Sunday, 14 April 2013

A broken-down church - and a broken, asymmetric flow of information

I was only a little way into my first ride to work after moving into my apartment in Brooklyn when I started to get into a terrible tangle. Trying to get down Kane Street, in Cobble Hill, I found the road marked closed. After heading past the road cones, I found it was a proper road closure, not the kind where one just wheels the bike on the sidewalk past the obstruction. The closure was absurd, I muttered to myself, as the one-way system pushed my route further and further from the one I’d planned. It was, I reasoned, probably some piece of stupidity on the part of the police, worried about being sued over an unlikely accident near some relatively innocuous building work.
Christ Church, Cobble Hill: source of frustration on
the Invisible Visible Man's commute

I calmed down considerably, however, after finding out via Google why the street was closed. On July 26, while I had been back in Europe, lightning had struck Christ Church, the Episcopal church at the junction of Clinton Street and Kane Street. The spectacular tower – and scaffolding around it – had come crashing down as Richard Schwartz, a pedestrian, was walking underneath. The falling scaffolding had killed him. The building was a serious danger – and hadn’t yet been made safe.

The incident helped to crystallise an idea that had been slopping in fluid form around my mind for a while. I’d never have been irritated about the Kane St closure, I realised, if I’d had better information in the first place. It was, it occurred to me, one of many instances where confusion arises because two different parties – the New York City Department of Transportation and myself, in the Kane Street case – have different understandings of what’s going on on a road. The asymmetric information sharing had at least left me only inwardly irritated, however. The more I thought about it, the more I realised there were times when such information asymmetry probably killed people.

I encountered one potentially serious example the other morning while riding to work. I waited at traffic lights by the start of the Tillary Street segregated bike lane near the Brooklyn Bridge. When the lights changed, I moved off, only to find turning across my path a car heading in the other direction that should have been yielding to me. The driver’s behaviour was entirely wrong, based on his failure to understand what I knew - that the bike lane was as much part of the traffic flow at the intersection as the roads he was using. But, as he moved across my path, he leant out of his window. “Green light!” he yelled at me, self-righteously.

Traffic on W54th street. Those tainted windows don't,
in the Invisible Visible Man's experience, conceal
motorists pondering hard what information they might lack
about other road users' rights
Cycle lanes can give rise to information asymmetry as well. As I approached my office one morning last month, a truck driver opened his door in my path as I made my way up the side of some stalled traffic. He didn’t need to look for cyclists on that side of W54th street, he argued, because there was a bike lane painted down the other. Because of our asymmetric understanding of cyclists’ road rights, he had understood the cycle lane – which I knew to be a refuge for cyclists that didn’t stop me from using the rest of the road – as a kind of prison, to which cyclists should be confined.

Perhaps the most striking and persistent problem of information asymmetry that I’ve come across, however, was in London, where I lived until last August. Most traffic lights at busy intersections in London feature an “advanced stop line” for cyclists – an area where cyclists are meant to wait ahead of the other traffic for the lights to change. Many cyclists value advance stop lines as an idea, since they should, in theory, allow cyclists to get away after lights change, get clipped back into their pedals and get back into a suitable line on the road before the motor traffic catches up. Few motorists, however, seem to have much idea either about the principles of the advanced stop areas or when they should stay out of them. At least one motorist informed me, indignantly, when I complained about his occupying the area that when he’d arrived there had been no cyclists waiting, so he’d simply driven into the bike area.

Advance stop lines were involved in all three of the worst confrontations I had with motorists in London. In one case, a motorist deliberately drove very close to me and then very dangerously overtook me after I remonstrated with him about his driving into the ASL area as I was using it. A bus driver assaulted me (abandoning a bus full of passengers to do so) after I photographed his occupying the ASL area at a particularly dangerous junction. I had to call the police to stave off a threatened assault from another motorist to whom I’d complained about his driving into the ASL area.

Leaving aside the more eye-catching incidents, ASLs were a daily source of tension and frustration. I’d often squeeze past a line of stationary traffic to reach what was meant to be a haven for cyclists – only to fill it full of motorists grumpy at one’s presumption in seeking to get a jump on them at the lights. It’s reasonable, I think, to assume that even a fairly modest publicity campaign might have let at least a little of the fresh air of information into the foetid atmosphere of confrontation surrounding ASLs. In New York, it surely wouldn’t take much of a campaign to educate drivers about the role of bike lanes and the dangers of passing bikes too close to improve driving standards at least a little bit. The New York cycling map, after all, features excellent advice for cyclists on how motorists should give cyclists at least three feet's clearance when passing.

