Monday, 23 December 2013

A Brooklyn Heights commuter, an untimely Queens death - and how attitudes to roads might be the least of our problems

I’ve come across few sights on New York City streets that excited such mixed feelings in me as the one I encountered one morning last month on Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights. Just in front of me in the cycle lane on the street, which fills up with cars and taxis every morning, was the only child – he was probably ten or 11 – I’ve ever encountered riding on his own to school in New York City on the road.

I was, on one level, hugely excited. It would be an enormous improvement for every city in the industrialised world if the queues outside schools in the morning were of children waiting to park their bikes, not sports utility vehicles waiting to double-park. The boy had clearly been thoroughly trained and looked attentively from side to side at every junction.
 
Clinton St at Atlantic Avenue: I was excited to see a child
cycling here - but also apprehensive
But I also, I’ll confess, felt fearful. Motorists are apt to turn left or right suddenly on Clinton St or lurch into the cycle lane to avoid a suddenly-stopped taxi.  Drivers are prone to driving through the slow-moving traffic texting or sending emails. Car doors are apt to spring open or pedestrians to step into the street without looking. Knowing my own concerns about using the street, I willed the young man to make it to school safely. He eventually did.

That young boy’s been back in my mind since I heard on Friday about another boy going to school elsewhere in New York who didn’t make it safely.

On Friday morning, Mauricio Osorio-Palaminos, a truck driver, drove his truck out of 61st street in Queens left onto Northern Boulevard, cut well onto the side of the street for oncoming traffic and caught Noshat Nahian, eight, with the trailer’s rear wheels. Noshat, who was hurrying to school with his 11-year-old sister, died shortly afterwards in hospital.

The street Osorio-Palaminos was leaving was not, as far as I can tell, a designated truck route. Pictures showed his truck far over to the wrong side of the road. The driver was also the second in recent weeks to kill a pedestrian in New York City while driving commercially with a suspended licence.
 
The Invisible Visible Boy on a truck
meant to show cyclists how hard they are
to see. Let's hope New York's DoT trains
its drivers in spotting cyclists too.
Yet commenters on online news reports about the death homed in instead on police reports that Noshat had his hood up and was looking down when hit. There was abuse for his parents. One commenter said Noshat must have been looking for “suicide by truck”.

Noshat’s death is at least the 11th of a pedestrian under 13 so far this year in New York. Many people’s instinctive reaction has been to blame the victims.

In November, I attended a rally in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, calling for enforcement of traffic laws after a speeding driver killed Lucian Merryweather, nine, on a sidewalk. The rally heard a brave and heartbreaking speech from the mother of Samuel Cohen Eckstein, 12, who died in October when a car hit him on a crosswalk on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. She was speaking a few days after what should have been Samuel’s bar mitvah.

Many internet commenters on Samuel’s death focused on how he was hit after going after a ball that had bounced into the street. They ignored how he had the light when he entered the crosswalk. Several cars stopped for him before a speeding van hit him.
 
A memorial where Lucian Merryweather died. I'd love
to take half the internet commenters on road safety
to this unspeakably sad spot.
The father of Allison Liao, three, who was killed in October crossing the street in Flushing, Queens, looked on, weeping, as Samuel’s mother spoke. Initial reports on Allison’s death focused on how she had allegedly broken away while crossing the road from her grandmother, who was holding her hand. Yet Allison’s family insist she was holding her grandmother’s hand – and the driver who hit her barged through the crosswalk when he should have yielded.

The circumstances of Noshat’s death are very similar to those surrounding the death in East Harlem in February of Amar Diarassouba, a seven-year-old. He also died under a truck’s rear wheels as he headed to school. Erik Mayor, a restaurateur whose business is near the crash site, despicably tried to blame that crash on Amar’s older brother, saying he “wasn’t paying attention.” The driver involved had, as in other cases, driven through a crosswalk when he should have yielded.

They’re stories that won’t surprise many adults who walk or cycle around New York City – or any other big city in the United States. When I cross streets on foot, vehicles constantly barge through crosswalks when I have the light in my favour. I have found myself caught unawares by the line a truck’s rear wheels have taken through a crosswalk and been forced to jump backwards out of the way.

On my bike, on the 1st Avenue bike lane in Manhattan, I need constantly to look over my shoulder at westbound cross-streets, knowing that cars will try to turn across my path. I have to signal forcefully to drivers to stop if they’re behaving dangerously. I need the sixth sense of the experienced urban cyclist to spot the vehicles that are about to pull out without looking from a parking space.

