Wednesday, 26 March 2014

A frightened old man, an angry taxi driver - and why one big thing I fear is fearlessness

It was a rare moment when I felt sorry for a New York motorist. The elderly man, clearly confused about where to go, had got out of his car to assess where he was meant to turn at the Manhattan end of the Manhattan Bridge. But it was 11.30pm on a Friday; other drivers were impatient and he was blocking the left turn from Chrystie St into Canal St in Chinatown. “Honk!” “Hoooonk!” “Haaawnk!” His face expressed an emotion that’s all too familiar to me – fear of aggressively-driven cars. “What if one of these cars just slams into me?” he seemed to be thinking. “How can I most easily escape all this honking?”

New York City traffic: it certainly looks intimidating
The scene resonated with me. I’d not long before had an online conversation with someone who’d expressed regret that, although there was a new Citibike bikeshare station outside her house, she was too fearful to cycle in New York City. It just felt like far too great a risk, far too great a worry, she told me.

The exchange had heightened my awareness of the fundamental scariness of New York’s fast-moving traffic – and my own reaction to it. I feel concern when I hear a car speeding down a narrow, one-way street behind me. “Is it going to slow down when it reaches me?” I ask myself. “Will it tailgate me to intimidate me?” I worry when I ride through downtown Brooklyn in the mornings about anticipating the unpredictable behaviour of the drivers. The click in a car door that someone’s about to open sets off a spike of panic. People in other circumstances must feel something similar at hearing the cocking of an unseen gun. I used to feel similar alarm about cutting across the lanes of traffic around the Oval cricket ground in London during my commute to work there. “Get me out of here,” I’d think. “Any moment now, some idiot will come speeding round the blind corner.”

But my awareness of fear has also made me realise how year after year of daily cycle commuting in multiple different cities has changed my experience of the emotion. I’ve learned, I think, to manage my fear, to train it to push me towards the right decisions. I wish cycle commuting weren’t as stressful as it sometimes is and I know that riding a bike in a city isn’t nearly as dangerous as it sometimes feels. I also recognise that the health benefits from cycling on average outweigh the risks.

For the moment, however, I’m embracing the way my worries set off ancient fight-or-flight responses. I treasure how they keep me focused on riding as safely as I can amid what sometimes seems an almost unmanageably chaotic environment.

Smith St: challenging even on days without freezing rain.
That doesn't mean I wouldn't like a better cycling route to work, just as I yearned for improvements when I lived in South London. I head off each morning down Smith St in Brooklyn navigating round long lines of vehicles whose drivers clearly aren’t paying enough attention. They’ll lurch suddenly in or out of parking spaces. They’ll open doors unexpectedly. Drivers spot the side street they want and turn into it, oblivious to the idea they might be crossing someone else’s path.

The short – and generally less busy - section in Cobble Hill is still worse. Drivers floor their accelerators, speeding up like greyhounds released from traps. There, I look warily over my shoulder, knowing that, if I have to pull out of the narrow bike lane to avoid a car door, a pothole or a delivery truck, the cars could be moving too fast to avoid me. Then it’s back to a chaos of illegally double-parked cars, stray pedestrians and inattentive drivers. My stress levels and emotions swing wildly between the sections where I’m cut off from cars and can concentrate on riding – the Manhattan Bridge bike lane and Allen St in Manhattan – and the rest.
 
Allen St, Manhattan: believe it or not, this is one of the
least stressful spots on my daily commute
When I’m riding among motor vehicles, I enter a state that sometimes feels like hyper-consciousness. My attention has to dart from checking a set of traffic lights and the openness of the road ahead to focusing suddenly on the state of an individual car’s wheels. It’s badly parked and the driver’s just got in. Is it about to pull out in front of me? Oh, and just how deep is that new pothole? There’s no denying it’s so intense as sometimes to be invigorating.

I can't remember when the fear started pushing me towards safer, more sensible riding options. Once upon a time, I’d have let drivers scare me into riding right by the roadside even in the narrowest sections, where a passing car posed a serious danger. I’d let a car on my tail harass me into being uncertain about my line on the road, exasperating the impatient motorist more. I’d move back to the side of the road after swinging round a parked car as quickly as possible, without checking for obstacles in the bike lane or other riders. I’d ride in the door zone – the area where opening car doors are the biggest risk.

My anxiousness, I find now, makes me more resistant to shifting over to the side with a car on my tail, keeps me firmer in my line and makes me more cautious about making sudden changes of direction. My fear has become far better trained. It impels me constantly towards behaviour that every manual suggests is more likely to keep me safe than my former nervous, scared responses.
 
