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.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A Williamsburg tragedy, a century-old disaster - and why crashes don't reflect the law of averages

When I was a regular traveller on the West Coast Main Line, the UK’s busiest long-distance rail route, I would keep a careful lookout for the two loops of track either side of the line just north of the England-Scotland border. They marked, I would tell more or less interested travelling companions, the site of the UK’s worst-ever rail disaster.
A lesson in negligence: a carriage burns at Quintinshill.
Photo: Illustrated London News

On May 22, 1915, a mistake by signallers led a southbound troop train to collide at Quintinshill, in Dumfriesshire, with a stationary northbound local stopping train that had been shunted into its path. A northbound express train, which the local train had been moved aside to let pass, then collided with the wreckage. The crash and a fire on the troop train – whose carriages were wooden and lit by gas lamps – killed an estimated 226 people. The burning of the soldiers’ regimental roll in the fire means the death toll has never been precisely known.

The disaster has been in my mind the last few days because of a debate following a crash in Williamsburg, not far from where I currently live in Brooklyn. On Friday morning, a bus driver negotiating a corner apparently drove through a crosswalk as Jiahuan Xu, a 15-year-old girl, was crossing with the right of way. The bus hit her and trapped her leg, which she’s likely to lose. The driver has been charged under road safety legislation passed last year with hitting a pedestrian who had right of way in a crosswalk.
A New York City bus: this one isn't being badly driven -
but that doesn't mean it should be above the law

The incident is linked in my mind with the far more serious incident at Quintinshill because it was through reading about the rail disaster as a child that I first encountered the idea someone might face criminal charges for negligence at work. The Scottish courts in 1915 jailed both George Meakin and James Tinsley, the two signallers whose negligence led to the crash, for culpable homicide – manslaughter, in English legal terms, negligent homicide, in US parlance – and breach of duty.

I've been surprised, nearly 100 years on, to find that neither New York’s main transport union nor a group of city council members seems fully to support a principle to which I'd assumed pretty much everyone assented.

Last Thursday, the council members - Daneek Miller, Peter Koo and Donovan Richards – introduced an amendment to New York’s right-of-way legislation – introduced only last year - to exempt bus drivers. Reginald Prescott, another bus driver, in December became one of the first people charged under the law after he killed Jean Bonne-Annee with his bus in East Flatbush.

"Your choices behind the wheel matter": a message that,
100 years after Quintinshill, shouldn't need spelling out -
but clearly does.
Then, on Friday, John Samuelson, president of the Transport Workers’ Union Local 100, protested after the arrest of Francisco de Jesus, the driver who hit Jiahuan Xu, that his members had a difficult job and it was unreasonable to hold them accountable.

“To arrest an operator for an unintentional accident is really just absolutely outrageous, illogical and anti-worker,” Samuelson said.

Samuelson’s view probably reflects many people’s feelings about prosecutions for dangerous driving. In the UK, juries are notably reluctant to convict drivers – probably on the grounds that they feel just such an incident could easily befall them. In November, Cyrus Vance, district attorney for Manhattan, explained his failure to bring more than a handful of prosecutions over road deaths to their being “accidents,” not results of criminal negligence.

“What should be criminal and what shouldn’t be criminal is obviously subject to very subjective and emotional reactions,” Vance told Aaron Naparstek, a safe streets activist, at an event in November

A rescue locomotive prepares to haul a train at Crewe, on the
modern West Coast Main Line. Such operations are far more
safely performed nowadays, thanks to the lessons of past
disasters such as Quintinshill.
Nevertheless, the principle that negligence can be criminal seems to me pretty clear from the Quintinshill case. The mistakes started with an unacceptable piece of risk-taking. To save themselves a mile-and-a-half walk from Gretna, the nearest station, the signalmen would occasionally, when starting work at 6am, take a local train to Quintinshill and get out as it was being shunted out of the way of the express. Because the train arrived around 6.30am, whichever of the men had been working overnight would write down train movements after 6am on a scrap of paper. The new man would write them in the official logbook in his own handwriting, to disguise the late start.

