Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A midtown tragedy, a TriBeCa run-in - and taxi drivers' economic incentives

It’s a key survival skill for a New York city cyclist to learn to spot the looming lurch-out-of-the-lane – the manoeuvre whereby a frustrated motorist, tired of waiting for an obstruction to clear, pulls out of the line of cars into the bike lane without checking his mirrors. But, even by such moves’ poor standards, the sudden turn into my path late last year by a yellow taxi cab one evening in TriBeCa was a close-run thing. I managed to swerve round the cab into a delivery bay before getting back into the bike lane and catching up with the offending driver.

When I told the driver that he’d nearly knocked me off, however, he was not only indifferent but chased after me for a block, driving deliberately close to me and taunting me. So, at the next traffic lights, I took a different tack. I knocked on the passenger door. When the occupants – who turned out to be a group of fairly terrified-looking tourists – wound down the window, I told them: “Please don’t tip this man. He’s a dangerous driver. He needs to learn a lesson.”

A taxi blocks a cycle route on W54th street.
Who knows whether he'd do this if his fares
kept withholding tips when he did?
The incident in TriBeCa has been in my mind this week because of the grim series of events  last Tuesday in midtown Manhattan that led a taxi driver to drive his vehicle onto a 6th Avenue sidewalk with a cyclist on the hood. He then slammed into a couple of British tourists, severing the leg of one of them, Sian Green, a 23-year-old woman.

My experience has made me look at the horrible, apparently deliberate crash a little differently from some other commentators, however. It is entirely true, as many commentators have said, that Tuesday’s crash would probably have been avoided if either the New York Police Department or the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission had taken seriously their duties to police motorist behaviour in New York City. It’s also true that, were it not for the widespread demonisation of cyclists and the poor understanding of their rights, the taxi driver - Mohammed Himon – probably wouldn’t have felt the same outrage at Kenneth Olivo, the cycle courier whom he knocked onto his vehicle’s hood. It’s certainly deplorable that some sections of the media have used the incident’s circumstances as yet another opportunity to vilify cyclists, claiming that Olivo, who was arguing with Himon about his efforts to pass him near a busy crosswalk, played a “big part” in causing the crash.

Yet that incident in TriBeCa - along with others where I’ve taken a similar approach – has also made me realise that it’s far easier to reach across the steel barrier separating taxi drivers and other paid drivers from those around them than it is with other drivers. All over the world, such drivers are open to price signals that anyone who cares about road safety can send or ask other people to send. The weak official response to Sian Green’s maiming – the taxi and limousine commission has so far suspended Himon’s licence for only 30 days – underlines how urgent it is that people in New York in particular start using such signals more regularly and concertedly.
 
A cab on Sixth Avenue illustrates the high driving standards
for which the profession is known in New York. Thankfully,
everyone in this incident seems to have kept their limbs.

It’s unfair, of course, as I’ve argued in the past when cyclists have done bad things, to extrapolate from a single incident to the behaviour of a whole wider class of people. There are many charming, considerate taxi drivers. Shortly after my run-in with the terrible turning taxi-driver of TriBeCa, I found myself riding one evening down W55th street with a taxi behind me. The driver not only let me pull over to take the lane at a point where the road narrowed but told me at the next traffic lights to “take it easy” after I’d visibly hurried up to avoid slowing him down.

It’s also worth pointing out that, just as minicab drivers in London appear to be on a collective mission to make black cab drivers seem courteous and sensible, New York’s limousine services make yellow cab drivers seem like airline pilots in their regard for safety. There’s a particular limo service operating near where I live in Brooklyn whose drivers I’ve given an especially wide berth ever since I saw one of their drivers dump a package out of the vehicle one Saturday lunchtime. It turned out to contain an empty spirits bottle. Shortly before my TriBeCa run-in with the cabbie, a limo driver had squeezed past me one morning on a wet, slippery W54th street when it clearly wasn’t safe to do so. When I told him he could have killed me, he answered laconically, “I still can.”

