Sunday, 7 February 2016

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t know that,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 27 December 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 6 December 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were superficially apologetic and sympathetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 basic 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.