Sunday, 16 June 2013

Red lights, stress hormones - and sympathy for Dorothy Rabinowitz

It’s the kind of scene that anyone using a busy city’s streets in the last few years will have encountered. “Hey, red light!” a pedestrian shouted at a couple riding down the Tillary Street bike lane. Unabashed, they continued through the crosswalk and on towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I, with the Invisible Visible Boy on his trailer bike, waited for the family to finish crossing. The man did so glowing with self-righteous indignation at the cyclists who had rolled slowly through the crosswalk a few yards ahead of them.

It was an inconsequential incident, in an area where I’ve encountered the aftermath of several nasty car crashes. The family in the crosswalk were not in any way seriously endangered, while the cyclists were far from completely reckless. I partly understood the cyclists’ behaviour. The crosswalk in question is lightly used – and any cyclist who waits until the lights turn green risks either a long wait to ride onto the Brooklyn Bridge or a dash across in front of traffic just as the lights there change.

But the family, I suspect, will have gone home cursing “scofflaw” cyclists. Next time one of their friends mentions the possibility of starting to cycle to work or to get the kids to school, they’ll suck at their teeth and mention how that couple totally blew through the lights by the federal court in front of them. When they’re driving, they’ll perhaps be a little less inclined to see cyclists as fellow human beings and a little more as the kindred of those people who rode in front of the family (the closeness of the encounter may by now have become considerably exaggerated).

The back of the New York City Cycling map:
an impossibly obscure place, it seems, to hide from senior
journalists what cyclists are told about the law.
I’ve been pondering the extraordinary mismatch between the irritation over cyclist misbehaviour and the actual danger it poses over the past fortnight since the Wall St Journal published a bizarre video featuring Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of its editorial board, sharing her thoughts on New York City’s new Citibike bikeshare scheme. Among her claims were that “everyone” in New York City knew cyclists posed a greater danger than yellow cabs (a collision with a bike last killed someone in the city more than four years ago). She also complained about seeing instructions on the doors of taxis warning her not to door cyclists, claiming that cyclists were not given similar instructions on safe behaviour (a glance at a Citibike, the NYC bike map or pretty much every other piece of cycling-related literature from the NYC Department of Transportation could have swiftly debunked this claim). The videos have helped to spur plenty of discussion about the virtues or otherwise of cycling in New York City – but have started the discussions off from a profoundly unhelpful point.

I’ve felt disinclined, however, to dismiss Ms Rabinowitz’s ravings entirely since a discussion with a colleague in the wake of the video’s release. I related to this colleague – who is certainly not unreasonable or poorly inclined towards cyclists – how that morning I had seen police stopping a cyclist who was riding recklessly. She expressed relief, on the grounds that more needed to be done to stamp out bad cycling. New York’s police department, I pointed out testily, already gave cyclists more traffic tickets than their share of the traffic would suggest they should receive. The ticketing was even further out of line with the damage that cyclists did to other people. It was motorists’ law-breaking that needed to be a higher priority. When cyclists rode on the sidewalk and she was walking her dog, however, she feared they were going to harm her dog, she replied. We both grew steadily more agitated.
Since we're talking politeness, I could have done without
the language on this parked single speed. Thank you.
We had both, I realised afterwards, started during our conversation to recall stressful incidents we’d experienced on New York’s streets. The stress hormones that had coursed through our bodies at the time began to move again. As our adrenalin rose, we both gradually became more defensive and less amenable to reason. The conversation made me realise that, yes, some people do find interacting with cyclists inherently stressful. In fact, looking at the stream of abuse one encounters in most online fora that discuss cycling, most people – drivers or pedestrians – find it stressful in some way. Pedestrians often fail to spot even cyclists who are behaving entirely properly – and hence get a shock when one whistles by as they stride out into the street sending a text message. Motorists find it stressful to manoeuvre around vehicles that have such different shapes on the road and move in such different ways. Handling some of these situations seems to activate ancient flight-or-fight responses in the human brain, well away from the brain parts that undertake moral and intellectual reasoning.

Not, of course, that people should surrender to mere gut instincts on these issues. No matter how irritated Dorothy Rabinowitz feels if a cyclist passes her on the sidewalk, she ought – particularly given her exalted position on a quality newspaper – to recognise there’s no intellectual basis for saying cyclists pose a bigger danger than yellow taxis. Incidents involving yellow cabs are often fatal in New York City – the last one involving a cyclist was on June 6, while one last killed a pedestrian (by mounting the kerb) on February 24. Livery cars (the New York equivalent of minicabs) pose far greater dangers.

