Sunday, 10 July 2016

A prosecutor's phone call, remembrance of stresses past - and why I'm glad of a public policy miracle

It was on Friday afternoon, as I was sitting at my new desk in my office in London, that a phone call took me lurching back into the stresses of my daily cycle commute in New York.

The North-South Cycle Superhighway, at Southwark Street: surprising balm for the soul.
The call came from a prosecutor at the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission who was dealing with a complaint I’d submitted in May. Within a few minutes, I was being sworn in and examined at a hearing of the commission’s tribunal. It was the first time, after a succession of driver no-shows and last-minute plea bargains, that I’ve actually had to testify against a driver. Then, I was cross-examined by the attorney for a driver who’d first tailgated me and a group of other cyclists then driven down a street yelling abuse at me. I felt my heart racing and my temper rise.

But it was only a little later, as I discussed the joys of London’s new cycle superhighways with colleagues, that it dawned on me why the call from New York had set off quite so many fight-or-flight responses. Having arrived back in the UK with my family early on Thursday, I’d had two days of mostly stress-free cycling riding on London’s new segregated cycle tracks. The experience, it dawned on me, had lifted a burden of anxiety that had sat on me all the time I battled with New York’s drivers. As I recounted the tailgating then dealt with the cross-examination from the driver’s attorney, the burden’s full weight came crushing down on me again.

That low-stress riding has produced in me - to my own surprise - an unusual feeling of lightness of spirit when I’m on my bike. This weekend, staying with my parents-in-law in rural Cheshire, I noticed when I took my bike on a muddy, sometimes hard-to-navigate country trail that I was willing to tackle trickier slopes and tougher surfaces than I had been when riding similar routes while living in New York. There are undoubtedly complex public policy questions about how much road space in London to allocate to bicycles and how much to other traffic. But, for me in the short term, the changes’ effect has been to liberate a little joy in my soul.


A muddy section of the Wirral Trail, in Cheshire:
site of my unaccustomed boldness
Even if I’d still been in New York, however, it would still have been stressful to relive the events of the morning of May 12 - all the more so because they reflected failings typical of New York’s streets. I’d complained about a taxi driver who drove close behind me and some other cyclists, trying to honk us out of his way, as we moved to turn left at the busy intersection of Canal and Allen Streets. After I photographed the driver so that I could report him, he drove parallel to me as I rode up Allen Street, shouting what sounded like abuse at me as I rode in the street’s - thankfully protected and segregated - bike lane.

The incident reflected many of the weaknesses of New York’s provision for cyclists. The two blocks of Canal St where I was riding connect the Manhattan Bridge bike path - one of the city’s busiest cycling locations - with the bike lanes on Allen St, a critical, high-quality, north-south route. Yet those two blocks are busy, chaotic and devoid of any cycling provision save for some rather optimistic “sharrow” markings. Those are generally obscured beneath double-parked vehicles.


Conditions were particularly challenging on the morning in question because Canal St had just been milled - had its surface removed prior to laying of new tarmac. The manhole covers and other ironwork - always potential landmines of the New York streetscape - were sticking up well above the temporary surface, presenting a high-stakes obstacle course for commuting cyclists.

The honking taxi driver of milled Canal St:
a picture to get the stress hormones racing
By contrast, the striking feature of my rides so far on London’s new cycle tracks is that they provide seamless journeys. The paths are generally continuous, mostly wide and, so far at least, have excellent, high-quality surfaces. I can think of almost no piece of cycling infrastructure in New York - including the Hudson River Greenway, the city’s best route - that so completely eliminates the challenge for cyclists of interacting with drivers.

The London routes don’t, like so much provision in New York, disappear at the points where conditions get most challenging. From my temporary accommodation in Limehouse, East London, I zipped to work on Thursday and Friday down Upper Thames Street, a traffic sewer through the City of London financial district. Riding there used to involve terrifying games of chicken with big trucks and black taxis. Last week, it was, for the first time I can recall, a positive pleasure to ride on, thanks to the east-west cycle superhighway, which bore me down towards Southwark Bridge untroubled by any interactions with the neighbouring vehicles. The contrast with the treatment of difficult areas in New York - say, the section of Second Avenue where cyclists have to deal with traffic turning into the Queens-Midtown Tunnel - could scarcely be more stark.
Upper Thames Street: a cycling paradise if not exactly
regained, at least found for the first time

Yet the grudging tone of those involved in the Taxi and Limousine Commission hearing was at least as depressing as the recollection of the incident itself. There seemed to be a general feeling that for a group of cyclists to be followed closely by an angrily honking taxi driver wasn’t really that big a deal. The defence attorney, meanwhile, demanded to know if I’d been in the bike lane when honked at. The question suggested the attorney didn’t know the street had no bike lane. It was built on the false assumption that bike lanes should serve as prisons for cyclists, not havens. It also entirely missed the point that a left-turning cyclist could scarcely stay in a bike lane on the right, even had one existed.
The Victoria Embankment not only hosts
those darling little lights - but an actual,
well-designed cycle track junction


London’s new cycle tracks, by contrast, feel like acts of generosity. They are mostly wide and those I’ve used so far seem well designed. My enthusiasm for them isn’t unique. One colleague - previously only an intermittent commuter cyclist - raved to me about how she could scarcely believe London had built such things. “They’ve got those little lights!” she squealed excitedly, referring to the small repeater traffic lights positioned at cyclists’ eye level. The other striking point is how quickly it’s possible to get around a city by bike when one isn’t constantly dodging around cars double-parked in bike lanes or grappling with “mixing zones” of vehicles trying to cross one’s path. My bike computer is consistently telling me I’m going around 1mph faster on average than I used to in New York.

The tracks’ building is clearly an act of political boldness that far outstrips even Janette Sadik-Khan’s efforts to put in cycling infrastructure in New York. The scale of that boldness was clear to me as my family and I rode on Thursday morning from Heathrow Airport to our temporary accommodation. At mid-morning, as we were making the trip, motor traffic remained heavy and very slow-moving while, next to us, wide, well-designed cycle lanes stood, getting only relatively light use.

