Sunday, 31 March 2013

A pain to use but a joy to be on: in praise of the Brooklyn Bridge

It was when my then 10-month-old son refused to go back to sleep one morning in July 2008 that I first crossed the Brooklyn Bridge. We were on holiday (vacation) staying in TriBeCa. On our second morning, the jetlag from flying from London not yet having worn off, he wouldn’t nod off again after waking up at 5am. I’d headed south with him the previous morning, down towards the Staten Island ferry terminal. This time, I decided, it was about time I saw this bridge across the East River that I hadn’t properly seen on any previous visit to New York.
Budapest's Chain Bridge:
diminished my expectations
Other old bridges in cities had shaped my expectations. I’d cycled across the Chain Bridge in Budapest – another 19th century suspension bridge. I’d ridden over pretty much every Thames crossing between Tower Bridge and Windsor. I’d walked over the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol. I had even noticed – with mild irritation – the numerous references in The Path Between the Seas, David McCullough’s fine history of the building of the Panama Canal, to the Brooklyn Bridge. He had written a previous book on the subject. How big a deal, I wondered, could a bridge across a river in the middle of a city be?

All of which meant I was unprepared for what I encountered as I pushed my little boy’s pushchair (stroller) over the road beyond City Hall Park and started out on the long, sloping walkway. The twin archways of the bridge’s Manhattan pier stood hundreds of yards away, towering over even many tall New York buildings. The four enormous main suspension cables reinforced the bridge’s scale.
The Invisible Visible Boy:
wide awake on his first visit
to the Brooklyn Bridge
This, I suddenly realised, was more like some vast, cross-estuary bridge – I’ve ridden in the past over the Erskine, Forth and Tay bridges in Scotland – than almost anything I’d previously encountered in a city. Yet it was nearly 100 years older than most of those similar spans and taking off from the middle of one of the most densely-packed sections of one of the most densely-packed cities on earth.

I also, as I made my way out towards Brooklyn, started to notice the Manhattan-bound cyclists freewheeling down the slope. There were, it occurred to me, some lucky souls who got to commute by bike every morning over this marvel of engineering, taking in one of the world’s great views – lower Manhattan’s clustered skyscrapers. As I rolled the still wide-awake boy over the bridge, at an hour I’d normally still be sleeping, I started to imagine an alternative life from our existence in London. We would live in Brooklyn and I would get on my bike each morning and ride, amid the drama of the Brooklyn Bridge, to my job in Manhattan.

There will by this point be many people familiar with cycling in New York puzzled at my enconium for this particular bridge – and for good reason. The Brooklyn Bridge, oldest of the fixed East River crossings and the most distinctive, suffers as a place to cycle from its celebrity. I have endured journeys on sunny Saturdays when I’ve spent virtually every yard of the main crossing ringing my bell, shouting warnings or braking suddenly as heedless tourists have wandered into my path. I had a young woman shout at me, “This is a tourist area!” after I tutted at her dumping her suitcase right in the cycle lane by the Manhattan pier. Her view failed, I thought, to capture the structure's fundamental bridge-iness. Most bizarrely of all, I once had a wedding party remonstrate with me that I was cycling too fast (at a sedate 12mph) and had disrupted their efforts to pose for wedding photos in the bridge’s bike lane. I suggested that, if they didn’t mind obstructing traffic, the view from one of the adjacent car lanes might be even better.

But the challenges of using the bridge shouldn’t obscure how marvellous and unique a structure the bridge is. Using it can be one of those interactions with a city that cyclists are peculiarly privileged to enjoy. The bridge played a significant role in forming the current New York City. It's no accident that it was only in 1898, after the bridge's completion in 1883, that the cities of New York and Brooklyn merged to form one metropolis.
John Roebling's Gothic arches:
a bit mad when you think about it.
The aesthetics of the Great East River Bridge – as it was known during construction – also summarise something about the city itself. When John Roebling, the bridge’s designer, was planning it in the 1860s, he could easily have gone for a different look. There is, in retrospect, something eccentric about giving what was then the world’s most ambitious, modern bridge two twin stone archways in the European gothic style. The mixture of modern steel cables and gothic styling must initially have seemed as strange as, say, one of the modern-day shopping malls in Dubai themed around the medieval Muslim world.