Nevertheless, in cities where roads policing and taxi regulation have been made lower priorities than they should have been it’s not unreasonable to expect the drivers putting in the longest hours in the most congested places to pick up bad habits. Serious crashes involving yellow cabs – many of them fatal – are a regular, depressing feature of New York life. Himon’s cab wasn’t even the only one to end up on a sidewalk on Sixth Avenue last week. Two days after Sian Green was maimed, two taxi drivers racing to get to the same fare collided with each other at 37th street, sending one cab onto the sidewalk.
 
Taxis on Sixth Avenue, not far from where Sian Green was hit:
sheer numbers make regulation both difficult and vital.
The sheer volume of yellow cabs in New York makes its challenges particularly acute. There are serious issues with cab driver behaviour nearly everywhere, however. The strict licensing requirements for black cabs in London - where drivers have to pass such a rigorous test that it changes their brain structure - make serious crashes less common than in New York. But I still had some seriously frightening run-ins with black cab drivers when I lived and cycled in London. The occasional helpful response to complaints from London’s Public Carriage Office only made its other complacent efforts to shrug off responsibility more frustrating.

Which brings me back to my experience in TriBeCa.

I have no idea whether the tourists I accosted withheld the driver’s tip, as I requested. The chances are that they didn’t. Even I when in a motor vehicle with a taxi driver tend to feel a certain fellow feeling with him or her that makes it awkward to criticise the driver’s conduct. The emotional cost of the conflict with an unhappy driver refused a tip can certainly seem higher than the few bucks’ cost of peace.

But the fate of poor Sian Green and the crash later the same week on Sixth Avenue are both reminders of where the economic incentives for drivers currently point. Under current circumstances, higher speeds and refusal to yield when required to pedestrians merely get taxi drivers faster through their current fare or to the next fare more quickly. Only a change in the value of the tip – a higher tip for good driving, a lower one for poor behaviour – can shift the balance in the other direction.

All that would change, of course, if city authorities were to start enforcing traffic rules in a systematic, sensible way. Speeding would become a costly activity for taxis. The price of blowing through a crowded crosswalk might be permanent loss of a licence.
 
The taxi driver who nearly doored me. His intense interest
in my comments on his conduct is evident
But two scenes I encountered in the week before Sian Green was maimed illustrate how far New York City at least is from such a logical system. On Wednesday, August 14, as I cycled to work, Sebastian Delmont, a safer streets activist who was commuting south on the Hudson Greenway, warned me that police were stopping cyclists further up. Sure enough, at 39th street police were stopping cyclists who failed to stop for the red light by an exit from a ferry terminal where most of the time barely any traffic crosses. They were ignoring the next intersection, at 40th street, where taxis and buses regularly refuse to yield to bikes and pedestrians.

The following morning, meanwhile, I was forced to brake hard as I rode to work when a taxi driver opened his door into the bike lane on Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights. His response when I asked him what was wrong with him was to reply, “I saw you.”

As long as traffic police in big cities worldwide think cyclist harassment a better use of their time than policing speeding and taxi drivers have no fear of the consequences of bad behaviour, it’s incumbent on everyone else to act. I plan to step up my efforts to make professional drivers’ tips reflect how they respect other road users. I hope other readers of this blog will do the same.

17 comments:

  1. Sadly, the average New Yorker probably gives better tips to speeding red-light-running drivers who get them to their destination faster. Only better enforcement from the NYPD can materially change this sad situation. Also, worth pointing out that Himon actually had been ticketed numerous times for traffic offenses. Perhaps NY should adopt a letter grade system for taxi drivers like the one for restaurants, so that patrons can decide before getting in the cab whether to patronize this particular driver.

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    2. Greenway,
      You're probably right about the speed and so forth. On Himon, I guess the issue is he'd accummulated nine points on his licence yet still had the right to drive. But I am loving your restaurant-style safety rating idea. It would let the public choose what they valued - and companies would probably always stipulate an A rating when calling a cab. The question is: how willing would the TLC be to downgrade someone?
      All the best,
      Invisible.

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    3. I love the letter grade idea!