It is hard to imagine any contemporary senior New York politicians’ having the nerve to try to push such a network not only through the city council but also through the myriad of community boards that are determined to obstruct progress. My experience of testifying before the taxi and limousine commission’s tribunal was certainly a reminder that there is so far not even the vaguest consensus in New York that cyclists have a legitimate place in urban transport.

In London, meanwhile, I share my colleague’s wonder at the cycle tracks’ construction. The tracks are associated closely with Boris Johnson, a bumbling mayor whose other contributions to British public life - including his role in the recent European Union referendum - have been almost entirely negative. The tracks were shepherded through by Andrew Gilligan, Johnson’s “cyclist tsar,” who received substantial, justified criticism for his shoddy methods in the 2004 Hutton Inquiry into the suicide of David Kelly, a government scientist whom Gilligan had used as a source.

London cyclists like these were yearning
for a miraculous transformation.
Astonishingly, they seem to have found one.
The tracks came to be built only after Johnson rashly built a network of extraordinarily dangerous “cycle superhighways” consisting only of paint on very busy main roads. The decision to build something better followed the justified outcry over the number of cyclists killed riding on the old super highways. That such a flawed process and flawed individuals could end up producing excellent, well-designed infrastructure feels like a public policy miracle.

But, of course, the miracle is a limited one. The cycle tracks cover only a relatively small area of central London. When not on them, I’ve already had some negative experiences. I was, for example, chased down a bus lane on Brixton Road on Thursday by an impatient van driver who should not have been in the lane at the time. This evening, as I cycled home from Euston station, on one of the few parts of the journey where I wasn’t using protected infrastructure, a minicab driver cut me off as I sought to pull out round a parked car. I can only hope that the cycle tracks are not so bold a step that they end up ripped out, as New York’s first experiments in segregated bike lanes were, when the complaints from motorists complaining about congestion became too much.

The other worries are for the future, however. I continue in many ways to pine for New York - its unique atmosphere, the open, friendly people, even the excitement of discovering the city by bike. But London’s bold cycling experiment makes me glad, at least when I’m on my bicycle, that I’m here.

Monday, 4 July 2016

A tour of tolerant diversity, the horrors of its opposite - and why I'm sorry to say goodbye

I was waiting in line for Salvadorean food, standing next to a black fellow cyclist after the Transportation Alternatives Brooklyn-Queens Tour through New York’s two most diverse boroughs, when the announcement came for a moment of silence. Because we’d been riding our bikes, few of us knew what had happened. “Fifty people?” the rider next to me asked, in a tone of shock. I started trying to work out how one person could possibly have killed so many people.

By the end of June 12, however, I was not only learning far more about the day’s appalling massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, but on my way to a hotel near the scene to report on it. The job of covering the attack was all the more traumatic because I’d, unusually, remained ignorant for so long of its happening.
Cyclists wait at Citi Field to start the Brooklyn-Queens
Tour. The same parking lot was the scene, later the same day,
of a horrific revelation for many riders

Yet the experience of having ridden my bike through Brooklyn and especially multicultural Queens before heading to Orlando kept informing my thinking over the following two days. The areas where I’d been riding are some of the most diverse in any major western city, with people from countries all over the globe living next to each other in a miracle of tolerant diversity. I couldn’t help but wonder what made the difference between very different people’s ability to live together in areas like Crown Heights – where observant Jews live next to black people from the Caribbean – and the impulse that drove the hate-filled Orlando attacker.

My reactions were all the stronger because I’d undertaken the Brooklyn-Queens Tour as a farewell to New York before I leave the city to return to London on July 6. The looming deadline has made me think harder about why I love the atmosphere of New York City so deeply, despite the chaos – even the corruption - of much of the city’s functioning. I’ve decided that the chaos and its loveability are closely tied up in each other. It’s just unfortunate that the chaos overpowers the loveability on the roads, while it’s mostly the other way round everywhere else.

From the very start of my day’s riding on June 12, I’d been reminded how a cyclist – riding at moderate speeds on surface streets - is uniquely placed to appreciate the intricacy of the stitching that holds together New York’s ethnic patchwork. The morning of the Brooklyn-Queens Tour, I started at my home in traditionally Italian-American Carroll Gardens to ride to Citi Field, the New York Mets’ stadium, 13 miles away, for the start of the event. The trip took me through mainly African-American housing projects near the Brooklyn Bridge, Hasidic Jewish South Williamsburg, heavily Polish Greenpoint then over the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge into areas of Queens that are variously East Asian, South Asian and Hispanic.
 
Diversity Plaza: a twee name for a high ideal
At one point where a particularly large number of seams come together, in Jackson Heights, I rode along a block recently rather tweely renamed “Diversity Plaza”. A nearby block is almost exclusively filled with Tibetan restaurants and grocery stores, while other shops nearby sell saris to local Tamils and a Chinese supermarket supplies the neighbourhood’s Chinese. The area hums to the tune of dozens of different languages.

The boundaries between the different groups’ areas are porous and unclear. The Chinese supermarket in Jackson Heights, for example, stocks some Filipino and Vietnamese food because it recognises that the area’s far less uniform than, say, Manhattan’s Chinatown.

The arrangements are the exact opposite of what I remember seeing when I visited Bosnia in 1995 during its war of independence. As I rode with a bus full of refugees from Tuzla to Split, we kept encountering checkpoints still operating after the brief war between the Bosnian government and Bosnian Croats. The papers of the people on the bus – mostly Bosniaks, as Bosnian Muslims call themselves – all had to be carefully checked to prevent unauthorised crossing of ethnic dividing lines. While the streets of, say, Little Italy were once guarded by men who kept strangers out, there are no barriers for a contemporary New Yorker to wandering around densely-packed areas full of people who look different from him or her.

A bicycle saddle is also an excellent vantage point to see how little obvious planning has gone into forming the city’s ethnic jigsaw puzzle. Old groceries get converted into churches as new groups take over areas that once belonged to another. A grand former synagogue on Pike St in Lower Manhattan is now a mixture of a Buddhist temple, businesses and apartments. The city’s history is that it’s largely when people are able to choose their own patterns of settlement that the process goes most smoothly.
 
