Sunday, 26 May 2013

The delivery cyclist: an appreciation of the under-appreciated

It was one evening a few months ago that I encountered the cyclist with the battered road bike and back pack. I was shuttling my bike-cleaning equipment up bit by bit from the yard of our building when I found him sharing the elevator with me. I launched into the kind of small talk I’m practised at using on cycling neighbours. “Do you ride far?” I asked.

It was only after I left the elevator that I realised he wasn’t a neighbour. He had come from a Mexican restaurant in Red Hook, he said. They had a huge delivery area - but used specially-designed insulated back packs to keep the food warm. I had, it dawned on me, just for the first time talked to a New York food-delivery cyclist about subjects beyond which bag held the plum sauces or whether I could pay by credit card.
Delivery cyclist, rain, Sixth Avenue.
Sure, you might sometimes choose to ride in such weather.
But would you want to ride in it or be fired?
It’s probably revealing that I got into the discussion having mistaken the delivery biker for a neighbour. I regularly engage other commuter cyclists in chat at traffic lights. I remark on their bikes (especially if they’re fellow Surly owners) the weather (alternately superb or not a great advert for cycle commuting) or the behaviour of New York City drivers (on whom I don’t generally heap praise). I don’t on the other hand tend to strike up conversation if I find myself next to a man with bags of lo mein dangling from his handlebars or carrying a basketful of tacos. I don’t seem to regard these cyclists – or, to some extent, working cyclists generally – as part of my cycling tribe.

City authorities worldwide tend to be still less warm-hearted. The couriers that played a vital role in ferrying documents around the City of London were a still bigger target for the City Police’s ire than cyclists in general. New York City Council has a history of regarding the working cyclist – the person who delivers the documents and food that keep the city’s financial services and media industries functioning and fuelled – as a problem on a par with the city’s rat or bedbug problem. It probably can’t be stamped out but needs controlling by whatever means possible.

New York's City Council also seems to listen to working cyclists – who work long hours in far-from-safe conditions for minimal wages – about as attentively as it listens to the vermin. I’ve never seen any sign that the city councillors most vocal about the delivery bikers’ perceived shortcomings are pressing their employers significantly to improve their conditions. Nor have I heard of any taking any interest in the welfare of the bikers who deliver their own pizza or noodle boxes.

Yet working cyclists are the only cyclists in most big cities whose numbers and cycling conditions non-cyclists can directly influence. Call out for lunch and you’re pitching some poor Vietnamese or Mexican delivery cyclist onto the streets, regardless of whether or not you think they’re safe. Tell your secretary in Mayfair to get a document to Canary Wharf within an hour and you’re ensuring that some young man on a fixed wheel bike has to fight his way through Piccadilly’s traffic in a hurry.
Snow in March: Thoughtful New Yorkers preferred letting
cyclists riding in this to messing up their shoes
The working cyclist’s plight came home to me particularly starkly in March, when a surprise late snowfall blew in, turning midtown Manhattan into a miserable, low-visibility mess of slush and dampness. It was one of a handful of days since I arrived in New York that I decided cycling wasn’t the best way to get to work. Other commuter cyclists, I knew, were forsaking their normal means of transport for the comforts – if that isn’t too strong a word – of the subway. But, as I walked, head down, towards my lunchtime kebab cart, I noticed there seemed to be more delivery bikers than normal out there, not fewer. In the skyscrapers around me, office workers were looking out their windows, shuddering at the idea of subjecting their fancy shoes to the soggy sidewalks and phoning for some poor immigrant to bring them lunch on his bike instead.

But, while the delivery cyclist bringing food or documents to one’s own desk is performing a vital service, those serving other people’s needs seem to be a confounded nuisance. Bike couriers tend to be firmly among the "cyclists who get cycling a bad name" for the kind of person who sucks his or her teeth over the behaviour of London cyclists. In New York, it's axiomatic to complain that food delivery bikers all constantly ride the wrong way down one-way streets, terrorise pedestrians at red lights and ride on the sidewalks. New York City Council’s transport committee, putting to one side the challenges of tackling the city's 250 to 300 annual deaths in motor vehicle crashes, has passed a bill in the past year demanding, among other things, that delivery cyclists display a personal identification number and the identification of their business. There’s also been an attempt to crack down harder on e-assist bikes – a fairly transparent effort to get at a means of transport popular with delivery cyclists.

The very name of one piece of city council legislation raises questions about how big a problem delivery bikers really are. The law is named after Stuart Gruskin, who died after being hit by a delivery cyclist going the wrong way on a street in March 2009. Tragic and painful though Mr Gruskin’s loss undoubtedly must remain for his family, no-one has died after colliding with a cyclist in New York City in the four years since.

I certainly wouldn't defend all working cyclists' standards. I had a nasty near-miss in Cobble Hill late one night with a delivery cyclist who ran a red light into my path. I’m frequently unimpressed with the way some riders squeeze past me in the evening on the W55 street bike lane. The only other cyclist I’ve ever knocked off was a courier who made a foolhardy, last-minute swing in front of me at a junction in London just as the lights turned green.

