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.

Sunday, 14 February 2016

Thick bridge cables, police placard abuse - and why you'll get nowhere without corrupting power

Amid the sudden, late onset of a proper winter in New York, I’ve ridden to work far more often than normal in recent weeks via a longer route over the Brooklyn Bridge. The route, as well as being a pleasant change from my normal ride over the Manhattan Bridge, cuts down sharply on the amount of time I spend sharing snow-clogged Manhattan cross streets with irritable, aggressive drivers.
The Brooklyn Bridge, with cables: New York City corruption,
dangling over the East River

Yet the ride also affords me a chance to ponder a deep and sometimes under-recognised truth about New York City. As I cross the bridge, I marvel at the thickness of the bundle of suspension cables that holds the bridge deck in place - and remember the story behind them. The bundle is much bigger than the bridge’s designer, John Roebling, originally intended. Extra, up-to-standard wire had to be added after Washington Roebling, John’s son, discovered that corrupt contractors had sneaked large quantities of sub-standard wire into cables that had already been painstakingly stretched across the East River. Graft is literally woven into this bit of the city’s fabric.

Corruption is far from being a mere historic issue, however. The more one grapples with the challenges facing New York City, the more one comes up against relationships that powerful people’s pursuit of money or power have skewed away from working as intended. These pieces of corruption range from relationships that are straightforwardly crooked, as the relationship between the bridge builders and the wire contractors was, through a series of more or less grubby compromises to relationships that seem like a form of democracy. At that end of the scale there are institutions like the Community Boards that are meant to protect communities’ interests in planning decisions but instead end up as the vehicle of noisy vested interests.

A bike lane built under Janette Sadik-Khan now:
the reversal of progress made visible.
Cyclists are peculiarly aware of this dysfunctionality, I think, because it is a profoundly conservative force. It seeks to entrench privileges and works against change. In a city that’s nominally trying to increase its cycle commuting rate from a modest 1 per cent, that means that many of these forces are aligned against making life easier for cyclists. If one doesn’t take into account how these fundamentally regressive relationships shape life in the city, it’s impossible to understand the near-halting of progress on cycling in the city since Janette Sadik-Khan, the city’s one-time transport commissioner, stood down at the end of Michael Bloomberg's time in office in 2013. Without an advocate as forceful and effective as Sadik-Khan, regressive, conservative, corrupt forces have largely overwhelmed the continuing faltering efforts under Bill de Blasio towards change.

The scale of the challenge is clear if one thinks carefully about one of the few pieces of progress to have been made recently – the decision on February 2 by Manhattan’s Community Board 7 to approve installation of a protected bike lane on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side. The decision followed years of study and months of blocking by the co-chairs of the Community Board’s transportation committee. It was passed only after hundreds of advocates turned up at both the February 2 meeting and one in November. If such a vast lobbying effort is required to win approval for a 38-block (less than two miles) project – one that everyone except a handful of angry carowners agrees is sensible and needed - it’s unsurprising that city-wide progress towards building a cycling network looks a distant prospect.
 
Your licence to park anywhere: the NYPD placard on an SUV
parked unnecessarily in the Hoyt St bike lane.
My mind started turning to the ubiquity of corruption in New York the night after the CB7 vote, as I rode home from work through a damp Brooklyn. As I rounded the corner from Schermerhorn Street into Hoyt Street in downtown Brooklyn, I was forced to brake suddenly on finding two big sports utility vehicles blocking the narrow street’s bike lane. Knowing that the area was a popular parking spot for police vehicles from the New York Police Department’s nearby transit bureau, I suspected these were officers’ private vehicles. Sure enough, on inspection the dashboards of both vehicles sported NYPD placards that police officers regard as essentially permission to park illegally wherever they choose. The following night, another private police vehicle was parked in exactly the same place. Tweets to the NYPD Transit Bureau about the issue went unanswered.
Sure, pedestrians and cyclists are having to avoid this
officer's car while legal parking spaces go unused across
the street. But what's the point in joining the NYPD
if you can't break the law with impunity?

The incident reveals a telling type of petty New York City corruption. Every morning as I battle my way down Jay St in Brooklyn to reach the Manhattan Bridge, I encounter scores of illegally-parked vehicles, obstructing turning lanes and other important places on the road. The police leave them untroubled because they bear some kind of official-looking placard – often of dubious provenance - identifying the owner as a police officer, corrections officer or firefighter. The problem illustrates the primacy of organisational culture – in this case, the feeling that emergency personnel should stick together, whatever civilians might say – in many areas of New York public life. Loyalty to the interests of one’s group – whether one’s fellow professionals,  members of the same ethnic group or people who want to defend some other privilege – exerts a far more powerful force in the city than most of the formal rules meant to govern it.