A viaduct on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway:
Robert Moses' sensitive approach to city planning
on full display
It is certainly no coincidence that the neat mind of RobertMoses – the “master builder” who transformed New York in the mid-20th century – abhorred both diversity and the narrow local streets where it flourishes. In the years after the second world war, he demolished multiple areas that he regarded as slums, replacing them with whiter, duller institutions such as the Lincoln Center or expressway roads. It was obvious at many points along my ride how highways such as Moses’ Brooklyn-Queens Expressway severed once-thriving communities. The city is in many ways only just recovering from his insensitive desire to destroy in the course of building.

Perhaps the truest expression I’ve encountered of New York’s diversity is a scene I encountered on my bicycle while apartment-hunting four years ago. In a tyre shop on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn one evening, white-robed men were hunched over drums performing a Sufi Islamic ritual. The ceremony looked imported unchanged from the back streets of the Maghreb. It was being performed in a space intended for another purpose. Yet it was going on not only in full view of the street but on an avenue a mere five blocks from Ocean Parkway, the heart of one of the western world’s most thriving Jewish neighbourhoods.
 
A Jewish couple wait to cross Ocean Parkway - an ethnic
stronghold, yet close to diversity.
During the 40-mile Brooklyn-Queens Tour, the starkest reminder of New York’s remarkable success in building reasonably tolerant diversity was my ride through Crown Heights. The area was the last to feature full-scale inter-racial rioting in New York – in 1991, when a fatal crash involving a driver in a leading rabbi’s entourage and a Guyanan man set off three days’ clashes between black people and observant Jews. Yet, riding through the area on the Sunday morning of the tour, there were the same ambiguities as in other areas about the boundaries separating different groups. I noticed, with a sigh, that the congregation of a large, black Pentecostal church had blocked a stretch of bike lane and sidewalk as they parked for Sunday morning worship. The next moment, I was seeing boys wearing smart white shirts and kippahs heading off to Sunday morning religious classes.

It is, of course, far easier to describe what a peaceful city looks like than to describe why someone like Omar Mateen, the Orlando killer, erupts into hate-filled violence. I got the call asking whether I could go down to Orlando as I approached home at the end of a total of nearly 70 miles’ riding. Within a few hours, I’d made my excuses for a dinner party I’d been looking forward to, taken myself to LaGuardia Airport – near where I’d started my ride at Citi Field – and checked into a suburban Orlando hotel.
 
Reporters near the scene of the Orlando massacre:
feeding an unspeakable horror into the 24-hour news cycle
Starting reporting the next morning, I headed to a family reunion centre near the massacre site and spoke to C├ęsar Flores, a Guatemalan immigrant whose 26-year-old daughter, Mercedez Marisol Flores, was among the 49 people Mateen killed before he was himself shot. Exactly 24 hours after I’d been riding round Brooklyn and Queens marvelling at their peaceful diversity, I watched Mr Flores hold his phone to show reporters a Facebook picture of his daughter, surrounded with the Pride flag colours. This, it was clear, was the price of  intolerance of diversity.

“She was a very happy girl all the time, a good student, a hard worker,” he said, tearfully. “But she’s gone.”

I began to make the connections between my Sunday experience in New York and my reporting in Orlando on Monday evening, as I attended a vigil for thedead in downtown Orlando. Speaker after speaker pleaded, essentially, for the values that have rescued New York from the low point of the Crown Height riots. They called for gun control – an area where New York is about as strict as the US constitution allows – and for different social groups to safeguard each others’ interests. Muslim speakers defended gay people’s rights, while speakers from gay advocacy groups denounced any potential reprisals against Muslims.
 
The Orlando vigil: a critical reminder of the importance
of "safe spaces"
It was the praise for the role of the Pulse club among Orlando’s gays that finally drove  the point about diversity home. Several speakers described gay clubs as “safe spaces,” vital to giving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people the self-confidence to deal with a sometimes hostile wider world. The remark made me think of the multi-ethnic New York I’d witnessed both during the Brooklyn-Queens Tour - and during all my four years riding in the city - as a complex mix of safe places and meeting points between communities. While it’s unknown precisely what mixture of mental disturbance, islamist radicalism and homophobia drove Omar Mateen, it’s striking that such attackers often seem to come from less cosmopolitan, self-confident places. Greater tolerance should at least play a role in averting future horrors.

Not, of course, that I should sentimentalise New York. During nearly all the sections of the tour that involved riding on roads with cars, I was jostling with drivers for space. The principle that a “safe space” creates an environment for healthy interaction with others extends, I think, to well-designed protected bike lanes, of  which the city still has far too few. The city’s ethnic geography is not entirely a result of happy happenstance. Black people were barred for decades from large areas and economic injustice continues to keep some people in less desirable areas. The New York Police Department continues to do a far less goodjob than it should do. The police shrug at road safety problems – and it is becoming gradually clearer that police corruption drives many of their decisions about how to manage the roads.
The graduation ceremony at Brooklyn College: a case study
in the value of "defending the hyphen".

But an event on June 21 underlined for me the privileges of having lived and cycled four years amid this bracing, if untidy, experiment. I rode from my office in Manhattan down to Brooklyn College in Flatbush that evening to see my daughter graduate from middle school. For me, a highpoint of the event was a brief address from Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president, in which he told us it was vital to “defend the hyphen”. It was critical, he said, in an era of intolerance to celebrate both the diversity in a Brooklyn full of African-Americans, Puerto Rican-Americans, Russian-Americans and the factors that made them all Americans too. It was a message that was easy to appreciate in a hall packed full of families originally from Asia, the former Soviet Union and South Asia all seeking similar success for their children. But it was all the easier to believe because I’d so recently come face to face with tolerant diversity’s appalling opposite.

Monday, 23 May 2016

A cancelled bike lane, a crowded F Train - and why New York planning has to start muting the noisy

A few times recently, while cycling in Queens I’ve taken routes that carried me across Queens Boulevard – once known as the “Boulevard of Death,” for its dreadful safety record – and seen some of its smart new bike lanes. But I’ve never actually used them, for a simple reason. While Queens Boulevard goes to some useful places, the current, 1.3-mile stretch of bike lane doesn’t link up to anywhere I want to go.
A sign points towards the Queens Boulevard bike lanes -
or, as Community Board 4 would have preferred,
the bike path to practically nowhere.

