as well as three roadways, a pedestrian path and a bike path, that means I frequently hear the ear-splitting din of a B, D, N or Q train crossing just above my head.
An unexpected source of syncopated rhythm: the bike path
under the Manhattan Bridge's Brooklyn end
But the noise’s effect isn’t what one might imagine. A joint in the tracks means that the wheels produce an exquisitely syncopated rhythm. A-ONE-and-a-two-and-THREE-and-a-four clack the four successive axles as the joins between the cars roll overhead. The rhythm is so compelling that sometimes, when no-one’s looking, I permit myself a little dance with my shoulders.

My jiggling shoulders generally prompt a second thought, however. The sound turns my mind to how cyclists in cities like New York or London or anywhere else where cycling’s an on-road, minority activity, have to attend closely to the rhythm of the city around them. In such an unforgiving environment, it's vital to pick up the cues from the surrounding, constantly-changing city about when and where to cycle fast and confidently and when to exercise maximum caution and restraint.

Call it snirt, call it snarbage: we New York City cyclists
have been dodging a lot of snowy, rubbishy mounds like
this in the last few weeks and months.
Many of the patterns I've come to recognise are things that restrict me. During the recent long, bitter winter, for example, I noticed myself learning after each snowfall the distinctive pattern of snow clearance and how it affected each cycle lane and where I positioned myself on the road. An event like last week’s sad gas explosion and fire in the East Village will suddenly paralyse traffic across vast swathes of the city. Light rain after a dry spell makes surfaces particularly treacherous – especially, ironically, those painted with the rather slippery green paint the city uses to mark cycle lanes.

Yet there’s a pleasure, after two-and-a-half years and at least 10,000 miles of New York City cycling, to having learned to recognise – and anticipate – so many of the city’s moods. The sudden surges in traffic in various places; traffic’s unexplained disappearance in others; the surge in grumpiness among drivers in certain conditions: all reflect, I know rationally, a multitude of individual decisions. But they can feel so concerted and sudden that they almost feel like the actions of New York City herself. A cyclist riding through the city has to undertake a kind of dance with her, getting in step and learning how she moves.

I had something of the same feeling about London when I lived there and enjoyed an encyclopaedic knowledge of much of its backstreet network of quiet cycle routes. But New York is a far more mercurial dance partner – hotter in summer, colder in winter, denser, with far more dangerous streets and more prone, it seems to me, to catastrophic mishaps. It feels far harder to learn to get in step with her – and a more satisfying achievement to have learned to do so.

That makes all the more enjoyable those moments of bliss one experiences from time to time riding a bicycle – the moments when the city seems to slip by and it is the other forms of transport that seem momentarily absurd.
The kind of weather that's slowing me down particularly
dramatically at present: Fifth Avenue in a light rain shower,
perfect for creating a treacherous surface
There is, nevertheless, a dissenting voice inside my head that wonders how much I’m dressing this phenomenon up. I sometimes wonder if my having got to know the city better simply means I’m growing more fearful. I notice how I’m increasingly stopping to let cars past on the narrowest roads where I know drivers are most aggressive. I’m less often taking the middle of the lane and forcing them to slow down to, say, a 20mph crawl in a 20mph limit. I noticed myself easing off significantly on my speed in some recent rain showers, feeling that the streets, still greasy with the detritus of winter, might be particularly treacherous. I find myself waiting behind motor vehicles as lines of other cyclists slip through narrow gaps between them and parked cars or the kerb.

Perhaps, a voice in my head says, I'm feeling the familiarity of the bullied with the bully. Maybe I’ve let the city’s toughness beat me into mental submission.

The dissenting voice grew particularly loud on March 23 when I had to cycle from home first thing in the morning to a conference right by the south-eastern corner of Central Park. I tried to fall in step with the city. I used my knowledge of the position of the many new potholes that have appeared over the winter to decide when to dodge out of the cycle lane and into the car lanes. I used my experience of the weather to look out for the inevitable ice patches, products of a mixture of the cold and a hundred little thoughtless sloshings out of buckets into the cold street or spillings of drinks.
New York's Metropolitan Club: maginficent inside - but
a devil of a place to cycle to.
Already feeling slightly ill before I started, however, I began to feel a little defeated. The corner I was visiting 5th Avenue and East 60th St – is one of New York’s least accessible by bike for anyone arriving from the south. Having prided myself on finding a viable but unconventional bike route up 1st avenue to 55th street then up Park Avenue to 60th – I found myself dismounting and pushing rather than deal with the gridlock (and yet more ice patches) on Park Avenue.