On the morning of the disaster, the filling in of the logbook so distracted the men that they forgot to place locks on the appropriate signal levers to remind them the local train was blocking the main line and prevent their letting a train onto the track. They also neglected to warn the next signalbox north that the main line was obstructed. One of them, forgetting about the local train’s presence, then accepted from the next signal box north the southbound troop train, setting off the calamitous sequence of crashes.

Meakin and Tinsley must have safely accepted trains from neighbouring signalboxes hundreds of times. They had no more intention that morning of causing a catastrophe than any of Mr Samuelson's members ever does. It is certainly true that the Caledonian Railway could have fitted better safety equipment at Quintinshill. The fire would probably have been less serious if the carriages had not been wooden and gaslit. The fireman of the halted local train was meant to check the proper safeguards were in place but failed to do so. 
My bike in Prospect Park: I'm very unlikely to kill or main
someone else while riding it. But I recognise my moral
obligation to exercise due care.

Yet, even as an 11-year-old, I came to realise after some initial reluctance that the men’s attitude was so cavalier as to be criminally culpable. Tinsley was sentenced to three years’ hard labour in prison, while Meakin was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. No mysterious force prompted the signallers to make their errors. They acted with casual disregard for their responsibility for the fates of the hundreds of people moving about on trains around them.

Bus drivers, thank goodness, have never unleashed a catastrophe on the scale of Quintinshill and are unlikely ever to do so. Few probably make a string of decisions as poor as those of the Quintinshill signal workers. But they have just as sure an obligation to move their buses only when it is safe to do so as James Tinsley had an obligation to accept a southbound train only if the track was clear. Although Nicole Gelinas, a transport expert, has since put a kinder construction on events, initial accounts suggested de Jesus was turning fast through the crosswalk when he struck Jiahuan.

It was no more inevitable that the bus would move through the crosswalk that than that someone at Quintinshill would ring the bell to tell the neighbouring signalbox to allow the troop train to proceed. His union insists that de Jesus had a good safety record. That may well be true – but I on my bicycle, drivers in their motor vehicles and anyone whose actions could harm another has a responsibility to exercise reasonable care every single time.

Bus drivers in New York City have difficult, complicated jobs. But it is symptomatic of many drivers’ faulty assessment of the causes of street dangers that John Samuelson, president of Transport Workers’ Union Local 100, complains the police aren’t getting pedestrians out of his members’ way. That assessment flies in the face of the multiple pieces of research that show drivers cause the big majority of crashes between motor vehicles and pedestrians and cyclists, not the other way round.

The outcome of a driver's negligence in Inwood - or, if you're a
member of Transport Workers' Union Local 100, a
statistical inevitability
"They navigate incredibly difficult streets loaded with pedestrians, and they do this without any enforcement on the pedestrian end of things,” Samuelsen told the New York Times.

Another union representative, JP Patafio, portrayed bus drivers as nearly helpless victims of circumstance on the roads. That view is hard to square with the fact that, according to Transportation Alternatives, the pressure group, eight of the nine pedestrians who died under New York City buses last year were hit when in crosswalks, crossing with the light.

“We drive for a living on the busiest streets in America,” Patafio told the New York Daily News. “The law of averages has it we’re going to get into an accident.”

This is not, of course, to say that transport workers are automatically to blame whenever there is a crash. The High Court in Edinburgh acquitted George Hutchinson, fireman of the local train at Quintinshill, of culpable homicide and breach of duty on the grounds that he bore relatively little of the blame for the incident. Bus drivers are frequently involved in crashes for which they’re not responsible. Perhaps, as Nicole Gelinas suggests, de Jesus will be acquitted. Drivers should expect public sympathy and gratitude after being involved in incidents they did not cause, not blame.

There are also many different degrees of negligence - and it may well be that de Jesus, if he was negligent, was guilty of only a momentary lapse. Negligence, meanwhile, lies at the lower end of a scale of motor vehicle misuse that runs from inattention, to recklessness and can stray into acts most people would regard as terrorism.