If Queens’ Community Board 4 had had its way, that arrangement would have continued. In a vote on May 10, members of the board – a strange, officially-sponsored but still only advisory and unelected local planning committee – voted to approve safety improvements for their stretch of the boulevard, the 1.2 miles immediately east of the existing bike lanes. But they voted to remove the bike lanes from the project (cyclists’ safety should be an “afterthought”, one member said). The step prompted bafflement and outrage because it threatened not only the stretch of the road in Community Board 4 but the whole effort to turn the Boulevard of Death into a less forbidding space.

Yet the story of CB 4’s bike lanes stands out in New York City’s transport planning only because of how the story ends. The decision was so obviously contrary to the public interest – and so procedurally flawed - that Bill de Blasio, the mayor, unusually found the courage to overturn the board’s recommendation the next day. He instead ordered the Department of Transportation to continue developing the improvements with the bike lanes intact. Plenty of other changes that would improve the city as a whole get blocked because a noisy handful of people on a community board or  other  group object loudly enough that the greater good doesn’t prevail. Two other bike lane projects have fallen foul of such objections just this month.
 
"What do you mean the city's transport is poorly planned?
"Oh, I see."
The question is whether it’s a bug or a feature of New York’s democracy – and that of many other places around the world – that relatively small, vocal groups can either bring to life or kill projects in a way that damages the wider society. It’s the kind of argument familiar to anyone who’s spent time in India, where desperately-needed infrastructure projects are often held up by scores of pettifogging obstructions. Officials when challenged on this – and the stark contrast with China’s greater effectiveness at getting things done – tend to hold up their hands in defeat and say, “But we’re a democracy”.

True democracy, I think, should be more sophisticated than the crude system often practised in New York, where the noisy enjoy disproportionate influence over the apparent will of the less vocal majority. The current system unsurprisingly suits many of those who have grown up with it, however. After the mayor’s overturning of the CB4 decisions, Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president, put herself firmly in the democracy-is-the-right-to-block camp.

“Any action to install bike lanes along this stretch at this time, regardless of merit, would… understandably be perceived as an imposition by the administration, running directly counter to and overriding the Community Board’s explicitly-stated wishes,” Ms Katz said in a statement.

The bizarre case of F Train express subway service in Brooklyn highlights how illogical the effects of this kind of democracy can be.
A F Train leaves Smith-9th St after stopping: David Greenfield
dreams of the coming day when it'll zip past, whisking
his constituents home faster

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state organisation that runs the subway, has been pressured into considering reintroduction of an express F subway service in Brooklyn – skipping all but a handful of stations in the inner parts of the borough – by a campaign by David Greenfield, a member of New York City council representing outer parts of the borough such as Bensonhurst and Borough Park. The idea has generally been regarded as a non-starter for practical reasons. Because capacity in Manhattan is restricted, any introduction of express trains would mean fewer local trains. Since the stations that have only local track platforms – including Smith-9th St, by my apartment - are mostly busier than those with express platforms, an express service would delay more people than it helped and increase overcrowding.

The MTA has nevertheless caved to David Greenfield’s campaign. On May 17, the subway operator announced its decision to restart service in 2017 alongside publication of a feasibility study that, to the casual reader, seemed stuffed with evidence that that was a terrible idea. While express service users would on average get a journey 3.4 minutes shorter, the study said, local train riders would be suffer an average 1.3 minute delay standing gazing at the new express service zipping by. Since there are more users of the local train stations and some could suffer serious overcrowding, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the new service is a retrograde step being taken solely for political reasons.
 
A sign apologises that some F Trains
are passing stations without stopping -
but today's service disruption could be
next year's service "enhancement"
In both the F Express and Queens Boulevard cases, small, geographically distinct groups have advocated for their needs to dictate how the whole of a particular bit of road or subway track is used. The Bensonhurst would-be express train riders will produce negative knock-on effects all along the line. Similarly, community board members who express horror about potential bike lanes’ effects on “their” parking spaces affect road users all along the corridor.

The current approach virtually ensures the city’s infrastructure works less efficiently, less safely and less fairly than it ideally would do. To become better-functioning, more effective democracies, New York and other big cities need the ability to plan carefully and to push through elements of the plan that will benefit the whole city even if small, vocal groups protest. There is a strong case for introducing a far more comprehensive process of strategic planning for the city to try to cut down on the number of wasteful subway services started and stranded, isolated bike lanes.

Change is particularly urgent because many of the problems facing the city require solutions to problems that affect nearly everyone a little but that a few noisy interest groups oppose. There can be little doubt, for example, that the congestion-charging system proposed under the Move New York plan would be at least as successful as London’s equivalent. But no noisy interest group is as interested in solving the problem as a handful of motorists are in continuing to drive free into Manhattan.

The city’s housing crisis drives up nearly everyone’s rent. But the interests of people who don’t want a new apartment tower next to their brownstone help to ensure it goes unaddressed. It’s no coincidence that road safety – which few people regard as a big problem for them personally – has suffered under the current arrangements. Few people recognise how grave a threat dangerous streets pose to them, while a handful of passionate people are determined to defend their access to free parking from safety improvements.
 
A CB4 member called cyclists "missiles on wheels".
Here, some refuel.
The lack of a strong planning function reflects deliberate choices, rather than mere happenstance. Robert Moses, the bureaucrat who shaped modern, car-dominated New York, carefully demolished efforts to introduce systematic planning in the years between the first and second world wars. Robert Caro’s The Power Broker details how that gave Moses free rein for decades to build in the city more or less whatever  he chose – and to avoid building things he disliked, like new subway lines.

David Greenfield and other loud-mouthed politicians currently operate in that Moses gap, as do community boards. If the city had a comprehensive planning function that measured the city’s needs as a whole, it would probably provide a strong counterbalance to politicians’ efforts to push plans that sacrifice the city’s needs to those of their constituents. If the city had a strong planning function, it would take into account legitimate concerns from people like CB4. But it would surely not stand for the present approach to building bike lanes, where it’s a battle to build each short stretch and the differences between community boards manifest themselves in bike lanes that are high quality for 20 blocks or so before disappearing for the next 20.
 