I also sometimes encounter on Jay St a red-light sting for cyclists, at the relatively quiet junction of Jay St and Concord St. The intersection is the only point on Jay St – where there is a daily riot of highly dangerous illegal double-parking, illegal U-Turns and crosswalk blocking – where I regularly see enforcement activity. In a city where motorists are still often portrayed as a proxy for ordinary, working-class New Yorkers, it is far easier for the police to pick on relatively powerless cyclists to make up their monthly ticket totals than to take the rational course of trying to stamp out the behaviour that does most damage. Since the police effectively wield far greater power than the mayor, there is little to stop police officers from engaging in this casual sleight of hand.
 
A scene from a Jay St commute: it's pretty obvious how
serious a problem cyclist behaviour is here.
None of this is to say, of course, that corruption both grave and petty is a uniquely US or New York phenomenon. When I lived in Budapest, I travelled around post-Communist societies far more scarred by corruption than the US. It is also clear that New York is far from being the US’s most corruptly-run city. It would seem almost rude to try to displace either Chicago or New Orleans from their hard-won places at the top of that league table.

Yet there is a peculiarly New York City combination of factors that works to overwhelm many positive initiatives, including efforts to promote more active transport.

Much of the power over the city is exercised by a legislature 150 miles away in Albany that often seems to view the city as little more than a source of funds. It is telling that in the recent corruption trial of Sheldon Silver, the former speaker of the state assembly, the defence’s (ultimately unsuccessful) case was essentially that the speaker had acted little differently from other members of the state legislature.
 
Police supervise blocking of the sidewalk and bike lanes
outside Satmar headquarters on a previous occasion, in
June 2014. This is what the privilege of being a powerful
voting bloc in New York City buys you.
New York’s diversity also means the city teems with different ethnic groups whom politicians can court in return for votes and money. This past Wednesday, for example, I noticed a (since-deleted) Tweet from the @HQSatmar account – from the headquarters of the powerful Satmar Hasidic Jewish community – thanking the local 90th NYPD precinct for allowing them to park their cars across the Kent Avenue two-way bike lane during a community wedding. The apparent official approval for this practice – which forces cyclists and pedestrians out into fast-moving traffic on a blind bend – illustrates how mere convenience for a powerful group can easily trump the law and the lives and health of less powerful groups.

A different version of a similar phenomenon was at work when a series of members of the New York City Council who had previously been supportive of safer streets legislation scurried to support amendments that would effectively have excused bus drivers who killed people. It is no coincidence, I suspect, that Transport Workers’ Union Local 100, the bus drivers’ union, is a significant funder of New York political races.

The presence of this mass of interest groups willing to defy the mayor’s formal authority has long made governing New York City one of the most formidable tasks in US politics. The Brooklyn Bridge corruption was a result, for example, of the presence on the bridge company’s board of directors of William Tweed, the famously corrupt boss of Tammany Hall, the hugely influential Irish-American political club. Vincent Impellitteri famously became leader of New York’s city council – and subsequently, by default, mayor when the incumbent resigned – simply because he was an Italian from Manhattan. He was needed to balance out a Democratic slate for top jobs that already had on it an Irishman from Brooklyn and a Jew from the Bronx.
 
London's cycle facilities can also be imperfect,
but there is a less pervasive sense
of unaccountability
It is far easier, it seems to me, to work the levers of power in London, where identity politics plays a far smaller role, than in New York. It is no coincidence that cities in relatively uncorrupt northern Europe have had far more success in steering through complex transport projects such as cycling networks and high-quality public transit than southern European countries with a longer tradition of corruption.

The flipside of New York City’s ungovernability, meanwhile, is that it has been disproportionately shaped by the handful of people with the mix of skill and ruthlessness needed to get things done. In the 20th Century, tragically, the most notable such person was Robert Moses, the “master builder,” who, holding an unconstitutional mix of state and city jobs, promoted car-dependence by halting subway building and diverting resources to building a poorly-planned highway network, which wrecked many neighbourhoods.

So far in the 21st century, Sadik-Khan, who will celebrate her achievements in a new book out on March 8, has proved more adept than most at overcoming the city’s corrupt conservatism. She closed some of the streets through Times Square, put bike lanes down Broadway and many other important streets and forced a badly-needed bike lane down Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. The Prospect Park West project – over which a handful of rich locals continue to sue the city – went in over the noisy objections of, among others, the wife of New York’s senior US senator. Sadik-Khan oversaw huge increases in the numbers of people cycling, even if cycling’s share of trips remains negligible.

