Monday, 10 August 2015

A Precinct House, a String of Deaths - and How to Stop Traffic Stops from Gambling with People's Lives

One day in mid-June, having taken a rare week off work, I was walking my son to school when we spotted two curled-up $20 bills on the sidewalk. It was the kind of sum that, to many people in our area, might be entirely inconsequential. But, to, say, a struggling food delivery cyclist or cleaner, those two bills might, I thought, represent a substantial loss. With that thought in mind and being temperamentally unsuited to pocketing something I hadn’t earned, I headed after I’d dropped the Invisible Visible Boy at school to report the cash as lost property at the New York Police Department’s 76th Precinct House.
Unlikely site for an epiphany: the NYPD's 76th precinct house.

As I sat waiting for someone to talk to me about my discovery, however, I noticed something significant about the layout of the area around the station house’s main entrance. Behind the public counter, by the door – in a position where they would be the last thing many officers would see before heading out on patrol – stood three memorials to officers from the precinct who’d died in the line of duty. Among them was Maitland Mercer, a patrolman shot dead in 1965 while off duty and trying to arrest a suspect.

The plaques excited mixed emotions in me. Each of the deaths – although each occurred decades apart – must have shocked and appalled the dead men’s fellow officers and devastated their families. I was horrified by the killing of two New York police officers just before Christmas. But the memorials were also, it seemed to me, manifestations of a culture around US law enforcement that celebrates the profession’s dangers and focuses on violent confrontations, at the expense of a more collaborative philosophy. The near cult-like celebration of fallen police officers encourages, I suspect, the dangerous idea that virtuous officers are engaged in a Manichean struggle against dark forces every time they leave the precinct house.

I quickly moved on to worrying about something else. If I felt so uneasy about the culture surrounding US policing, it occurred to me, wasn’t it strange that I instinctively wanted police officers to be tougher on traffic violations? It’s a striking feature of the many of the highest-profile killings of black people by police that the incidents in question start with traffic stops. The killing in April of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina, by a police officer followed a stop for a broken brake light. Samuel DuBose died on July 19 in Cincinnati after being stopped by a University of Cincinnati police officer who thought (wrongly, given the local law) he was missing a vehicle licence plate. Sandra Bland, who was found dead in a Texas jail cell on July 13, had been stopped three days earlier for not using her indicators to pull her car over as a police officer followed her.
NYPD cruisers in midtown: a force for road safety?
I’ve had regular cause since that moment in the 76th precinct house to ask myself: is it possible to reconcile an effort to tighten up traffic policing on the US’s roads with a desire to cut the dreadful annual toll of deaths at the hands of police officers?

The starting point in the search for an answer is to unpick what’s actually going on in the traffic stops that end in an officer’s standing over some black person’s prone body – which is that few of them seem to involve serious safety violations. It’s important that vehicles have working brake lights, that drivers use their indicators and that vehicles bear appropriate licence plates. But it’s significant, it seems to me, that neither Sandra Bland nor Samuel DuBose nor Walter Scott was stopped, say, for speeding or using a mobile phone while driving or refusing to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk – all offences that lead to thousands of deaths annually in the US.

These traffic stops seem, instead, to have had far more in common with the kind of policing-as-harassment tactics that are familiar in many parts of the world but for which the US has a particular predilection. The broken tail-light, the apparently missing licence plate, the momentary failure to signal aren’t of much interest to the officer. The point – as it was with the New York Police Department’s now-abandoned Stop and Frisk policy of searching people on the flimsiest of pretexts – seems far more to have been to exert control.

The motivation often appears to be for officers to mark their territory and stamp their authority on anyone who seems suspicious to them – a group that seems inevitably disproportionately to include African-Americans. The simplest act of defiance – such as Sandra Bland’s continuing to smoke a cigarette while a police officer addressed her – seems in such a context to be an act of infuriating insolence that demands a response.
These NYPD officers may be fine, upstanding people -
but it's easier to understand the system where they work
if one understands it's racist.
It’s easier to understand why such a high proportion of the New York Police Department’s traffic stops are for the apparently minor offence of having excessively tinted windows when one sees traffic stops as part of a racist system. It’s a modification that officers associate with the desire of members of minority groups to hide from onlookers, especially the police. It’s a relatively minor safety issue but a significant affront to police officers who experience traffic policing as a kind of primal marking of their territory.

Still more reprehensibly, it’s clear that many municipalities – notably Ferguson, Missouri, where the killing a year ago of Michael Brown, a young black man, by a white police officer started the current agitation over policing violence – use traffic stops as an important source of revenue. The US justice department’s report on the municipality in March recorded pressure from the town authorities on the police to ramp up ticketing to raise money for the budget. It also noted that 85 per cent of vehicle stops in Ferguson were of black people, although they made up only 67 per cent of the population.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the US writer criticises the arbitrary, racist thinking behind such policing in Between the World and Me, his superb new book about growing up as an African-American man. The book talks at length about how Prince Jones, a black college friend of Coates’, was killed by police in an apparently unjustified traffic stop in Virginia in 2000.

“You know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body,” Coates writes to his 15-year-old son. “It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding… The destroyers will rarely be held accountable.”

Yet, while it’s impossible to defend contemporary traffic policing in the US, I’m also deeply resistant to the idea – which seems to be gaining ground amid the discrediting of current behaviour – that traffic policing is a trivial matter that could reasonably be put aside as part of the police’s responsibilities. A better-focused system of traffic policing could surely improve on the US’s current dismal record on road safety. In 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, 32,719 people died on the US’s roads. The US’s minorities – who disproportionately live in areas poorly served with crosswalks and public transport – must suffer a disproportionate share of these deaths too.

Nuneham Courtenay: a rural idyll, protected by speed camera
As a result, I’ve found my mind turning increasingly to the village of Nuneham Courtenay,in Oxfordshire, in England, which I visited in 2011. I visited the village the day after residents achieved their aim of having reactivated a speed camera that had significantly slowed traffic on the 30mph road that divides the village. The camera had been deactivated as part of a populist backlash against cameras under the coalition government after the UK’s 2010 general election. Villagers had looked on in horror as, without the threat of a speeding fine, drivers increasingly ignored signs telling them to slow down from the 70mph speed limit on the roads outside to the far slower speed required when passing right by villagers’ front doors.