As the February 24 death suggests, even when walking on a sidewalk (or pavement, for British readers) pedestrians are in far more danger from motorists than from cyclists. I’ve mentioned before how I ride every morning past the site where a car on the sidewalk killed Martha Atwater on February 22. There have been many such incidents across the city since – including the very sad death on June 4 of Ariel Russo, a four-year-old hit by a 17-year-old involved in a chase with the police. Any pedestrian worried about his or her safety in New York City should, logically, be begging the city authorities to encourage cycling. It’s far safer for pedestrians to be around relatively light, relatively slow bicycles than to be around cars.

A cyclist and his son on the lovely Manhattan Bridge
bike lane: cyclists can't expect nice things like this,
Sarah Goodyear says, if we keep being naughty.
Nor am I making a point like the one that Sarah Goodyear made in a now mildly notorious piece on the Atlantic Cities website about how cyclists allegedly “wanted it both ways” demanding better enforcement against dangerous drivers while being reluctant to behave better themselves. Cyclists couldn’t expect better infrastructure, such as bike lanes, if they didn’t improve their behaviour, she argued. It’s quite clear that, if officials’ willingness to give a road user group infrastructure depended on the group’s behaviour, there wouldn’t be much road space devoted to cars. There’s no evidence that cyclists’ rule-breaking (archetypally, red light-jumping and sidewalk riding) is more widespread than motorists’ tendency to speed and pay insufficient attention. There’s plentiful evidence that cyclists’ misbehaviour causes less harm to others than motorists’.

A Citibike rider checks out the rules:
bet she'll be nicer to cyclists
next time she drives
I also stick to the view that many people’s views about cyclists are based on simple prejudice and irritation towards people who decide to do things differently, rather than either objective factual points or stress from near-misses with negligent cyclists. It’s one of my hopes for the Citibike scheme that, if it encourages more first-time New York cyclists to ride, it’s going to create a new group of pedestrians and motorists who have some understanding of the pressures on people who cycle.

But I’ve personally taken the view for a long time that there’s little point in antagonising pedestrians or motorists unnecessarily. It’s far simpler to take the position that a red light means “stop” than to engage in some complex – and inevitably error-prone – risk assessment at every traffic light-controlled junction. I don’t ever want to be in the position of being the cyclist who crashed into me near Elephant & Castle in March 2009 after going through a red light. “I didn’t see you,” he complained. “There was a red light to tell you not to go,” I replied.

I take that position not least because it’s such a distraction from the important issues if I encourage people to complain even more about cyclists. There was a chilling illustration of that on June 8, when the Wall Street Journal – encouraged, perhaps, by the website traffic from Dorothy Rabinowitz’s original rant – posted a second video featuring her views. Having considerably improved her make-up and clothes, she launched into further strange denunciations based on misunderstandings of the facts – and heaped abuse on a couple of fairly mild questions from viewers about her opinions. Around my office, I spotted headphones going on and browsers being directed to the Journal’s website as even colleagues with no interest in cycling sought to gawp at the latest episode.

Yet, just as the Journal’s editorial staff were posting the video, on 5th Avenue, just around the corner from the Journal’s offices, the driver of a sports utility vehicle lost control, mounted the sidewalk and ploughed into a crowd of people, sending six – including a small baby – to hospital. The incident was depressingly routine – but, given the numbers of people involved, I’d have hoped to see more comment and perhaps some more information on Twitter and some of the news sites I regularly visit. Instead, most were full of arguments about the largely illusory danger that bikes pose to pedestrians such as Ms Rabinowitz.

It’s my goal, as far as I can, to cycle in such a way that I don’t cause unnecessary stress to other people that I encounter. I don’t want to encourage them to focus on the pointless ephemera that were the subject of Dorothy Rabinowitz’s complaints. I hope to leave them at least a little freer to concentrate on the hundreds of annual deaths from motor vehicle crashes in New York City and other large cities worldwide. It is, after all, those, rather than a few stray bikes on sidewalks, that represent the true roads scandal of our time.


  1. What a great bit of thinking and writing.

    1. Curtis,

      Thank you very much for your kind words,


  2. Totally agree with you, although my riding style doesn't exactly live that out... That being said, I found your comment on the "parked single speed" somewhat offensive. A bike is an intensely personal object, and if someone wants to plaster theirs with "fuck" all over, then it's their call. Being ofended by it won't change anything. In fact it will probably only encourage it, because that's probably the point anyways.

    1. Adam,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I'm sorry you found my comment about the offensive bike offensive. This could quickly get circular, couldn't it?