Yet it is clear that, while Sadik-Khan did a superb job of forcing through building projects, she was not able to make activists for cycling and walking a group that New York politicians genuinely had to fear. Transportation Alternatives and other lobbyists for a saner, more rational transport system remain supplicants to the city’s power brokers, rather than one of the successful groups that the power brokers have to court.

NYPD vehicles block the Broadway bike lane:
the lack of explanation is as eloquent as any explanation
One evening in early December, I encountered depressing evidence of the fate of groups who fail to get themselves into a sufficiently strong position in the city’s pecking order. I rode down the Broadway bike lanes as far as Herald Square, by Macy’s department store in midtown. But at Herald Square – which Sadik-Khan still holds up as an example of what can be achieved, with effort – I encountered two large police SUVs parked across the bike lane, closing it. I have heard so many reports since from other cyclists that I gather the police have more or less permanently barricaded the route.

There were no explanations, diversion signs or notices to alert cyclists to the change. The closure appeared to be a result of an entirely arbitrary police decision that cyclists could no longer use the route built for them only a few years ago. But, as I gazed at the police vehicles parked sullenly across my path, that almost seemed to be part of the point.

“We can do this to you whenever we want,” they seemed to be saying. “Now what are you going to do about it?”

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Christmas Eve harassment, a sociopath in Greenwich Village - and how design can cut out honking

It was always going to be a moderately challenging bike ride. It was the early evening of Christmas Eve and, after it emerged that our local wine merchants was already shut, I and my bike had been deputed to lug back from somewhere further away the wine supply for the holiday season. Even a solidly-built touring bike is apt to handle oddly when laden down with 12 bottles full of wine.
 
My bike laden with groceries: not the machine on which
to face harassment
But the trip became significantly more stressful after the driver of an SUV started driving close behind me, honking, in an effort to bully me out of the way. I was riding well out in the lane, to avoid a deep and dangerous crack in the tarmac. That outraged the driver, who thought he shouldn’t have to cross into the neighbouring lane to pass me.

“I thought you should be riding further to the left,” he said, when I found him unloading passengers near my building and asked what had provoked him.

“There was a huge crack in the road, which I was avoiding,” I told him.

“I didn’t know that,” he replied.

“Which is exactly why you should concentrate on overtaking me safely, and not trying to get me to ride in the place of the road you think I should,” I said.

The incident was one of countless times I’ve had to cope with road users’ efforts to bend someone else’s driving, cycling or walking to their will. Just a few weeks before the Christmas Eve incident, I’d had a driver deliberately accelerate his SUV at me in Greenwich Village after I shouted out to him to alert him to my presence, to ensure he didn’t swing across my path.

Yet I also recognise there are plenty of times I try to influence other road users to prevent their harming me. I had, after all, shouted at the driver in Greenwich Village to try to ensure he didn’t drive into me.
 
A mixing zone on the Broadway bike lane:
traffic engineers think this a model way to handle bike traffic
The question is when it’s legitimate to try to influence other road users’ behaviour and when it’s bullying. Most importantly, it’s vital to ask why there’s all this frustration in the first place and whether it can be averted.

The Christmas Eve incident was emblematic of the worst kind of desire to control other users because of the infuriatingly wrong-headed thinking that lay behind it. The driver insisted he’d wanted me over nearer the parked cars because he wanted, he said, to pass me safely without causing an “accident”. It’s the thinking that lies behind vast numbers of drivers’ complaints about cyclists and pedestrians – a thinking on the drivers’ part that they’re the serious adults in the situation, while pedestrians and cyclists are heedless, child-like creatures who have no idea of the danger they’re facing.

The thinking betrays a wholesale failure to understand that the driver has prime responsibility for moving his vehicle safely and that safety doesn’t consist primarily of people’s staying out of his or her way. The driver eventually seriously endangered me because I veered into the crack in the road and came close to losing control of the bike.
Chaos at a SoHo crosswalk: if the cyclists of pedestrians
yell at the drivers here, they're punching up

The fatuousness of this thinking doesn’t stop its being widespread. It’s one of the signature features of the driving culture that stems from New York’s poor enforcement and dreadful road design that drivers honk all the time. Every time a driver sounds his or her horn as a rebuke or to prompt someone to move, it’s an effort to control the other person’s actions. It’s nearly always an effort to make life more convenient for the person doing the honking.