It’s an obvious virtue of mechanising the process of policing bad driving that the policing is no longer subject to arbitrary considerations such as whether policing staffing is down because of school holidays. It’s also helpful that cameras are generally places where there’s general agreement they’re serving a real safety, not fund-raising purpose. In the UK, the main criterion has been that four people should have been killed or seriously injured at a site in the past four years. It’s also, however, a great virtue of cameras that they won’t display racist bias. Policing should be far more closely linked to drivers’ behaviour and far less linked to their race.
Officers from the NYPD's 28th precinct demonstrate
how seriously they take road safety, by parking blocking
a bike lane in Harlem
A nationwide programme of speed and red light camera installation across the US could, if wisely implemented, be part of a wholesale rethinking of policing in the area. It’s clear that there are some violations – such as the use of phones while driving – that it will always be hard to hand over to cameras. But it would be transformative, as I’ve argued before, to start linking the promotion prospects of officers charged with traffic policing to the number of crashes, injuries and deaths on their roads, rather than to the number of tickets issued. Such a policy would immediately, I’d guess, eliminate many NYPD precincts’ enthusiasm for ticketing cyclists – a form of harassment that’s far less grave than that against black people and other minorities but stems, I think, from a similar desire to exert control over a group seen as troublesome outsiders.

Not that I sensed any mood for revolutionary change at the 76th precinct. Before I could even finish my explanation about finding the money, an officer interrupted, shouting across the room, to demand what identification I’d found with the money. None, I replied.

“We will never find the owner of that money,” the officer replied, sending me burdened with the Protestant guilt of an unearned $40, back into the street.

His last words rang in my ears as I trudged back towards the apartment.

“Sometimes it’s just your lucky day,” he said.

It wasn’t, a voice in my head objected, a lucky day for the person who’d lost $40 on the way to the subway, though, was it?

The idea fed into concerns far more significant than a mere $40. There is no element of luck attached to whether a driver gets a speeding ticket in Nuneham Courtenay. Luck plays far too large an element both in whether US police forces catch dangerous traffic violations – and in whether people stopped by US traffic patrols survive the encounter. It’s an obscene gambling with lives that can be and should be stopped.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

An old-fashioned prejudice, a wasted Bronx life - and the spiritual imperative to make streets safer

When I was growing up in sectarianism-ridden Glasgow, a friend relayed to me – in a rather shocked tone – an almost perfect example of self-reinforcing prejudice he’d heard from an older relative.

“You can tell a Catholic by two things: the way he keeps his garden, and the way he drives his car,” it went.

I had a powerful mental image of the old man’s walking past weed-strewn gardens and tutting that their owners must be Catholics or being cut up while driving and muttering, “Must be a Catholic”. Many of those at whom he frowned and sucked his teeth will of course have been, say, elders of the Church of Scotland, pillars of the local synagogue or stalwart atheists. But, in the nature of the act of walking past a garden or encountering another driver on the road, the prejudice will have gone unchallenged.
I can't divine these drivers' religions based
on their blocking the Hudson St bike lane.
But I believe it's a moral - and spiritual -
issue that they're doing so.
Yet the saying has come back to me because, however reprehensible the sentiment, it’s one of the few examples I’ve heard of someone’s making a link between someone’s driving and his or her religious convictions. The paucity of thinking about the connection of faith and road behaviour is part of a tendency, it seems to me, for the religiously observant – among whom I include myself – to minimise the moral significance of innovations – whether motor vehicles, guns or unhealthy lifestyles – subsequent to their religion’s revelation. Religious people often have strong feelings about sexuality, diet or family life - but are much less decided about the morality of using hydrocarbons or driving carelessly.

It’s an important omission, with here-and-now consequences. That became clear to me when I read about the behaviour of the church of Kwasi Oduro, who killed seven-year-old Ethan Villavicencio. Ethan died in June in The Bronx after Oduro reversed his car so carelessly it shot off the road, over the sidewalk and into the restaurant where Ethan was eating with his five-year-old sister and his father. Oduro drove over the boy twice, once on the way into the restaurant, then again when he drove off from the scene, before being captured two blocks away. Oduro claims that his brakes malfunctioned.

Although he had taken a young boy’s life and fled the scene, Oduro’s church – North Bronx Ghanaian Seventh Day Adventists – quickly raised $10,000 to get him out of jail, where he was being held on charges of leaving the scene of an “accident,” as New York’s legal system mislabels such crashes.

The church members’ readiness to raise Oduro’s bail suggests they saw his arrest as a mere misfortune for them to overcome collectively, rather than a moral issue. It may have seemed to belong to the same class as, say, someone’s need to find the airfare to return for the funeral of a relative in Ghana or the sudden, unexpected loss of a job. I find it hard to believe the church would have rallied round if Oduro had killed a seven-year-old with anything other than a car and tried to flee. It’s a blind spot about the morality of driving that, in my experience, many Christians – as well as people of other faiths – share.
A fairly minor car crash: but what's the spiritual significance
of this collision?

It’s vital to start being aware of that blind spot – and to eliminate it - for both spiritual and practical reasons. The spiritual reason is simple. If one claims to follow a belief system that gives one moral insights and the determination to act on them yet neglects to act morally on the streets, one’s a hypocrite. The point goes not only for Christians but, I think, for people following any religion that stresses the value of human life and the imperative to treat others respectfully.

The practical reasons should concern everyone, including those – of whom there are, I know, many among this blog’s readers – who reject all faith as a delusion.  In societies where many people set their moral compass in some sense by the lodestone of religious principles, it must be a concern if there’s a wholesale failure to apply those principles to a problem that, in the US, kills nearly 33,000 people annually.

The issue’s all the more important because some religious institutions are big generators of car traffic. In US cities, many long-established church congregations – including, to some extent, my own Episcopal church in Park Slope – serve communities that were once clustered close to the church but have now dispersed elsewhere. The result is often that people drive from their suburban homes to their more urban churches, generating demand for parking and, often, making it harder to put in improvements such as bike lanes. In the suburbs, megachurches typically stand surrounded by the same empty space as a renaissance cathedral – except that the space is for parking the congregation’s cars, not enhancing the building’s majesty. I can’t recall ever having heard of a church’s reflecting on the morality of its role in traffic issues.
Minivans parked for a Hasidic community event block
a sidewalk and bike lane in Williamsburg: a bad moral choice,
in my view.

My reaction to all this is, naturally, shaped by my own spiritual experience. Having been brought up in a home that was Christian but not fanatical, I underwent an intense spiritual experience at 14. It led me to a version of Christianity that was far more fervent in its convictions and rigid in its doctrine than my parents’. Much of the time since has been spent clinging, with varying degrees of tenacity, to the central elements of that personal faith amid a storm of discoveries about the intellectual and spiritual shortcomings of that early evangelicism. I have arrived, I hope, at a religious practice that reflects more truly the moral imperatives of my faith, while discarding some unhelpful cultural baggage.