      To be clear, the Supreme Court of these United States has found that the first amendment gives people the right to go around with the word in question on a T-Shirt, so it's presumably perfectly legal on a bike. I would also defend to the death the single-speed owner's right to write whatever he wants on his bike, even if it would be a fairly banal cause for which to die.

      All that said, it strikes me as needlessly confrontational. The bike was parked in a children's playground at the time I photographed it.

      But then I believe in bikes with gears, so perhaps my prissiness is of a piece with my rejection of the whole single speed "vibe".


  3. I disagree with your final comment 'It’s my goal, as far as I can, to cycle in such a way that I don’t cause unnecessary stress to other people that I encounter' insofar as some of the legal things I do to keep myself safe seem to cause others stress.

    Taking the lane causes drivers stress (and me, really) but I do it to maintain visibility and control the lane when I know there are pinch points or a right-turn coming (left for American roads).

    I am absolutely not going to compromise my safety to avoid irritating others. I suppose you might count this as 'necessary stress', but I'm not sure that's clear from the piece.

    That said I do usually stay within the law, sometimes to my cost.

    The nearest I have ever been to a nasty collision (would certainly not have been an 'accident') would have been avoided if I had jumped the lights. The road positioning and revving of the car behind me at the lights had tipped me off to the fact that they probably weren't a careful driver, so I positioned myself centrally as I knew there were at least 3 pinch points directly ahead after the lights. I thought about jumping them as I didn't like the way the driver was behaving, and sure enough, as soon as the lights changed they attempt an overtake into oncoming traffic, which was impossible, then pull straight back into me when this became obvious to them. I mount the pavement to avoid it.

    My instincts were correct on the driver, but I let staying within the law get in the way of my safety. Until there is better infrastructure and/or more considerate driving, this is what people are asking cyclists to do every day. I still tsk whenever I see cyclists skip lights, but I cannot entirely condemn it.

    1. Hester,

      Thanks for your comment. The word "unnecessary" was an important one in that sentence. Some drivers find any driving around a cyclist stressful and many drive badly around bikes. It's vital to take the lane in many situations. But that isn't causing a driver unnecessary stress. It's necessary.

      I've been in that position with stupid drivers, incidentally. It takes self-discipline - but I think one needs to follow the rules even in those circumstances. I'm glad you were OK.


  4. I consider myself very pro-bike, and even anti-car, but I also walk my dog daily in Riverside Park, and I am beginning to think that Riverside Dr. is the Indiana Speedway for serious cyclists (i.e. those on fast road bikes, not commuters or people out with their kids). Many of them totally ignore all traffic signals, not even slowing down. I've screamed out more expletives on my quiet corner in Morningside Heights than I ever have at NYC drivers after nearly being hit--or seeing my dog or kid nearly hit--by a cyclist after stepping into the cross walk on a green light. I absolutely agree that the danger of being hit by a bike is seriously overstated, but this happens very regularly and looms large in my experience of serious cyclists. And the truth is that cars do not just run through red lights at high speed.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I agree with many of your points and obviously think, based on what I've written, that people shouldn't be subjecting you to this kind of behaviour.

      The sad fact, however, is that cars often do go through red lights at speed. The pedestrian crossing at the end of the Brooklyn Bridge is point where it's very common. The crossing from the East River Greenway towards First Avenue is another. Cars probably don't even realise they're doing it for the most part. They're going too fast even to spot the lights. There were points where it was pretty regular in London and I had a couple of very near misses with vehicles speeding through reds when I lived there.

      It's no excuse for what you're experiencing, of course, but cars run red lights far more than people imagine.


    2. This Streetsblog story illustrates, incidentally, the consequences when drivers run red lights:

  5. Just to add to my above comment, I think the stress comes from the fact that you don't see the cyclist--often because they are obscured by cars waiting for the light--and generally because they are simply not as visible. So when one zips by you, it is totally unexpected and causes an out-of-proportion reaction of the kind that, say, leads middle aged women to scream out expletives.

  6. And obviously, there are millions more cars, and when they do hit a pedestrian they cause severe injury or death. I'm only saying I've been nearly hit or at least scared by bikes within the last month, and I've never been almost hit by a car. And from their reactions, the cyclists on Riverside Dr. truly do not think they should be stopping for the lights.

    I also think there is a strong ego-effect, for lack of a better phrase. When I'm walking, pedestrians are king--as the signs say, we always have right of way! When I'm cycling, pedestrians are moving hazards too involved with their phones to look at the damn road. When I'm driving, far less often, bikes come out of no where, people jay-walk and then swear at me--they think they own the road! Bottom line: it's a very crowded city full of that unique species known as "New Yorkers."

