Thursday, 28 June 2012

Feeling the fear - and doing it in a scaredy way

As I wheeled my bike towards the junction of Reade Street and West Broadway in lower Manhattan, I looked round at the three lanes of traffic waiting at the intersection. Many of them were big, mean-looking concrete mixers and other trucks servicing the area’s post-9/11 reconstruction effort. They would be roaring after me the moment the lights changed. Then I glanced at the road surface – a peculiarly New York mixture of steel plates and potholes. The sky was so dark with a looming thunder storm that I’d put my lights on, at 11.30am on a summer’s day. I felt my lower stomach start to knot up as I fretted about whether, confronted by this, I’d remember to manoeuvre correctly. New York, after all, drives on the other side of the road from London, where I’ve done the vast bulk of my urban cycling. Long story short, I was scared.

The South Street bike lanes could seem scary -
or romantically urban, depending on mood
My moment of fear on Monday morning was not the first I’ve experienced over riding my bike in heavy traffic. Unless my fears were so well-founded I’m crushed tomorrow by a truck, it probably won’t be the last. Fear is, at the very least, an understandable emotion for a person riding a light, human-powered vehicle among big, heavy, fast-moving vehicles. It plays an even more important role in the thinking about cycling of people who don’t do it. In most countries with low cycling levels, non-cyclists give fears about safety as their main reason for refraining. Safety worries are a popular excuse at least partly because they sound less lame than admitting one’s lazy. But it’s also reasonable to assume that fear is paralysing a fair proportion of potential riders out of taking to the roads.

I didn’t, however, ditch my old hybrid for the subway. I instead swung my leg over the saddle, headed off down Reade and was soon enjoying a remarkably smooth and speedy ride by the Hudson River Greenway towards my new office.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am impressed with human beings’ irrationality. They consistently let their emotional instincts – the feeling emanating from the guts that I felt knotting on Monday – dictate to higher brain centres.

People particularly consistently miscalculate the risks involved in getting about. Many pedestrians, for example, feel themselves genuinely at risk from cyclists. They vastly underestimate, meanwhile, the extent of the risks motor vehicles present to them.

Yet human beings enjoy such long lives partly because they also have some healthy fears – and strong instincts to avoid the biggest risks. The trick, it seems to me, is to sift the warnings from the useful instinct from the constraining voice of the irrational one.

It was after I narrowly avoided an inattentive car in London the weekend before last that the distinction between my own fear types struck me. I was cycling north through Tooting along part of one of London’s ironically-named Cycle Superhighways when a vehicle suddenly turned out of a traffic jam into my path. Jamming on my brakes, I screamed at the driver to watch, managed to swerve - and narrowly avoided being hit.

The physical danger bothered me far less than what followed, however. Surrounding motorists either shouted angrily at me for having stopped and held them up or shouted mocking abuse over how I had reacted. They were expressing the kind of unrestrained, uncivilised venom and cruelty that surfaces in the worst kind of school playground. Having comprehensively failed to handle such environments well as a child, I reverted to being the little boy of nearly 40 years ago. I felt a pathetic, weak instinct to curl up in a ball and weep. The personal cruelty and anger – which posed no real threat – had got to me far more than the physical danger.
Taxis rush past the New York Central Building:
they're almost certainly not hurrying to the aid of a stricken cyclist,
the Invisible Visible Man can confirm.

Something similar was at work as I prepared to embark on my current house-hunting expedition to New York – and my forthcoming full-time move across the Atlantic. The sheer venom of most of the comments accompanying any article about New York cycling – including coverage of accidents affecting entirely blameless cyclists at the hands of hit-and-run drivers – has, I will admit, intimidated me. New York as a city seems still more irritated than London by the effrontery of anyone trying to navigate the city on two, human-powered wheels. Many of its citizens seem openly to wish myself and my fellow cyclists harm. The emotion picked up from those comments played on my mind. It added to my long-standing feeling, engendered by the atmosphere of the deep, canyon-like streets, my nervousness over following a different set of traffic rules and the New York City police’s reputation as scourges of cyclists, to put me thoroughly on edge.

New York City's authorities seem, like so many city governments,
to have only imperfectly grasped the point
that cyclists need to ride their bikes on cycleways
At its very worst, such fear can be self-reinforcing. At one point yesterday evening, unsure both of the line I should be taking on the road and the behaviour of a looming taxi driver, I dithered, wobbling about – and succeeded in both irritating the driver and making myself feel more nervous still. It’s when intimidated like that that I sometimes let drivers force me too close to the side of the road, before passing aggressively and too close. Nervousness over the close pass then makes things still worse.