There’s an invidious assumption that, if children can’t at least match my skills at navigating streets, they shouldn’t be on the streets at all. The attitude is sometimes reminiscent of the sexual harassment that faces single women in some places in southern Europe. Anyone silly enough to enter the environment, it seems to be assumed, is fair game for any untoward consequences. A responsible parent, it’s  assumed, transports his or her children by car, prioritising their safety over that of others.
A cyclist on 55th Street in Manhattan. Remember: if
anything bad happens to a kid in this traffic,
it's probably the kid's fault.

Looked at dispassionately, however, the adults are behaving like stereotypical children. Many of my closest calls are with drivers who simply lose patience with waiting and pull out without looking from a traffic line. Most parents try to teach their children the kind of patience that drivers who drive while using their mobile telephones haven’t learned. Children are encouraged to face up to their responsibilities – yet many commercial trucking companies seem to employ unlicensed drivers. The police seem to shirk their duty to hold the worst drivers accountable.

I’ve come across plenty of children taking road rules far more seriously than many adults. The boy pedalling down Clinton St was paying far more attention to road conditions than most of the motorists. Esme Bauer, a young woman from Fort Greene, was one of the most powerful speakers at the rally I attended in November.

Many of the adults seem to be products of recent decades when parents feared to teach their children to navigate the streets. Having grown up with parents scared to let them out on the streets, they now sit, sucking their teeth, in their cars. Why, they wonder, are these children wandering about on the streets? What are their parents thinking?
 
New York needs more children commuting like this -
but will it take the steps to get them?
It’s a cycle that it’s obvious needs to be broken. Enforcement, road layout and general attitudes all need to improve to rebalance streets policy in favour of the pedalling boy commuter of Clinton St and away from the bad drivers around him.

It’s a question that goes far beyond transport policy, however. The disdain with which I saw some internet commenters react to Noshat’s death toppled over, it seemed to me, into expressing a generalised contempt for the weak and powerless. It’s an ugly attitude at the best of times. In this case, it was being expressed the week before Christmas about a young Bangladeshi immigrant crushed by a truck as he headed to take part in his public school’s holiday play.

In a city where someone can accuse such a young man of wanting “suicide by truck,” I’m tempted to conclude that New York’s transport problems are, perhaps, only a symptom – albeit a serious one – of a wider social malaise.

13 comments:

  1. Very thoughtful and heartfelt post, Robert.

    The unlicensed driver's trucking company, Roadtex Transportation Corp., is no mom-and-pop shop. They operate in all 48 (lower U.S.) states and have two dozen service centers around the country. (http://www.roadtex.com/terminal_locations.html) That Roadtex would send an 18-wheeler driven by an unlicensed driver onto the streets of Queens is prima facie evidence that its "safety culture" is broken. We safe-streets advocates should investigate what it would take to revoke the company's right to operate in NYC and start taking steps to do so.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Charles,

      I had a look at Roadtex's website when I was writing the piece and you're right that the company seems a serious operation. I noted, ruefully, that it mentioned prominently its commitment to safety.

      I get regular press releases from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration trumpeting their success in shutting down unsafe truck and bus operators. I don't think an operator would lose its licence for a single offence (if this is an isolated incident). But I'd certainly think, given that the truck involved was operating on an interstate basis from New Jersey, bringing the incident to the FMCSA's attention.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Looks like they have deep pockets and succesfully suing them for a gazillion dollars would send a message.

      Of course, Dutch CROW standard infrastructure would have prevented the death in the first place.

      Can we imagine a New York where children arriving at school look like this:

      http://bicycledutch.wordpress.com/2013/12/05/arriving-at-school-by-bicycle/

      Delete
  2. Personally, I'm getting fed up of even trying to cycle, when no one (not even most cycling advocates) seems to want to do anything about safety. Instead, we have populist cycling advocates calling for Dutch facilities which, in practice in the USA, have not proven to be any safer than the road.

    The problem cannot be solved by adding bike lanes. We have to ride on REAL roads that exist NOW, not fantasy bike paths that MIGHT exist 20 years from now. That means we have to work against anti-cycling prejudice and work towards supporting road cycling and improving safety for cyclists on today's roads.

    Advocating for bike paths and lauding the merits of Dutch facilities doesn't do a damned thing for people who want to cycle to work TODAY. It's the cycling equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No it's not. It's about getting things done which could make a significant improvement to cycling safety and cycling numbers immediately. Seville has built 80 miles of bike lanes in 5 years, and seen the modal share rise from 0.5% to 7%. It's just a case of politicians actually *doing* something and doing the *right* thing (proper separated lanes).

      If the "dutch facilities" aren't safer than the road then they are probably not "dutch" and they're doing them wrong.