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    4. I agree with you heartily, Anonymous, on the letter-grade idea. It's an excellent plan. Someone else suggested on Twitter that a driver should have to display something warning passengers if he's killed or maimed anyone while driving. The only drawback with that plan was it kind of made me think of a Battle of Britain fighter pilot with his kills listed underneath the cockpit window.

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  2. I hope Sian's family files a lawsuit against Himon, Yellow Cab, and whoever licensed him, and that a jury will make it clear that this kind of driving is unacceptable.

    By the same token, it would be nice if there was some kind of accountability for Olivo's actions and behaviors. Between the two of them, there are no angels in this story.

    When I lived in Japan, people who drove commercial vehicles, including cabs, wore white gloves as a sign of their professionalism and it was a serious business. Nothwithstanding the fact that Japan has few immigrants, still, most of those who drove were exceptionally courteous and professional. Here (at least in the DC area), most of the cab drivers are fairly recent immigrants. If you've driven in the middle east or african countries, you wonder where on earth someone got the idea that these people would be professional or competent.

    Sadly, there are jerks and potential jerks all over. I hope I'm in the latter category more often than the former.

    Is there any more news on Hilda's case?

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    1. SouthLakesMom,
      Thanks for the comment. I'm certainly looking forward to a robust pursuit through both the civil and criminal courts of everyone involved with the taxi. I fear, however, that the low maximum liability for NYC taxis may be a factor in how much they can recover.
      As for Olivo, it may be that I'm missing something (I'm on vacation and haven't followed events all that closely). But Olivo's account seems to be that he got angry with Himon's attempts to get past him at a crosswalk and yelled at him. Since I walk and cycle daily in that area, I can well imagine the circumstances. Himon's defence seems to be that he lost his temper because Olivo banged on his car. I'll confess that on occasion, when seriously threatened by a car that was refusing to stop or just hadn't seen me, I have slapped a vehicle's bodywork, without causing damage. I certainly wouldn't accept that justified a driver in aiming his vehicle at me, as Himon seems to have done to Olivo. So, while Olivo doesn't seem like someone I'll invite to a dinner party and I may have the facts wrong, I have the courier down as a victim at present,
      Invisible.

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    2. SouthLakesMom,

      Further to my earlier comments (whose fluency might have been influenced by their being written on my BlackBerry from Brewster Ladies' Library during my vacation) I'll respond to two further points.

      I've been to a lot of the places that produce US taxi drivers, including Nigeria and India and I've found the driving standards pretty horrific. But I still think the main thing influencing road culture in most US cities is the city's existing road culture, rather than the origin of the people driving on them. In London, very few drivers of black taxis are immigrants (for long, and mostly boring, reasons) and many of them drive fairly poorly. Many of the minicab drivers in London (the equivalent of livery cab drivers) are immigrants and they drive about as much worse than the black cab drivers as livery cab drivers in US cities do compared with yellow cabs. At the same time, one of the most considerate and thoughtful public carriage drivers I've ever used was an Eritrean immigrant in London who seemed genuinely seriously concerned about how much harm his vehicle could cause if he drove it carelessly. So I generally think that immigrants are pretty quick to pick up on the social cues about how to drive in traffic in new places - it's just that the social cues aren't what they should be.

      As for Hilda, I've asked her via Twitter and her response is as follows: "Court date in October, and two top notch attorneys on my side! Hoping to make changes though..." I've passed on to her the best wishes of all kinds of people who want right to prevail.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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    3. I should have finished my thought about the taxi drivers -- the fact that many of them learned in other countries with um...different...standards means that in the absence of enforced good behavior driving, they will relapse to what is familiar, and worse, the way they see "everyone" else driving. Having just finished teaching my younger child to drive, I can testify to the instinct to sink to what everyone else is doing --whether Olivo or Himon...or me. When my son slid through his first right on red without stopping, my heart stopped. Even though he had been through behind the wheel and classroom education, the "after stop" part of right on red had completely escaped him because what he saw was different than what he had heard in the teaching environment. After we pulled over into a parking lot and I reamed him, reminding him that the most vulnerable person in that location could be his MOM, we discussed it rationally and then went for ice cream without further incident, and a full stop at each right on red. Sadly, few of his contemporaries have cyclist parents.