A picture of Clinton Avenue makes it clear just how
damaging it could have been to make it one-way
and install a two-way bike lane.
The effects of the failure to act are everywhere. On Saturday, I hauled my son on his trailer bike from our home to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. Our route to the Flushing Avenue bike lanes was less safe than if the city had already built the proposed two-way bike lane on Clinton Avenue in Wallabout that was scrapped last week because of residents’ objections. We saw signs to the Queens Boulevard bike lanes. On Sunday, a fellow parishioner at my church talked in really panicky terms about the effects of rent increases. Because I’m going on a trip this week, I used the F Train to get to work this morning, boarding at Carroll St, one of the stations whose users will suffer if the poorly conceived express plan is carried out.

Yet the system’s attractions for politicians and powerful interest groups are obvious. Even in London – a city that’s generally, I think, better governed than New YorkBoris Johnson on becoming mayor removed the west London extension of the congestion charging zone. There are persistent rumours that Sadiq Khan, who’s just been elected to replace him, will harm well-thought-out plans to develop a network of protected bike lanes by scrapping some future parts of the programme.

Passengers board an already-crowded F Train at Carroll St:
let's hope the right lessons are learnt when this gets
far worse next year.
In New York, the current arrangements sometimes suit even politicians who disapprove of the system’s outcomes. Mayor de Blasio was able to win far easier, more immediate praise from safe streets activists for overturning the Queens Boulevard decision than if he’d had to work to make sure there was a more rational system in place at the start. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, may one day heroically intervene to cancel the F Express plans - with even more fanfare than he deployed in the first place to announce them.

There remains, nevertheless, the possibility that, as the poor decisions mount up, the public will start to demand serious reform. While I hope that there are no deaths or injuries on Clinton Avenue, if any occur advocates should point out noisy special interests’ responsibility for them. The people with whom I shared the F Train this morning may also prove a powerful constituency in future. The train at Carroll St was packed this morning, as it is nearly every morning. It was bizarre to reflect that the MTA was contemplating measures that would worsen the position still further. If the express plans proceed, I hope the jammed-in commuters will remember to blame not only David Greenfield but the rotten system that allows him to succeed.

Monday, 9 May 2016

A sobering email, writing about cycling - and why my rational choice brings me joy

It wasn’t the most depressing email I’ve ever received. But it was one of the more disheartening related to this blog. A couple of weeks ago, an old, London-based contact emailed to let me know he was moving to New York. But, while I eagerly agreed to his suggestion we meet up, his second paragraph gave me pause for some gloomy thought.

“I shall not be cycling,” my contact wrote. “I have read enough of your blogs not to tempt fate.”
 
Cyclists literally queue up at the Manhattan Bridge
to tempt fate
The line made me realise my fundamental failure to strike a balance in how I’ve written about cycling. While I would like New York conditions for riding to be far better, I haven’t, I recognise, given nearly enough space to why, amid all my complaining, I continue to ride a bicycle.

My dismay has grown all the greater subsequently as I’ve received repeated reminders that large numbers of people either think it wholly irrational to ride a bicycle in a city or misunderstand the rationale for doing so. Two days after I received the email, Lucy Kellaway, my colleague at the Financial Times, published a column saying she longed to return to cycling after a recent crash while cycle commuting. But she said many readers had assured her the crash should have served as a warning to her to give up. The day before Lucy’s piece, the New York Times published an article of advice for would-be urban cyclists. The Times’ piece dwelt at length on the need to wear a helmet and follow all the road rules but suggested one simply had to trust drivers not to pass one too closely. Most despicably, AMNewYork, a New York news site, on Monday published a piece of unpleasant clickbait listing the "Worst Things about Bicyclists in New York City".

Such criticism of the choice to cycle often seems to me to miss a core point about cycling as an activity. Cyclists, to read many people’s writing about the subject, are helpless subjects of the dangers of the roads, who can do no more to mitigate the risks than wear a plastic helmet. This is essentially the way a cyclist must look to an onlooker driving a motor vehicle.

Yet the arguments in favour of cycling all focus on its nature as an active form of transport. There are significant health benefits to be derived from cycling as a physical activity. It’s also possible to act in ways that, to a limited extent, mitigate the dangers. I’m convinced that, when these points are thrown into the balance, the cost/benefit ratio swings overwhelmingly in favour of cycling. I regret having given a different impression.
 
The Broadway bike lane: not a clear signal of cycling's
rationality
It’s perhaps worth asking, however, why it even matters to me that my choice is rational. It’s irrational, after all, to eat and drink as much as I do. It’s almost certainly not sensible to work as hard as I do at a job that’s far less significant than it feels when I’m wrapped up in it. I could simply say – as Lucy’s piece concluded – that a cold-headed assessment of risk doesn’t capture why I cycle. I could say that I ride my bike because of the joy of feeling in step with the city, of the extraordinary things one sees late at night, or because I feel when I'm cycling as if I have a superpower.

I’m not quite prepared to do that, however. It would feel, partly, like a betrayal if, having criticised the irrationality of so many other people’s thinking about transport, I decided it was a matter of personal taste. I’d also risk sounding like the archetypal annoying hipster explaining how he likes a band you “probably won’t have heard of” – “I like cycling in New York – but it’s probably a bit too hardcore for you”.

I want, as I wrote four years ago, to live what Gordon Graham, one of my moral philosophy lecturers at university, called “the rational life”. Someone living a rational life seeks to use reason to decide how to behave. If I didn't think the way I got about was rational, I'd find another way to travel.

Yet there is no doubt that there is at least a superficial case that I'm taking on an unnecessary risk when I cycle. I have, over the course of more than two decades' urban cycling, been twice knocked off by motor vehicles and once by another cyclist. It was only good fortune that none of these crashes involved a serious, long-term injury. There is a small - but not entirely negligible - risk that some day I too will end up, through no fault of my own, crushed under the wheels of a badly-driven truck or sent flying into the air through a taxi driver's inattention.

