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
or a dash across
in front of traffic just as the lights there change. Brooklyn
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
’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. New York
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.
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. New York
|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
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. New York
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
minicabs) pose far greater dangers. New York
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
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. New York City
|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
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
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
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. New York City