The details of the time I was knocked off my bike in March 2009 remain vivid in my mind. The light telling me it was safe to ride across Newington Causeway, near Elephant & Castle,
London, was in my favour but had started flashing, to warn me it
would soon turn red. Being in a hurry and wanting not to lose momentum, I pedalled
out fast across the busy, four-lane road.
|A lorry thunders across Southwark Bridge, heading towards|
Elephant & Castle, where another cyclist hit me.
People get upset I regard vehicles like this as a bigger threat
than the fellow-cyclist that hit me.
Then, as I reached the middle of the road, a rider on a fixed-wheel bike came zipping past the line of stopped traffic, through the red light and hard into my right-hand side. When I’d got up, out of the road, yelled at him and told him I was calling the police, he made off.
Yet, while the facts are straightforward, I’ve had multiple discussions since on how to interpret them. Several people have told me the experience ought to make me acutely aware of the potential for rule-breaking and negligent cyclists to cause serious injury to others. Some people become highly agitated that I don’t accept such an apparently simple explanation.
It irritates some people still more that my interpretation of the incident goes against the grain of my direct experience. I believe it demonstrates how relatively safe bicycles are for other road users, even when ridden recklessly. I was just recovering when I was struck on Newington Causeway from being knocked off 32 days before by a negligent motorist. The collision with the reckless cyclist hurt a lot less.
What happened to me was also fairly unusual. In many years in the
cyclist/pedestrian crashes kill no-one – they are certainly a far lower share
of pedestrian fatalities than cyclists’ share of traffic. Despite two recent horrible tragic deaths after cyclist/pedestrian collisions in Central Park,
fatalities in cyclist/pedestrian collisions are just as rare in New York. The last such
death before the two recent ones was in 2009. I’ve never heard of a death from
a crash between two cyclists.
|Prince St, SoHo, Manhattan: I see annoying cyclist behaviour|
here nearly daily - and reason tells me how little
real significance it has.
I stick to a more complicated interpretation because I’m convinced it seldom makes sense to understand the world purely on the basis of our own personal experience. It’s vital to overlay things one sees and hears with information about their wider context. Careful, direct observation is certainly a useful way of enhancing our understanding of the world – but it’s a far from complete one.
Most importantly, I’ve come to realise that people’s reluctance to think rationally about events they’ve witnessed on the streets is a significant barrier to improving safety. Serious crashes are so rare that anyone basing their ideas about road safety purely on their own observations is all but doomed to come up with a faulty understanding.
The phenomenon is at least in part responsible for the terrifying taxi ride I had on Monday from my apartment to
As we hurtled at 70mph down the Brooklyn Queens Expressway inches from other
vehicles and the road’s concrete barriers, I begged the driver please to slow
down. John F Kennedy Airport
It was clear to me from a rational understanding of the risks of the driver’s speed, his limited room to correct if something went wrong and knowledge of patterns of
York road crashes that his behaviour was objectively
Yet the driver, who had presumably never crashed his vehicle at speed into the expressway’s barriers, saw my complaint as an expression of purely subjective taste.
“You’re scared?” he asked, with some amusement. “I’m fine.”
The root of such misunderstandings lies deep in unspoken assumptions about how best to interpret the world. Many internet commenters and others reflect without knowing it the ultimate triumph of Romanticism. Just as Romantic poets like William Wordsworth thought emotion and experience the critical means of interpreting the wider world, there’s a strong, implicit assumption that one’s own subjective experience and one’s feelings about it are the only reliable anchor for the ship of perception in the stormy, uncharted ocean of reality.
It was because of this assumption that I found myself lambasted this week in a debate on the New York Cycling Club’s Facebook page about food delivery cyclists. Didn’t people agree, one member of the club had asked, that food delivery cyclists needed to be properly regulated and banned if they didn’t improve their behaviour? The conversation grew more and more heated.
I pointed out, firstly, that food delivery cyclists are already absurdly heavily regulated given the limited damage they cause. I added that, since a collision with a food delivery cyclist last killed someone in 2009, they’re not as dangerous as they might seem. I suggested, lastly, that it’s hardly surprising such a put-upon group – the delivery riders are nearly all very poor, newly-arrived migrants – often feel too rushed to follow all the road traffic laws.