Yet the slightly pompous adoption of European styles and modern construction techniques turned out to be the perfect mixture for a city taking over from Europe the mantle of world leadership. There were buildings in New York and Brooklyn in an archaic style before the Great Bridge. But it’s hard to believe that mixture of old and new would have become quite as prevalent without the Roeblings’ bridge. Look at the Brooklyn Bridge’s towers and you’re seeing, right there, where Gotham City’s Gothic aesthetic was born. It helps that the bridge's mix of styles is unique. As McCullough's book points out, it was one of the first suspension bridges on such a scale – but the last big one before steel towers became standard. None of the Great Bridge’s East River successors features the mixture of stone and steel.

The commemorative plaque: heroes and villains side by side
A stop I made one morning in early March, however, has prompted me also to think about the human stories behind the bridge's construction as I ride across. Stopping to change from my warm cycling jacket to a cooler high-visibility vest, I spotted above where I rested my bike, on the bridge’s Brooklyn tower, the plaque that was unveiled on May 24, 1883 when the bridge, after 14 years’ work, finally opened to the public. Having read McCullough’s The Great Bridge since that day in 2008, I found many of the names bringing incidents during its building vividly to mind.

The name John Roebling, the bridge’s original engineer, was marked with a small cross and the date 1869. He had, I knew, died slowly and painfully of tetanus after being injured surveying the bridge’s Brooklyn landing, on a spot almost precisely below where I stood. The cables above my head – a mixture of stays to hold the bridge deck steady and conventional suspension cables - bore testimony to his continuing influence. Such dual sets of cables were a trademark of his bridge designs – and testimony to his caution and thoroughness.

The name Washington Roebling, John’s son, below him, conjured up still more stories. He suffered terribly for years from the effects – both on his nerves and his body – of tackling a fierce fire in the caisson that formed the base of the bridge’s Brooklyn tower. The caisson, complete with the wood he personally repaired, was on the river bed, directly below my feet.
The bridge from Manhattan: dodgy wire and all
The list of the bridge’s trustees was less inspiring, meanwhile. Henry Murphy and William Kingsley, the president and vice-president of the board, had both been involved in awarding the contract to make wires for the suspension cable to J Lloyd Haigh, a shady Brooklyn contractor. Haigh perpetrated a long-running fraud to supply the bridge with sub-standard wire. It was thanks to them that the cables whose width I'd noticed in July 2008 were so thick. Washington Roebling had added extra wire to them to protect against weaknesses in the sub-standard wire, still in place more than 130 years on.

I looked at the plaque with far less insight back in 2008. My son had finally fallen asleep when I reached the Brooklyn pier and I turned back towards Manhattan, eager to suggest the Invisible Visible Woman and the Invisible Visible Girl come back with us for a second visit to the bridge. That second visit - and a picnic lunch the next day with two old friends in Fort Greene - further nurtured my growing idea of how we could live in New York. The notion of relocation to the Big Apple remained strong enough, even though the prospects of its happening seemed remote, that I rhapsodised on the possibility of commuting over the Brooklyn Bridge in the first post on this blog. The notion made me all the keener to apply when, unexpectedly, a suitable job with my employer in New York became available.

Yet there was no inevitability about my using the Brooklyn Bridge, even once we'd selected a Brooklyn apartment. My early research revealed a strong bias among cyclists in favour of using the pedestrian-free Manhattan Bridge bike path to travel between downtown Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. I’ve used all three other East River bridges – the Manhattan for trips to Lower East Side destinations, the Williamsburg for an occasional change and the Queensboro for a few days following Superstorm Sandy.
The Invisible Visible Boy, now a Brooklyn resident,
on the bridge last Christmas Eve
But, unlike the others, I eventually realised, the Brooklyn Bridge would land me in the middle of lower Manhattan, less than half a mile from the Hudson River Greenway and four miles of convenient, traffic-free riding uptown. As a result, I am now one of those lucky souls I spotted freewheeling off the bridge in 2008. I’ve ridden when snow is accumulating on the wooden walkway and in torrential rain, as well as suffocating heat and on days of such wind I’ve walked over the bridge’s centre. I’ve seen days when fog obscures Manhattan from Brooklyn, those when mist collects in the Manhattan streets and the skyscrapers poke out up above and days when rain on my glasses obscures the whole scene. I’ve cursed the wood's slipperiness on wet days and the walkway's narrowness on sunny days that bring out the tourists. On one especially memorable evening, I rode home over the bridge as spectacular thunderstorms broke over New York Harbour, periodically highlighting the buildings around me against great flashes of sheet lightning.