I do, however, recognise that even I find New York's grid system frustrating as a cyclist - and I have the luxury of never riding in city traffic more than a few times a day and not losing any pay if I'm late.  Would I follow all the street direction rules if the restaurant where I worked were on a one-way street and it would add five minutes to every trip to go the right way round the block to reach it? Would I wait at the lights every time if I knew that doing so would leave me scores of times a day jostling with several streams of fast-moving, inconsiderate taxis? Would I expect my bosses to back me if I explained that my productivity was lower than other delivery bikers’ because unlike them I assiduously followed the rules?
A courier on W55th street. It's the kind of day when
riding round the city must have its upsides.
But would you want to judge the traffic lights knowing
doing so all day could lob a fifth off your wages?

It would be easy to construct an alternative narrative about working cyclists. They are after all ready every day to take significant risks in traffic, get food and documents to people faster than a motor vehicle could and create virtually no carbon emissions or pollution in doing so. I admired how the delivery bikers in March's snow negotiated piles of slush that must be making conditions under their wheels treacherous. I tend to believe that a great deal of the anger directed at delivery cyclists reflects general prejudices against cyclists. In the case of food delivery bikers, there's the added element of the racism often directed at poor immigrants in unpopular, poorly-paid jobs.

There should certainly be some scope for cycling advocacy groups to stand alongside working cyclists on some issues. It's hard to imagine that a movement in the highly-fragmented, ultra-competitive New York catering industry will look quite the same but in New York in 1987 couriers and commuter cyclists stood together against efforts by Ed Koch, then mayor of New York, to ban day-time cycling in midtown Manhattan. The measure was intended mainly to make bike couriers' lives more difficult. The successful protest movement encouraged the development of some of the cycling advocacy groups still at work today in New York.

All delivery cyclists, meanwhile, can deploy the devastating argument that occurred to me when, one Saturday afternoon, my family and I were passed far too close in Brooklyn Heights by a poorly-driven car bearing the logo of a nearby pizza restaurant. The alternative to negligently, lawlessly handled delivery bicycles probably isn't polite, legal delivery bikes but negligently, lawlessly-driven motor vehicles. It may even - who knows? - have been that the restaurant turned to cars to avoid New York's new, strict delivery biker regulations.

Sure, it's annoying that the delivery guy from the local Mexican comes the wrong way down the bike lane at you. Sure, the pizza joint guy shouldn't have buzzed you in the crosswalk as you crossed. But thank goodness they didn't do it with a car.

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Routes - and Why I Prefer Developing my Hippocampus to my Quadriceps

It’s fairly easy for even a casual observer to spot what cycling does for some bits of my body. While I’m far less fit than I’d like to be, I boast thighs that some mature trees would be happy to call their trunks. Since moving to New York and cycling farther each day, I’ve also lost some weight, as testified to by the sag in my trousers’ waistbands below the belt loops.

I’ll probably never know, however, precisely what I’m doing to the posteriors of my hippocampi, two tiny glands on either side of my brain that help me to find my way around. I get just as much satisfaction, nevertheless, from the idea that I’m making them bigger, more complicated and more useful than they used to be as I do from my bulging thighs and slimming-if-still-overlarge waist.
The Invisible Visible Man's CaBi bike at Union Station:
mission accomplished
That satisfaction came home to me particularly forcefully this past week after I conquered my nervousness to have a go at cycling between Arlington, Virginia and my train home from Washington’s Union Station. I headed off tentatively on a Capital Bikeshare bike, worrying that my only rudimentary sense of the area’s geography would soon leave me hopelessly lost. I very nearly gave up immediately after getting the bike out of the docking station, alarmed at the bike’s handling when loaded with all my various bits of baggage.

An hour or so later, however, I was pushing the bike’s wheel into the Union Station docking station, feeling strangely elated. It was, it occurred to me, the kind of satisfaction that's soon going to be available to more people in New York, with the introduction of the Citibike bike share system. I’d tackled the mental puzzle of working out my way and reached a satisfactory conclusion.

My interest in the hippocampus dates back, however, to long before I ever set foot in the United States. I first heard of the brain structure while studying psychology at St Andrews University. I particularly associate it with a visit once with a friend to a room lined with cages full of rats. The friend was a PhD student working with the rats on neurophysiology, had gone in to check on them over the weekend and invited me along.

On the room’s ceiling, I could see the outline of a now-removed round disc. It marked, my friend told me, where Richard Morris, a neurophysiologist, had first conducted a famous experiment on the hippocampus’s role. He had set up a pool in the room with a hidden platform that the rats had to find. A video camera in the ceiling disc’s middle tracked their progress. Rats proved good at learning where the platform was. But, when Prof Morris injected a drug into their hippocampi to stop them working, they were no longer able reliably to locate it. The hippocampus seemed to organise their memory for direction.
The Jefferson Memorial, during my great, trans-Washington
bike ride. Yeah, the picture's squint. I took it seated on a bike.
Get used to it already.