Make a wise choice, folks: drive a car instead. Oh.
But that fails to capture anything like the whole, complex picture of the risks I'm managing. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and my tendency to put on weight all pose far more serious risks to my life expectancy than the small risk of a fatal crash. Figures years ago from Cycling UK suggested that someone who cycled regularly into middle age – that’s I now, folks – increased his or her life expectancy by an average 24 months. The reduction from crashes was, on average, two months. While the figures for deaths per mile in the US are hard to find, the risk per mile of cycling looks to be just short of twice as high, leaving the benefit: cost ratio still a healthy 7:1.

I am not, either, a helpless victim of those averages. It is certainly true that the vast bulk of crashes between drivers and cyclists are mainly the driver’s fault. But I have, I think, learnt over the years a “well-managed fear”. I let my nervousness about the vehicles around me prompt me towards holding the road when drivers try to bully me out of the way, making clear, understandable movements, rather than sudden, darting ones. I try to communicate clearly with drivers. Such behaviour can guard against the negligence of people who have far less at stake than I. A good knowledge of safe routes and the skills to take up the necessary road space to discourage dangerous passing are far more useful than most of the “safety tips” that the New York Times’ piece gave.
 
Should New York's cycling facilities make it clearer
cycling's a good idea? Guess what I think, based on this picture.
It’s because cycling is a rational choice, meanwhile, that it’s folly for cities to seek to cater to cyclists merely as part of a policy of offering a choice of travel modes. Given that cycling makes personal sense for vast numbers of people, makes excellent use of road space and reduces pollution, it should be incumbent on cities actively to promote cycling. City departments of transportation should ask themselves if few people choose to cycle why their road designs are instead promoting less rational options. The risks of cycling should undoubtedly be less than they are. But better-designed roads would not only reduce those risks but make it far clearer how rational a choice it is to cycle.

Better facilities would make it far easier for citizens to appreciate the true balance of risks they face. All forms of transport entail some form of risk. I was knocked down as a child while crossing a street. I crashed my dad's car off the road during my first driving lesson. I've been caught underground in a subway train during a track fire. Riding a bicycle represents, even under current sub-optimal conditions, a good trade-off between risks and rewards.
The USS Intrepid: a sight I'd have missed in the subway.

Yet I can’t deny that I’m happy to find cycling rational because it’s also a joy. I was acutely aware of that on Friday when I finally met up with my old contact. Leaving the office, I pedalled up Hudson St then out onto the Hudson River Greenway towards midtown. It was a journey my colleagues assumed I wouldn’t do by bike because of the looming threat of rain. My contact assumed I wouldn’t have enjoyed because I’d be battling through traffic. It nevertheless lifted my spirits in a way that a subway trip could never have done and got me there promptly and cheaply in a way a taxi ride could not have. As I zipped along by the water under leaden skies, looking up at the Empire State Building, marvelling at the USS Intrepid and hearing the splash of the water, I reflected on the straightforward pleasure the ride was bringing me. There are few satisfactions greater, I realised, than indulging in an activity that's both rational and brings one immense joy.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

An angry driver on 8th St, two tragedies - and why New York cyclists aren't meant to be really there

It wasn’t a surprise but it was a disappointment. As I rode my bike on Saturday, fast, down 8th Street in Park Slope, a driver, coming up from behind me, thought she knew better than I where in the street I should be riding. She started – as happens very frequently when one rides down these streets, correctly, in the middle of the road - trying to honk me out of her way.

I’d ridden down 8th St because neighbouring, busier 9th St’s bike lane – sandwiched in the dangerous door zone for parked cars – is invariably clogged with double-parked cars. It’s far more dangerous and stressful than its narrower, one-way neighbours.
 
8th St: not New York's narrowest street - but would you want a
car passing you at 30mph as you barreled down here?
But, when she caught up with me at the next intersection, the woman explained why she thought she had the right to breeze past as if I weren’t there.

“You shouldn’t be in the middle of the road,” the woman told me.

“I was stopping you from overtaking me until I could let you past safely,” I said.

“You don’t belong in the middle of the road,” she said.

“Yes I do,” I answered.

Then, inevitably, as I rode off, a bystander shouted after me.

“Hey, you need to be on a street with a bike lane! You should be on Ninth Street!”

The exchange illustrated, in part, people’s automatic, infuriating assumption that they are clever and sophisticated and cyclists are uninformed simpletons making stupid decisions for unfathomable reasons.
 
A cyclist dodges round a car parked in the 9th St bike lane:
this is the idyll one bystander recommended I use
instead of 8th St.
But it also shed light on a problem facing cyclists in many cities making half-hearted attempts at accommodating cyclists. I was struck, as I rode on, by how cycling had been shoe-horned into New York City in a way that’s meant to avoid inconveniencing anyone else. No-one had ever told this woman that, yes, she might occasionally have to wait a few seconds to get past a cyclist. The builders (more accurately, painters) of the 9th St bike lane had sought to make it barely impinge on drivers.

The designs betray a profound confusion in public policy. There’s a vague instinct that cyclists can’t be entirely denied better facilities. But that goes hand in hand with cowardice about the idea that promoting cycling is a public good. There’s no sense that sacrifices to encourage cycling might be worth everybody’s while. The unspoken sense is that cyclists should take up no space, have no momentum and cause no-one else to modify any part of their behaviour.

The inevitable result is that cyclists are forced into making the compromises that others get to avoid. As I rode down 8th St, I faced a choice between being harassed for riding down the middle of the street or taking the risk of being hit by an inattentive driver’s opening door and knocked into the path of a driver passing me at 30mph. Had I chosen instead to ride down 9th St, I’d have faced a combination of both dangers. I’d have had to ride in the parked cars’ door zone then pull out round the parked vehicles, being tailgated by drivers who thought I should somehow not be out of the bike lane.
The Jay St "bike lane" in downtown Brooklyn:
evidence on its own of why New York's bike commuting rate
is so low.

It’s no surprise under these circumstances that cycling in New York remains a fringe activity, confined to a relative handful of us who think the personal benefits of getting about by bike outweigh the costs. It’s a situation mirrored in the many cities across North America and some parts of Europe.