I remain, as past blogposts here will have made clear, a profoundly flawed advert for the spiritual life. I shout sometimes at drivers that scare me and deploy withering sarcasm and invective at the occasional pedestrian who deliberately blocks my way. I believe myself forgiven for my many flaws – but still regularly rack up new acts requiring forgiveness.
A crowd outside Manhattan's Stonewall Inn celebrates the
Supreme Court's marriage equality decision. Unlike some
fellow Christians, I believe Christ would share their joy.
I am seeking nevertheless these days to focus on the character of Christianity’s founder revealed in the gospels and less on the detailed concerns about doctrine and personal behaviour that many evangelicals derive from detailed dissection of Paul’s epistles. Were Jesus living in Brooklyn in 2015 in the same sense he did in first century Palestine, I surmise he’d be concerned about the US’s continued racist treatment of black people and not seeking to prevent loving, committed gay couples from getting married. He would be angry about the plight of children living in poverty - and eager to have women as well as men preach in church.

Traffic has come increasingly to seem to me like an issue that would profoundly concern such a modern-day Christ. Cars’ dominance of many cities reflects a mid-20th century prioritisation of the needs of the well-off and suburban over the poor and urban. Officials’ reluctance to use speed cameras and many other mechanisms to prevent deaths and injuries reflects a bias in favour of the convenience of generally better-off motorists over the lives and health of the generally poorer people that suffer disproportionately in crashes.

The preference for fuel-hungry private cars over less polluting public transport, walking and cycling reflects a selfish, short-sighted readiness to let others live with the effects of pollution and climate change. People are willing to risk others’ lives in order to send a text faster while driving because of a whole cocktail of different mixed-up priorities.

Many of these abuses look to me like modern manifestations of the abuses by tax collectors and other rich, powerful figures against which Jesus regularly rails in the gospels. Much of scripture celebrates the beauty of creation in a way that makes me doubt the spiritual warrant for building so many six-lane, noisy highways through it. Many other religious traditions criticise similar abuses.
An expression of bourgeois preference for driving over
alternatives: congregants block the bike lane outside
Brooklyn's Roman Catholic basilica.
Yet, at its worst, religious observance can descend into an expression of petty bourgeois identity of which owning and driving a car are central parts. A person going to church or a mosque or a gurdwara in a car is far more powerfully segregated from the polluting, unspiritual people around than someone travelling on a subway train or on a bicycle. Since many religious traditions – including those in which I grew up – stress the primary importance of keeping oneself morally pure, it’s not surprising that many respectable churchgoers see cars shut off from the wider, unpredictable world as good ways of getting to church. There’s a natural, rather depressing human tendency for the religious to focus on keeping a set of rules laid down centuries again than on seeking positively to live as good a life as possible. The rules naturally have nothing direct to say about how to drive.

The outcomes of such attitudes are visible and damaging. I’ve complained before about being forced to swerve out into a busy lane of vehicle traffic on finding the congregation of Downtown Brooklyn’s Catholic basilica had decided illegally to park blocking the bike lane. I’ve encountered still more dangerous conditions created when members of New York’s Hasidic Jewish community parked their vehicles blocking both a sidewalk and two-way cycle lane in Williamsburg for a large community celebration.
Be outraged, yes, at the violation of the bike lane. But spare
some outrage, please, for the misuse of that little fish
symbol above the licence plate.
Cycling through Queens last month, I encountered a stretch limousine parked blocking a two-way bike lane - and carrying the fish bumper sticker that some Christians use to identify themselves to other drivers. In Washington, DC, in 2013, the city was pushed into eliminating a block from a new protected bike lane on M Street because an African Methodist Episcopal church said the plan would eliminate car parking without which its members would be unable to worship on Sundays. A bishop in my own denomination, the American Episcopal Church, faces a series of charges after she hit and killed Thomas Palermo, a man cycling near Baltimore, while driving drunk. She initially fled the scene.

No credible spiritual organisation should be content that its members are complicit in such prioritisations of their own convenience over others’ lives and health.

The lack of a religious voice on this issue struck me particularly forcefully this past Monday when I attended a vigil organised by Families for Safe Streets – an admirable organisation founded by survivors of crashes and relatives of the dead – at Union Square in Greenwich Village. A series of people – including parents and spouses of victims of crashes, crash survivors and city council members – read out the names of the 123 people already killed in crashes so far this year in New York.

The Families for Safe Streets vigil: an emotional, powerful
event, without, sadly, a spiritual leader.
Many of those present at the vigil have, I know, received comfort from their religious communities after wrenching losses. Large numbers of activists for safe streets have meaningful spiritual lives – including many who are active in their local synagogues. The problems that lead to the traffic deaths are complex and will not be resolved, of course, by religious communities’ merely enjoining their members to exercise, say, greater care when reversing into parking spaces near restaurants. A wholesale reordering of priorities is needed, from changes in road design to more serious enforcement of traffic laws to moves to make it far harder to obtain a driving licence than I found it when I took my New York test earlier this month.

Yet, for many causes in New York that are not explicitly religious, it would have seemed obvious to invite alongside the politicians and activists at least one religious figure who had identified with the cause in question. At Monday’s vigil, I saw no sign of a religious figure who has made street safety his or her signature cause.

Holy Trinity Clapham: proud history
That seems to me a glaring omission. While I recognise my personal spiritual take on the issue is a minority one, I believe that significant numbers of New Yorkers have some feeling there is a wider spiritual dimension to life. It seems hard to me to conceive of a God who would not grieve deeply and urge action over losses like that of Ethan Villavicencio, whose mother gave a heart-wrenching interview to the Daily News, She was across the street when he was hit and came back to find his life ebbing a way in the spot where he’d been waiting for her to come and eat ice cream.

Religious communities can, of course, be slow to wake up to horrors then brave in countering them. I’m proud, for example, that Holy Trinity Clapham – the church I attended in London – played a vital role in campaigning for the abolition of the slave trade. The Scottish matron who looked after the school once attached to St Columba’s Budapest, the church I attended when I lived in Hungary, died in Auschwitz after staying to look after the children even after the Nazi takeover of Hungary. A number of Jewish refugees nevertheless survived the Holocaust by hiding under the building’s floor. It may well be that church leaders will start soon to recognise the waste of life on roads throughout the world for the urgent moral and spiritual issue that it is.
The car that killed Alejandro Moran-Marin, outside Brooklyn's
78th precinct house: a stark reminder of the costs of delay
Yet, in New York, nearly every day that passes without its religious communities’ bringing their energy, passion and outrage to the battle there’s a price to pay. There was a powerful reminder of that towards the end of Monday’s vigil. We were asked, if we could, to kneel at the end of the vigil to commemorate Alejandro Moran-Marin, a cyclist who had been killed just the day before near Brooklyn’s Barclays Center when a driver veered across the road and ran into him head-on.