      I have definitely checked MY driving habits more since taking the lane more on my bike!

      All the best

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    4. SouthLakes,
      It's certainly true that, in the absence of enforcement, everyone lapses into bad habits and does what s/he sees everyone else doing. That leads to chaos.
      As for how cycling affects one's driving behaviour, I drive only very rarely. But, when I do, I find myself terribly aware of the potential dangers the car could pose to others. It makes me very cautious.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  3. I scolded a cab driver a few weeks back for growing increasingly impatient at a car that was not traveling fast enough (that is, not speeding) on 5th Ave in Brooklyn. He wove back and forth as if sizing up an opportunity to pass the slower car and finally attempted his pass in the bike lane when there clearly wasn't enough space, only to back off and slam the brakes. I couldn't take it anymore and said, "Hey, chill! I'm not in that big a hurry!" He abandoned trying to pass the car but still sped along way too fast after turning onto a side street. Even so, I still tipped him, although probably a buck or two less than I otherwise would. Generally, I try very hard to avoid cabs because that experience is, sadly, the rule more than the exception.

    But moreover, the responses from the drivers you've confronted about their dangerous behavior is telling. It says that they do not take their behavior seriously. They do not actually believe it is dangerous or could lead to anyone being hurt and if it does, it's the other person's fault, especially if they're a cyclist because, "They shouldn't be in the road in the first place." The police seem to agree and see aggressive driving as some God-given right of every New York driver.

    As is the case with most New Yorkers, I see numerous close-calls every day in the streets. Someone who believes they are immune to the laws of physics takes a chance or lashes out using their vehicle. Most of the time, no one is hurt. But still too often, someone is. Until the police start taking action instead of blithely dismissing aggressive driving as a fact of city life, people will continue to be maimed and killed.

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    1. Alex,

      Thank you, first of all, for discouraging a taxi driver from driving in that 5th Avenue bike lane. I use at least a short section of it most weeks when riding with my family back from church in Park Slope and I know it's a long way from being a haven of peace from automotive harassment.

      I absolutely think the proper answer to improving commercial driver standards is to get the police (and taxi and limousine commission) to start focusing on actual, serious safety issues. I'm advocating the use of price signals only in the absence of that.

      The problem, of course, is that it's quite hard to withhold a tip, as you discovered. That's particularly the case when one's sharing a small metal box with someone who's displaying all the symptoms of being a sociopath. It's almost precisely because the driver's so bad that one finds it hard to withhold the tip.

      But it's worth at least thinking about one's tipping behaviour, I think, in the hope one can calibrate it better to produce good driving.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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    2. I've generally given up on the 5th Ave bike lane and only use it when absolutely necessary. Otherwise, I stay on 6th.

      I've wondered about taxi owners or even the TLC requiring monitors similar to the ones that many insurance companies are rolling out. Connecting those with GPS would show if a driver is consistently speeding at the least. Then set up a system for penalizing drivers with consistently bad records.

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  4. Unfortunately, NY traffic encourages our "inner jerk." The difference is the cab is orders of magnitude more dangerous than a bike when both are operated by jerks.

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    1. Steve,

      I feel as if I should now coin some aphorism along the lines of Oscar Wilde's "We're all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." But the more I use the idea of people's "inner jerk" as a starting point, the ruder it becomes.

      It's true that the city traffic gets nearly everyone enraged and frustrated. But I guess the key thing is some of us are trying to channel that into useful directions (why, writing lengthy, ponderous blogposts about the philosophy of the situation could be one of them!) Others of us, like Mohammed Himon, let it boil over into using a ton of metal to inflict deliberate violence on someone else.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  5. Maybe we should reduce the social cost of complaining to your taxi driver using stickers like these:

    http://kroupensky.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Estudio-Accidentes-Combi-Kenia.pdf
    (Go to page 22 to get the gist of it)

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    1. Anonymous,

      That's a really interesting paper. Thank you for posting it.

      Invisible.

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