The current circumstances practically guarantee that the benefits the planners were seeking from cycling – cleaner air, safer streets, better use of road space – won’t materialise. The dominant surviving forms of cycling – fast riding by the young and fit, coupled with widespread rule-breaking by riders fleeing dangerous drivers – are used as evidence that promoting cycling is a Bad Thing. It’s time for such cities either to get serious about cycling provision or to stop the current dangerous and stressful pretence.

Not, I’m sure, that any of this  would make sense from the perspective of the Angry BMW Driver of 8th St. It must, I accept, seem odd when driving a large vehicle down a street to see a cyclist, a single person on a  narrow vehicle, taking up the centre of the lane. It must, in certain circumstances, feel like a theft of the road space.
 
My bike computer after one run-in with
an angry driver being held up:
unacceptably slow in a city with
a 25mph speed limit.
I don’t ride down the middle of the road to make some abstruse point, however. As I use these streets, my bike computer often tells me I’m going well over 20mph. As a large man on a heavy bike with luggage, I have significant momentum. If a driver opened a door into my path or pulled out of a parking space without looking, I would be sent flying over my handlebars. These aren’t marginal, theoretical risks. Only a few weeks ago on 8th St, I had to swerve at high speed after a driver pulled out, fast, from a parking space into my path. Had I been riding where the Angry Woman thought I should, I could easily have been killed.

Nor was I in any real sense inconveniencing the woman. Like other narrow Park Slope streets, 8th Street is regularly clogged by double-parkers. The next block downhill features two speed bumps, which I can take without slowing down and drivers can’t.

The woman’s inability to pass me was clearly, however, an affront to her sense of her rights. Her lack of human sympathy for me as a fellow road-user seemed to have bled over into a wider resentment at my having any physical presence at all.

It’s a feeling I encounter surprisingly frequently, from both drivers and pedestrians. I’ve recounted before a run-in with a pedestrian who insisted on obstructing the Grand St bike lane in Manhattan. The Saturday before my dispute with the angry woman on 8th Street, I was yelled at by a tourist who insisted that, because he wanted to walk on the Brooklyn Bridge’s bike lane, I too should walk, not ride, over the bridge. I’ve come to understand taxi drivers’ tendency to pull out of parking places into my path as more a mark of their sense that cyclists can and should yield to them at will, more than a mere symptom of inattention.
 
The Brooklyn Bridge, complete with the bike lane
one recent critic told me no cyclist should expect to use.
The misunderstanding extends to those meant to enforce New York’s traffic rules. There has been understandable outrage after it emerged that a right-turning police officer knocked a cyclist off his bike on 9th St in Gowanus, very near my apartment, then had a fellow-officer write that his turn had been perfectly legal. My sense is that the incident might partly reflect police officers’ genuine conviction that it’s a cyclist’s job to avoid traffic turning across his or her path, not a driver’s job to yield.

I used to encounter similar attitudes when I cycled in London – and I can’t imagine they’ll have disappeared entirely when I return there later this year.

But London has at least started groping towards an answer to the kinds of incidents I keep encountering. After the disaster of the initial, blue-painted Cycle Superhighways, Transport for London has finally been shamed into providing some decent, segregated cycle paths on some of its busiest streets. Even when I lived there, London was already far better than New York at providing calming on side streets like 8th St to avoid incidents like the one I suffered on Saturday. There’s tragically no sign at all that anyone in New York feels under pressure to provide anything like that on this side of the Atlantic.

Yet New York’s continuing state of cycling limbo isn’t a merely theoretical problem. Cyclists truly can’t screech instantly to a halt of float harmlessly away from vehicles that menace them. The day before my row with the Angry Driver, a driver a couple of miles away had killed a cyclist riding to work in Clinton Hill. This morning, a huge truck, driving on a street where it wasn’t permitted, killed a man on his bike in Park Slope only 15 blocks or so from where I had my row.

Pedestrians walk down a temporary bike lane on 8th Avenue -
in a city that tells you cyclists don't really matter,
why wouldn't you?
The police’s instinct in both cases was immediately to blame the cyclists, essentially, for being where they were. They claimed – improbably, given what is known about her – that Lauren Davis, the victim in Clinton Hill, had been riding against traffic. They have focused, still more improbably, in the Park Slope crash on the theory that James Gregg, the victim, was hanging onto the truck that killed him to hitch a ride. I have never seen a cyclist in New York City do such a thing.

The instinct to exonerate the truck driver is all the more extraordinary given that it is clear he was breaking the law just by driving down that street. Both victims seem to me to have died from the grubby compromises forced on cyclists by cowardly road designers and politicians.

I am fortunate indeed that I have so far derived only physical benefits and no serious harm from my New York cycling. Yet, just hours after the Park Slope tragedy, I encountered the kind of contemptuous attitude that makes such tragedies  all too common. Riding through Fort Greene and needing to turn left, I looked over my shoulder to see the driver in the next lane absorbed in his phone, rather than his driving. Fearful that he wouldn’t spot me as I pulled across, I rode for a second or two staring at him while signalling.

That turned out to be an indignity too far. He sped up for a second or two, to block my turn. Then, when I’d successfully pulled left and turned out of his way, he yelled abuse. He was furious that I’d made him momentarily take his mind off his text.

Monday, 14 March 2016

A blizzard-blanketed morning, a Red Hook tragedy - and why road safety is part of tackling racism

On January 24, the day after New York City disappeared under a near-record blanket of snow, I managed to make the mile-long journey to morning worship at my church, All Saints’ Episcopal in Park Slope. But, when I looked round the markedly sparser-than-normal congregation, I recognised something unusual. While around half the faces looking back at me would normally be black or brown, that morning nearly everyone was white.
 
Park Slope the day after the blizzard: the streets weren't
the only thing that got whiter.
The change reflected the city’s demographics. The black – particularly African-Caribbean – families that once lived in Park Slope have been steadily shifted into outer bits of Brooklyn and Queens, with poor public transit. They were marooned at home. Far more of the white, mostly better-off members of the congregation were able to get to worship on foot or on the functioning bits of the subway.