Through all of that, there are still days – frequent ones, in fact – when the highlight of my ride to work is the moment when I turn a corner on the walkway and the bridge first comes into view. The Roeblings’ twin gothic towers come into view against a backdrop of lower Manhattan skyscrapers glistening in the sunlight – and I remember what made me want to live in this city in the first place.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Crashes - and communities' deadly preferences

At the foot of Wellington Street in London, where the busy cycle route from Waterloo Bridge heads into Covent Garden, there was, for a while when I lived there, a notice. The police had received numerous complaints, it said, from “the community” about standards of cyclist behaviour in Covent Garden. It suggested, essentially, that cyclists should smarten up their act or face unspecified consequences.

The notice irritated me on several levels – but the most profound was the notion that “the community” were the real people and the cyclists some alien, invasive species. The irritation was all the greater because as an area Covent Garden seldom showed much respect for cyclists’ rights. I have a vivid memory of cycling across the pavement (sidewalk, American readers) at the foot of Wellington Street with a drunk tourist yelling at me that I wasn’t allowed to ride there. He was standing directly on top of a bike symbol, on the clearly marked cycle lane.
A stencil marks where Martha Atwater died: one of
far too many such death sites in New York City

Questions about traffic and its relationship with communities have been occurring to me again over the last month as I’ve pondered a series of appalling tragedies on the streets of New York City, where I live now. The highest profile – the killing in a car crash in the early hours of March 3 of two expectant parents, Nachman and Raizel Glauber, and their baby son, delivered prematurely after the crash – raised the issue most clearly because of their own community’s very obvious reaction. The couple, only 21, belonged to prominent Hasidic Jewish families. Their deaths – a speeding, possibly drunk driver smashed into the livery cab they were using - were marked by a funeral that brought 1,000 men in dark coats and wide-brimmed hats onto the streets of Williamsburg, one of Hasidism’s Brooklyn strongholds.

But nearly any traffic tragedy – and there have been many in New York this past month besides the widely-noticed ones - raises at least some questions about how different communities relate to and use the street involved.
Potted plants show the grief of Martha Atwater's community

I’ve been thinking particularly deeply about the link each morning recently as I’ve cycled past the junction of Clinton Street and Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn Heights on my way to work. A line of potted plants by a shop window and a stencilled outline on the sidewalk mark where, on the evening of February 22, a driver mounted the sidewalk in his speeding, out of control SUV. Martha Atwater, a 48-year-old writer and mother of two children, was emerging from a bagel shop and died on the sidewalk shortly after the vehicle hit her.

The regular arrival of fresh floral tributes testifies to what I read in the days after Ms Atwater’s death – that she was a well-known, well-liked participant in many local activities. She was the embodiment of the strong sense of mutual responsibility and joint action that makes the best New York neighbourhoods such desirable places to live.

But I saw little reflection amid the tragedy of Ms Atwater’s death on New York’s wider traffic culture, which claimed another high-profile victim less than six days later. On the morning of February 28, Amar Diarrassouba, 6, was crossing E117th street in East Harlem on his way to school when a huge truck drove through the crosswalk, killing him instantly as his 9-year-old brother, who was accompanying him, looked on.

The grief in Amar’s case focused not on the miserable, pointless loss of a bright young boy or the driver’s culpability but on Amar’s school crossing guard. The woman, who on a previous occasion reportedly snatched a child out of the path of an oncoming car, should have been present at the crossing when the collision occurred but wasn’t. Astonishingly, the police investigation of the truck driver appears to have concluded with his receiving traffic tickets for failure to yield and failure to execute due care – minor violations that nevertheless suggest he was entirely responsible for Amar’s death. The investigation into the crossing guard – someone who, whatever her shortcomings, did not negligently drive a huge truck over a blameless six-year-old – continues.

The attention on the crossing guard was typical of the focus after each of the tragedies on the crash’s individual circumstances and what made it exceptional. There has been very little reflection on how general traffic conditions in the areas concerned contributed to the deaths.

The intersection the driver that killed Martha Atwater crossed.
Traffic calming would do no good here, according to some residents
That omission struck me particularly in Martha Atwater’s case because of an online argument I entered a few months ago with a resident of Cobble Hill, just across Atlantic from the crash scene, about traffic calming. He was angrily complaining about how unsightly a projected traffic-calming scheme for the area would be and what congestion it would cause. But it seems fair to suspect that such traffic-calming would have made it much less likely a speeding SUV would shoot across Atlantic Avenue and kill someone.

