Monday, 23 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 9 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes I do,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 March 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.