Hudson St, lower Manhattan: sure, you see
a magnificent urban thoroughfare. I see a
cycle lane I know is constantly blocked
by deliveries, food trucks and taxi drivers
So far from being a regrettable instinct in an urban cyclist, it strikes me, a well-trained fear is actually vital. It pushes me to go faster when the best way to avoid a motorist behind is to outrun him or her. It prompts me to go more slowly – with a better chance of stopping safely in an emergency – when in close proximity to seriously dangerous behaviour. It sometimes prompts me to pull over and let an aggressive motorist past on a narrow road – but only when I can safely do so.

My well-trained fear may even, it’s no exaggeration to say, have saved my life one morning in February. I was riding fast down Smith St’s cycle lane but scanning the cars. My gut instinct for when stupid behaviour is most likely had warned me of potential trouble. Sure enough, as I was almost upon it, the driver of a Ford Ranger pick-up truck pulled into my path, fast, without looking. Thanks to my inherent suspicion, I was already on my guard, aware of my surroundings and prepared to swerve left to get out of the way. I screamed “Stooooop!” at the top of my very loud voice. But I still felt a moment of certainty that I would land in the road. A mixture of my brakes, my screams and the driver’s belated response brought both of us to a halt only inches apart.

This well-trained fear, of course, isn’t going to keep me safe indefinitely. I already had it in 2009, when a car came from behind me in London, turned across my path and knocked me off. Most bike/car crashes are the motorist’s fault and there will be many circumstances where the cyclist can do nothing to avoid a motorist’s stupid behaviour.

Nor is there going to be mass cycling in rich world cities as long as things remain this intimidating. I’ve learnt how to train my fear because I have an itch to cycle. I might not have developed the itch to cycle if I’d known how scary it might sometimes feel.

But the most immediate downside to being hyper-aware of the risks one’s running is that it can produce a rather obsessive focus. That led me last Thursday into a position almost as dangerous as the ones I spend so much time avoiding.

Downtown Brooklyn, from afar. Not pictured:
homicidally negligent double parkers, furious limo drivers
Tired and frustrated as I rode home, I spotted a limousine parked blocking the bike lane at the corner of Smith and Fulton Streets. Since the driver was lounging on the vehicle, which he could easily have parked somewhere less dangerous, and since I was tired of pulling out round illegally-parked cars into traffic, I pulled up behind him and asked him to move.

Meeting a volley of abuse, including assertions that the United States was a “free country” and that I should “back the f*** off,” I decided to take a picture of the driver and licence plate, send it to the Taxi and Limousine Commission and leave it at that. I quickly found myself confronting a still angrier driver, who made grabs for both my camera and my bike.

Aware now of my misjudgement, I rode off to collect my thoughts. “You’re a white devil!” I could hear him shouting as I pulled out my phone to email myself his registration number. I was no longer feeling the constructive, focused, well-trained fear I experience when navigating the streets. I was undergoing the humiliating fear of someone who’s run away from a fight. My hands were shaking.

It was partly because of that experience I felt such fellow-feeling the following evening at seeing the frightened motorist. I wish big, western cities' traffic conditions weren't so apt to frighten people.

But somehow I still feel more dread in the pit of my stomach at the idea of a day when snow will stop me riding than at a repetition of the row with the Angry Limo Driver of Downtown Brooklyn. I even accept with some kind of resignation that I might, in future, not avoid a badly-driven car and might suffer another injury.

I shrink from some of the individual battles, it seems. But in the long run, in the war to keep riding, I don’t want to surrender.

23 comments:

  1. You remind me of the book, The Gift of Fear http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gift_of_Fear which (in a different framework) asserts that fear is an evolutionary advantage that anticipates and avoids violence, that fear response patterns can be organized and trained - not too far off the mark?

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    1. Vannevar,

      Your comment is, as ever, wise and well-informed. I think a sense of fear is essential to human survival. It keeps one alert when it's most needed.

      The point came home to me particularly forcibly this morning when I saw another cyclist who appeared to have far too little fear. He wasn't some clueless newbie - he was wearing Spandex and riding a decent bike. But he pulled left out of the cycle lane at one point without looking, into the path of a pick-up truck. He then barged through a red light in the path of some turning cars before swinging left across the road and cycling northbound on the southbound cycle lane. It was extraordinary.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. This is the best in the whole IVM series, by my lights, and that's saying a lot. Your micro-descriptions of the road environment and of your cognitive-emotional set are verbally perfect. And your battles/war coda is spot-on. The most resonant brief narrative of city cycling's challenges and triumphs I've seen in a long time. Bravo.