But it is a piece of the purest cynicism – reminiscent of that of Ray Kelly, the former NYPD commissioner, who suggested “accidents” were inevitable – to suggest crashes are an immutable fact of life. The evidence from everywhere that has made a systematic effort to improve transport safety is that dramatic improvements have been possible. On the UK railways, for example, there has been only one passenger fatality in an incident caused by the rail system since 2002. The UK’s speed camera programme and other improvements helped sharply to reduce the number of road deaths before politicians grew nervous of continuing with it. Scores more people in the UK are leading productive lives and enjoying their families’ company than would be doing so if rail safety regulators or local authorities had shrugged and accepted the “law of averages”.
A sign seeking to improve safety on a road in The Wirral,
north-west England - defying the inevitable,
if one's Ray Kelly or a TWU leader

It also makes a mockery of the conscientious efforts of careful bus drivers, rail workers and ordinary citizens who act safely to pretend that the actions of the negligent are inevitable.

The highest stakes, after all, are not those that confronted Meakin and Tinsley – who both went on to live until after the second world war – or de Jesus, whose right-of-way charge carries only a $250 fine. They are those confronting the passengers, pedestrians and others whose bodies are at risk of mangling beneath or inside negligently-operated trains, cars and buses.

The consequences can be out of all proportion to the sometimes momentary negligence responsible. At Quintinshill, the soldiers of the Royal Scots, trapped in the wreckage and burning alive, are said to have begged their officers to shoot them to ensure a less painful death. On the street in Williamsburg, meanwhile, Jiahuan Xu grasped the hand of her father who came to comfort her and spoke to him in Chinese.

“She grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad I felt pieces of my ripped up leg,’” her father, Jingxiang Xu, told CBS News.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

A barging garbage truck, a slippery Greenway - and why New York's bike routes are like a 747

It was far from being the most dignified manoeuvre I’ve ever made on a bicycle. Around 9.25am on January 29, as I rode to work down Prince St in lower Manhattan, I heard a garbage truck approaching me from behind, its driver blaring the horn. Since the bike lane was still full of snow and I was in the middle of the street’s single travel lane, I was immediately in the vehicle’s path – and fearful the driver wouldn’t stop before hitting me. I pulled over into a clear patch of the bike lane, jammed on my brakes and apologised to the cyclist following me for pulling across her path. The garbage truck careered past.
A bike on Vandam Street, SoHo, testifies to my fellow
cyclists' enthusiasm for tackling New York streets in the snow

The next morning, chastened by my experience and with fresh, light snow falling, I decided to mix with motor vehicles as little as practicable, to ride over the Brooklyn Bridge, through TriBeCa and up the Hudson River Greenway, which had been well cleared of snow the night before. But, when I pulled onto the Greenway, I found there had been no new treatment following the light overnight snow. I rode very gingerly uptown, worrying that the layer of slushy slow would cause my tyres to lose their grip.

The two experiences encapsulated the challenge that even I, a fairly hardy cycle commuter, face when trying to get around a city by bicycle, especially in winter. I need a network of viable routes I can follow to get places. I’m more likely than many people to regard a route that includes jostling with motorists or that isn’t marked as a bike route “viable”. Yet people unused to city cycling or in areas with poor infrastructure probably spend most of the time feeling the way I do when there’s snow and ice about. It’s as if the subway offered a choice of only highly circuitous routes or routes that stop every few blocks and required one to walk.
 
The Hudson Greenway after snow: a slippery connection in
the network
The realisation explains a fundamental disconnect I’ve noticed in perceptions of New York’s efforts to boost cycling. I regularly hear from cyclists in other places – particularly London – who’ve seen pictures of New York’s flagship cycle infrastructure projects and been impressed with the city’s apparent commitment to boost cycling. Few accept my reply that, since only 1 per cent of commuter trips in New York are by bicycle, the efforts are at least partially failing. “At least it’s better than we’ve got here,” they tend to reply, gazing longingly at pictures of the Prospect Park West bike lane or Allen St.

