Sunday, 19 October 2014

An oafish limousine driver, an English Channel passage - and why a metro makes the case for bike paths

It was as I was riding down 13th St in Park Slope, not far from my apartment, last Sunday that I heard the sound of honking behind me. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a black Lincoln Town Car – vehicle of choice for many New York City car services – barrelling down the street towards me and my son, who was on his trailer bike behind me.

New York City's official advice on where to ride in the road:
not bedtime reading, I'd suggest for the guy I encountered
But my response wasn’t what the driver obviously hoped it would be. Knowing that the street’s single lane, though wide, lacked the space for a wide vehicle to pass safely at speed, I steered into the very centre of the lane, preventing his attempted pass. At the next traffic light, he pulled up next to us and yelled how I should have been over to one side of the street. He then gave a loud blast on his horn and passed aggressively and fast. At the light after that, I asked his passenger please to withhold her tip.

The driver was inconsiderate and dangerous, as I pointed out in my subsequent complaint to the Taxi & Limousine Commission (top tip, for-hire drivers: behave especially well if you’ve got an easily-remembered licence plate). But he also misunderstood the complicated relationship between space and speed. There are circumstances where it might be safe for a 6’ 6” wide car to pass a bicycle on a 28’ wide street where parked cars are taking up 8’ on either side. But they don’t include occasions when a person is riding a bicycle laden with groceries and hauling a trailerbike at 17mph downhill.

In the debate about how best to allocate space
on the roads, New York's police department
prefers to make practical demonstrations
of its position.
It’s at the root of very many of my arguments with motorists that few seem to understand how I expand the buffer zone I’m mentally defending around myself as my own and other road users’ speed increases. I’m sure that many motorists see me and other cyclists squeezing past stationary cars and jump to the wrong conclusions. It’s a very different business riding close to a stationary motor vehicle and next to one doing 40mph while one’s riding at 20mph. Fast-moving vehicles travel far farther while the driver is processing the need to stop and then need a far greater distance to come to a halt. It should be obvious that every mile per hour of extra speed disproportionately expands the invisible balloon of space I need to keep free.

The point is especially important because so many of the disputes about how to accommodate growing levels of cycling use – or cities’ aspiration to have more journeys by bike – come down to the allocation of road space. The debate is an asymmetric one at present. Nearly anyone who regularly rides a bike in a city will have thought about the space he or she can use on the roads, how the space is apportioned and the issues that that allocation raises. Many people who drive cars around cities seem instinctively to think the roads should be freer of obstructions in front of their cars, wider and more conducive to high speeds. To such a view, any space taken away from cars is being stolen from its rightful owners.

The whole issue has reminded me of a reporting visit I undertook 10 years ago to Line 14 of the Paris metro, the city’s first entirely driverless metro line. I noticed how trains slowed down from their 80kph (50mph) top speed well in advance of the terminal station if another train was occupying the platform. But then, as the trains slowly negotiated the junctions at the end of the line before turning back, they would come almost in touching distance of each other. They were under the control of one of the world’s most advanced signalling systems. It was constantly calculating the balloon of space it needed to maintain between trains, providing many train lengths’ of empty space in front of each train at top speed but barely any at 10kph (6mph).
 
Smith St, Brooklyn: it's a bike lane but also, on a busy morning,
a corridor of collision uncertainty.
A chaotic, busy street makes far more sense if one pictures every object encased in balloons of space like those that Line 14’s signalling system projects in front of trains. Every vehicle operator should be maintaining in front of him or her enough empty space to stop safely in the event that an unexpected danger crops up. But, just as importantly, everyone on the street needs to plot the trajectories of other vehicles or other potential obstructions. Looked at this way, it’s clear why suddenly-opened car doors pose such a danger. No other obstruction can appear as suddenly or with as little warning as a suddenly-opened car door. I refused to let the angry car service driver past to avoid being forced into the door-opening danger zone. To the driver, I’m sure that looked like a wilful refusal to go into an unused, empty zone.

It’s because I draw a safety balloon round any moving vehicle that I find myself at least once a week in shouted conversation with the drivers of vehicles that have started pulling into my path. “Stop!” I’ll shout as the vehicle keeps moving across my path. “I see you!” the motorist shouts, exasperatedly, as if I should implicitly trust that the driver of a slow-moving vehicle on a collision course with me will not immediately turn into a faster-moving one.

The APL Pearl turns at the Port of Salalah: I yearn for her
navigational equipment, if not her limited maneouvrability.
I yearn for something like the collision-avoidance radar I watched a pilot use seven years ago as the APL Pearl, a container ship on which I was travelling, negotiated the chaotic shipping lanes of the English Channel. Each vessel’s radar plot had in front of it a line showing where it would be within six minutes. Slow-moving oil tankers and bulk carriers sported only relatively small, short lines. The lines before container ships like our own were longer. However, a fast ferry emerging from the Port of Boulogne suddenly threw a long, worrying line across the paths of many of the vessels, including our own, sending the pilot into a brief frenzy of calculation about collision courses.

The more one ponders the complexity of the interactions on a shared-use street – or the English Channel - the less one becomes surprised at people’s tendency to crash into each other. The surprise is how effectively most of the time people manage to miss each other.

Yet a trip the week before my run-in with the Impatient Car Service Driver of 13th Street suggested a different lesson about space. I was visiting the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad in North Dakota, where sudden, unexpected growth in both agricultural and oil traffic has led to significant congestion. As we drove by the company’s main line across the region, we saw an Amtrak passenger train zipping along the main line at 70mph, far faster than the 50 or 60mph common for freight trains on the route. “I’ll bet that really eats up capacity,” I said to the railroad people, to a resigned harrumph of acknowledgement.
A BNSF oil train near Ross, North Dakota: the drivers are
probably not grateful they share their tracks with faster,
lighter passenger trains.

No railwayman relishes running trains of sharply-varying speed next to each other. The fast ones constantly catch up with the slower trains in front, leaving unused space behind them. The slow ones constantly fall behind, leaving unused space in front of them.