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    1. Charles,

      You're very kind - not least because I know you don't throw compliments around willy-nilly.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. The costs of hypervigilance are high. Fear puts us into that mode, and as shown in the book that Vannevar mentions and which also came to my mind when reading your post, it can be an effective self-protective response when warranted.

    As in an active war zone, for example. Your invoking the figure of war brought home for me the points that were pressing to the front of my mind when I read this post: if cyclists don't declare war from our side, and have the opportunity to refuse to be a party to a war of the streets, then it's not war, and there's no shame or cowardice involved with running from danger or evading trouble. Cyclists could not win an actual war against motorists. Oh perhaps some sort of asymmetric tactics could work, sure, but motor vehicles are larger, faster, more powerful, and much more numerous, in reality, and also I have strong tendencies toward peace anyway, so I refuse to declare a war either actually or figuratively, and moreover, refuse to participate in one actually or figuratively since that choice is entirely mine. No one, or at least the vast majority out there, started out their day with the sole intent to kill or harm cyclists, so put that out of your mind. Surrender is not the option or emotion you want to invoke, it is non-declaration and non-participation.

    Evasion, avoidance, fleeing, running, accident-dodging and skilled traffic-dancing, in the case of bicycles in the streets, these are not the actions of yellow cowards in time of war but rather the rational choices made given the physics of the situation.

    If we set aside the war metaphor, and blaming, and even emotion itself, there are some street physics which are to cyclists' advantage because we're smaller in size, lighter, quicker, and less numerous. An accident will not occur if two vehicles are entirely stopped. That's a fact to be reckoned with, which is higher than motive, mood, emotion or intent. An accident will not occur if the second vehicle successfully changes direction or speed (including stopping or slowing way down) to avoid colliding with the first. And an accident will not occur if the second vehicle is not sticking around to contest territory in a war of the street with the first but rather has already moved on, already turned the corner, already swerved and waved and headed off to the coffee shop leaving behind a wake of flowers and positive vibes. "War" is a useless trope for cyclists. It exacts only stress and fear, and is unnecessary. When you feel futile and cowardly in the war in the streets, it's not the futility or cowardice that are off base, but rather the declaration of war in the first place. There's no war of the streets going on here at the moment, and there's no use to start one. Explain that to your rational self before engaging the tools and tropes of war. If the angry apes want to pick up sticks and shake them in your general direction because they are having a bad day, who care? Resist picking up yours and ride on. Evade, avoid, flee, dodge, and ride happy. That's what the brave human actually does. Sticks and stones, baby. Be afraid, effectively, in the moment of danger, but then evade, avoid, dodge and move on, confident that physics is on the side of the light and fleet of foot, and mental well-being is on the side of the light of heart who refuse to declare or participate in a war that they couldn't win anyway, and which is unnecessary.

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    1. JRA,

      Thank you for your wise - and as ever beautifully-expressed - words.

      I was troubled about using the war metaphor and used it, I suppose, because I couldn't think of another and it seemed in some ways to fit the circumstance.

      I guess the reason I sometimes get into confrontations with people is that I don't want to back down in the face of the unreasonable, capricious exercise of power. I feel something similar about Russia's behaviour in Crimea, to give an entirely different example. So sometimes I try to stand up to it. I also think there are some drivers in New York who get up in the morning if not determined to harm others at least determined not to put up with others getting in their way. It may (or may not) be different out in Phoenix.

      I share, however, your basic instinct towards peace. I wish it felt more peaceful on the streets.

      All the best,

      Invsible.

      Delete
  4. Enjoyable article that rang true for me. I also sometimes take photos of badly parked cars. To avoid confrontation can I recommend facing away from the subject with your body and then turning your head and shoulders to take the photo. It is also best to sail off immediately afterwards.

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    1. John,

      Thanks. I did step away to take the picture but he was wise to what was going on. "What ya doin'? You got no right to take my picture." But I love - and have used in the past - the way a bicycle allows one to flee through narrow gaps before an angry motorist has got out of the traffic jam.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  5. Excellent piece of writing. It rings true on so many levels, particularly your encounter with the taxi driver. I've been very fortunate to never have a crash (other than with another bike) in 5yrs of London/New York cycle commuting. As such, my closest brushes with injury have always come when I've pointed out car drivers' dangerous behaviour to them - a small percentage are apologetic, but most fly into apoplectic rage at the idea that they may have done anything wrong and threaten to assault me. I wonder whether it's worth it sometimes, but I like to think that when they've calmed down a bit they might think about the point I was making.

