At the foot of Wellington Street in London, where the busy cycle route from Waterloo Bridge heads into Covent Garden, there was, for a while when I lived there, a notice. The police had received numerous complaints, it said, from “the community” about standards of cyclist behaviour in
It suggested, essentially, that cyclists should smarten up their act or face
The notice irritated me on several levels – but the most profound was the notion that “the community” were the real people and the cyclists some alien, invasive species. The irritation was all the greater because as an area
Garden seldom showed much respect for cyclists’ rights. I have a
vivid memory of cycling across the pavement (sidewalk, American readers) at the
foot of Wellington Street
with a drunk tourist yelling at me that I wasn’t allowed to ride there. He was
standing directly on top of a bike symbol, on the clearly marked cycle lane.
Questions about traffic and its relationship with communities have been occurring to me again over the last month as I’ve pondered a series of appalling tragedies on the streets of
where I live now. The highest profile – the killing in a car crash in the early hours of March 3 of two expectant parents, Nachman
and Raizel Glauber, and their baby son, delivered prematurely after the crash – raised the issue most obviously because of their own community’s very obvious
reaction. The couple, only 21, belonged to prominent Hasidic Jewish families. Their
deaths – a speeding, possibly drunk driver smashed into the livery cab they
were using - were marked by a funeral that brought 1,000 men in dark coats and wide-brimmed
hats onto the streets of New York City Williamsburg, one of Hasidism’s Brooklyn strongholds.
But nearly any traffic tragedy – and there have been many in New York this past month besides the widely-noticed ones - raises at least some questions about how different communities relate to and use the street involved.
|Potted plants show the grief of Martha Atwater's community|
I’ve been thinking particularly deeply about the link each morning recently as I’ve cycled past the junction of
and Atlantic Avenue
in on my way to work. A line of potted plants by a shop window and a
stencilled outline on the sidewalk mark where, on the evening of February 22, a
driver mounted the sidewalk in his speeding, out of control SUV just as Martha
Atwater, a 48-year-old writer and mother of two children, emerged from a bagel
shop. She died on the sidewalk shortly after the vehicle hit her. The regular arrival of
fresh floral tributes testifies to what I read in the days after Ms Atwater’s
death – that she was a well-known, well-liked participant in many local
activities. She was the embodiment of the strong sense of mutual responsibility
and joint action that makes the best Brooklyn Heights neighbourhoods such desirable places to live. New
But I saw little reflection amid the tragedy of Ms Atwater’s death on
’s wider traffic culture, which
claimed another high-profile victim less than six days later. On the morning of
February 28, Amar Diarrassouba, 6, was crossing New York E117th street in East Harlem on his way to school when a huge truck drove
through the crosswalk, killing him instantly as his 9-year-old brother, who was
accompanying him, looked on.
The grief in Amar’s case focused not, however, on the miserable, pointless loss of a bright young boy or the driver’s culpability but on Amar’s school crossing guard. The woman, who on a previous occasion reportedly snatched a child out of the path of an oncoming car, should have been present at the crossing when the collision occurred but wasn’t. Astonishingly, the police investigation of the truck driver appears to have concluded with his receiving traffic tickets for failure to yield and failure to execute due care – minor violations that nevertheless suggest he was entirely responsible for Amar’s death. The investigation into the crossing guard – someone who, whatever her shortcomings, did not negligently drive a huge truck over a blameless six-year-old – continues.
The attention on the crossing guard was typical of the focus after each of the tragedies on the crash’s individual circumstances and what made it exceptional. There has been very little reflection on how general traffic conditions in the areas concerned contributed to the deaths.
|The intersection the driver that killed Martha Atwater crossed.|
Traffic calming would do no good here, according to some residents
That omission struck me particularly in Martha Atwater’s case because of an online argument I entered a few months ago with a resident of Cobble Hill, just across
Atlantic from the crash scene, about traffic
calming. He was angrily complaining about how unsightly a projected
traffic-calming scheme for the area would be and what congestion it would
cause. But it seems fair to suspect that such traffic-calming would have made
it much less likely a speeding SUV would shoot across Atlantic Avenue and kill someone.