It isn’t, after all, a neutral thing to encourage new cyclists onto a city’s streets and then not tell motorists how to behave around them. Nature seems to abhor an information vacuum just as much as a literal one. In the absence of the pure oxygen of accurate, well-founded information, the information vacuum fills up with the carbon-monoxide-laden air of motorists’ assumptions about cyclists’ rights and responsibilities. It’s perhaps hardly surprising, given that no-one’s telling them otherwise, that so many motorists assume cyclists who ride well outside the door zone away from cars are acting maliciously, rather than entirely sensibly. In New York, it’s still less surprising given how many bike lanes – including most of those I use every day – are painted in precisely the part of the road – next to the parked cars’ doors – that cyclists know to be the most dangerous.

The air has grown still more poisoned because the agency meant to set the limits of acceptable behaviour in most modern societies – the police force – so often seems to have abandoned that role with regard to the road rules. Motorists, after all, like most other people see what they see others doing unmolested and assume it’s acceptable. One telling recent case I spotted involved a police effort to start fining motorists who drove in a bike lane on a narrow street at Twickenham, in South-West London (I’ll give New York cyclists a moment here to come to terms with the idea that, just across the Atlantic, there’s a police force that has, at least once, acted against motorists using a bike lane). A local newspaper quoted Nick Blyth, an officer involved in the enforcement effort, as saying: “Most of the motorists tend to comment when stopped that everyone else does it and they were just following them.”
Park right across one of New York City's busiest bike lanes?
Until someone says you shouldn't, you probably will.
It’s hardly surprising, given the New York Police Department’s reluctance to enforce a wide swathe of road rules, that few motorists seem even to understand the harm they cause when double-parking in bike lanes or refusing to yield to a cyclist in a bike lane. Nor, in London, is it terribly surprising that ASL infringements continue at the rate they do when even the Metropolitan Police department charged with processing complaints against motorists from cyclists (normally backed by helmet camera evidence) is currently pleading with leading London cycle bloggers to tell people to send in no more pictures of ASL infringements. They say, to all intents and purposes, they’ve no interest in prosecuting them.

The police’s attitude reflects, in an understated way, the strangeness of the political discourse around cycling. Politicians are eager, when announcing new policies between elections, to borrow cycling’s mantle of greenness and modernity and to encourage its growth. Closer to election time, meanwhile, many seem to revert to a different type – to claiming, like one minister I met, that cyclists were“their own worst enemies” or claiming like Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, that “typical” cyclists had skinny legs and ran red lights. No politician engaged in this delicate dance between pro and anti-cycling positions is likely to back a public information campaign explaining to frustrated motorists why, yes, that cyclist who yelled at you about your dangerous driving actually had an excellent point.

However, until such information is made more widely available and police across the industrialised world are backing up the politicians’ line with proper enforcement, few people will experience the relief I felt at letting go of my frustration over the Kane St closure. Relief is certainly not the emotion that comes naturally to me each morning as I ride along the now-reopened Clinton St towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I am all too often forced into the narrow bike lane, in danger from car doors, as motorists seek to push past me. But, as I reach the Kane St intersection and see Christ Church, still wrecked but now made safe, I still recall at least a little bit of that feeling.


  1. Great article.

    I wonder if there are any lessons to be learned from our enlightened cousins on (some of) Continental Europe?

    Was there a concerted public information campaign in the Netherlands that changed public perception? Or through political will and investment have they just found themselves in a position where most cyclists are motorists and vice versa? Thus eradicating the problem of assymetric information?

    That's not a leading question. I genuinely don't know and would be interested in the answser!

    1. David,

      I wish I knew the answer but must confess I don't.

      There was the famous Dutch "Stop de Kindermoord" campaign in the Netherlands that helped to encourage cycle lane building. But I don't know if there was a public information campaign as such.

      I'll see if anyone on Twitter can help.

      All the best,


  2. Good points, Invisible.

    Here in British Columbia the local cycling coalition has been helping to add questions for the knowledge part of the driving test. Right now, very few questions relate to cyclists, but they're working to change that, and it might make a small difference in the long run.

    I know what you mean also about sometimes not wanting to use a bike lane. Here in BC the engineers who put them in seem to assume a speed of around 15 km/h, so at above 40 km/h they don't work at all well. Fortunately we're not required to use them, but one does sometimes get yelled at (even by cops).

    1. Richard,

      Thank you for your comment.