      Encouraging "road cycling" hasn't worked and will never work - children, old people, and just "normal" people simply don't want to cycle somewhere they are at risk of being killed by a driver not looking, on the phone etc. You can't make the roads safe enough for "sharing" - I don't want to cycle on single lane roads in the UK doing 10 mph when cars are doing 60 mph

      Delete
    2. I think the issue is two parts. We need more infrastructure which helps to increase ridership and safety. But we also need to do more to advocate accountability on the part of motorists and all road users. All the infrastructure in the world will not help if people are not held accountable. I see news stories on a daily basis where cars hit pedestrians on sidewalks or drive through a building or doing stupid things while your license is revoked. The driver usually gets off with not more than a ticket. In these situations the infrastructure was already built to separate these areas from the auto traffic but it didn't help.

      Delete
    3. BW,

      As you'll have seen down below, I agree with your assessment. People who don't live in New York probably don't recognise quite how scandalously out of control so many drivers are here. The driver who killed Lucian Merryweather both hit a restaurant then reversed, spun round and careered off onto the sidewalk that's pictured above. That's beyond an infrastructure issue. That's an issue of showing some basic regard for the people around one.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    4. Reduce and restrict automobile presence on our public rights of way, from complete removal to lane removal.

      Slow the allowed portion to 20-25 MPH in 'shared' areas. Enforce it heavily and collect the revenue.

      You want real, lasting solutions? These are them.

      Delete
  3. Today's environment is the product of decades spent NOT advocating for segregated infrastructure.
    The police choose not to enforce traffic regulations and most incidents are the result of incompetence rather than criminal intent. Segregation provides protection when the police are absent and reduces the risk from inattentive drivers.
    Bill G

    ReplyDelete
  4. The joy of waking up on Christmas Eve to discover one's blogpost has excited overnight a heated argument between infrastructure and vehicular cycling advocates!

    Everybody here has some reasonable points. Ian is right that there's a need for immediate action, independent of what the infrastructure looks like. There is currently effectively no enforcement of most traffic rules in New York City. That's a huge part of why twice as many people die on the city's streets annually as in London, which has about the same population and similar traffic levels. Irrespective of how the infrastructure changes, it's never going to be sustainable to let drivers ignore all road rules as they currently do. For example, some of the cycling infrastructure (such as the 8th and 9th avenue bike lanes in midtown Manhattan) is effectively unuseable because drivers ignore the "yield to cyclists" rules where they cross the bike lane at cross streets. I've argued in the past that it's vital to improve conditions for on-street cycling precisely because there isn't going to be infrastructure immediately and because it's vital to get a handle on traffic speeds right away (see, for example, http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2013/02/staten-island-and-why-invisible-visible.html).

    On the other hand, moving to New York has made me more enthusiastic about dedicated cycling infrastructure. New York has spent decades designing many of its roads for high vehicle speeds. It's never going to be attractive to cycle on big New York avenues with the fast-moving traffic and there's solid evidence, in New York at least, that streets that have had segregated cycle lanes added become much safer. It's worth looking at the picture in the link I provided to the site where poor Noshat was hit. It's an eight-lane highway. It's never going to be suitable for cycling without some pretty drastic infrastructure solution. The streets also need all kinds of changes to show drivers they need to slow down. It's easy in the UK to underestimate how many of these the UK already has.

    So, sure, enforcement and education are vital and should start immediately (or, more realistically, from January 1, when the new mayor takes office). But, in New York at least, I think infrastructure work of various kinds, including dedicated bike lanes, is also vital.

    Merry Christmas (or at least happy holidays),

    Invisible.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "New York has spent decades designing many of its roads for high vehicle speeds."
    Actually, New York has spent decades *REdesigning* many of its roads for high speed vehicles. Very few roads in New York today didn't exist 100 years ago. They just looked radically different: narrower, full of people walking, pushing carts, riding bikes and yes, driving cars at breakneck speeds of 10 mph.

    The good news is that what was redesigned to be a habitat for cars can be redesigned back to accommodate all forms of transportation, albeit with sidewalks, bike lanes and regular traffic lanes that more clearly define how to share the space safely and efficiently.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ladyfleur,

      It's an excellent point. I'm currently just over a third of the way through The Power Broker, the biography of Robert Moses who did so much of this damage. I curse him daily for what he did to the city. Northern Boulevard is, I think, part of the work he demanded to ensure New Yorkers could reach the parkways he'd built further out on Long Island.

      A great deal of what he did simply needs to be undone.

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. I've been away -- quite late in the conversation here. I look forward to asking young NYC bike advocates about these things next month at the Youth Bike Summit in NYC . I encourage those who care about these things to attend. These young people are the ones who will determine cycling future in this country. We need to help empower them to do so.

    ReplyDelete