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    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for your kind words. I sometimes imagine that drivers when they calm down might realise I'm correct. It's certainly true that most people when challenged get defensive in a way that they might not be on mature reflection. But I fear that only a small proportion ever come to the conclusion I was right.

      I really wish these things didn't play out the way they so often do - but I'm not sure I'm going to be able to change human nature.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. The perfect cycling route is one of those ever-elusive things. If it isn't the traffic, it will eventually get too familiar...

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    1. Steve,

      It's a good point. Since this route is constantly changing (potholes opening up and being filled in, construction sites coming and going, forms of idiotic driving going in and out of fashion) I have no chance to get bored with it.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  7. Well said, but my inner gorilla still wishes I could read one of these stories that ends with the words "... so I got off my bike and beat the living c**p out of him"

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    1. Anonymous,

      I wrote in a previous blogpost about a case where an altercation between a motorist and a cyclist ended up with the cyclist's stabbing (but not killing) the motorist: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/12/washington-stabbing-and-why-individual.html Guess what? People thought it was a sign of the general discourtesy of cyclists, who run red lights, ride on the sidewalk, shout at innocent motorists, etc, etc. So, quite apart from my aversion to violence, I'm not sure it's good overall policy either.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Robert Littlewood1 April 2014 09:09

      Of course, and especially in the US I guess. It goes without saying that I would be the last person to start a fight, or win one. It's just my atavistic great arboreal ape speaking there. I wonder if a gorilla on a bike would get much bother - perhaps the notion that the cyclist could casually tear off their limbs would make people behave a little better.

      Delete
    3. Robert,

      Thanks. I understand the atavistic urge a little.

      But now I'm distracted trying to think what kind of bike would be best for a gorilla.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    4. Robert Littlewood1 April 2014 09:52

      Yup! Cyclist nerd sniping: see .... https://xkcd.com/356/

      Delete
  8. Robert,

    The taxi driver committed the criminal offence of assault. Given the location I presume that there were witnesses and possibly even security cameras to provide evidence for the criminal conviction.

    Why not remove oneself to a safe distance, call 911 and request the police to arrest the violent, dangerous criminal?


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    1. Kevin,

      I agree he assaulted me and I certainly looked about for police officers and potential witnesses. Late at night, there was none about. I saw a police officer shortly afterwards, pulled over and talked to him about it. He was, as it happens, a cyclist and so more sympathetic than most NYPD officers would have been. He said, however, that, given that it was only a misdemeanour offence, he'd have had to witness it personally to issue a ticket and summons (this is a standard NYPD line, which is probably legal nonsense, but to which they cleave with great enthusiasm). He said that the Taxi & Limousine Commission would be able to take far firmer action with the driver than he could. I've complained to the TLC but know they'll say that without a picture there's no evidence who was driving the vehicle at the time.

      I'm reluctant to call the NYPD about anything because they have a tendency in these circumstances to arrest the cyclist even if he's done nothing wrong.

      It might sound strange - but it's pretty hard to get justice for these offences in these parts.

      Thank you for the thoughts nevertheless.

      Robert.

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    2. A police officer has to personally witness an assault before he will do anything?

      I wish my enemies would move to New York!

      Just kidding. But really... I can beat someone up and unless a police officer personally witnesses it there is no crime? How uncivilized.

      Delete
    3. Kevin,

      A huge amount of the NYPD's practice is based on this principle, which they claim stems from legal precedents but is probably just an excuse for laziness.

      The distinction is essentially that they won't deal with minor cases (and the officer said this would be a misdemeanour assault, which seems roughly correct) unless an officer has witnessed it. If the guy had done real damage to me, they would, I presume, have taken a different attitude.

      This is a big problem for road safety, since the police won't tackle any minor driving violations (and in traffic law this means crashes up to life-changing injury levels) unless an officer has witnessed it. Allocate disproportionate officers to harassing red light-jumping cyclists, ignore excessive speed and other motorist violations and it's easy to see how New York City has come to have streets as dangerous as they are.

      All the best,

      Robert.

      Delete
  9. Fantastic piece of writing, Robert, though clearly hard-won from some very scary and very stressful experiences. Please be safe, pal.

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    1. Andrew,

      Thank you for your kind words.

      I'm trying to give the Invisible Visible Avenger persona a rest after he's had a couple of outings recently.

      Robert.

      Delete

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