The big difference between the honking, tailgating behaviour and my regular pleas to drivers to look out for me or stop during an illegal move across my path is the power balance. When I ride through an intersection crying out “Watch out! Wait there!” at drivers, I’m trying to get them to follow rules meant to protect vulnerable road users in cycle lanes and crosswalks. There seems to me a huge moral difference between such a “punching up” effort to control others and the “punching down” effort of drivers like the Christmas Eve minivan drivers to sweep people aside as mere inconvenient obstacles.
 
Park Slope snow the day after the January 23 blizzard:
much of this was still affecting the roads a week later
Yet it was an incident last Sunday, January 31, that brought home to me the reason for all this frustrated communication and how it can be eliminated. I was riding up 7th St in Park Slope, near my home, on my weekly journey to church. I would normally when harassed by drivers on that trip move confidently into the middle of the lane and prevent their passing until the next intersection. But, last Sunday, unmelted snow from the January 23 blizzard meant the lanes were narrower and harder to navigate. I felt even less confident than normal about trying  to “control the lane”, as vehicular cyclists put it.

Consequently, when a driver started tailgating me, I meekly moved over  to the side of the road and let him pass. A change in the structure of the road had changed, I suddenly realised, my confidence in influencing other road users’ behaviour.

That, it came home to me, was critical to all the incidents I encountered. The driver who’d harassed me on Christmas Eve had been deceived by the layout of Court St – which allows two uninterrupted streams of one-way traffic on an urban main street – into thinking he was on little short of a limited-access highway. The driver who drove at me in Greenwich Village was angry partly that I was appearing in his path from a poorly-marked, oddly-placed bike lane that must have made it feel to him as if I were deliberately obstructing him. The dreadful “mixing areas” that bring together left-turning drivers and cyclists going straight ahead on many New York streets are designed like freeway sliproads, to allow turning drivers to slow down without impeding those going straight ahead. While the drivers clearly should obey the rules and yield to the cyclists riding into these areas, it’s unsurprising that so few do.

The problems in New York, while less grave than in many parts of the US, are far more acute than those in London, where I’ve done most of my cycling as an adult. Roads in London, while still imperfect for cyclists, are filled with multiple cues to tell drivers what speed to drive and who has priority.

I now recognise New York’s honking problem for what it is. It’s the sound of the expectations that the infrastructure has given drivers being dashed against a messy reality that the street design doesn’t reflect.

Court St tells drivers, "Go as fast as you like. It's pretty much
a freeway."
Better street design isn’t the only solution to the problem. It’s noticeable, for example, that one almost never sees bicycles chained to the railings at subway entrances. There’s a general expectation that bicycles chained in such areas will be removed and cyclists have adapted their behaviour to cater to that. There’s little doubt that similarly consistent enforcement of rules about driving might have similarly striking results. That's one of many reasons why New York needs more speed cameras.

But it’s pretty clear that it’s vital to rebuild urban streets so that they no longer look like urban freeways. Cycle lanes should never be painted, as most are at present, in the most dangerous part of the street. Areas designed to bring cyclists and motorists across each other’s paths shouldn’t look like they can be navigated at 30mph.

For the moment, however, those of us who ride are forced to put up with occasional bullying like that I encountered on Christmas Eve – and to do our best to counter it.

In a city as disorderly as New York, however, that can take real energy and flair – as I discovered one morning last summer as I rode up 1st Avenue towards the New York Public Library.

Around 17th St, I encountered, as so often, a line of left-turning drivers blocking the bike-and-car mixing zone as I sought to ride straight ahead. I bleated, “Wait there! Stop!” - to little effect.

A Black cycle courier who slipped through the gap between me and the rearmost car showed me the level of determination needed to affect the behaviour of New York drivers.

“No,” he shouted at the driver, before administering a resounding slap to a side panel. “You gonna resPECT this one, Muthafucka!”

Helped more by the drivers’ astonishment than by any actual change of heart, we both slipped by the previously threatening drivers, and headed on north.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Rage in South London, a tragedy in Fort Greene - and why it matters to punish bad drivers

It was a frustration as intense as any I’ve ever felt. I’d just been hit as I rode across Newington Causeway, near Elephant & Castle in South London, by another cyclist who’d ridden fast through a red light. Yet, when I made it clear I planned to call the police, he picked up his bike and rode off as fast as he could. A mixture of anger and frustrated impotence welled up inside me. The other rider, I realised, would face no consequences at all for prioritising his own convenience over my safety.