There is, it occurs to me, an Amtrak effect on many congested streets where bikes, cars, buses and others share space. The differing braking and acceleration statistics of the different vehicles waste space and capacity as effectively as if the New York subway decided to run the F Train with a mixture of the latest electric subway trains and its plodding diesel maintenance trains. Were New York’s Department of Transportation to provide properly-segregated bicycle lanes on downtown Brooklyn’s most chaotic streets, it’s easy to imagine that they would instantly become far more efficient places, as well as far safer ones. It’s perhaps time to label such streets as optimised streets, rather than simply safe ones.

It will, of course, be some time before all the hundreds of backstreets like the one where I was riding last Sunday will justify such optimisation. While the ultimate cure for episodes like the one I encountered might be surgery for the street, the short-term response will still be for the driver to take a don’t-be-an-inconsiderate-fool pill.

But the spaces under the streets of many cities and the rail lines that march across many countries’ open spaces show that transport can be conducted in an orderly, safe, efficient manner. It would be a tragedy not to learn at least a little more from them.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

A South London collision, arguing about food delivery - and why reason produces happy endings

The details of the time I was knocked off my bike in March 2009 remain vivid in my mind. The light telling me it was safe to ride across Newington Causeway, near Elephant & Castle, South London, was in my favour but had started flashing, to warn me it would soon turn red. Being in a hurry and wanting not to lose momentum, I pedalled out fast across the busy, four-lane road.

A lorry thunders across Southwark Bridge, heading towards
Elephant & Castle, where another cyclist hit me.
People get upset I regard vehicles like this as a bigger threat
than the fellow-cyclist that hit me.
Then, as I reached the middle of the road, a rider on a fixed-wheel bike came zipping past the line of stopped traffic, through the red light and hard into my right-hand side. When I’d got up, out of the road, yelled at him and told him I was calling the police, he made off.

Yet, while the facts are straightforward, I’ve had multiple discussions since on how to interpret them. Several people have told me the experience ought to make me acutely aware of the potential for rule-breaking and negligent cyclists to cause serious injury to others. Some people become highly agitated that I don’t accept such an apparently simple explanation.

It irritates some people still more that my interpretation of the incident goes against the grain of my direct experience. I believe it demonstrates how relatively safe bicycles are for other road users, even when ridden recklessly. I was just recovering when I was struck on Newington Causeway from being knocked off 32 days before by a negligent motorist. The collision with the reckless cyclist hurt a lot less.

What happened to me was also fairly unusual. In many years in the UK, cyclist/pedestrian crashes kill no-one – they are certainly a far lower share of pedestrian fatalities than cyclists’ share of traffic. Despite two recent horrible tragic deaths after cyclist/pedestrian collisions in Central Park, fatalities in cyclist/pedestrian collisions are just as rare in New York. The last such death before the two recent ones was in 2009. I’ve never heard of a death from a crash between two cyclists.

Prince St, SoHo, Manhattan: I see annoying cyclist behaviour
here nearly daily - and reason tells me how little
real significance it has.
I stick to a more complicated interpretation because I’m convinced it seldom makes sense to understand the world purely on the basis of our own personal experience. It’s vital to overlay things one sees and hears with information about their wider context. Careful, direct observation is certainly a useful way of enhancing our understanding of the world – but it’s a far from complete one.

Most importantly, I’ve come to realise that people’s reluctance to think rationally about events they’ve witnessed on the streets is a significant barrier to improving safety. Serious crashes are so rare that anyone basing their ideas about road safety purely on their own observations is all but doomed to come up with a faulty understanding.

The phenomenon is at least in part responsible for the terrifying taxi ride I had on Monday from my apartment to John F Kennedy Airport. As we hurtled at 70mph down the Brooklyn Queens Expressway inches from other vehicles and the road’s concrete barriers, I begged the driver please to slow down.

It was clear to me from a rational understanding of the risks of the driver’s speed, his limited room to correct if something went wrong and knowledge of patterns of New York road crashes that his behaviour was objectively highly dangerous.

Yet the driver, who had presumably never crashed his vehicle at speed into the expressway’s barriers, saw my complaint as an expression of purely subjective taste.

“You’re scared?” he asked, with some amusement. “I’m fine.”

The root of such misunderstandings lies deep in unspoken assumptions about how best to interpret the world. Many internet commenters and others reflect without knowing it the ultimate triumph of Romanticism. Just as Romantic poets like William Wordsworth thought emotion and experience the critical means of interpreting the wider world, there’s a strong, implicit assumption that one’s own subjective experience and one’s feelings about it are the only reliable anchor for the ship of perception in the stormy, uncharted ocean of reality.
 
A delivery cyclist heads the wrong way on Hudson St
in a snow storm: an unspeakable, inexplicable menace -
until you apply reason to it.
It was because of this assumption that I found myself lambasted this week in a debate on the New York Cycling Club’s Facebook page about food delivery cyclists. Didn’t people agree, one member of the club had asked, that food delivery cyclists needed to be properly regulated and banned if they didn’t improve their behaviour? The conversation grew more and more heated.

I pointed out, firstly, that food delivery cyclists are already absurdly heavily regulated given the limited damage they cause. I added that, since a collision with a food delivery cyclist last killed someone in 2009, they’re not as dangerous as they might seem. I suggested, lastly, that it’s hardly surprising such a put-upon group – the delivery riders are nearly all very poor, newly-arrived migrants – often feel too rushed to follow all the road traffic laws.

The original poster’s furious response was to write that she’d had to dodge six food delivery cyclists on her ride home that evening. She so resented my effort to overlay an alternative interpretation that she started questioning whether I really knew what was going on on the streets. Was I even a cyclist? How many miles a year did I ride? It’s not the first time I’ve been asked to provide an annual mileage as part of such a dispute (4,000, since you’re asking). I eventually took the coward’s path of leaving the club’s Facebook group to escape the bombardment.
The Cateye bike computer I removed on
September 25 after 10 years' and 325 days'
use: 43,782 miles of evidence for doubters.