Yet I’ve been prepared to cope, I think, at least partly because of  past periods of deep, far more rational nervousness. Having long boasted I had never been knocked off my bike in London, I was hit twice in just over five weeks in early 2009, once by a motorist turning across my path without looking - and then by a cyclist running a red light. I found myself grasped by an almost paralysing sense of my own vulnerability, reaching for the brakes at the slightest provocation. I recalled, every time I did so, the sensation of being pitched suddenly down to the tarmac. I felt again the jolt that ripples through the muscles at meeting a sudden, unexpected physical force.

My fear gradually distilled, however, into a habit of looking still more carefully than before for signs of sudden, unexpected movements. Even on apparently quiet roads, I now look far more than before over my shoulder, scanning the road for the next motorist seeking to cut across my path. It was at least partly because of those experiences I was able to spot, and avoid, the Inattentive Turner of Tooting.

And, of course, if avoiding fearful situations were my main priority, I wouldn’t be here in New York tackling a new challenge. I’d probably never have lived in south London. I’d certainly never have lived in Budapest. I’d ride my bike only down dull little paths in the country, having brought it there specially on the roof of my car.

The truth is that fear plays a part in the tingling sensation one feels before embarking on something difficult and challenging – whether a difficult bike ride, a new job or some new relationship. It’s the risk of failure that creates the sense of intense alertness that makes them enjoyable. It’s the feeling of having conquered the fears and the difficulties that makes it satisfying to finish.

The Invisible Visible Man's Marin Muirwoods before
the Embarrassing Case of the Pedal Incompetence
The 65 miles or so I’ve so far cycled around Manhattan and Brooklyn certainly haven’t been trouble-free. It turned out, for example, that I’d messed up screwing on and off the pedals on my old, spare bike when bringing it on the ‘plane. A pedal fell off on Sunday in Prospect Heights, thanks to stripped screw threads where it attached to the pedal cranks. Much of the honking one hears in New York traffic turns out to be directed at blameless people who have merely chosen to use their bicycles in parts of the road clearly marked for doing so. I suffered a particularly long tirade of abuse from a man who thought I should squeeze against the cars on a narrow road in Carroll Gardens so that he could drive his RV a few inches from me. I was, after all, delaying by milliseconds his arrival at the end of a traffic jam. I’ve cycled more slowly and carefully than normal, listening to my useful fear about the limits of my proficiency so far in New York traffic.

The Manhattan Bridge: a rare chance to race subway trains
But I’ve taken my old bike speeding in glorious sunlight up by the Hudson River, looking over to New Jersey. I’ve climbed up and over the Manhattan Bridge, relishing the rare prospect of racing subway trains as we both labour over the bridge then accelerate down the other side. I’m not yet regularly commuting over the Brooklyn Bridge, as the first ever post on this blog said I aspired to do. But I've enjoyed several times the beautiful vista from New York's oldest bridge towards the towers of lower Manhattan. I looked up the other day riding down second avenue to see the spire of the magnificent Chrysler Building looking down at me.

Those aren’t experiences I’ve enjoyed despite my fear. They’re not feats that have required any special bravery to accomplish. But they’ve been ones that have been all the more rewarding because I’ve overcome a slug of my own cowardice on the way.

16 comments:

  1. Welcome to the USA.

    Thanks for a really interesting blog.

    If you're up for a ride in really pleasant countryside look at nearby central New Jersey. It's not just the Sopranos and the Turnpike.

    Alan - That British Bloke

    ohthatbritishbloke.blogspot.com

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    1. Alan,

      Thank you for your kind words. When the Invisible Visible Family is properly settled, our bikes will undoubtedly be heading west over the George Washington Bridge at some point. Efforts to cycle in picturesque central New Jersey will, I hope, follow,

      Invisible.

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  2. Prudent caution is entirely different than cowardice. As your post demonstrates. Now you are amongst a somewhat different variety of aggressive driver than was the case in London.

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    1. Steve A,

      Thank you. I think my next post may well cover the differences in road culture between Noo Yawk and London.

      Invisible.

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  3. Get yourself one of those shirts that say "I Bike NYC."
    Instant well-deserved cred, imo.

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    1. Thank you so much, Chafed. However, I generally have to wear a shirt for work. So I'll maybe just let people see me riding around on my bike in the City and work out what I'm doing and where.

      I hope you've had a positive reaction from non-cyclists to your marvellous list of advice.

      Invisible.