As I knelt holding my bike in one hand and a yellow carnation in the other, I – and I imagine some others – fell into prayer over such appalling wastes of life. It occurs to me that I have never heard prayers specifically over the same issue in a more traditional religious setting. I can only hope that a spreading recognition of the slaughter’s senselessness and immorality means that omission will soon be rectified.

Monday, 13 July 2015

A driving test, mistaken questions - and why it's too easy to get a New York driving licence

The inspector’s accent was so Old New York it ought to be put in a museum or taped for use in announcements on the subway’s nostalgia trains.

“Turn on da vehicle and, when you’re ready, move off,” he told me.

Sensing that, like a true New Yorker, this employee of the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles was in no mood to wait around, I started the driving school’s ageing Hyundai Elantra, I looked carefully into my mirrors and over my shoulder, signalled and pulled out. I was, finally, taking the road test to get my New York State driving licence (driver’s license, here). It was July 2, four weeks short of 24 years since I last sat a driving test, and, having been breezily confident until the day before, I had woken up acutely nervous about whether I would pass.
20th Avenue, Astoria, Queens: a slice of wide-laned suburbia
that I'll always associate with pre-test nerves

Thanks to those nerves, I had begun as I cycled from home towards the test site to dwell on the vagaries of the licensing process. Vast swathes of the information I’d been given had been focused, it seemed to me, more on making sure I’d be a compliant, cooperative participant in traffic than on making sure I’d pose minimal safety risks to others. There had been lots of mentioning of individual rules. There had been very few efforts to underline the general principle that I should behave safely and considerately.

New York’s drivers, as ever, had acted as I cycled over in ways that heightened my misgivings about the Department of Motor Vehicles’ priorities. I had been overtaken at vastly excessive speed just after crossing the Pulaski Bridge into Queens. Motorists went through red lights for which I’d already stopped. Others had seemed severely distracted. Maybe I was fated not to get along with New York’s culture of driving, I had brooded to myself.

“Make a left here,” the instructor told me, pointing up a hill way from the power station that takes up one side of 20 Avenue in Astoria, the part of Queens where I was taking the test.

I should make it clear, since people have asked, that my deciding to get a New York driving licence doesn’t reflect some Damascene conversion to the cause of driving or a first step towards buying a motor vehicle. I continue largely to dislike driving, which is especially stressful when one’s used to using the streets as a cyclist and aware of how frightening cars can be for other road users.

None of my misgivings, however, negates the fact that there it’s occasionally extremely useful to be able to drive, particularly during our annual family summer holiday and on certain work trips. Being a rules-focused, cautious person, I had also grown increasingly nervous about the legal niceties of using my UK licence to drive in the US three years after I moved to New York. After hearing a colleague describe how she’d been fined $800 after she showed a police officer her Brazilian driving licence after several years’ US residence, I had reluctantly decided I could ignore the whole muddly issue no longer.

“I want you to move over here to the right – MOVE OVER HERE TO THE RIGHT – and park behind this vehicle,” the instructor said.
For fans of the blatantly obvious: the Department of Motor
Vehicles' probing questions about alcohol and driving

Even the first step – taking a written, multiple-choice test – had felt like a not-very-subtle form of indoctrination. There had been some straightforward questions about safety rules. It turned out, for example, that only time could counteract the effects of alcohol, not having a cold shower or a coffee. The correct answer on how to proceed when railroad crossing barriers started coming down had been to stop and wait, not to zig-zag round the barriers.

But a fair number of the questions, it seemed to me, had focused on rules that were mainly about keeping the roads moving smoothly. “You are making a left turn from a two-way street into a one-way street,” one question read, before giving four alternatives on which lane one should use after turning.

Worse still had been the relative paucity of questions about driving around pedestrians and managing the complex rules around their right of way. I strongly suspect most New York drivers don’t recognise that there is, legally speaking, an unmarked crosswalk, where pedestrians have right of way over turning vehicles, at even unsignalled intersections. Nothing in the written test would have prompted them to find out about that.
How might the victim be to blame for your crashing into
him or her? Some of the DMV's bizarre questions about
cyclists and other vulnerable road users
The most bizarre questions, meanwhile, had been about bicycles. “Motorists should be aware that all bicycles used after dark must have” one question asked before listing as alternatives “reflective handlebar grips,” “front headlight and rear taillight,” “white reflectors on the front and rear fenders” and “brake lights”. “A motorist should know that a bicyclist operating on a roadway must” read another before listing as alternatives “ride on the right side of the road,” “ride on the side of the road facing traffic,” “ride on either side of the road” or “ride on the side of the road with the least traffic”. The correct answer for the side of the road question was that the cyclist should ride on the right – an answer so riven with exceptions under New York City law as to fuel the already considerable misunderstandings between cyclists and motorists.

Given that the test was for a licence to drive a motor vehicle, the only possible explanation for these questions was to give motorists excuses to be frustrated with cyclists. In the several practice tests I tried and the test I actually took, the nearest I encountered to a question asking about safe driving around cyclists was one that asked how a motorist should behave when trying to pass a cyclist. But the correct answer - “exercise extreme caution” – was less close to truly safe behaviour than another answer – “swerve into the opposite lane” – that had been written to appear absurd.

Those and other questions had read as if written by some ill-informed angry motorist eager to get other drivers and cyclists to stay sensibly out of his way, rather than a considered effort to filter out bad drivers. My over-liberal ideas about where cyclists are allowed to ride on the road had cost me one of the 20 points on offer. I had been surprised as I waited afterwards to receive a temporary learner’s permit to hear another test participant berating the staff because he had fallen short of the 14 out of 20 pass mark.

“OK,” the examiner said. “Make a left here.”
Everyone hunches over their mobile phones before a five-hour
lesson that ignores their effects on road safety
Much the strangest part of the process had been the compulsory, five-hour classroom lesson I had to take back in May. Just before 10am one Saturday, I had cycled to an unglamorous storefront in Sunset Park, where a rotund man from the Caribbean called Raymond had talked to us, essentially, about how to get through the coming road test. During the road test, he’d told us, it was vital to pause for any pedestrian anywhere near a crosswalk before turning through it. During the road test, he’d gone on, it was vital not to exceed the city’s new 25mph speed limit. During the test, it was important not to swing onto the wrong side of the road while turning a corner. That was a definite fail. These were the unreasonable requirements of the finicky old test, it was strongly implied. Such prissy behaviour wouldn’t be necessary once we were properly licensed drivers.