I find reason – the style of thinking in vogue just before Romanticism – far more useful than Romanticism in interpreting the world. I’m far more likely, it seems to me, to understand the world well if I seek to fit my personal experiences into a broader framework of statistics, news reports and other information. It’s because I try to view the world through such a coherent prism that I seldom complain about the frequently irritating – but ultimately not seriously dangerous – behaviour of pedestrians who obstruct me on my bike. It’s because I can see from statistics that cars are much my biggest danger that I far more regularly dwell on the risks they pose to my safety.

Nearly everyone who moans in newspaper comment pieces about the dangers posed by reckless cyclists is doing so on a Romantic-Wordsworthian basis. His or her experience of encountering cyclists – their fear at having a rider pass close by or alarm at riders’ speed – is a reliable guide to how the world works. A speeding cyclist dodging among pedestrians in a crosswalk looks to the naked eye more dangerous than the surrounding, halted cars.

Since almost no-one witnesses enough road crashes to gain a thorough understanding of their typical causes, the evidence of one’s eyes alone is apt to be thoroughly misleading. All the statistics suggest motorist negligence poses far more danger to pedestrians than cyclist recklessness.

Reason, of course, is no policy-making vending machine. One doesn’t put in a set of factors and collect a solution from a slot at the bottom. It makes sense only in helping one to understand how to achieve a set of goals.
 
A delivery cyclist on Sixth Avenue: in need of still more
harassment, according to one person with whom I argued.
If, for example, one thought that the most important thing on the streets was to impose a sense of order and fear of breaking the law, possibly a further crackdown on food delivery cyclists might make sense. I look at the issue within a wider framework of thinking police action must be proportionate to the scale of the problem involved, that it’s better to have goods carried around on bikes than in more dangerous cars and that it’s important to feel compassion for society’s least powerful people. Reason is the tool to help one to understand how best to achieve one’s objectives, not to set the objectives.

Yet “rational thinking, based on the fullest possible information” is a poor slogan to paint on a battle standard. “Your personal observations are deluding you” is likely to sound like an argument for a conspiracy theory.

I’d consequently argue not just for pure reason but for the outcomes it can produce. In many western countries – but especially the United States – the current, Romantic means of making decisions is producing essentially conservative outcomes. People don’t like the way they see cyclists riding their bikes so argue against providing better facilities for them. People see drivers parking their cars and going into shops, so conclude the shops will die if some parking spaces move. People see traffic jams on streets that are broad and conclude the jams will only get worse if the streets are narrowed to make bike paths or wider sidewalks.
 
New York City: excitement and romance abound - but it
would surely be better with the application of a bit more
reason too.
A more thoughtful approach can make powerful arguments for changing things. A reasoned argument can point to the substantial evidence that increased cycling can cut the US’s 33,000 annual road deaths or the far smaller annual total in the UK. Reason can point out that, while cyclists’ road deaths are visible, the risks of not cycling – and of dying from diabetes, heart disease or an inactivity-related cancer – are far higher. Logic can show that traffic often flows better in narrower streets than wide ones.

Action based on those logical principles must ultimately encourage more people to get about by bike, reduce road deaths and reduce pollution and carbon emissions.

That should mean that thousands more people daily can experience the liberating feeling of powering themselves to work or school in the open air, rather than inside a car or down in a subway tunnel. Far more people will hear the sounds of birds chirping even in city trees, will spot the strange effects of light at night and experience the change of seasons as one does on a bicycle. Far more people will experience each morning the excitement of riding onto the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing Manhattan spread before them in the sunlight.

Those are all, reason tells me, positive changes, ones for which sound, logical arguments can be made.

But they will provide plenty of moments to warm the heart of a Romantic too.

Monday, 22 September 2014

A fast riverside ride, a Central Park tragedy - and the need to ride ethically

­“Hey, that was a good run!” the person who’d been riding behind me down the Hudson River Greenway on Friday evening shouted to me. He’d cycled on my tail from 34th St, as I returned from giving a television interview about Scotland’s independence referendum, down as far as Warren St. Every time he’d come close to my rear wheel, I’d sped up a little and we’d done a steady 18mph – 19mph for three miles.
 
The Hudson River Greenway: easy to ride fast, harder
to ride ethically
“Safe ride home!” my travelling companion yelled as I turned off the path towards the Brooklyn Bridge and he continued on south.

Yet, on Friday, instead of feeling pleasure at the excitement of an enjoyable, fast-ish ride by the river, I felt a sharp stab of guilt. What if I’d been irresponsible? What if I’d been riding so fast that I’d have hit a pedestrian stepping onto the path? Did I risk running into one of the many stray runners on the cycleway?

I felt the guilt in the aftermath of a crash in Central Park on Thursday afternoon in which Jason Marshall, a cyclist on a fast training run round the park, hit Jill Tarlov, a 59-year-old woman from Connecticut who was crossing the road in front of him. Although she was on life support on Friday, she has since, very sadly, died.

News of the crash had left me with an acute sense of my responsibility towards other road users. I also anticipated – correctly – new calls for a crackdown on the menace of “killer cyclists”. As I was speeding down the Hudson River Greenway, I was feeling a strange mixture of unjustly put-upon and guilty over my complacency about the risks cyclists pose to others. Did I need to change the way I rode to ensure I kept other road users safer? Would everyone now assume I posed a deadly risk to them, just because one other cyclist had been involved in a high-speed crash?

Central Park: spectacular setting for an appalling tragedy
The big challenge in understanding events like Thursday’s crash is precisely that they’re extremely rare, whether in New York, London or anywhere else. Thursday’s crash is the second fatal pedestrian-cyclist collision in New York in recent months – a crash with a 17-year-old cyclist, also in Central Park, killed Irvin Schachter, 75, in August. But the last fatal bike-pedestrian crash before that was in 2009. There have consequently been three pedestrian fatalities in bike crashes over a six year period when crashes involving motor vehicles have killed more than 1,500 people.