Still fewer correspondents contacting me from London accept my follow-up point. Although London currently lacks many showpiece, well-designed facilities to match the best in New York, I point out, 4 per cent of commuting trips in London are by bicycle. There is clearly some aspect of cycling policy in Londonbedevilled as it has been by a lack of boldness and a reliance on dubiously effective road markings – that has proved vastly more successful than New York’s approach. The question is what’s making the difference.
 
London from St Paul's Cathedral; there are networks there,
if you know where to find them
The answers, of course, don’t lie entirely in road layout. London has, for example, the Central London congestion charge, which over the last 12 years has sharply cut the numbers of vehicles entering Central London daily. Thanks partly to Sheldon Silver – the recently-disgraced former speaker of the New York state senate – New York lacks such a mechanism to keep through traffic out of lower Manhattan.

Public transport in London is also far more expensive than in New York, making a switch to cycling far more attractive financially.

London’s streets are, in addition, far safer than New York’s, even if that’s damning London with faint praise. For 2013, the last full year for which figures are available, there were 294 road fatalities in New York, which has a slightly lower population than London, including 168 pedestrians and 10 cyclists. In London in the same year, there were 132 road deaths in total, including 65 pedestrians and 14 cyclists. London’s far higher cycling rates make it clear that it’s a far safer place to ride per mile travelled than New York.

Yet one of the biggest parts of the answer, I’d suggest, can be found in thinking about the fate of the Boeing 747. The jumbo jet, hugely successful though it has been, faces phasing out at least partly because it was designed for an era when airlines sought consistently to operate “hub-and-spoke” services, feeding traffic from around a given region into a hub. Passengers would be transferred at those hubs onto long-haul flights on airlines’ hyper-efficient 747s.

The Allen St bike lanes: enjoy the view, wistful Londoners -
but be sceptical this picture tells the whole story
The jumbo is suffering partly, analysts say, from improving efficiency - the biggest 777 aircraft can carry pretty much as many people with just two engines. But it is also losing out to aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 that can fly long distances but are far easier to fill up. It’s much simpler with such aircraft to offer passengers direct flights from the city where they’re starting out to the city on another continent where they want to go. It turns out passengers don’t crave the excitement of running to transfer between flights at big hub airports, worrying whether their baggage is being treated with the same urgency. There's a growing preference for going the lowest-stress, most direct route.
 
New York, I’d suggest, has done an excellent job of sorting out a few key hubs for a network – protected lanes up Allen St and along Sands St sorting out some of the trickiest approaches to the Manhattan Bridge, for example. There’s a protected bike lane along Prospect Park West funnelling cyclists through Park Slope. There are bike paths along parts of the two sides of Manhattan. New York has provided the Atlanta-Hartsfield or London Heathrow type hubs and some of the routes that link them. But the system features too many disconnects – too many frantic dashes across the system’s gaps – to offer a full range of comfortable, point-to-point journeys.

First Avenue’s bike lane – often praised as a good example of recent improvements – disappears suddenly for 10 blocks (or half a mile) between the United Nations and 59th Street, pitching cyclists into chaotic motor traffic climbing towards the Queensboro Bridge. Worse still, anyone who has successfully cycled to the Upper East Side and is wondering how to head south again will find not even a painted bike lane for more than three miles on 2nd Avenue between 100th St and 34th St. The 8th Avenue bike lane disappears for five blocks around the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the chaotic point on the trip where cyclists are most in need of protection. The 9th Avenue bike lane disappears for a couple of blocks around Penn Station. There are more.
 
A sharrow marks a bike route in St George, Staten Island:
this look like part of a network to you?
Instead of a network, New York has built a series of sections of bike lane, with noisy objections to the loss of parking or some other complexity keeping the sections all too often separate from each other. The regular changes in colour of the routes on the city’s bike map – indicating a change from a protected lane to a painted lane, to mere “sharrows” then back – are testament to New York officials’ weakness in the face of noisy, local protest. Perhaps the emblematic failure relates to the Hudson River Greenway. It’s one of the safest, most comfortable to use bike facilities in the city. But nearly every means of accessing it south of 59th St involves a suicidally dangerous manoeuvre amid lines of fast-moving cars seeking to reach the West Side Highway.