The most shocking effort to shift blame came in Amar Diarrassouba’s case. The community board for the area where Amar died – the local body that has the final say on many local planning issues in
– in late 2011 withdrew previous
approval for a protected bike lane along New York First Avenue in the area. Most studies
suggest such lanes, as well as benefitting cyclists, make crashes like the one
that killed Amar less likely. Yet when Steve Vaccaro, a cycling lawyer and activist, pointed out the
community board’s role on Twitter to Erik Mayor, a local restaurateur and
community board member, Mayor preferred to put the blame on the least
blameworthy actor in the entire episode. “The child was being walked by his
nine-year-old brother, who did not pay attention,” Mayor wrote.
|Kent Ave: a surviving Williamsburg bike lane,|
which some Hasidim might prefer weren't there.
The truth is that road deaths all over the world nearly always result at least in part from failures of road governance. Those often result from local communities’ tendency to assume the main priority for roads is to meet the needs of the people that they regard as their “community” – people who have similar needs and habits to them. That is particularly revealingly the case where the Glaubers’ community is concerned. Few Hasidic Jews cycle and some Williamsburg Hasidim successfully campaigned for removal of a cycle lane along
Avenue through the heart of their community. One
community spokesman said that, although the ostensible reason for the campaign was
their disapproval of women cyclists’ “immodest” dress, it was also the case
that “everyone” knew a bike lane was a “nuisance”. There have also been
attempts to discourage cyclists from using bike lanes along Kent Avenue, the street where the
Glaubers were killed, apparently because Hasidim wanted back the parking spaces
that the bike lane took.
Erik Mayor’s reaction shows a similar myopia. He couched his original opposition to the
first avenue bike lane in terms of the
likely effect on local children. He claimed – improbably – that a bike lane
would increase asthma among children because it would increase congestion and
hence emissions from idling cars. But when the lane’s absence contributed to
the crushing to death of a boy from the area’s distinctive west African
community, his sympathy seems to have evaporated.
A strong theme running through many “community” expressions of concern about their local roads is that they focus on the problems that cause the most vocal complaints locally – the struggle to find parking places or local shopkeepers’ grumbles about business – rather than local roads’ role as thoroughfares.
Yet roads are inevitably the vehicle for the habits of one community, no matter how distinctive it might be in many things, to run – sometimes literally – into another’s. The wide, unobstructed local road might seem vital to you because it offers plenty of parking spaces. If it looks to people from neighbouring communities like an invitation to drive at twice the speed limit, your community is likely to pay a heavy price.
It’s for that reason that it makes little sense to hand governance over important issues of roads policy to bodies as locally focused as
community boards. The New York City
cycling map testifies to their influence, with cycle lanes along long avenues
changing in nature or disappearing altogether according to their whims. It’s an
area where New York City London, for all its drawbacks, seems
largely to be doing better than . The boroughs of Wandsworth, New
and Barnet – all controlled by the Conservative Party – are undoubtedly less
or Tower Hamlets, controlled by the Labour Party. But the overall strategy
seems less likely than Camden ’s
to be derailed in places because of loud, locally-focused complaints. New York
More generally, meanwhile, it’s always worth thinking when anyone talks about “the community” about whom their definition excludes. While “community” as a term comes wrapped in warm pictures of neighbours chatting and people banding together to do good, it often says as much – as in that Covent Garden notice – about who’s on the outside. The
Covent Garden community clearly excluded people who rode
bikes. The community board for East Harlem
seems to have seen itself as more answerable to car-users than cyclists or
people who might benefit from safer streets.
|The Invisible Visible Man thinks this bike's rider|
didn't feel like part of his community.
The police think we're all part of the same problem.
My own tendency to think sloppily on this topic came home to me on Thursday evening when I encountered the aftermath of a collision on my way home. An ambulance was taking away a cyclist whose mangled bike lay by the roadside. A quick scan of the machine – a nasty aluminium full-suspension mountain bike – led me to a quick conclusion. This was the machine of either a food-delivery cyclist or one of the youths from the local public housing. He wasn’t part of my cycling community.
That made little difference to one of the policemen at the scene, however. Having already apparently decided the cyclist’s failure to stop appropriately had caused the crash, he was keen to share the news with anyone else rash enough to ride a bicycle – even one dutifully stopped at the traffic lights. Looking towards me as he walked back towards his patrol car, he addressed me with a sneer in his voice. “I guess he just had to stop,” he said, shaking his head.