A competing challenge is that people get away so often with risky behaviour that nearly everyone is confused about which behaviour actually poses a risk. Motorists who drive down urban streets at 50mph or more seldom encounter a pedestrian unexpectedly stepping out from a kerb or a motorist unexpectedly in an intersection. They can consequently lapse into thinking that 50mph is a safe speed on an urban street. The speed’s effect on their stopping speed and the vehicle’s higher momentum nevertheless make it profoundly unsafe and deadly when something unexpected does occur.

Cyclists racing round Central Park – or Prospect Park, near my apartment – grow so used to dodging successfully round pedestrians that many must assume there’s little risk in doing so at the 25mph and higher speeds that I see many going. Many leave far too little margin for error.

To confuse matters still further, cyclist and motorist behaviour seems to feel different to pedestrians. Given that motor vehicles killed 168 pedestrians in New York last year, pedestrians are in some senses constantly at risk from negligent motorist behaviour. Yet the ubiquity of motor vehicles and the difficulty distinguishing the seriously risky behaviour from the less dangerous seem to stop many people from understanding the risk’s scale.

Fast-moving, quiet cyclists often take people by surprise, however, even when they’re behaving safely. This seems to lead many to perceive wrongly that the danger from bicyclists – who were involved in no fatal crashes with pedestrians between 2010 and last year – is on a comparable level to that from motorists.
 
This car crashed at 100mph on the West Side Highway,
near where I worried my 18mph to 19mph speed was excessive.
However loud the understandable outcry, the Central Park crash hasn’t undermined the strong moral case for using a bicycle to get about, rather than a car. Cyclists are generally moving more slowly if they collide with people than motorists are. The lower weight of a bicycle and rider compared with a car and driver also reduces the energy released in a collision. I posed less risk to a pedestrian stepping out onto the Hudson Greenway than the scores of cars driving at 50mph, 60mph or more on the neighbouring, speeding-plagued West Side Highway.

There might not even, it seems to me as a layman, be a solid case for charging Jason Marshall with a serious criminal offence under New York's shockingly lax road safety laws. Newspaper reports gave lurid accounts of how Marshall “ploughed” into Ms Tarlov. But Marshall seems to have hit her after swerving to avoid other pedestrians and yelling out a warning that she seems not to have heard. He might – might – have been going below Central Park’s 25mph speed limit and doing his best to avoid people crossing the road against the pedestrian traffic signal. New York motorists would generally have to behave with far more obvious recklessness to face serious criminal sanctions. When I rode in Central Park one time recently at a time cars were allowed to use part of the park, few seemed to adhere to the 25mph speed limit.

Yet all of these caveats only go to underline the most critical lesson that anyone who ever uses a street for any purpose should take away from Thursday’s tragedy. It’s that everyone’s primary focus should be, as far as possible, to avoid unnecessarily harming others. However solitary one might feel riding a bicycle or driving a car, one’s involved in an intense and complex series of social interactions. The scope for misunderstanding is so vast that it is always imperative to act cautiously.
 
Taxis - and other users - face a barrage of rules
in Central Park. But the imperative to behave
ethically should be even stronger
Anyone who’s ridden a bicycle in Central Park, Prospect Park or some other big urban park - like London’s Hyde Park or Regent’s Park - knows that the park’s users are apt to behave far more unpredictably and casually than they would around a normal road. Many are oblivious to the presence of even large numbers of cyclists. On the rare occasions when I go to a park to ride in circles, I try to ensure I pick up speed only when I can be certain the road is clear of obstructions for a suitable distance ahead.

Under those circumstances, there can be no moral excuse, it seems to me, for riding round a park so set on achieving a set speed that one is reluctant to reduce speed or make space when passing other park users. To judge by accounts of Jason Marshall’s keen pursuit of records on Strava, the online bike-racing app, his overall, incautious determination to maintain his speed may have been far more culpable than anything specific about his reaction on encountering people crossing the road.

It is, of course, apt to sound like a counsel of despair to enjoin road users to behave more ethically towards each other. Many road users struggle to understand rules about yielding when turning and other straightforward road rules. Others display such failures of compassion towards other road users that it’s hard to imagine their taking a truly moral stance.

It doesn’t help that the traffic rules in most places fail to push people towards moral behaviour. Police enforcement in many places seems almost designed to reinforce the worst kinds of attitudes. The cry for road-users to act morally can easily sound like the helpless cry of Rodney King, victim of a police beating, as Los Angeles erupted in flames amid protests over the policemen’s acquittal: “Can’t we all just get along?”
The 1st Avenue Bike Lane: easy to feel frustrated,
vital to behave ethically

But any of us who thinks seriously about how we use the roads can set an example. I can avoid recklessly swerving into the oncoming lane to overtake slow cyclists in front on the blind bends on the Manhattan Bridge bike path. You can overtake carefully and with plenty of space even the infuriating runners who run down the Hudson Greenway’s bike lanes. I can slow even for pedestrians with the maddening habit of waiting to cross 1st avenue while standing in the busy, hard-to-negotiate segregated bike lane. You can wait until it's safe to pass that pedestrian who's insisting on walking down the narrow, constricted Allen St bike lanes.

Even on Friday evening, despite my guilt pangs, I had, looking back, kept looking carefully for pedestrians and runners and sought to take evasive action in good time when I saw one. I stopped for one crosswalk by the Chelsea Piers and so surprised one waiting pedestrian she took a moment actually to cross. I tried, albeit probably imperfectly, to live up to my moral principles.

It is, after all, the central tragedy of traffic in New York City and many other big cities that so many people walking and cycling – using the least harmful transport modes – end up in cold mortuaries and warm intensive care units. It’s a horror that’s no less intense for being widely taken for granted. I will do everything I reasonably can to ensure I’m not responsible for putting anybody else in those places.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

A loyalist village, a Scottish upbringing - and why I'm cycling with a schism in my soul

It was in July 24 years ago that, riding my bike near Airdrie, in Lanarkshire, I came across a scene that’s been in my mind a fair amount recently. Cycling from Glasgow, my home city, to Edinburgh, I passed through a village whose kerb stones were painted alternately red, white and blue. There was bunting strung between the buildings above, also in the colours of the union flag.