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  4. Welcome to Big Apple, Mr. Invisible.(Sounds like a character in a Paul Auster novel!) I see you've joined our NY Cycle Club Facebook page. I invite you to join on of our rides on a weekend & discover how "safety in numbers" really comes true. Then splurge and join the club for camaraderie, fun events, great routes, great people. Membership is $30 a year. While we are a recreational road riding club, many members are also commuters, & -- as perhaps you've already discovered -- many prefer the Manhattan Bridge to the Brooklyn Bridge (far fewer people).
    Grace Lichtenstein
    PR director, NY Cycle Club

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Grace. The weekends are usually spent reacquainting the Invisible Visible Family with the answers to questions such as, "What does daddy look like?" that aren't generally answered during a busy week. But let's see how our new life in New York works out. Perhaps we'll have more spare time.

      As for the Manhattan Bridge-Brooklyn Bridge issue, I had come fully armed with the idea of the Manhattan Bridge's superiority. I have indeed ridden over it a couple of times. The issue is that, from my mid-town office, much the best route downtown is the Hudson River greenway - and routes from the greenway to the Brooklyn Bridge are far better. So I've taken the view that the superior speed downtown on the Hudson River and the greater ease of access to the bridge outweigh the need to ring one's bell nearly constantly at dozy, inattentive tourists on the Brooklyn Bridge.

      I'm sure we'll be passing each other - or maybe even meeting properly - soon.

      Invisible.

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  5. Enjoyed reading this Mr Invisible. I spent a weekend between appointments in NY last year, and tried to find a road bike to rent. I ended up walking around every cycle shop I could find and ran out of time to actually cycle while visiting. I found the cycle shops to be very welcoming though, especially NYC Velo and I bought souvenir t-shirts there. Have a great time in NY, best wishes for your new job and "pedal on".

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    1. Thank you for your comment, Graeme. I had to get something on my bike fixed after I arrived and I found Gotham Bikes in Tribeca very friendly. There's a nice community atmosphere around the cycle shops - perhaps because it's still a minority activity.

      Invisible.

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  6. The fear Factor.

    Yes. I use a headcam now when riding solo, which will capture most bad driving and also lessens the FF...

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  7. Thanks for your post, which rings very true to my decade's experience of riding in NYC, every day for work and many evenings and week-ends for social events--and sometimes just for the ride itself.

    The fear has gradually been extinguished, but is periodically revived by a close call or close encounter. I was recently doored --in the middle of the road, by a car stopped at a traffic jam-- and, very much in line with your experience, had to then deal not only with my fallen bike, shattered lunch container, and racing pulse, but also the door-opener screaming in my face as if I was to blame; and then drivers all around and pedestrians mocking or yelling at me to get going. I stood my ground and very, very slowly picked up my bike while blocking the lane, but it didn't feel in the middle of bike paradise.

    I do understand why drivers are so rude: it's the equivalent of being in the jungle facing someone with a machine gun, when you have a sling shot. What is it about cars that turns people into jerks? Why does having a multi-ton killing machine at your command make it all right to be rude and dangerous?

    On a happier note, very funny about racing subway cars on the Manhattan bridge. Have done it many times, but I thought I was the only one.

    Thanks again,

    Emmanuel

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    1. Emmanuel,

      Thank you very much for your comment - and I'm sorry to hear about your being doored. There does seem to be a generally aggressive atmosphere around all forms of road use in NYC that doesn't encourage people to have much compassion for each other. I don't like to criticise other cyclists - but I wasn't too amused to see the way other people cycled round a bunch of cruise passengers trying, quite legitimately, to cross the Hudson River Greenway on a pedestrian crossing on Sunday morning. But all that may be the subject of another blogpost soon.

      Good luck against the Manhattan Bridge subway cars. If the MTA ever gets its infrastructure sorted so that trains can go a decent speed over the bridge, a lot of innocent fun will end...

      Invisible.

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    2. :) Or we will up our game, and get faster.

      I do agree cyclists should be mindful of others. I've tried to be more careful since meeting an elderly friend of a friend who told me how scared she was of bikes. We should be mindful of how people feel, even when those feelings are not backed up by public health statistics.

      E

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  8. A belated welcome to the NYC metro area! Nice post. I know what you mean about fear. I always video my rides ("CYA"). I agree with Alan Hill (#1): do come to New Jersey for a ride when you have time! The drivers are mostly very considerate and the riding is good both in the 'burbs where I live and further out into the countryside (where I often ride).

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    1. xchopp,

      Thank you for your kind words. I'm gradually expanding my range, going to more and more new places. I've cycled in four of the five boroughs now, so the time may be coming soon when I head for the mainland United States, either in your state or the Bronx...

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