It’s little surprise that, presented with confusing routes that disappear in the most dangerous places, relatively few New Yorkers are taking up the invitation to start cycling.

When I lived in London, by contrast, my head was full of the routes – often complex and roundabout, admittedly – of the London Cycle Network. The LCN – now out of fashion, since its introduction was overseen by Ken Livingstone, the former mayor - follows routes mainly along back streets across the city. It is so comprehensive that, by the time I left London, I could do 30-mile round trips on it without consulting a map. London’s existing Cycle Superhighways – appallingly designed as most are – at least seek to provide routes that take people to places. Both reflect what seems to me a greater tendency on the part of London’s planners than New York’s to think in terms of routes, not isolated projects.
Southwark Bridge, London: a key part of my mental map
of London's cycling networks

This week’s decision by Transport for London, the London mayor’s transport body, to go ahead with a comprehensive network of segregated bike paths should make the position far, far better. Unlike New York’s rather disjointed system, they should act more and more like the most efficient networks – like metro systems that draw commuters in from distant suburbs into heavily-used, highly-efficient core areas or express parcel networks. Such networks’ strength is their comprehensiveness – well-planned new metro lines generate disproportionately high numbers of journeys because they unlock new point-to-point journeys both on the existing network and the new line. London’s networks, at least in theory, aim to provide a reasonably consistent journey for a high proportion of the trips in the city that are possible by bicycle.
 
A London cycle path: an example of
the "infrastructure" that made me once
doubt infrastructure was the answer
Not, of course, that the simple dichotomies are the whole story. London’s cycle planners are, I know, prone to some of the same shortcomings as those in New York. I so despaired when I lived in London of the dire quality of much of the existing cycle infrastructure that I preferred an approach that sought to make onroad cycling safer. The roundabout, backstreet routes I often used are so circuitous that many simply won’t use them. In thousands of rides past South London’s busy Elephant & Castle interchange, I took one of the avoiding routes off the main roads every single time. To many other people, that route is so painfully slow that they prefer the main roads, where there are regular deaths.

New York’s project-based approach has at least improved some of the biggest barriers to cycling, even if it has always joined the bits together. I find the experience of mixing with fast-moving traffic on multi-lane New York streets sufficiently scary that I welcome any relief from it. I also understand, given the challenges of getting anything meaningful done in New York, why Janette Sadik-Khan - the city’s former, much missed, transportation commissioner – focused so hard on some flagship projects. The projects have proved resounding successes – had she sought to turn the projects into perfectly-realised networks, she could easily have become bogged down in the bureaucratic malaise that seems to have swallowed Polly Trottenberg, her well-meaning successor.
 
Copenhagen: an acutal cycle network, in magnificent action
Nevertheless, New York currently risks, it seems to me, watching from the sidelines as London’s new network of protected routes turns the city’s existing provision into a still more successful network. It’s hard to imagine New York’s achieving anywhere close to its target of having 6 per cent of trips by bikes by 2020 until it starts taking the challenges of providing a real network seriously.

Ms Trottenberg may be about to start tackling the issue in earnest, even if her department's record of retreat on markings for "slow zones" suggests otherwise. But the history of the Bleecker St – Broadway-Lafayette station on the New York City subway is a stark reminder that such changes don’t happen on their own in this city. The city’s IND subway network built Broadway-Lafayette station in 1936 immediately under Bleecker St station of the Interborough Rapid Transit Corporation. In 1940, the city subsequently took over the IRT and its rival BMT subway, forming them with the IND into an allegedly unified system enjoying the benefits of being a single network. Yet it was only in June 2012, after I arrived in New York, that a full connection between the two stations – which had sat immediately adjacent to each other for 76 years – was finally opened.

If New York is serious about encouraging more than a hardy band of souls to cycle round the city, changes to its cycling infrastructure cannot possibly take that long.