It’s a key survival skill for a
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. New York city
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
. 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. New York City
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.
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
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
appear to be on a collective mission to make black cab drivers seem courteous
and sensible, ’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 New York 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
life. Himon’s cab wasn’t even the only one to
end up on a sidewalk on New
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.
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
. But I still had some seriously frightening run-ins with black cab drivers when I
lived and cycled in New York .
The occasional helpful response to complaints from London ’s
Public Carriage Office only made its other complacent efforts to shrug off responsibility more frustrating. London
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
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.
But two scenes I encountered in the week before Sian Green was maimed illustrate how far
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 New York City 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 .
His response when I asked him what was wrong with him was to reply, “I saw you.” Brooklyn Heights
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.