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 . But it was
11.30pm on a Friday; other drivers were impatient and he was blocking the left turn
from Chrystie St into Manhattan
Bridge 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
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
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
Bridge bike lane and Allen St in Manhattan – and the rest.
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.
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.