I’ve recalled how I felt following that incident in March 2009 several times in the last few weeks as I’ve contemplated New York City’s response to some of the appalling tragedies on the city’s roads. New York’s law enforcers often seem to shrug off instances of astonishingly poor negligent driving – including many that kill entirely blameless people – as casually as that rider six years ago picked up his fixie and rode off. For example, Marlon Sewell, who drove his SUV onto a sidewalk in Fort Greene on December 6 and killed Victoria Nicodemus, currently faces only two,relatively minor charges: one for driving without a licence and the other for driving without insurance.
Attendees at the vigil for Victoria Nicodemus: killed on the
sidewalk but, as far as Brooklyn law enforcement's concerned,
hey, it's the kind of thing any of us could do.

At a vigil at the site of the crash on December 22, Victoria’s brothers and a series of politicians all lined up to demand Mr Sewell be prosecuted “to the fullest extent of the law”. I recognised anger and frustration similar to what I felt following the crash at Elephant & Castle - though clearly, given the crash’s gravity, theirs was immeasurably deeper and more intense.

It’s a frustration that people concerned about street safety in many parts of the world share. UK cycling and walking activists often express astonishment at the low level of charges that drivers who kill or maim people in the UK face and at the apparently light sentences facing those convicted.

Yet I also occasionally hear dissenting voices. Isn’t it ironic, they ask, that activists who mostly doubt the appropriateness of harsh prison sentences call for them over road crashes? Rabi Abonour, a valued member of New York’s street safety movement, supplied such a voice after Nicodemus’s death, writing that he was “uncomfortable” with the calls for murder or manslaughter charges.


“We have huge problems with criminal justice in this country,” he wrote. “Putting more people in jail doesn't fix anything.”

It’s a complaint that someone writing in the UK could also, to a lesser extent, make, given the UK’s unusual propensity compared with other European countries, for  putting people  in prison.

Pushing for more enforcement, Rabi went on, was almost certainly going to end up meaning more people of colour were prosecuted than white people.

“We need to fix the racism of our criminal justice system before we push for more felony charges against dangerous drivers,” he wrote.

The critical question is how to balance the appropriate demand that drivers face consequences for their bad behaviour with the understanding that the criminal justice system is an imprecise, often unfair tool for achieving that goal.
Occasion for liberal guilt: the corner where I got into a row
that ended in a driver's receiving a worryingly
disproportionate fine.
 I should stress that I yield to no-one in my propensity for liberal guilt. I continue to feel uneasy, for example, about the punishment meted out to a car service driver who grabbed for my camera and bike and yelled abuse at me in March 2014. The driver – who was angry that I tried to take a picture of his vehicle blocking a bike lane – was fined $3,050 – an excessive amount, in my view – after he failed to turn up at the Taxi and Limousine Commission hearing about the case. Drivers who knew how to game the system – enter a guilty plea for far lesser charges and have the gravest counts dropped – generally faced fines of no more than $300. His punishment left me feeling I’d participated in a rather grubby business. There is a tendency across the US criminal justice system for prosecutors to use Draconian charges to scare defendants into striking a plea bargain. It’s unsurprising – and deplorable - that there are many reports of even the innocent being scared into accepting such deals.

Yet those of us on the political left often, I think, misunderstand a critical part of the criminal justice system’s role. The system certainly exists to deter criminals and to reform those who have already committed crimes. But it is also vital that the system expresses society’s rage at those who violate its rules and do unjustified harm to others. There is an inevitable and appropriate element in many criminal sentences related to exacting retribution for the wrongdoer’s violation of the norm that members of a society should not do unjustified harm to one another. It is a vital part of society’s valuing of people’s property, health and lives that it should be so.
New York criminal justice is relaxed about bad driving -
and people wonder how the streets end up looking like this.

It seems to me, based on media reports, that a criminal justice system that valued human life appropriately would indeed charge Marlon Sewell with serious offences resulting in a prison sentence of at least a few years. Sewell’s licence had been suspended in March and he was cited three times for speeding in one week in November. Witnesses say he was driving too fast when he mounted the sidewalk. He can have been under no illusions either that he was legally free to drive or that his driving was of an acceptable standard. The system currently plans to treat Mr Sewell’s killing of her as essentially little more than a matter of not having the right paperwork in order.

While it is, of course, fatuous to call the crime murder – it lacked the targeted malice for that – it can be only because the killer was a car driver that the case is currently being treated differently from other deaths through negligence. It is hard to imagine that if Sewell had been driving drunk – the one type of negligent driving most US prosecutors currently take seriously – he would be facing such minor charges.