The experience was a useful reminder that, in an ideal New York City, there would be no real skill to cycling in step with the city’s gyrations. Far more experiences would be like riding along the best sections of the Hudson River Greenway – a chance to travel quickly around New York, put no strain on the city’s environment or infrastructure yet take in the city’s excitement. I was torn between cursing three things: my own cowardice in intimidating conditions, the city’s unwillingness to provide a joined-up cycling network and my own stubborn refusal to give up cycling in the face of these facts.
The Queensboro Bridge: where my journey started to go right.
Yet, as I pondered at the end of the day how to get home after my unpromising outbound trip, I realised I was only a few blocks from the Queensboro Bridge and its bike path. I set off and was soon barrelling at nearly 25mph down the bridge into Queens, under the elevated subway tracks then over another bridge into Brooklyn.

I covered the route, though it was long, quickly and efficiently. I took routes through Greenpoint and Park Slope that I’d devised only after many attempts and much trial-and-error. I was able to enjoy the grandeur of the panoramas over the East River and take in the city’s details. I saw the Polish shops in Greenpoint, the Yiddish writing on the buses for Hassidic Jewish schoolchildren in South Williamsburg and the soul food restaurants run by African-Americans in Fort Greene.

I grew briefly frustrated with a cluster of visiting-hour cars outside Methodist Hospital on 6th St in Park Slope but soon slipped past them too and sped, unmolested, down the hill towards home.

It was, in short, the kind of rare, transcendentally enjoyable trip that explains my refusal to give up. It’s the kind of experience I may, if anyone asks me soon if he or she should cycle in the city, recount as evidence for the “yes” side.

But I probably won’t dare articulate my true feeling about how such a near-perfect journey feels. In my head, New York City and I were, for that hour or so, spinning and whirling across the dancefloor in a rare, elegantly-executed and ecstatic waltz.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Barging in TriBeCa, a Top Gear boor - and why I'm proud to be a Roundhead worrywart

It was one morning at the end of January in TriBeCa that I encountered the very personification of motorist arrogance. As I rode down a single block of Reade St that was still mostly clogged with snow, I used the middle of the lane to signal that there was no room to pass me safely. But a block of driving more slowly was unthinkable for a driver who was approaching me from behind in his Lexus SUV. He first leant on his horn to try to bully me out of the way then swerved into the parking lane and passed me close and fast on my right.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I screamed at him as I, inevitably, caught up with him at the next traffic lights. “There was a bike lane!” he yelled back as though that were some kind of explanation. “It was full of snow,” I screamed back.
A Brooklyn bike lane after one recent snowfall. The angry
Lexus driver of TriBeCa wants me to ride in such lanes
and get myself out of his way.

The driver was one of the scores, possibly hundreds, I’ve encountered over more than two decades of urban cycling whose anger at my presence on the road went far beyond what any actual hold-up or inconvenience at my being on the road might justify. My making a different transport choice seemed to present an existential affront.

The tendency would exist, I’m sure, without Top Gear, the BBC-made show that presents such motorist arrogance as entertaining, clever and part of the natural order of things. But the show, which is syndicated or remade in nearly every country around the world, gives such views far more legitimacy than they would otherwise enjoy. Any number of mind-numbing cable shows and irresponsible adverts feed similar thinking among many US motorists.

Broadcasting House: who wouldn't make their
point by driving an armoured vehicle here?
I’ve consequently found it depressing how much support Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear’s star and chief boor, has attracted since he was suspended on March 10 from work on the show after a “fracas” – a British way of saying he apparently punched a producer. A petition demanding his reinstatement – started by Guido Fawkes, a political blog – attracted nearly 1m signatures. It was, tastefully, delivered to the BBC’s Broadcasting House in a tracked armoured vehicle. Clarkson’s suspension seems as much of a threat to some people’s sense of themselves as my cycling in the middle of the road was to the driver of the Lexus SUV.

But a row I had on Facebook with a friend of an old school friend has crystallised in my mind the nature of what’s going on. The role of the motor car appears, for better or worse, to be part of a cultural battle in many industrialised societies.

The Top Gear tendency among motorists is, it seems to me, part of a wider conservative predilection for accepting certain established social facts – including the motor car’s dominant role - as so inevitable that it’s eccentric even to question them. Top Gear seeks to celebrate the joys for those who already have power of exercising it.

 From such a worldview, naturally, people who question the established way of doing things are apt to look like joyless worrywarts. If one can’t see why it’s worth questioning the promotion of high-speed motor vehicles for use in urban environments, it must be frustrating to see people like me poring over statistics and presenting philosophical arguments for change.

The division looks a lot like the classic one that has run through much British politics for centuries and is replicated in many other English-speaking societies. On one side stand care-free conservative bon-vivants, the Cavaliers. On the other are puritanical, uptight progressives, the Roundheads. Society’s overall view of the two sides probably remains much as the two sides in the English Civil War are described in the satirical history 1066 and All That. The Cavaliers are “Wrong but Wromantic,” while the Roundheads are “Right but Repulsive.”

A Cadillac ATS at the Detroit Auto Show:
people like me seem like joyless prudes
if we suggest this maybe isn't an ideal urban car.
I stumbled into the Clarkson discussion by agreeing with an old friend who had commented that Clarkson was “beyond ghastly” in another friend’s post about his suspension. I expressed the hope that the producer – whom Clarkson appears to have hit because a hotel wouldn’t provide him with hot food late at night – had excellent legal representation. I would have left it there had not a third person – whom I don’t personally know – chimed in with a rebuke.