Raymond had then padded out the time by showing us a series of films, none made more recently than 1997, covering a series of safety themes. Much the worst was a film, dressed up as a corny noir detective thriller, about the mystery of how anti-lock brakes behave in an emergency. Drivers would have to change their old habits to adapt to this new technology, it warned. Another had covered how to drive in adverse weather conditions. “The first question is, ‘What’s the most important thing you can do to improve safety in adverse driving conditions?’” a man in a suit and tie asked. “And the answer is, ‘Slow down’,” answered a woman with curly, 1990s hair, making a downward movement with her hands for emphasis.

The two most effective films had focused on the suffering of bereaved families. One described the death of Nancy McBrien, a US navy officer killed in 1996 on the George Washington Parkway near Washington. She died when two angry drivers jostling with each other crashed, sending one of their vehicles across the parkway’s central reservation and into Cmdr McBrien’s car. The other covered the effects of the behaviour of Bruce Kimball, a former US Olympic diver who in 1989 drove drunk and crashed into a group of teenagers in Florida, killing two and seriously injuring four.

The anti-lock brake video had been especially misdirected. It was warning course participants – most around 20 - of the challenges of adapting to a technology that became near-universal around the time they were born. Even the more effective videos, meanwhile, had been potentially counterproductive. Both had reflected specific moral panics over specific apparent social phenomena – teenage drink-driving and road rage. Yet few drivers who drive aggressively view themselves as acting out of “road rage”. Hardly any drivers who drink too much to drive safely would identify with the hedonistic recklessness of Bruce Kimball.
This is the kind of distracted driving I encounter
nearly daily: but there was no time to discuss
it in my five-hour lesson
The behaviour that I see around me on New York’s streets day by day had gone largely unaddressed. There had been no information about distracted driving – even though one student felt compelled to ignore the instructor’s request that we switch off our mobile phones during the class. There was nothing about the dangers to ourselves and others of exceeding the speed limit, except in snowy or icy conditions. There was no effort to stress the obligation to give way when turning to pedestrians crossing the side street. The lesson had been shaped, it seemed to me, by the imperatives of New York’s car-dominated Long Island suburbs or life upstate, rather than the streets of New York City. The day’s sole real utility had been to provide us all with the certificate that allowed us to go on and book our road tests.

As I made the left turn, a man pushing a stroller emerged from behind a parked vehicle, heading towards the crosswalk. I stood hastily on the brakes, only to have him wave me through. I fretted that the incident would cost me my test pass.

The driving instructor had pushed my stress levels up on the morning of the test higher even than they’d been when I’d woken up. I’d arranged for a driving school near the test site in Astoria to give me a short lesson – starting at 7.30am – before the test, due to start at 8.30. Starting driving, I had found the slightest touch on the accelerator sent the vehicle shooting forward. The slightest touch on the brake had brought it shuddering to a halt. As I had grappled with this lurching monster, the driving instructor had worried I was going so slowly – at around 20mph – that I’d be failed. “Go at 25,” she’d kept telling me, referring to the city’s 25mph speed limit, “Definitely not less than 20.”
Don't worry; the line will soon clear: would-be drivers
wait in Astoria for their 8.30am driving test appointments
I had begun to worry that my fear over driving down Queens’ narrow, two-way streets, lined with parked cars between which someone could step at any moment, would conflict with the inspectors’ reluctance to approve new drivers who didn’t drive fast enough. Like Raymond, this instructor stressed what I should be doing “for the test” – stopping before the “Stop” line at intersections, sticking to the speed limit but not going too far below it, yielding to every pedestrian at an intersection. The list of potential infractions that would lead to an automatic fail started to grow. I’d fail if I hit the kerb when parallel parking, the instructor told me. I’d fail if my wheels entered a cycle lane as I made a right turn. I’d fail if I drove too slowly. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail, fail. Who would drive on our family holiday if I failed?

“I want you to turn da vehicle around in a three-point turn,” the inspector said. “Shall I wait for this vehicle coming the other way to pass?” I replied. He grunted in a yes-wait-but-I-don’t-want-this-test lasting-longer-than-six-minutes tone.

We had arrived at the test site with 25 minutes to spare before the test’s 8.30am scheduled start, to find 12 other candidates already waiting in line. Three inspectors had nevertheless worked through the queue so effectively when they arrived at 8.30am that I started my test at 8.59am. Each test was taking an average of seven-and-a-half minutes.

“I want you to pull in at the side of the road here,” the instructor told me, indicating a point across 20 Avenue from where the test had started. “Secure da vehicle.”
One of my least satisfactory personal victories:
the receipt that makes me a licensed
New York State driver.

His head went down into the little notepad and handheld computer in his lap. He jabbed at the computer with a stylus. The momentary silence seemed to stretch on forever.

“You passed da test,” he finally muttered before handing me a receipt showing I’d passed and going on to his next candidate.

But I felt only minimal relief as I headed back to the driving school in the passenger seat. I threw my mind back to the day in 1991 in Glasgow when I’d passed my UK driving test. Apart from the UK test’s being far longer and more demanding – I’d had, for example, to show I could safely make an emergency stop and driven on a wider range of roads – there’d also been a different emphasis. The theory questions I’d been asked after my test in the UK – it was before the UK introduced a full, written test – had focused heavily, for example, on the distance it took to stop a vehicle at different speeds. The UK’s Highway Code of road rules had dealt far more in general principles – such as that one shouldn’t ever execute a manoeuvre that forced another road user to brake unnecessarily – than the emphasis in the New York process on rules and right-of-way.

The differences reflect wider cultural differences. The US – admirably, in many ways – views itself as a nation of laws, operating by adherence to a strict application of the law, with a legal system that tends to look for specific violations of specific statutes before prosecuting someone. The English legal system – which has some points in common with the system in my native Scotland – is more wedded to the principle of common law: that legal precedent and common understanding elucidate what is illegal as much as specific statutes. One country came into being through a dispute over taxation. The other stumbled into existence by such a haphazard process that it still lacks a written constitution.