Yet the tragedy of many criminal justice systems worldwide lies less in how they treat people like Marlon Sewell once they’ve killed someone than in their readiness to let matters get that far. New York City’s authorities essentially believe it more important that people should be free to drive around the city as they please than that the unlicensed or uninsured should face regular checks to prevent them from doing so. The authorities view it as more important that traffic should flow freely and drivers’ privacy be respected than that 30-year-old Ms Nicodemus should be able to walk down a sidewalk unmolested by speeding vehicles. It is at this stage – where a tendency to dangerous behaviour can be detected, challenged and corrected – that the criminal justice system should be working, in Rabi’s words, to “fix” things.
Two drivers block the bike box while a third runs a red
to make an illegal left turn: scenes from a culture
of consequence-free bad driving

The logic of the existing system, meanwhile, reflects grubby realities about US justice that both Rabi and I would like to alter. Unfettered driving is tolerated at least in part because it is the means of transport that has come to seem “natural” for the US’s rich and powerful. Many in authority significantly underestimate driving’s drawbacks because those who suffer the pollution, deaths and injuries are disproportionately poor and, consequently, members of ethnic minorities. While Mr Sewell is black and Ms Nicodemus was white, the concentration of car ownership among the better-off means that well-off whites are disproportionately likely to be killer-drivers. Poor members of ethnic minorities are disproportionately likely to be their victims.

None of this is to say that those concerned about street safety around the world should shrug their shoulders at the shortcomings of their criminal justice systems and push for harsh punishments for dangerous drivers regardless. It is vital, for example, that cities like New York increase their dependence on automated cameras to detect routine speeding and right-of-way violations. Such a move would, I have argued before, help both to reduce the problems caused by police officers’ racial biases and to prevent appalling incidents like the death of Sandra Bland in a Texas jail after she was stopped for a nonsensical, minor violation. Activists should insist that in traffic enforcement, as in non-traffic crime, law enforcement officials develop plans to detect people who are apt to cause harm to others and seek to nudge them with minor punishments – points on their licences, compulsory retesting or restrictions on their licences – designed to make them address their behaviour and attitudes. Many of New York’s streets are also long overdue redesigns that would encourage better driving.
Allen St in Chinatown one recent morning:
a scene from a city that lets drivers off the hook.

It remains clear to me, nevertheless, that a driver takes on a serious responsibility when he or she starts driving in a car. It is impossible to believe that Marlon Sewell, after multiple run-ins with the law over his driving, can have been unaware how serious the consequences of his behaviour could be. As a result of his negligent driving, he has taken away everything the 30-year-old art curator had and much that her family and boyfriend had. The horror of the event, it seems to me, is less that people are calling for Mr Sewell to face serious charges for his actions than that there is such profound moral confusion over it. The New York Daily News, for example, bafflingly quoted an apparent witness to the tragedy as largely exonerating Mr Sewell, saying that he would have Ms Nicodemus’s death on his conscience forever. The real villain, the piece alleged, was a bystander who, dazed after witnessing the crash, took a bite from the pizza she had just bought.

Standing at the site of the crash on Wednesday with others, it was both horrific to contemplate what had happened there and all too easy to imagine. Other drivers kept venting their frustration at the slight congestion from the vigil by honking their horns, blocking crosswalks and exhibiting the kind of behaviour that contributes to New York City’s appalling street safety record. As Ms Nicodemus’s family and colleagues talked about her, the tragedy was not only that she was clearly a unique and talented individual but to think of how the near-daily other tragedies on the city’s streets must be wiping out others just as brilliant and loveable.

An installation that Victoria Nicodemus'
colleagues made after her death: likely
to prove an empty plea as long as bad driving
is effectively ignored.
A harsh sentence for Mr Sewell would not, of course, either bring back the woman he killed or on its own do much to solve the deep-seated problems. But there was also an unmistakeable sense at the vigil that the criminal justice system had been complicit in contributing to her death. It is appropriate to feel a surge of anger at the behaviour of drivers like Mr Sewell. Good societies must demand that people who breach the law so flagrantly face serious consequences.

It is obviously correct that the criminal justice system’s biases should be eradicated. It  is obviously correct that unthinking, harsh punishments solve nothing. It is also obviously correct that the US  has relied on prison too much to solve its social problems. In particular, the US has imprisoned far too many young black men for drug offences that in a better-ordered society would not be offences at all.