A cyclist in Cathcart, on Glasgow's south side,
an area with whose streets I was once intimately familiar
Anyone familiar with central Scotland will know what I’d come upon. The village was a stronghold of loyalism, the ideology that aligns low-church Protestantism with fanatical loyalty to the British state. The sentiment’s heartlands are Northern Ireland – which loyalists are determined not to let join the Irish Republic – and parts of the Scottish lowlands. July 12th, 1990 was the 300th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, a key historic event for loyalists, in which William of Orange, a Protestant, defeated James II, the UK’s last Roman Catholic king, driving him into exile.

That village has been in my mind because Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom, the state that formed me and that commands loyalists’ loyalty, is in question in a way I’d never have imagined in 1990. In a referendum on September 18, Scotland – the bit of the UK where I grew up, was educated, learned to ride a bike, got married and started work – could vote to separate from England, where my wife, one of our children and I were born. I’ve spent all of my adult life since 1997 in either England, Hungary or the United States. But my mother, sister, nephews and niece still live in Scotland.

My mind has drifted to the potential split again and again as I’ve been riding to and from work the last few weeks. Although I’m watching developments from 3,500 miles away, this isn’t to me an academic question of geopolitics. It’s about a widening schism in my soul.

It’s partly because of the summer of 1990 that the schism feels so painful.
 
St Columba's Church of Scotland in London:
I was baptised here as a child, in a building
that symbolises much about
Anglo-Scottish identity
Scotland and I had got off to a difficult start. Having been born in London to Scots parents, I arrived at a Glasgow primary school, aged four, with an English accent. “What’s your bloody English name?” one child would demand each playtime, grabbing my jacket and pushing me up against a wall. I used to yearn to go back to London.

I was nevertheless shaped by some distinctly Scottish institutions. Our community was a local parish of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. My education taught me thoroughness and a certain toughness of thinking that reflected, I think, how Scotland’s intellectual climate is a little more dogmatic and a little less pragmatic than England’s. Our school debating club and Glaswegians’ fondness for the withering, harsh put down sharpened my sense of humour and gave it a hard edge.

But that summer 24 years ago, between my third and fourth years at university, made me appreciate the country far more fully. On days when I was free of duties clearing out my recently-deceased grandfather’s house, I could cycle north and soon find myself riding amid lush vegetation on the steep sides of a sea loch. I could ride south and cycle atop windswept moors. Ride east and I was speeding towards the gentle hills and old towns of Fife. Ride west and I could zig-zag down the coast of the Firth of Clyde. With all its flaws, the country – the miserable former mining villages and non-descript shopping arcades as well as the baronial castles, glittering sea lochs and twisting river valleys – felt like the landscape of home.
The Perthshire Countryside: the kinds of hills I grew to love
cycling among

I don’t feel that the I whom those experiences in Scotland shaped need be any less a Scot now that I start my daily bike rides in Brooklyn than when I started them on the south side of Glasgow.

But there are certainly senses in which I’ve grown more distant from my homeland. The yearning for the bustle of London, where no-one would decide who I was based on the school I attended, drew me south in 1997. A still greater wanderlust sent us from there to Hungary for four-and-a-half years. After another nine years in London, we’ve been in New York for two.

A fishing boat on a Scottish sea loch: the kind of scene
I discovered was just a short-ish bike ride from home.
I’ve overcome the culture shock of working for a rather English employer. (“It’s not often we bring somebody down from Scotland,” a senior manager told me shortly after I arrived. “So we wouldn’t want you to mess up.”) I find my heart lifted now more by the 17th century English of Anglican worship than the drier fare of Presbyterian devotions. I feel more in common with my English wife than with any Scottish person I’ve met. I love my children not a whit less for their having English accents than if they spoke, as I do, with the drawl of the West of Scotland’s professional classes. I love London – and the stirring feeling I had when I lived there of cycling through history – just as I love the excitement of cycling through a New York summer.
 
New York City: I don't only belong amid lochs and rolling hills
I feel, in short, a bit Scottish, a bit British – even a bit of a New Yorker. Looking back in my father’s family, I see generations who must have felt the same. An eccentric great-great uncle of mine designed the road on which I rode through Lanarkshire in 1990. I discovered among some family papers that another forebear – a proud Scot – once ran a doctor’s surgery round the corner from where we lived in South London.

My heart used to swell with pride when I worked in central Edinburgh, cycled home up the Royal Mile and pondered how David Hume, Adam Smith and other giants of the Scottish Enlightenment had worked in the same area. I also felt proud, however, when I parked my bike daily in London by the site where Shakespeare produced the first performances of many of his plays. The enlightenment thinkers, Shakespeare and geniuses from different parts of the UK have constructed an unusually rich, diverse culture that the UK's constituents share. I believe the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The millions of personal ties across the UK's internal frontiers, that cultural heritage and some shared British characteristics - a distrust of high-flown rhetoric, reserve with others and reluctance to make a fuss - seem to me more significant than the points that divide the peoples.

I recognise that to independence supporters these points will seem nebulous – even perhaps a betrayal of this blog’s avowed distaste for policy-making by reference to the gut rather than the cerebral cortex. I do in fact have considerable policy concerns about the prospects for an independent Scotland. I’ve covered the affairs of many small, open economies and think the risks facing a country dependent on oil and financial services with messy fiscal and currency affairs are substantial. It’s long been clear to me – although Scottish nationalists have somehow persuaded people that this isn’t the case – that Scotland’s public spending is buttressed by considerable transfers from the wider UK. The end of those would cause considerable pain to ordinary Scots, especially those dependent on state benefits or working for the public sector.
 
Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Hill House in Helensburgh,
through which I cycled on a particularly memorable ride
in 1990: a blend of Scottish tradition and openness to the
latest worldwide trends I profoundly admire
I’m also sceptical that Scotland is somehow more virtuous or nurtures better political instincts than the wider UK. The scene I encountered in Lanarkshire is a reminder, for example, that Scotland has clung far longer than most of England or Wales to sectarianism between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Nor is it clear to me that a free-standing Scotland is fated to be better run than the UK. In the policy areas closest to my heart, the devolved Scottish government has built a destructive motorway across the south of Glasgow and undertaken the mind-bogglingly inane Niceway Code “share the road”campaign. The vigorous contest of ideas that comes from belonging to a larger state can be beneficial in making public policy operate better.

But, to me, living and cycling daily in New York City and without a vote on September 18, the biggest issues are emotional. The different bits of my background don’t feel to me like they should be on different sides of the bitter, angry debate that the independence referendum has stirred up. I don’t share the loyalists’ belligerent idea of British identity but love how the UK has balanced over the years different legal, historical, linguistic and religious traditions to make what seems to me a better whole.

If I wake on the morning of September 19th to find my fellow Scots have voted to leave that enterprise, I’ll still get on my bike, ride to work and get on with business. If I get into a dispute with a driver or chat to a fellow cyclist, I’ll still be just some big British person with an especially hard-to-understand accent. Inside me, however, part of my identity will feel torn and there’ll be a deep sorrow. I’m hoping, despite the current trend in the opinion polls, that I don’t have to feel it.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A street drug arrest, a crackdown on cyclists - and why Broken Windows is a bust

It was as I walked down San Francisco’s Market St with my family on August 10 that I spotted a scene I’d previously witnessed only in TV shows such as The Wire. Two policemen were running towards us, guns drawn. As I started shepherding the family out of the potential line of fire, I spotted the reason for the fracas. A young-ish black man was sprinting towards us. He threw a large, plastic wrapped parcel over a wooden hoarding then, having ditched the evidence, surrendered himself. We continued our stroll as he knelt on the sidewalk, face towards a building, with the police officers handcuffing his hands behind his back.
 
San Francisco's Painted Ladies: the epitome of Victorian
respectability - and only a short walk from where our family
encountered a street drugs bust.
I didn’t know it at the time but, the previous evening, half a continent away, a confrontation between a young black man and white police officers had ended tragically differently. In Ferguson, Missouri, a police officer had pumped six bullets into Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, who was apparently holding up his hands in surrender and saying, “Don’t shoot!” One shot – to the head – killed him. The source of the confrontation appears to have been a demand by the officer than Michael and his friends walk on the sidewalk, rather than the road.

The scene in San Francisco ran through my head over the next few days as we saw, despite our holiday isolation, pictures of police in Ferguson equipped for war but facing mainly peaceful protesters. I also found myself making mental links between the scene we’d encountered and a far less grave injustice that was closer to home for me – the New York Police Department’s disproportionately harsh Operation Cyclesafe crackdown on cyclists’ rule-breaking.

The street drugs bust, the events in Ferguson and the NYPD’s harassment of cyclists all look to me to be the work of police forces more concerned about asserting their own authority than actually making the places they police safer. It’s hard in light of these and other incidents to avoid the conclusion that many US police forces are currently bereft of ideas and moral sense. While UK police forces rethought some aspects of their policing 30 years ago after urban rioting, the Metropolitan Police’s recent purchase of a water cannon hints that such thinking is creeping back in the UK too.

NYPD cruisers: sensitive, intelligence-led policing
The priority is to end appalling injustices such as the killings of Michael Brown and, closer to my home in New York, of Eric Garner, choked in Staten Island as New York police officers arrested him for a minor alleged offence. But better police forces would also surely reassess which offences demanded most of their attention. They would surely take more seriously the dreadful toll of death and injury on the US’s streets and give that national – but largely unacknowledged – tragedy a far higher priority.

I wouldn’t say I was precisely naïve about the potential misuse of police power, even before recent events. In one obviously conflict-ridden society, Bosnia, I remember seeing Bosnian Croat police harassing the mainly Bosniak – Bosnian Muslim – passengers on a bus where I was travelling in 1995 during the Bosnian war. Hungary’s police seldom impressed me when I lived there.
 
A Kosovo Liberation Army "policeman"
smokes while supervising sales of
smuggled fuel: just one of many
less-than-impressive officers I've
encountered during more than two
decades' reporting.
I have a particularly vivid memory from my home country of watching the reaction of Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary in July 1996 to rioting by members of the mainly Irish Nationalist Catholic community on the outskirts of Portadown, in the centre of the province. For five days previously, the police – mainly pro-British Protestants – had reacted with remarkable restraint as Protestants rioted over the routing of a march by the Protestant Orange Order in Portadown. After the police finally forced the march down Garvaghy Road, against the mainly Catholic residents’ wishes, I watched the police fire rubber bullets freely. At one point, I saw people of all ages, violent and non-violent alike, flee into a narrow passageway between shops. The police pumped plastic bullets indiscriminately into the passageway, knowing they would hit rioters and non-rioters.

My personal experiences as a cyclist have made me realise that bad policing affects places other than obviously conflict-ridden societies and people other than clearly discriminated-against minority groups. I’ve been lectured by City of London Police officers who were themselves breaking the road rules about my allegedly irresponsible behaviour. In May, I encountered a man who claimed – to my satisfaction – to be an off-duty cop. He grew verbally abusive when I asked him to move his car out of a busy, two-way cycle lane. There are stretches of road in New York where I know I’m likely to encounter police cars or vans illegally parked in the cycle lane and to have to dodge around them.

Yet I had retained, I now recognise, a residue of rather British innocence about democratic countries’ police forces, a feeling that they must somehow be on the side of the law-abiding, no matter their colour or background, against those who would harm them. I remember the times my parents had to call on the police when I was young and their polite attitude when they visited our large, respectable house.
 