The New York driving test reflected, I think, the emphasis I see in the city’s often bizarre arguments about road safety rules. The city’s main bus drivers’ union, for example, is still seeking to have its members exempted from a law that makes it a specific offence to strike a pedestrian or cyclist who is proceeding with the right of way. English law treats such obvious wrongdoing on the roads under wider categories – careless driving, dangerous driving, reckless driving. The fundamental assumptions between the two systems – one putting drivers through a long, difficult test, the other putting drivers through a short, easy one – seem to be fundamentally different. The New York State process - although it is, remarkably, one of the US’s toughest driver licensing regimes – seems to be designed to usher any applicant who doesn’t show him or herself manifestly unfit into driver’s licence ownership. The UK test felt more, well, like a test.
The New York Police Department block a bike lane as I
return from my driving test: who couldn't feel pride to
share a licence with such princes of the road?
There remains, for sure, much progress to be made in the UK. Prosecutors are far too ready, for example, to cut charges that should be for causing death by dangerous driving to careless driving. There’s a worrying tendency to attribute contributory negligence to injured cyclists who haven’t, for example, worn a helmet.

But, as I left the driving school to head through the tail end of the rush hour back to the office, it was hard not to contrast the frenzied driving I encountered with the noticeably calmer road behaviour I note when I return to the UK. I was tailgated on narrow streets, jostled by impatient motorists at traffic lights and generally treated with the disrespect that is sadly customary on New York’s streets. The most telling indignity came as I tried to reach the Queens Plaza cycle lane. A police van was parked entirely obstructing it.

Each of these drivers, it occurred to me, had once, presumably, sat in a car with a Department of Motor Vehicles inspector and been told, as I had just been, “you passed”. It was hard not to wish the state took far more care about who got to hear those words and how hard it made for them to hear them.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

A Twitter row, a gospel passage - and why victim-blaming keeps coming back

It’s not, I accept, a common outcome to a row on social media. But, as I was cycling home on May 20 past downtown Brooklyn’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, my mind turned from a row I’d been having on Twitter with Rory Lancman, a New York city council member, to the New Testament. Specifically, I thought about an incident in the 9th chapter of the Gospel ofJohn.
Jay St: not an obvious place, I accept, to start pondering
the Gospel of John
The passage came to mind because Councilman Lancman wants to amend key provisions of the council’s Right of Way law, passed last year. The amendments would shift from the driver to police and prosecutors the burden for proving violations of the law were avoidable. That would make it far harder to use the law for its intended purpose of charging drivers who hit pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way. The councilman’s arguments to my mind suggest he thinks there are cases where motorists strike vulnerable road users acting legally and the crash is still ultimately somehow the vulnerable road user’s fault.

John Chapter 9 is a reminder of how long human beings have been battling that same instinct to assume people nearly always bring their misfortune on themselves. It details an encounter between Jesus and his disciples and a man born blind. The disciples assume the man must be suffering because of some wrongdoing either on his own or his parents’ part.

The efforts by Councilman Lancman and many others to shift the blame for crashes make far more sense, it seems to me, looked at in the context of millennia of instinctive victim-blaming than as a rational piece of public policy-making. The belief that victims deserve their fate continues to underlie thinking in a huge range of areas. While it clouds a huge amount of people’s thinking about road safety, it has still more invidious effects in thinking about class, race and, most obviously in the contemporary US, violence by the police. It is particularly invidious because it tends to be applied disproportionately to the powerless – the pedestrian or cyclist more than the motorist; the poor, unarmed black person killed by police more than the police officer.

“As Jesus went along, he saw a man blind from birth,” John Chapter 9 reads. “ His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned - this man or his parents - that he was born blind?’”

A crash I encountered on Friday: since it involved two
motor vehicles, Councilman Lancman is spared
the task of working out how to exonerate one party.
Councilman Lancman, of course, doesn’t accept my interpretation of his proposed amendments. He insists that his concern is a purely technical one – that the law passed last year is wrongly being interpreted as a “strict liability” law: that drivers are charged irrespective of the circumstances and their culpability in striking the victim of the crash. The police are wrongly failing before making arrests to analyse whether the crash was somehow unavoidable.

An email he sent to fellow council members explaining his proposed amendments, however, suggests he simply doesn't think drivers are truly to blame for many crashes.

“Adding a provision to the bill to require an analysis of due care will penalise drivers who hit pedestrians out of recklessness and gross negligence, while sparing drivers when accidents are caused by poor road conditions, bad weather and scofflaw pedestrians,” he wrote.

The email suggests strongly that many motorists who strike pedestrians and cyclists moving legally and with the right of way are somehow helpless victims either of circumstances on the roads or of the negligence of those they hit. Since it’s impossible that a pedestrian crossing the street with a walk signal can be crossing the street illegally, Councilman Lancman seems to be suggesting that, for example, a motorist might be let off charges for striking him or her if, say, the victim was talking on a mobile telephone.
Two pedestrians in this Meatpacking District crosswalk
are on their phones. That makes them fair game, right?

The email also suggests an entirely mistaken conception of a driver’s duty to exercise due care. In poor road conditions and bad weather, it’s a driver’s responsibility to drive more carefully. If a driver has blindspots, he has to compensate for them by looking more carefully. To assume that the vulnerable have to assume all the blame is to make a crude assumption that might is generally right.

The true obscenity of the councilman’s proposed amendment, meanwhile, is that it’s seeking to stamp out a “problem” that barely exists. According to Streetsblog, between the introduction of the Right of Way Law last August and the end of April, only 22 drivers had been charged under it, out of 8,000 collisions between motorists and pedestrians or cyclists. His proposed amendment would usher in a system where even that minuscule number of prosecutions would inevitably fall to nearly zero. It is no comfort at all that the councilman's proposed amendment and some other recent legislation aimed at gutting the Right of Way Law seem to be aimed at ensuring that more members of Transport Workers' Union Local 100, which represents New York bus drivers, escape arrest when they hit pedestrians.

It’s hardly as if, after all, there isn’t already a firmly-established paradigm in the heads of police officers and district attorneys that pedestrians and cyclists bring their fates on themselves. On May 18, for example, a driver struck and killed John Torson, 89, at the corner of 1st Avenue and 61st Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and claimed that, while she had done her best to stop, he had “just hobbled into the middle of the street”. Extraordinarily, the New York Police Department appears to have accepted this improbable excuse for hitting a man of 89 who was crossing with the right of way. The NYPD let it be known that Mr Torson had been “crossing outside the marked crosswalk”. Pictures of the scene showed the car stopped only just beyond the crosswalk, suggesting that he must at least have been very close to the marked lines.

Mr Torson was killed only a few blocks from where a turning cab driver killed Amelia Sterental, 76, on May 9 at 60th Street and Madison Avenue. That crash – which also involved a turning driver and someone crossing the street with the walk signal - has yet to produce any charges either, suggesting that the police in that case have also found some improbable excuse for the driver’s negligence.