Yet it is equally clearly true, it seems to me, that a system that defines Marlon Sewell’s driving on December 6 as warranting no more than two warrants for technical violations is morally bankrupt. It is a system that will continue to be incapable of preventing other people – mostly poorer, more marginalised people than Ms Nicodemus – from dying. Their being crushed on sidewalks, in crosswalks and bike lanes by drivers will then be dismissed by the authorities as little more than an understandable slip.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

First Avenue Harassment, Talking Down to Pedestrians - and a Culture That Needs to Change

There could hardly have been a clearer illustration of what’s wrong with the culture of New York’s city streets. Two Saturdays ago, as I rode my bike up 1st Avenue on the Upper East Side towards the Metropolitan Museum, I succeeded in shouting forcefully enough to get one turning driver to yield to me momentarily – as legally required – as I rode straight on through an intersection. But his brief slowing – a result more of confusion at my shouting, I think, than a genuine effort to let me through – enraged another driver waiting to turn.

“C’mon – let’s go!” he yelled out of his window at the driver who’d slowed, urging him, in effect, to drive over me.
 
Poorly-designed intersections and illegal maneouvres
by drivers: welcome to First Avenue
It’s the kind of incident I’ve noticed many times in recent weeks as I’ve been trying to understand the persistently high death toll on New York’s streets – particularly a dreadful spate of 12 pedestrian deaths between October 31 and November 11. It’s common to see drivers honk loudly at others who have correctly yielded to pedestrians in crosswalks. I’ve personally been on the receiving end of a fair amount of harassment from drivers who imagined they had a right to overtake me even in places where it was unsafe.

I’ve been struck time and time again by how the impatience of city drivers shapes the atmosphere, making pedestrians and cyclists fearful and making the business of using the streets often miserable and stressful for everyone else. Many drivers, traffic planners and police officers seem to accept this aggressive driving culture as an almost charming symptom of the city’s general bustle and as unchangeable as the weather. They seem to regard anyone who breaks the formal law while acting within the limits of this accepted style of driving as essentially not culpable.
 
New York City pedestrians: their own worst
enemies, except for all the bigger, more
dangerous enemies.
Many in the area’s political class are also worryingly oblivious to the nature of the problem. On November 10, for example, Mike Simanowitz, a member of the New York State assembly, chose at a press conference organised by the New York Police Department’s 109th precinct to criticise pedestrians for creating the problems themselves. It was as if he was complaining about the timidity of his pet mice while doing nothing about the gang of unruly cats rampaging through his house.

“If you're crossing in the middle of the street, you're wrong, you're endangering yourself, you're endangering others, you're endangering drivers," Mr Simanowitz said.

I can think of no example of pedestrian behaviour actually endangering drivers.

“Cross at the green, not in-between, and hopefully we will be able to reduce the number of traffic fatalities," he said.

There is, of course, something fundamentally nebulous about the claim that a set of observed behaviours adds up to a “culture”. I resist sweeping statements about how “bikers” as a whole behave or stereotypes about British people or white people or all the other various groups to which I belong.

Yet I was struck when visiting Los Angeles in mid-November at how differently the average driver behaved from his or her New York counterpart. Los Angeles drivers seem when yielding to pedestrians to stop the car well outside the crosswalk until the pedestrian is out of the way. Used to New York drivers’ constant harrying of pedestrians to hurry them out of crosswalks, I found their stopping at that point so freakish that I’d hesitate a little, wondering what was wrong.

LA drivers meanwhile had a tendency to creep forward into the crosswalk if anticipating they might be able to make a coveted right-turn on a red light (permitted when no pedestrians are crossing). Once clear of intersections, they would take off at horrendous speeds, encouraged by the city’s wide streets.
 
Traffic on Hollywood Boulevard: surprisingly accommodating
to basic standards of decency.
The contrasting patterns of behaviour reflect the two cities’ different road conditions. In New York, on Manhattan avenues and many other places, there can be 20 intersections every mile, with each controlled by traffic lights. In drivers, New Yorkers’ famed impatience expresses itself in a desperate desire to reach the next traffic light before it has been red for too long. Angelenos are famously more laid back – and they can make up for any delay at an intersection by speeding up on the long spaces between lights.

The moment one starts looking for the jostling for position in New York, however, it’s everywhere. If I position myself safely at the head of a line of traffic waiting at a red light, I will typically find the driver first in the line creeping up alongside me, putting me in precisely the proximity to him I was trying to avoid. Every morning, as I ride down Smith St in Brooklyn, I find drivers seeking to turn from side streets have turned half-way through the intersection, blocking the cycle lane and crosswalks, to reserve their rightful place in the street’s slow-moving traffic jam. Drivers are so desperate to get out of parking spaces and into the traffic that they seem truly to look at what's going on only once they're under way down the street.