Broken windows might have helped to make it safe for me
to walk nearly anywhere in this picture - it hasn't necessarily
done the same for people with darker skin.
Recent events have washed that residue out of me. I increasingly recognise how it was my family’s whiteness and respectability that won the police’s politeness. If I were black or belonged to some other obviously marginalised group, I would have far more – and probably far worse – stories about police behaviour. I’m more and more sceptical of the policing philosophy that’s come to dominate much of the western world in recent years – the idea that police intolerance of minor misdemeanours is critical to tackling crime overall. Bill Bratton, the police commissioner who returned to the top post in the NYPD earlier this year, pioneered this “broken windows” approach in New York City. Its apparent success in making the city safe again in the 1990s has led to its widespread acceptance as a policing approach elsewhere.

It’s to some extent because of broken windows that officers felt justified, I suspect, in violently restraining Eric Garner while arresting him for the minor crime of selling untaxed cigarettes. It’s because police officers are encouraged to create an orderly atmosphere on the streets, I suspect, that officer Darren Wilson thought it important to confront Michael Brown and his friends about where they walked. It’s a sense that street drug-dealing is worse than more discreet drug-dealing that leads to scenes like the one we encountered in San Francisco. I’ve long had a strong sense that the broken windows approach explained the NYPD’s tendency to give disproportionate numbers of traffic tickets to cyclists. If one believes that a police force’s main goal is to tackle the problems that create most noise at public meetings, it might well make sense to run a two-week crackdown on dangerous cycling.
 
Midtown Manhattan: a bad place to break a window,
thanks to Bill Bratton, but not a bad place, necessarily,
to commit a serious fraud
The approach’s limitations are clear as soon as one starts examining them. Any strategy that deliberately devotes disproportionate resources to small, “quality-of-life” offences by its nature takes resources away from investigating the crimes – racketeering, murder, rape, fraud – for which society imposes the harshest penalties. The approach quickly degenerates into an anti-intellectual tendency to go after the crimes whose victims make the loudest noise, rather than those that are the biggest problem. It’s obvious that the arrest of one street-level dealer is unlikely to do anything to eradicate demand for illegal drugs in San Francisco or the business of supplying them.

Some good might yet come out of the grim events in Ferguson and elsewhere in the US this summer if they prompt a thorough re-examination of how the US is policed – a change that would surely have repercussions in other countries too. It would be heartening to see police forces question whether the constant harassment of the poorest groups under broken windows makes sense. There is surely scope to ponder which offences cause the most overall harm and start to tackle them.

I’ve argued before that traffic policing would be far better if commanding officers’ pay depended partly on the numbers of people injured on their areas’ streets, rather than the numbers of tickets handed out. A police force focused on preventing crime rather than enforcing order would surely not have thought a confrontation over where a group of young men walked worth provoking. Intelligent traffic policing might even seek to encourage cycling, recognising that cyclists are far less likely to kill other road users than motorists are.

It’s hard to be optimistic that such changes are coming soon, however. Reaction to the events in Ferguson has followed a pattern all too familiar in the contemporary US – right-wingers have defended the police, while the left have criticised them. On Twitter last week, Bill Bratton wrote that he was “gratified but not surprised” that New Yorkers appreciated “quality of life enforcement measures”. I’ve seen even cyclists welcome Operation Cyclesafe’s misdirection of resources, saying that, since they never break the rules, they have nothing to fear from it. Few people seem to recognise how crackdowns on minor crime misdirect resources.
 
Operation Cyclesafe made this cycle lane on my route to work
no safer for me to use
Two experiences on our return from California crystallised the nature of the problem. I returned to my regular cycle commute in the last days of Operation Cyclesafe to find that the crackdown had unsurprisingly done nothing to make the streets safer for cyclists. The cycle lanes appeared still more regularly blocked than normal and drivers’ behaviour still worse than normal.

The Invisible Visible Woman, meanwhile, heard two women discussing Eric Garner’s death on the street. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that broken windows policing has turned some police forces into vehicles for the kinds of prejudice our neighbours were expressing.

“People say they heard him say, ‘I can’t breathe’,” one of them commented to the other, who nodded sagely. “But you have to remember – this was a man who’d been to prison ten times.”

An uncritical readiness to go after the offences that most annoy people quickly degenerates into a readiness to go after the people that most annoy the majority. That will sometimes be cyclists. It will far more often – and with far more deadly outcomes – be poor people like Eric Garner, condemned by prejudice to miserable and public deaths.

Monday, 4 August 2014

A close pass, a misguided campaign - and why I won't just leave it on the road

On July 17, as I cycled to work, amid the chaos of rush-hour downtown Brooklyn, I spotted a narrow gap to the right of a line of stationary traffic. I moved into it and rode cautiously towards the next intersection. Then, to my shock, I realised a taxi driver had decided there was room between me and the other traffic for him also to squeeze through. He drove past me, much faster than I was going, leaving at most around six inches to spare. Knowing that any miscalculation would have had me tumbling under the taxi’s wheels, I felt a surge of panic and rage.
 
Close pass: here's how it looks when I try to photograph
a taxi moments after it's come within inches of me
with the lens on zoom and my hands still shaking
Numerous current road safety campaigns – including one by Transport for London, the London Mayor’s transport organisation – would imply that what I did next made me just as bad as the negligent driver. Catching up with him and still feeling the shock of his pointless, dangerous behaviour, I yelled at him: “You could have killed me. You’re a dangerous driver.” Looking at me with stone dead eyes, he languidly rolled up the passenger-side window and drove off as fast as the traffic jam would allow.

The Transport for London campaign – which inevitably uses the shopworn “share the road” slogan – would have enjoined me to ignore the driver’s actions, take a deep breath and head on my way as if nothing had happened. “Leave it on the road,” it advises road users. It isn’t, I think, advice about what one should do with the body fluids and teeth of people that rile one.

My example highlights the insane irrationality of such campaigns. A “leave it on the road” approach to road safety suggests that the real problem is people’s malice towards each other or negative perceptions. It ignores the evidence that negligence, inattention and poor risk assessment are significant causes of car crashes. It puts the focus on vulnerable road users’ reaction to negligent driving. It suggests that all cyclists and pedestrians are somehow collectively responsible for each others’ behaviour. Motorists are helpless vessels full of potential rage that cyclists or pedestrians can make explode or safely depressurise. The approach serves no conceivable purpose other than to comfort people like the taxi driver who put me at risk. “Yes,” is the hidden message. “The real problem is those nasty, lippy cyclists.”