    1. I think you're right that bikes, no matter how well or poorly ridden, more often take people by surprise. Look at it as the flip side of their being quiet and not taking up much space.

      I also think that "almost being hit" is a fairly different experience with a bike than with a car. Cars tend suddenly to lose control and veer off in an unexpected direction. By their nature, bikes behave differently. So people tend not to know much about their close calls with cars. And I certainly encounter the aftermath of plenty of car crashes of various kinds around the city.

      I agree people behave stupidly on bikes but there is also a bit of a built-in restraint on cyclists. I came a few weeks ago on a scene on the Hudson Greenway by the cruise terminal where a cyclist had collided with a runner who had (illegally, but understandably) been running on the bike lane. The runner got up and kept running down the bike lane (I saw her further down, at TriBeCa, still at it). I waited, meanwhile, for an ambulance because the cyclist seemed to have either dislocated his shoulder or broken his collar bone. Cyclists are pretty vulnerable in any crash. They may often seem to behave stupidly - but most know in the back of their minds that any collision is going to result in their spilling suddenly and heavily into the road, with potentially serious consequences.

    2. May I ask why you say the runner was "understandably" running in the bike lane?

    3. Greenway Commuter,

      Ask away.

      I said "understandably" for two reasons.

      One was that I was trying to sound calm and reasonable and as if I understood other people's points of view. It's not as if those are core brand values for me.

      The second was that it was at the point by the cruise terminal where the runners' lane is very narrow. I can imagine that the temptation to run on the bike path there must be very strong.

      All the best,


  7. Really nicely put. I'm still convinced that Rabinowitz is an extra from The Hunger Games though...

  8. Where I am now, they've completely cured red light running by eliminating red lights.

    1. Steve A,

      Nice to hear from you.

      So is this a wise "we don't need these lights - let's let everyone just get along together" type move or a "let's move these confounded lights that slow down the poor motorists" type thing? I guess I broadly approve if it's the former and disapprove if it's the latter.

      I've said before that New York has too many traffic lights:

      But I still got a shock after Sandy when I tried cycling in a Manhattan where the traffic lights weren't working at all:


    2. It's the former, though I HAVE seen wrong-way cyclists and a spandex and helmet-clad guy on a bike run a stop sign.

  9. I hate pedestrians, cyclists and car drivers alike but I think cyclists can cause far more injuries in a city than a driver. Not every car can jump the curb so easily but it's fairly easy for a cyclist to run a redlight and mow down pedestrians in the crosswalk or hop on the sidewalk and roll over pedestrian pets and children. Yes the fatality rate from cars will be higher but the injury rate and lost hours in work, health and productivity from the number of bikes disobeying traffic laws will be far greater in number.

    For every good biker such as yourself there are unfortunately 10 renegades that don't care about pedestrian well being. Admittedly there are a large amount of stupid pedestrians that will walk or stand in the bike line but the person who will be harmed most by the impact will be the pedestrian at the end of the day in a cyclist-pedestrian collision. (Particularly since we don't have helmets)

    1. Jon,

      Thanks for your comment. I'm always pleased when I get a comment from outside the pro-cycling mainstream - and it's clear you fit that description.

      It's a pity your views are such baloney, however.

      As I think I said in the piece, a collision with a cyclist last killed someone in New York City in March 2009. There have been more than 1,000 fatalities in motor vehicle crashes since. It's clear that it's disproportionately safe for pedestrians to be around cyclists (who make up between 1 and 2 per cent of the city's traffic). Figures are very similar elsewhere.

      The reason, of course, is physics. Big, heavy, fast-moving things can do far more damage to people that slow, light things.

      But I'm taking a wild guess you're a believer in some magic reality where your hunch matters more than mere figures. I'm just hoping you're not actually a senior figure in the New York Police Department.

      Thanks for visiting the blog, however.


  10. Unfortunately for you, Jon, none of the stats back up your arguments unless the US is radically different from the UK. More deaths are caused by cars mounting the pavement than are caused by cyclists. There aren't stats about injuries so stop spreading what is basically propaganda against cyclists.

    You have absolutely no proof that bad cyclists outweigh the good by 10:1. On the contrary, in the majority of collisions between cars and bikes, drivers are at fault Contrary to your claim that only pedestrians are hurt in collisions with cyclists, in fact when on a bike you really don't want to hit anything or anyone because you will in all probability come off and hurt yourself too.

    Contrary to your assertion that cycling results in days lost through injury, cycling is actually beneficial to health ( and to the economy

    A few more facts, a little less speculation.


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