      The problem is there isn't really a speed at which I'm happy to ride into an opening car door or a car pulling out without looking - and many of the cycle lanes I use in New York City position one in precisely the places where one's most at danger of that, and on fairly narrow roads where cars think they can pass you with less than half a metre to spare. The whole infrastructure is laid out in a way that suggests that's how it's meant to be used.

      As for the police, on the rare occasions that I dare to use the frankly scary 1st avenue cycle lane - a veritable riot of asymmetric information liberally used for deliveries, parking and just plain driving - it's rare not to find a police vehicle blocking the way at some point, its occupants slowly stuffing themselves still fuller with doughnuts.

      It would be nice to think at least some of these people would behave better if they knew what they were doing.

      All the best,


  3. I am very reluctant to use ASL facilities ~ and in many ways feel they are misguided and anti-safety 'quick fixes' for the "do something about cycle provision".

    My objections to them are that they encourage passing to the left of the head of a traffic queue at junctions (which is acknowledged as a leading cause of fatal accidents when traffic moves off with cyclists on the nearside). Worse I find that being at the head of the traffic queue affords *no* additional time to get moving before traffic, and results in my being pressured across a junction (though I can match moving traffic speeds, I can't exceed the acceleration of 'a single' car) ~ it seems as if the lead driver often enough to be annoying/scary takes the presence of a cyclist ahead as a demand to overtake... often resulting in arrival at the pinch point at the far end of the junction at the same time.

    If instead I take position within the traffic queue, 2-3 vehicles back, I now find that my acceleration matches the 'queue of traffic' rate, and the presence of cars ahead inhibits a following driver from pressing as hard to overtake.

    I would note that I always take a primary position on the approach to a junction, and within the appropriate stream of traffic for the direction I am moving in, but find this is only of value when *not* in the ASL.

    (Another advantage of being second or third is that when a 'late runner' jumps red on a conflicting road, the potential collision is faced by the car/bus/lorry ahead, and not by me...)

    1. David,

      Thanks for your points, which are all good ones.

      I was always careful when in London about how I got to an ASL. I tried to make sure there was no chance of my getting stuck to the left of suddenly moving, inattentive traffic. If there was, I waited, like you, in the line of traffic.

      It's also true that motorists are desperate to overtake cyclists, no matter what (I even devoted a blog to it here:

      But I guess the difference in experience might be down to how quickly one gets away from the lights - and I'm taking a guess that you, being cooler than I, ride in clipless shoes. I certainly found I got away from lights faster than people who had to clip in, so I found it a definite advantage being in the ASL zone (I would definitely get a good start on the cars). I won't enter into any correspondence, incidentally, about why I should ride clipless. I know I'm losing lots of efficiency. I just worry about emergency stops.

      Finally, I've noticed that New York is now taking out some of the city's few advance stop areas. There are a handful at places where most cyclists go straight ahead and motorists go left or right. They're being replaced with narrow cycle lanes between the left and right-turning car lanes. This strikes me as an absurdly dangerous arrangement and I'm not using those lanes.

      All the best,


    2. You are correct that I do ride clipless (LOOK, which is a legacy of my original £5 pair of road shoes picked up at a CTC meet a decade ago), but I'm not substantially slower than most other cyclists ~ I get off quickly with the initial 'rock' and push on cleated side & what they gain in the 'check' while I clip in I gain back in subsequent acceleration once 'up'. I found that I was much slower incidentally when using toe-clips, and found their relative bulk and minimal 'float' problematic with clearance to the crank arm, front wheel and long-ride knee comfort (small frame, large wheels)... (Efficiency and top end power I'm not fussed about...) nor do I find it difficult to extract a foot ~ though it is easiest for me in one specific position of the cranks 'expediency' works just great at freeing a foot when needed...

      The observation is more that a small but visible proportion of motorists will do almost anything to overtake a bike if it is the only thing ahead of them... but having a car 'blocking' the lane ahead reduces this a lot.

    3. David,

      You're certainly correct that many motorists will do almost anything to overtake a bike. The terrifying experience to which I gave the link in the comment above testifies to that.

      Having said I wouldn't get into correspondence about the whole clip thing, I'll add that my solution to the whole issue is to use BMX pedals, which dig holes in the soles of my leather shoes. I end up with a sort of virtual clip (in fact, my shoes don't always come off right away at lights) but I get a lot of tooth-sucking from shoe repairers.

      My solution is clearly profoundly unfashionable. But, on the plus side, it's many, many times more fashionable than the clothes I wear.

      All the best,



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