Such campaigns nevertheless enjoy such continued credibility that I found myself arguing vigorously recently with a cyclist who trenchantly defended a campaign by the state government of Utah under the title “Respect is a Two-Way Street”. Most problems cyclists encountered on the road were a result of motorists’ past experience of bad cyclist behaviour, my interlocutor assured me.

I came upon this two-car shunt on Saturday on the Upper
East Side, an eminently respectable neighbourhood.
But was a lack of respect between drivers the real problem?
Utah’s campaign isn’t alone. David Zabriskie, the professional cyclist, has organised a similar (if more nuanced) campaign under the title “Yield to Life” that seeks to build “understand, respect and appreciation for all life” between cyclists and motorists. British Cycling has called for “mutual respect” between cyclists and motorists.

Yet it’s self-evidently bizarre to argue that the solution to drivers’ killing people is to ask everyone to be nice. There is a quality-of-life argument for asking people to be calmer and more tolerant. I try when I haven’t been put in fear of my life to act considerately. But it’s hard to see that “share the road” campaigns are a better route to that destination than making the roads safe. The question is why “share the road” campaigns continue to consume energy that could be better directed elsewhere.

I suspect the answer is that transport authorities face a choice between conveying messages that are broadly popular and bringing about changes that are likely severely to annoy many. It’s not a surprise – though it’s certainly a disappointment – that the former so consistently wins.
 
Cyclists respectfully wait when asked to stop at this year's
Summer Streets event. What is it about this motor
vehicle-free environment that suddenly makes cyclists
show people more respect?
It’s not hard, after all, to guess such campaigns’ genesis. Many cities worldwide, in gestures towards environmental concern, congestion relief or obesity prevention, have sought to encourage cycling, many with more success than they expected. Surges in cyclist numbers on roads designed to facilitate smooth car movements have often led to spikes in cyclist deaths, even if the death rate per mile cycled has usually fallen. “Share the road,” “mutual respect” and other similar campaigns are all manifestations of public officials’ dilemma. They don’t want to stop the growth of cycling but lack the political capital or courage to upset vocal motorist groups, local shopkeepers, the local newspaper or the many other noisy defenders of the status quo. It must seem a beguilingly simple solution to tell everyone to up their game and hope the problem goes away.

The laws of physics, human nature and psychology keep getting in the way, however.

The taxi driver who brushed by me was driving a Toyota Highlander – a vehicle that weighs 2.5 tonnes – and moving considerably faster than I. That would have made a critical difference if he had actually hit me. His vehicle’s momentum, mass and size surely meant he had a far greater duty to be careful than I had. The emotional stakes were also entirely different. I seek to keep myself safe precisely because I know the odds if I’m hit. The driver could afford to keep his sang froid precisely because, as the driver of a large SUV, he was effectively invulnerable. I was acutely aware of how close he’d come to me because I was out in the open and constantly watching for danger. Sitting on the far side of a 6’ 4” (nearly 2m) wide vehicle, the driver probably had little conception of quite how much he was endangering me.

A car parked on a Bronx sidewalk-cum-cycleway. If only
that cyclist had shown more respect, perhaps the driver
wouldn't have felt forced to act this way.
New York City has not actually run a “mutual respect” campaign in the time I’ve been here but I’ve heard all the most senior road safety figures in the city – the transport commissioner, head of the police’s traffic squad and the head of the state department of motor vehicles – back the approach in speeches. The police commissioner erroneously claimed earlier this year that fatally-struck pedestrians tended to cause their own deaths – an entirely untrue assertion that, if it were true, would make some sense of “share the road” campaigns. The tenor of many of the police’s actions – the determination to hand out traffic tickets to pedestrians and, disproportionately, cyclists as well as motorists – seems to reflect the same thinking.

This “even-handed” approach isn’t making people safer, however. According to figures from WNYC, the radio station, 141 people had died in traffic in the city up to August 1, which makes it seem likely there will be almost as many traffic fatalities this year as the 274 in 2013. I can’t find any statistics for road deaths so far in London this year but there’s little indication its record – while far better, per capita, than New York’s – is improving much.

Parked cars block the new two-way bike lane on
Kent Avenue, South Williamsburg: it's absolutely clear
how much extra mutual respect would help alleviate
this problem.
There isn’t any great mystery which approach would make the big cities of the English-speaking world genuinely safer. London has a better record than New York partly because London has far more automated speed and red light enforcement via cameras. It’s also pretty obvious to anyone with experience of British cities’ side streets that there are far more speed humps, road narrowing, raised crossings and other measures to slow traffic down and make pedestrians more visible. The cities with the best cycling safety records tend to give over substantial, well-designed space to cyclists on their streets. Anyone who’s looked at the situation rationally will find these points unsurprising. There’s overwhelming evidence, from repeated studies in multiple places, that drivers’ inattention, excessive speed and other mistakes cause the vast bulk of crashes. Measures that constrain their speed or force them to pay attention unsurprisingly tend to make everyone safer.

But such measures seem to give rise in many people to a kind of existential panic. Powerful groups – men, privileged races, imperial powers – tend to think that they have their jobs, their access to better schools, their political power or their access to road space by right and by merit rather than as a result of rigged power structures. The howls of protest have the same tone of injured innocence I’ve heard in the past from Northern Irish Protestants, Kosovo Serbs and others who see privileges taken for granted being eroded.

I don’t pretend that it’s an easy political choice to take on those vested interests. There would be bitter, angry complaints if New York City’s Department of Transportation decided to put in a well-designed protected bike lane for the many cyclists riding down Smith and Jay streets every morning. It’s my own choice to take – and try to manage – the risks inherent in cycling while those arrangements aren’t in place. But, until something effective is done, I’d rather the authorities not add insult to the threat of injury. I don’t respect drivers who think their desire for convenience trumps my right to life.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He wasn’t ready to hear.

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

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

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

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

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