The sudden shift was a particular regret for me that Sunday because I was due after the service to give a talk, together with Transportation Alternatives’ Tom DeVito, on the moral imperatives for making the city’s streets safer. In preparing for the talk, I’d unearthed a trove of material about the disproportionate dangers facing black people and other minorities on streets across the US. Some of the people with the most urgent stake in what I had to say wouldn’t get to hear it.

Yet much of the commentary I’ve seen on the effects of racism on black people’s transport choices focuses on the far narrower issue of black people’s disproportionate chances of being stopped by the police while driving. It’s an important issue – and one of the many reasons why I’m keen for the US to start using more colourblind traffic cameras for roads policing. However, the focus on that issue – and the squeamishness it sometimes induces about tightening up enforcement of road rules – often obscures the pervasive effects of racism on how black people get about, and how safely.

Black people often live in areas with more than their fair share of traffic deaths - but they are disproportionately unlikely to own their own vehicle. They suffer more than other groups from the bad consequences of the US’s auto culture while gaining fewer than others of its benefits. Making cities’ roads safer – and, in particular, making the streets of black people’s neighbourhoods safer – is far more than an environmentally-friendly nice-to-have. It’s an integral part of overcoming centuries of racism in the United States.
 
Hicks and Lorraine Streets in Red Hook: near my house
in distance, but a world away in experience.
It’s not hard, after all, to discover how racism leads to road deaths. On the morning of June 2, 2014, only a short distance from where I live my privileged white existence, Nicholas Soto, a 14-year-old black boy, crossed the street from the Red Hook Houses, a public housing project, to get to his school bus. As he crossed – at an intersection that if the law were properly applied would count as an unmarked crosswalk – the white driver of a BMW that seems to have been comfortably exceeding the speed limit – sent him flying up into the air, killing him.

The Red Hook Houses are among the many drab housing projects built around New York as part of the “slum clearance” programme by Robert Moses, for many decades the city’s most powerful man. Moses’s decision to place the housing in often out-of-the way places – the Red Hook Houses are deeply inconvenient for the subway, particularly because of the barrier formed by Moses’s Brooklyn-QueensExpressway – puts residents at a permanent disadvantage.

The projects were developed, meanwhile, in ways that Jane Jacobs, the pioneering urbanist, convincingly argues serve to make the spaces hostile to residents’ needs. The streets outside such projects lack the bustle they would have had if the houses had opened directly onto them. Drivers consequently tend to treat the roads – including the one where Nicholas was killed – as urban freeways, to be navigated far too fast.
 
The road past the General Grant Houses,
in northern Manhattan, in case you
wondered why more people died on the streets
in such areas.
Yet the residents of such projects – who are overwhelmingly black or from other minority communities – have little choice but to get about such streets under their own power or by public transport. In 2006, Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution and Elizabeth Deakin and Steven Raphael of the University of California Berkeley published research showing that 19 per cent of black households in the US had no access to a car, compared with 7.8 per cent of households as a whole. Even among non-poor black households, 9.9 per cent had no access to a car, compared with 4 per cent for the US as a whole. The figures for New York – which has much the lowest rate of vehicle ownership in the US – must be far higher.

The disparity probably reflects the same reluctance to extend credit to black people that left so many exposed in the first place to Moses’ mass demolitions of rental properties. The results, meanwhile, are unambiguous. Children and adults from well-off families do, tragically, die in well-off areas such as Park Slope or the Upper West Side. But people like Nicholas Soto are over-represented in the death toll.

Research in 2010 by the New York Department of Transportation found that people from minority communities were more likely to be hit while walking or cycling. The effect reflected street designs in areas such as the Red Hook Houses. There were higher crash rates in areas with high proportions of black people. But black people and other minorities were no more likely than other people to suffer crashes in areas away from their homes.

All of this, of course, should prompt some self-reflection. For people like me, it’s a reminder that we should not only think about our own demands for better bike lanes and pedestrian crossings in comfortable, inner parts of our urban areas - but also about the needs of poorer, farther-flung parts of the city. If the street outside the Red Hook Houses had been narrowed by a well-designed bike lane, the BMW driver would almost certainly not have felt able to drive as fast as he did. Nicholas might still be alive.
8th Street in Park Slope: a safer place, statistically speaking,
 for everyone to get about.

Meanwhile, for people who insist that lower speed limits, loss of parking spaces and restrictions on car use represent the smothering of a vital form of freedom, it’s worth asking whose freedom is more important. Why are the critics of change so ready to perpetuate motor cars’ dominance of urban spaces when it so clearly entrenches the privileges of richer, whiter people at poorer, browner people’s expense?

But the issue matters to me on a personal level too. When I arrived at church for worship eight days after the blizzard, I was reminded what had been missing the previous Sunday. I was greeted again in warm accents from all around the Caribbean. There was a sense, which had been dulled the previous week, that I was a member of a community alongside this diverse group of people, even though I know most of them only in passing.

Many of the attitudes that make deaths such as Nicholas’s so common reflect an aversion to treating New York City – or the US as a whole – as a true, integrated society. Some of the failures are to do with failures of road safety policy. New York’s police department often lapses into thinking victims cause most crashes. They blamed Nicholas’s death, for example, on his wearing a hoodie, which they claimed obscured his view. The evidence and common sense show drivers cause most such crashes.
 
All Saints' Church: the place that gives me
a wider sense of community
But it’s also common to hear people suggest that residents of places like the Red Hook Houses could get ahead just as well as anyone if they put their minds to it. It’s an obvious obscenity to believe that people who’ve been systematically prevented over centuries from accumulating capital or getting an education are anywhere close to starting  from the same place as privileged people such as I.

I myself largely ignore the reality of living in a complex, mixed community. Although I lived close to Nicholas Soto, it’s unlikely I’d have ever met him had he  lived. I find myself jumping to lazy assumptions about drivers or people I see on the street, based on ingrained prejudices based on their appearance.

But the Sunday morning after the blizzard and the Sunday following were a reminder that I don’t live entirely in privileged isolation. I smile at, chat with and take communion alongside people whom current policy leaves unjustly exposed to unjustifiable extra risk of traffic death. It’s just as much – if not more - my moral obligation to seek better road conditions for them as it is to seek them for myself.