The most shocking effort to shift blame came in Amar Diarrassouba’s case. The community board for the area where Amar died – the local body that has the final say on many local planning issues in New York – in late 2011 withdrew previous approval for a protected bike lane along First Avenue in the area. Most studies suggest such lanes, as well as benefitting cyclists, make crashes like the one that killed Amar less likely. Yet when Steve Vaccaro, a cycling lawyer and activist, pointed out the community board’s role on Twitter to Erik Mayor, a local restaurateur and community board member, Mayor preferred to put the blame on the least blameworthy actor in the entire episode. “The child was being walked by his nine-year-old brother, who did not pay attention,” Mayor wrote.

Kent Ave: a surviving Williamsburg bike lane,
which some Hasidim might prefer weren't there.
The truth is that road deaths all over the world nearly always result at least in part from failures of road governance. Those often result from local communities’ tendency to assume the main priority for roads is to meet the needs of the people that they regard as their “community” – people who have similar needs and habits to them.

That is particularly revealingly the case where the Glaubers’ community is concerned. Few Hasidic Jews cycle and some Williamsburg Hasidim successfully campaigned for removal of a cycle lane along Bedford Avenue through the heart of their community. One community spokesman said that, although the ostensible reason for the campaign was their disapproval of women cyclists’ “immodest” dress, it was also the case that “everyone” knew a bike lane was a “nuisance”. There have also been attempts to discourage cyclists from using bike lanes along Kent Avenue, the street where the Glaubers were killed, apparently because Hasidim wanted back the parking spaces that the bike lane took.

Erik Mayor’s reaction shows a similar myopia. He couched his original opposition to the first avenue bike lane in terms of the likely effect on local children. He claimed – improbably – that a bike lane would increase asthma among children because it would increase congestion and hence emissions from idling cars. But when the lane’s absence contributed to the crushing to death of a boy from the area’s distinctive west African community, his sympathy seems to have evaporated.

A strong theme running through many “community” expressions of concern about their local roads is that they focus on the problems that cause the most vocal complaints locally – the struggle to find parking places or local shopkeepers’ grumbles about business – rather than local roads’ role as thoroughfares.

Yet roads are inevitably the vehicle for the habits of one community, no matter how distinctive it might be in many things, to run – sometimes literally – into another’s. The wide, unobstructed local road might seem vital to you because it offers plenty of parking spaces. If it looks to people from neighbouring communities like an invitation to drive at twice the speed limit, your community is likely to pay a heavy price.

It’s for that reason that it makes little sense to hand governance over important issues of roads policy to bodies as locally focused as New York City’s community boards. The New York City cycling map testifies to their influence, with cycle lanes along long avenues changing in nature or disappearing altogether according to their whims. It’s an area where London, for all its drawbacks, seems largely to be doing better than New York. The boroughs of Wandsworth, Westminster and Barnet – all controlled by the Conservative Party – are undoubtedly less bike-friendly than Camden or Tower Hamlets, controlled by the Labour Party. But the overall strategy seems less likely than New York’s to be derailed in places because of loud, locally-focused complaints.

More generally, meanwhile, it’s always worth thinking when anyone talks about “the community” about whom their definition excludes. While “community” as a term comes wrapped in warm pictures of neighbours chatting and people banding together to do good, it often says as much – as in that Covent Garden notice – about who’s on the outside. The Covent Garden community clearly excluded people who rode bikes. The community board for East Harlem seems to have seen itself as more answerable to car-users than cyclists or people who might benefit from safer streets.

The Invisible Visible Man thinks this bike's rider
didn't feel like part of his community.
The police think we're all part of the same problem.
My own tendency to think sloppily on this topic came home to me on Thursday evening when I encountered the aftermath of a collision on my way home. An ambulance was taking away a cyclist whose mangled bike lay by the roadside. A quick scan of the machine – a nasty aluminium full-suspension mountain bike – led me to a quick conclusion. This was the machine of either a food-delivery cyclist or one of the youths from the local public housing. He wasn’t part of my cycling community.

That made little difference to one of the policemen at the scene, however. Having already apparently decided the cyclist’s failure to stop appropriately had caused the crash, he was keen to share the news with anyone else rash enough to ride a bicycle – even one dutifully stopped at the traffic lights. Looking towards me as he walked back towards his patrol car, he addressed me with a sneer in his voice. “I guess he just had to stop,” he said, shaking his head.