The original poster’s furious response was to write that she’d had to dodge six food delivery cyclists on her ride home that evening. She so resented my effort to overlay an alternative interpretation that she started questioning whether I really knew what was going on on the streets. Was I even a cyclist? How many miles a year did I ride? It’s not the first time I’ve been asked to provide an annual mileage as part of such a dispute (4,000, since you’re asking). I eventually took the coward’s path of leaving the club’s Facebook group to escape the bombardment.
The Cateye bike computer I removed on
September 25 after 10 years' and 325 days'
use: 43,782 miles of evidence for doubters.
I find reason – the style of thinking in vogue just before Romanticism – far more useful than Romanticism in interpreting the world. I’m far more likely, it seems to me, to understand the world well if I seek to fit my personal experiences into a broader framework of statistics, news reports and other information. It’s because I try to view the world through such a coherent prism that I seldom complain about the frequently irritating – but ultimately not seriously dangerous – behaviour of pedestrians who obstruct me on my bike. It’s because I can see from statistics that cars are much my biggest danger that I far more regularly dwell on the risks they pose to my safety.
Nearly everyone who moans in newspaper comment pieces about the dangers posed by reckless cyclists is doing so on a Romantic-Wordsworthian basis. His or her experience of encountering cyclists – their fear at having a rider pass close by or alarm at riders’ speed – is a reliable guide to how the world works. A speeding cyclist dodging among pedestrians in a crosswalk looks to the naked eye more dangerous than the surrounding, halted cars. Looked at rationally - including the vast amount of statistical evidence - the scene looks very different. It's clear the cars pose a far greater danger.
Reason, of course, is no policy-making vending machine. One doesn’t put in a set of factors and collect a solution from a slot at the bottom. It makes sense only in helping one to understand how to achieve a set of goals.
If, for example, one thought that the most important thing on the streets was to impose a sense of order and fear of breaking the law, possibly a further crackdown on food delivery cyclists might make sense. I look at the issue within a wider framework of thinking police action must be proportionate to the scale of the problem involved, that it’s better to have goods carried around on bikes than in more dangerous cars and that it’s important to feel compassion for society’s least powerful people. Reason is the tool to help one to understand how best to achieve one’s objectives, not to set the objectives.
Yet “rational thinking, based on the fullest possible information” is a poor slogan to paint on a battle standard. “Your personal observations are deluding you” is likely to sound like an argument for a conspiracy theory.
I’d consequently argue not just for pure reason but for the outcomes it can produce. In many western countries – but especially the
– the current, Romantic means of making decisions is producing essentially
conservative outcomes. People don’t like the way they see cyclists riding their
bikes so argue against providing better facilities for them. People see drivers
parking their cars and going into shops, so conclude the shops will die if some
parking spaces move. People see traffic jams on streets that are broad and
conclude the jams will only get worse if the streets are narrowed to make bike
paths or wider sidewalks.
A more thoughtful approach can make powerful arguments for changing things. A reasoned argument can point to the substantial evidence that increased cycling can cut the
33,000 annual road deaths or the far smaller annual total in the UK. Reason can
point out that, while cyclists’ road deaths are visible, the risks of not
cycling – and of dying from diabetes, heart disease or an inactivity-related
cancer – are far higher. Logic can show that traffic often flows better in
narrower streets than wide ones.
Action based on those logical principles must ultimately encourage more people to get about by bike, reduce road deaths and reduce pollution and carbon emissions.
That should mean that thousands more people daily can experience the liberating feeling of powering themselves to work or school in the open air, rather than inside a car or down in a subway tunnel. Far more people will hear the sounds of birds chirping even in city trees, will spot the strange effects of light at night and experience the change of seasons as one does on a bicycle. Far more people will experience each morning the excitement of riding onto the Brooklyn Bridge and seeing
Manhattan spread before them in the sunlight.
Those are all, reason tells me, positive changes, ones for which sound, logical arguments can be made.
But they will provide plenty of moments to warm the heart of a Romantic too.