A van driver swings through a crosswalk
on Sixth Avenue. If he hits a pedestrian,
in many circumstances, Rory Lancman
will have his back
New means of suggesting pedestrians and cyclists bring their fate on themselves are constantly emerging and need to be slapped down, like some strange game of cultural whack-a-mole. One snowy morning in early 2014, I shouted at a cab driver who honked at me to try to get me out of a crosswalk. When he got out to confront me, I told him impatient driving like his explained the city’s poor road safety record. He asserted – even though I had not been using a phone – that pedestrians’ mobile phone use that explained the spike in crashes. I have seen abundant commentary recently on the risks of pedestrians' mobile phone use - and far less on the far greater danger posed by distracted drivers.

In the UK, Bradley Wiggins - for whose sporting achievements I feel the greatest respect - recently made the latest of a series of poorly-judged interventions on cycling safety to say cyclists "have to help themselves" by wearing "helmets and things". The Metropolitan Police shamefully failed to charge the driver who fatally hit Michael Mason on Regent’s Street because, although his bike was well lit, he was wearing neither a helmet nor high-visibility clothing. Most dispiritingly, I once had a lunch with a UK road safety minister who, when asked about cyclist safety, said cyclists were "their own worst enemies".

The persistence of such thinking is all the more extraordinary given the mental leaps that should be required to accept this narrative. Research regularly places the main blame for between two-thirds and 80 per cent of crashes involving vulnerable road users on the driver involved. Yet the victim-blaming narrative suggests cyclists and pedestrians either don’t know themselves to be vulnerable or consistently throw themselves in front of deadly, speeding vehicles heedless of the dangers.

The desperation to exonerate motorists reflects not only a desire to blame victims but to exculpate the powerful of wrongdoing. Last week, for example, after a driver mounted a sidewalk in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and mowed down Oscar Chen, four, the police were quick to dismiss this appalling piece of driving as “just an accident”. The four-year-old was saved, to judge by videos, only by being by a tree – which fell over and protected him – when the vehicle hit him. The distasteful rush to exonerate contrasts sharply with the police’s desperation to accept the false account of Ahmad Abu-Zayedeha, the driver who killed three-year-old Allison Liao in a crosswalk in Queens in 2013. The driver said Allison had “broken away” from her grandmother while crossing the street – a version of events that subsequent evidence has shown to be entirely misleading. Allison's family are constituents of Rory Lancman's.

There are similar forces at work in the effort to vilify Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old killed last year by Cleveland Police, and make excuses for the police officers who killed him. It’s not too much of a stretch, I think, to see the victim-blaming, power-exonerating dynamic at work in much of recent decades’ US economic policy. The rich need the carrot of lower taxes if they’re to be persuaded to work harder. The poor need the stick of withdrawn benefits.

The victim-blaming narrative, after all, has huge implications. If we all primarily determine our own fate on the roads, there should be a presumption of minimal intervention by the police, prosecutors and licensing authorities in drivers’ freedom to do as they please. If, however, people’s fates depend predominantly on the behaviour of others, the presumption in favour of freedom should be significantly eroded.

It’s striking for how long these moral and intellectual battles have been fought and refought, however. In the Jewish scriptures, the book of Job recounts a man suffering a series of afflictions whose friends falsely assume his own wrongdoing has somehow brought them on him. In John Chapter 9, meanwhile, Jesus firmly rebukes his disciples.
Parking outside Brooklyn Basilica: how would Jesus park,
do you think?
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he says.

The story in John has a far happier ending than many collisions on New York’s or London’s streets or between angry police officers and vulnerable African-Americans. Jesus says that the blind man is blind "so that the works of God might be displayed in him". That is, I accept, a problematical idea. But Jesus goes on to put mud on the man’s eyes and have him wash it off. Afterwards, he can see.

Such a moment of eye-opening doesn’t yet seem to have come to Councilman Lancman or many other policy-makers or law enforcement officials worldwide. It hasn’t, sadly, even come to some of my fellow contemporary followers of Christ. As I cycled home on May 31, a little over a fortnight after my row with Councilman Lancman, I headed as usual down Jay St past St James’s Cathedral. I came up short when I found the bike lane was blocked. People attending an event at the cathedral had arrived by car in large numbers and decided, entirely illegally, to park diagonally to the kerb, blocking the bike lane in both directions. Cyclists were forced out into a busy stream of rush-hour traffic, endangered to provide more convenient parking for the congregation.

It’s a casual example of the arrogance of the powerful against the weak. Were Jesus present on earth in the same sense as 2,000 years ago, there would, I’m sure, be issues that would cause him still more concern. But there's a moral responsibility to park a car - just as there is to move it - in a way that poses the least possible risk to others. When people undertake even such minor acts in a fashion so casually contemptuous of the interests of others, it strikes me as deeply at odds with the solicitude for others that Christian faith – or the true practice of Judaism, humanism or any truly ethical belief system – should inspire.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A changing junction, a political bike ride - and the progressive case for cycling

As I ride home from work in the evenings, an intersection in downtown Brooklyn often prompts me to ponder New York City’s attitude to cycling. The southbound bike lane on Smith St at Fulton St used to move out gracefully round a waiting area for taxis and car-service vehicles. Then, recognising that the lane was constantly blocked by parked vehicles, the city decided to repaint the lane so that the parked taxis would no longer block it – though cyclists would have to perform a dangerous swerve out into traffic to round the parked vehicles. More recently, it’s been repainted yet again – and the lane’s now back to guiding cyclists smoothly through the junction – and once again perpetually blocked.
Smith St at Fulton: as it was before it became a symbol
of the city's vacillation about cyclists.

The intersection is a beautiful concrete – or asphalt – illustration of New York City’s equivocal attitude towards encouraging cycling. The city has been prepared to paint bicycle lanes on streets – although it’s now retreating even from that in favour of the dreadful “extra-wide parking lane”. But the city has been far less ready – particularly since Janette Sadik-Khan left as transport commissioner at the end of 2013 – to recognise that to accommodate cyclists well in a given road space it is also often necessary to inconvenience motorists. There has lately seemed to be a waning of the confidence under Michael Bloomberg, the previous mayor, that by promoting cycling the city was making progress towards being a better city.

A bike ride last Thursday prompted me to ponder further the politics of this change. I rode with members of New York city council’s progressive caucus from Brooklyn Borough Hall across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to highlight the importance of cycling. A Manhattan delegation, having ridden from Union Square, met us at City Hall. As I rode with Brad Lander, Carlos Menchaca and other left-leaning individuals, I got into discussion about the “progressive” agenda for transport in the city and how intimately cycling is linked to making the city better for all its inhabitants.
Brad Lander addresses the bike-to-work ride outside Borough
Hall: a reliable progressive enthusiast for cycling.
I came away convinced that there are many progressive politicians in the city who recognise that the way people get about significantly affects how equitable and safe a city is for all its inhabitants. But I also left worried that some other progressive politicians fail to grasp what a big role changes to those patterns of mobility could play in achieving their wider goals.