“He is a legend...someone who can laugh at himself and others,” the poster wrote of Clarkson. “Some people have had humour bypass surgery.”

An ironic, amused detachment from events is such a critical attribute for a British man that this was, of course, a serious charge.

So I went on to list some of the many recent controversies surrounding Clarkson and inquire where the joke in them was.  Last year, for example, he was recorded using the word “nigger” – a profoundly offensive racial slur – during taping of Top Gear. In 2011, he denigrated Mexicans as “lazy, feckless, flatulent [and] overweight.” In 2009 he described Gordon Brown, the then UK prime minister who lost an eye in childhood, as a “one-eyed Scottish idiot”.

The jokes are funny only if one presupposes that people’s being different from oneself is inherently funny. They assume, variously, that it’s intrinsically funny to use a racial slur; that some people belong to a different culture from one’s own; that some people have a disability; or that some people are from a less powerful bit of one’s own country. I suggested that Clarkson was indulging in the lazy humour of the school bully, mocking weakness and difference to denigrate them.

My reaction then became part of the joke.

“It is funny, isn’t it – especially the reaction,” the poster replied, with problematic punctuation.

It’s probably easier, however, to recognise the problems with Clarkson’s attitudes if one’s dealing daily with the boorish driving that he and like-minded people, like the worst Daily News and New York Post columnists, endorse. An encomium to the joy of a high-powered vehicle seems less entertaining if one’s just been buzzed by a muscle car with tinted windows on an urban street. Top Gear’s admonishment to cyclists to learn the difference between red and green traffic lights looks less self-evidently side-splitting if one regularly sees motorists speeding at 40mph down residential streets.

The Cavalier driver speeding and jumping lights probably feels free to do so because driving feels to him or her like a private matter. We Roundheads on the outside tend to suck our teeth and worry about how driving on a street means taking part in a complex social transaction. At high speeds one has far less scope to adjust to how other people act - and a far greater chance of harming them.
A crossroads in Long Beach, California, suggests to me that
car-dominated spaces can have drawbacks - which probably
makes me a joyless worrywart. 
The heavy use of cars in cities presents real moral dilemmas. It’s vital that people who want to think seriously about that aren’t mocked into silence by boors.

Yet I’ve concluded from the Clarkson episode, my Facebook argument about it and countless other expressions of support for inconsiderate driving that there’s an asymmetric battle under way. Advocates for change often earnestly wheel out studies and campaigns as if it were enough to have a better case and better arguments. There are, however, millions of people for whom even the notion of a serious discussion about such matters seems to be beside the point. The first battle has to be against the very assumption that any effort to change or examine the current state of affairs is absurd in itself.

The Clarkson episode is also further proof that what people think and say are closely linked to how they actually act. While Clarkson is often defended as a harmless japester, there has long been a singularly nasty whiff around his behaviour. In January 2014, for example, he tweeted a picture of a cyclist on the narrow backstreets of Chelsea, West London, taking the lane and commented how it was “middle-of-the-road pointmakers like this” who made drivers so angry with cyclists. A person claiming to be the cyclist – who was riding absolutely correctly given the nature of the streets – later claimed that Clarkson forced him off the road by passing when there was insufficient room.

The incident that provoked the latest controversy, meanwhile, apparently involved an angry confrontation. Many accounts suggest that Clarkson called Oisin Tymon, the producer, a “lazy Irish c***” and punched him, splitting his lip. That would suggest a still darker side to Clarkson’s enthusiasm for xenophobic slurs, although he seems to deny either speaking xenophobically or punching the producer.

The most important lesson, finally, may be that large numbers of people are nasty, callous and lack a moral compass. Oisin Tymon appears at the very least to have been badly bullied at work by a far more powerful individual. He may also have been subject to slurs on his ethnicity and an assault that resulted in his going to hospital for his injuries. The response of nearly a million people in the UK to this has been to demand that the perpetrator be allowed unconditionally to return to his job. A significant minority has added to the victim’s suffering by abusing him online. A glance at any online US media report about the death of a cyclist will confirm there’s no shortage of similar scorn for weaker road users on the Atlantic’s western shore.

If that’s what it looks like to be wrong but wromantic in 2015, I’m more willing than ever to accept being repulsive but right.

Update, March 25:
The BBC has decided - using unfortunately mealy-mouthed language - not to renew Jeremy Clarkson's contract. An internal investigation found that he harangued Oisin Tymon for a prolonged period and assaulted him for 30 seconds. Thinking he had lost his job as a result of Clarkson's anger, he drove himself to hospital. The BBC's report and the decision to suspend Clarkson's contract has had the predictable - but depressing - effect of making many of Clarkson's fans furious with Clarkson's victim.