I made a connection between the hippocampus and my getting about by bike when I heard about Eileen Maguire’s research on taxi drivers. In a series of studies, Prof Maguire – of University College London - has examined changes in the posterior hippocampus in London taxi drivers as they first learn the Knowledge – the test they have to pass on the city’s geography – then apply it. The posterior hippocampus – the rear part of the structure - tended to be bigger and more complex in drivers who had passed the Knowledge than in would-be drivers who had failed it, she found.

My brain, I recognised, was probably undergoing similar changes to the taxi drivers’. The gradual trial-and-error process of learning how best to get to a place – the frustration at missing that vital turning again, the fear at suddenly finding oneself unintentionally on an over-busy road, the satisfaction on finally getting a route right – were playing themselves out in my hippocampi. New neurons were growing and new connections were forming as I gradually built up a more solid picture of the best ways to get about.
Streets in the City of London: it may look a mess to you -
but the Invisible Visible Man's mental maps can help you
round this maze

The process, however, has been nothing like as clinical as a neurophysiological description might imply. I recall, for example, how, shortly after moving south from Edinburgh in 1997, I set off, cycle map in pocket, to work out my route from home in Brixton to my employer’s offices. The 4½ mile journey took me 45 minutes of missing turnings in my bike route, failing to understand how traffic flows worked and repeatedly checking the map.

Latterly in London, I could make it home on a good night in 20 minutes – albeit down busier main roads. My mental map of South London’s cycling routes could switch more smoothly and efficiently than any satellite navigation device. By the time I left London, I knew every pothole and manhole cover of many of the roads I’d cycled most often, preparing to avoid them well before I had reached them.

My mental map spread well beyond my regular commuting area. I’d feel a little surge of excitement if, for example, I got invited to some press event 15 miles from the office in Wembley. Why, I hardly ever got to use my carefully-memorised route out to that area, I’d think to myself. I was surprised and delighted one time when I found another reporter had made the same decision as I to cycle from Central London. We earnestly swapped thoughts on busy roads and helpful shortcuts.
The Shard: on my route to City Airport
It was my enthusiasm for the route that gave me a bias in favour of flying from London City Airport. My route for the 13 or so miles from my house to the airport – which distinguished itself by having good bike parking – was, I often felt, something of a work of art. I would pedal across the Thames, down Cable Street in the densely-packed East End, past Canary Wharf, then out into the grim housing estates of still working-class docklands. I would encounter evidence of every period in London’s history, from the Romans to the new Shard skyscraper. There can be few better ways of feeling at one with a city than to know intimately a route like the one I used to reach City Airport. It would take me from a beautiful but obscure quiet Georgian Square then out across the internationally-recognised landmark of Tower Bridge.

I’ve experienced something similar in New York. When apartment hunting, I found myself a couple of times nastily off course – on the wrong side of a busy expressway from where I wanted to be or careering down a six-lane avenue of scary, fast-moving traffic. But I know my mental map of the city is slowly but surely stitching together, somewhere in the back of my hippocampi. Without thought, I head north a couple of blocks to avoid the most constricted sections of W54 street most mornings, then south again before the office. I’ve been trying out a route up the east side bike path some other mornings. I take joy in now knowing the Lexington-Park-Madison-5th sequence of avenues I cross as I head to work. But I shun that route in the evenings, well aware, after previous experience, of the miseries of trying to head southbound on 2nd avenue.

The Empire State Building in pink:
cycling to photograph it was more fun for me than a party
I felt that same sense of having access to secrets of the city closed to others when, one night recently, my employer organised on the Upper East Side a party to celebrate its 125th anniversary. As others headed off afterwards to an after-party, I made excuses – but knew my main motivation was my desire to try the way home I’d crafted in my head. Before long, I was bowling down from the top of the Queensboro Bridge’s bike path, which I last used regularly in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. Then I was into Queens and navigating streets under elevated subway lines so romantically urban they should have had a permanent Chicago Blues soundtrack.
I looked across as I headed down the East River at the Empire State building, lit up pink in honour of the anniversary. I was, I felt sure, enjoying myself far more on this solitary exploration of the city than anyone yelling at a colleague to be heard over the music at the party.

Which brings me back to Washington.

The US Capitol: how to get there by bike is now fixed in
the Invisible Visible Man's hippocampi
Whatever my initial misgivings, they disappeared immediately I found myself on a bike path by the Potomac and catching my first glimpse of the Jefferson memorial and US capitol sitting on the other side. I sped – as much as one can on a bikeshare bike – over the 14th street Bridge and slowly worked out the best route along the National Mall. A little bit of guesswork once I’d got north of Pennsylvania Avenue and I was finally at the station, embarrassed to find myself feeling little less elated than Edmund Hillary can have felt on his first conquest of Everest.

But there were, it came to me, few satisfactions in life more total than completing such a journey. I had set out to tackle a challenge and, as I pushed the bike back into the docking station, comprehensively conquered it. I had made the journey entirely on my own resources. And, somewhere in my two hippocampi, just as those rats in St Andrews learnt where the platform was, my mental maps for cycling in Washington and northern Virginia were starting to form.