These habits are far more than local foibles like New Yorkers’ tendency to be rude or fondness for street food. New York city bus drivers alone killed three pedestrians in November – two hit by drivers turning through crosswalks and another hit by a driver apparently speeding. The police appear to be attributing a crash on October 31 that killed Louis Perez, 64, Nyanna Aquil, 10, and Kristian Leka, 24, on a sidewalk in The Bronx to the driver’s “medical issue”. But, whatever happened immediately before the crash, the driver was driving a powerful Dodge Charger car at such a speed that it became airborne after hitting another car and landed on top of the victims. A read through Radio WNYC’s list of this year’s traffic fatalities – 228 at the time of writing – reveals a steady stream of people killed by drivers ignoring their right of way, driving too fast or mounting a sidewalk after crashes resulting from excessive speed.
 
125th St in Harlem: I see excessive speed and fast, risky
turns. But a New York assembly member sees this as a space
spoilt by pedestrians' recklessness.
There is a mountain of evidence about the costs and causes of the current traffic culture. While the number of traffic deaths to the end of November - 224 – was down on the 252 for the same period in 2014, only 127 people died in London – a slightly larger city with more motor traffic – in the whole of 2014. Research by Streetsblog, the campaigning website, shows that only around 7 or 8 per cent of crashes involving pedestrians in New York are labelled a result of an error by a pedestrian.

There's no denying that New York pedestrians and cyclists are also often in a hurry. I am frequently frustrated, for example, by pedestrians' rush to cross the street after cars have passed, without looking out for cyclists. I find it tempting to ride through traffic lights just as they're changing precisely because it means I can avoid jostling with drivers when the lights turn green again. When I run through lights a little later than I should, however, I find an even later car nearly invariably following me through. The behaviour of both pedestrians and cyclists is dictated mainly, it seems to me, by their desire to avoid crossing streets or moving away from lights at the same time that cars are doing so.

Mr Simanowitz’s comments are unusually revealing, meanwhile, about why politicians and the police persist in trying to berate pedestrians and cyclists into solving the problem rather than going after the real issue – driver behaviour. The patronising rhyme – “cross at the green, not in-between” – makes it clear that he regards pedestrians as irresponsible children in contrast to the grown-ups – the drivers – in the streets. I encountered similar reasoning myself recently when I got into a row with a driver who’d pulled out into my path and he quickly fell to insinuating that cycling was a children’s activity.

“You’re a grown-ass man on a push bike!” he yelled, incredulously, as if being an adult in charge of an elderly, collision-damaged Lexus SUV were inherently superior.
The sign says "slow zone"; the design says fast.
Which do you think motorists do?

The rhyme suggests that Mr Simanowitz’s thinking – and, I suspect, that of many other senior politicians – remains dominated by the facile road safety lessons given to children. Those are, typically, predicated on the idea that it’s children’s own job to keep themselves safe. They embrace none of the complexity that the statistics reveal – that most road traffic victims suffer from someone else’s negligence, not their own. It’s as if they were trying to solve the mice’s timidity by giving the mice lessons in strengthening their characters, not keeping the cats at a safe distance.

There’s little mystery about what it would take to alter the traffic culture. Many New York streets at present look designed precisely to encourage excess speed, not to discourage it. The sidewalks and cycle lanes are mostly add-ons that are sacrificed anywhere that cyclists or pedestrians might slow down or otherwise hamper traffic. Enforcement of traffic laws is haphazard and often directed at harassing cyclists and pedestrians, based on the same fundamental misunderstanding of road relationships that Mr Simanowitz betrayed.

London, which has made little concerted effort to address road safety and whose transport policies have many shortcomings, has far better figures largely by dint of having better road design, better places to cross the street and far more speed cameras.

But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the city as a whole for now takes the view of the people I encountered as I rode down MacDougal St in Greenwich Village on Thursday evening. They stepped out into the bike lane to hail a taxi which then, with considerable predictability, veered left into the bike lane cutting me off and forcing me to come abruptly to a halt.

They were superficially apologetic and sympathetic.

“Oh – that’s not right,” one of them said.

But the sympathy wore off in less time than it took me to ask the driver what he thought he was doing.

“Be on your way – we’re in a hurry,” the initially sympathetic man shouted at me, in the stilted tone of a character in a novel.

Then, as I accepted defeat and headed off towards Bleecker Street, he spoke for the city when he yelled after me: “Shit happens – get used to it!”

This blog is the first after a lengthy delay caused by the Invisible Visible Man’s efforts, among other things, to interest publishers and agents in the possibility of a book based on the blog. I apologise for the interruption.

The timing of future blogposts will depend on progress in the efforts to find a publisher. Anyone interested in taking me on as an agent or publisher is free to contact me at robert dot wright at ft dot com.