Even the term progress is a pretty significant stumbling-block when thinking about these issues. The term implies that humans are learning from previous generations’ mistakes to make the world a steadily better place. It’s a view of the world that sits uncomfortably with the multiple areas where the world appears to be going into reverse. Among those are the rise of vicious Islamist radicals like the Islamic State and the takeover of the US’s Republican Party by groups that appear to reject the reliability of the scientific method for deducing facts about the world. The term also calls into question what “progress” is. Does it entail everyone’s growing steadily richer and buying ever more cars and consumer goods? At its worst, the goal of pushing towards “progress” has justified appalling acts of political repression.

Nevertheless, I’m confident that in most industrialised societies people’s political instincts divide fairly neatly into conservative and progressive camps. Conservatives tend to believe the past was better than the present and that society’s existing power structures are there for fairly good reasons. Progressives tend to think the future can be better than the present and question the power structures currently in place.
I don't know the politics of these people waiting to participate
in last week's ride with progressive city council members -
but it's a fair guess many would call themselves progressives.
It’s no surprise that many cycling activists, as I do, place themselves broadly in the progressive political camp. Since cycling currently accounts for only a small proportion of journeys in many rich countries, arguments for cycling are by their nature arguments for building a future that’s better than the present. Conservatives such as Boris Johnson, London’s elected mayor, are rarer – but often seem to value the bicycle as a symbol of how things were done in the past. Far more conservatives - including Jeremy Clarkson, formerly of the BBC’s Top Gear franchise – seem to identify with car culture.

But that point doesn’t fit with recent shifts in attitudes towards cycling in New York. Following the election in late 2013 of Bill de Blasio – a Democratic mayor about as far left as any conceivable mayor of the US’s main financial centre – it’s clear that cycling has moved well down the city’s list of political priorities. Compared with Michael Bloomberg, his far more conservative predecessor, the current mayor seems to see little reason to encourage cycling to work or the completion of the city’s cycling network. In fact, the fading paint on many of the city’s cycle lanes is a neat illustration of how fragile progress in such an area can be. With less active support for cycling promotion, the previous gains are almost literally fading away.

It wouldn’t be surprising, in fact, if the mayor were a little distrustful of those of us who lobby for cycling. The mayor fought the election on the basis that he would campaign for the second New York that had been neglected during the Bloomberg years. From the perspective of poor neighbourhoods far out in Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, those of us from brownstone Brooklyn and nice parts of Manhattan who lobby for better cycling provision must seem like representatives of the elements in the city that are already well catered-to.
Poverty-stricken Coney Island after Superstorm Sandy:
cycling promotion probably wasn't on many locals' minds after
this catastrophe.

It must also make a great deal of sense looked at from poorer neighbourhoods for the mayor to focus much of his transport energy on the Vision Zero programme of reducing road deaths. A disproportionate number of those who die on the roads are people like Noshat Nahian, an eight-year-old child of Bangladeshi immigrants killed by a turning semi-trailer truck on Northern Boulevard in Queens, or Amar Diarrassouba, the six-year-old son of immigrants from Cote d’Ivoire killed by a truck in February 2013 as he walked to school in East Harlem. There’s no doubt that trucks and cars – which predominantly support the lifestyles of New York’s richer people – exact a disproportionate toll in death and injury on poorer New Yorkers. The mayor is quite right to try to address that.

Yet it’s a significant failure of imagination not to try to do more than that. Because New York state’s gas tax and other fees for driving cover only 56.1 per cent of the cost of providing the state’s road system, poor state taxpayers without cars are forced to pay much of the cost of maintaining the road system. That’s even before considering all the other costs that the road system imposes – the costs of crashes, congestion, atmospheric pollution and noise, all of which are shouldered by ordinary taxpayers. Any effort to make New York City less car-dependent is inevitably a progressive step away from the regressive effects of the current system of funding for roads. It would also make perfect sense for a progressive mayor to support Move New York’s sensible plans to charge all vehicles entering lower Manhattan a fee that would be used to support the city’s subways and other alternative means of transport. The higher charges would fall predominantly on the city’s wealthiest people, while a great many of the benefits would flow to the city’s poor.
The Manhattan Bridge bike lane on bike-to-work day:
I don't want to see more bike traffic jams like this - but there's
a clear progressive case for encouraging these people
to keep riding their bikes.

An increase in the number of people cycling would serve many of the political goals for which the mayor and many other progressives purport to be aiming. It would reduce the cost burden of maintaining the road system, reduce pollution – another ill that disproportionately harms the poor living by arterial roads – and improve New Yorkers’ overall health. Despite some high-profile incidents, it's also far safer for pedestrians to be around people using bicycles than people using cars.

There is no good reason either why, with better cycle provision, people in some of New York’s more central public housing projects should not take to cycling far more than at present.

Yet the scene at the corner of Smith and Fulton illustrates the challenge. The Department of Transportation was prevailed upon to change the bike lane arrangement at the corner in the interests of preserving a single parking space. The city’s willingness to get people cycling has melted in the face of a backlash by those who see parking spaces as their own private property. There could scarcely be a more reactionary force than groups determined to preserve the right to store their private luxury items on-street for free, but their indignation seems for now to have intimidated many progressive forces into leaving parking spaces well alone. Vested interests can also push the apparently progressive side towards reactionary stances. Both Ben Kallos and Robert Cornegy, council members who turned up at last weeks’ cycling event, have backed a bill supported by transport workers exempting them from legal penalties if they hit pedestrians and cyclists who have the right of way.
Whatever the precise politics of Jay St's cycle lanes,
they certainly feel regressive
Such equivocation about improving conditions for cycling explains a great deal of what the ride from Brooklyn Borough Hall experienced on the first section of our ride to the Brooklyn Bridge. We left the Borough Hall by way of Jay St and found ourselves jostling among heavy traffic, including at least one double-parked car in the bicycle lane. It wasn’t hard to see, taking in the scene, why only 1 per cent of New Yorkers’ commuting trips are currently by bicycle.

New York and many other cities would be a better, fairer place if more of its citizens were getting about by bicycle. Increasing the share of journeys made by bicycle should, consequently, be part of the progressive agenda alongside more obvious causes such as improving urban education and housing. But, if progressives continue to lack political courage when tackling car-dependency or conservatives stay entrenched in power, it’s hard to imagine conditions improving dramatically in the immediate future.