Sunday, 29 March 2015

An unexpected rhythm, a stressful ride to Midtown - and why I feel I'm waltzing with the city

When I’m riding my bike home in the evenings and have come down the long, spiral ramp off the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, I often find myself waiting at a pedestrian crossing nearly right under the bridge’s first girders. Given that the bridge carries four busy subway tracks as well as three roadways, a pedestrian path and a bike path, that means I frequently hear the ear-splitting din of a B, D, N or Q train crossing just above my head.
An unexpected source of syncopated rhythm: the bike path
under the Manhattan Bridge's Brooklyn end
But the noise’s effect isn’t what one might imagine. A joint in the tracks means that the wheels produce an exquisitely syncopated rhythm. A-ONE-and-a-two-and-THREE-and-a-four clack the four successive axles as the joins between the cars roll overhead. The rhythm is so compelling that sometimes, when no-one’s looking, I permit myself a little dance with my shoulders.

My jiggling shoulders generally prompt a second thought, however. The sound turns my mind to how cyclists in cities like New York or London or anywhere else where cycling’s an on-road, minority activity, have to attend closely to the rhythm of the city around them. In such an unforgiving environment, it's vital to pick up the cues from the surrounding, constantly-changing city about when and where to cycle fast and confidently and when to exercise maximum caution and restraint.

Call it snirt, call it snarbage: we New York City cyclists
have been dodging a lot of snowy, rubbishy mounds like
this in the last few weeks and months.
Many of the patterns I've come to recognise are things that restrict me. During the recent long, bitter winter, for example, I noticed myself learning after each snowfall the distinctive pattern of snow clearance and how it affected each cycle lane and where I positioned myself on the road. An event like last week’s sad gas explosion and fire in the East Village will suddenly paralyse traffic across vast swathes of the city. Light rain after a dry spell makes surfaces particularly treacherous – especially, ironically, those painted with the rather slippery green paint the city uses to mark cycle lanes.

Yet there’s a pleasure, after two-and-a-half years and at least 10,000 miles of New York City cycling, to having learned to recognise – and anticipate – so many of the city’s moods. The sudden surges in traffic in various places; traffic’s unexplained disappearance in others; the surge in grumpiness among drivers in certain conditions: all reflect, I know rationally, a multitude of individual decisions. But they can feel so concerted and sudden that they almost feel like the actions of New York City herself. A cyclist riding through the city has to undertake a kind of dance with her, getting in step and learning how she moves.

I had something of the same feeling about London when I lived there and enjoyed an encyclopaedic knowledge of much of its backstreet network of quiet cycle routes. But New York is a far more mercurial dance partner – hotter in summer, colder in winter, denser, with far more dangerous streets and more prone, it seems to me, to catastrophic mishaps. It feels far harder to learn to get in step with her – and a more satisfying achievement to have learned to do so.

That makes all the more enjoyable those moments of bliss one experiences from time to time riding a bicycle – the moments when the city seems to slip by and it is the other forms of transport that seem momentarily absurd.
The kind of weather that's slowing me down particularly
dramatically at present: Fifth Avenue in a light rain shower,
perfect for creating a treacherous surface
There is, nevertheless, a dissenting voice inside my head that wonders how much I’m dressing this phenomenon up. I sometimes wonder if my having got to know the city better simply means I’m growing more fearful. I notice how I’m increasingly stopping to let cars past on the narrowest roads where I know drivers are most aggressive. I’m less often taking the middle of the lane and forcing them to slow down to, say, a 20mph crawl in a 20mph limit. I noticed myself easing off significantly on my speed in some recent rain showers, feeling that the streets, still greasy with the detritus of winter, might be particularly treacherous. I find myself waiting behind motor vehicles as lines of other cyclists slip through narrow gaps between them and parked cars or the kerb.

Perhaps, a voice in my head says, I'm feeling the familiarity of the bullied with the bully. Maybe I’ve let the city’s toughness beat me into mental submission.

The dissenting voice grew particularly loud on March 23 when I had to cycle from home first thing in the morning to a conference right by the south-eastern corner of Central Park. I tried to fall in step with the city. I used my knowledge of the position of the many new potholes that have appeared over the winter to decide when to dodge out of the cycle lane and into the car lanes. I used my experience of the weather to look out for the inevitable ice patches, products of a mixture of the cold and a hundred little thoughtless sloshings out of buckets into the cold street or spillings of drinks.
New York's Metropolitan Club: maginficent inside - but
a devil of a place to cycle to.
Already feeling slightly ill before I started, however, I began to feel a little defeated. The corner I was visiting 5th Avenue and East 60th St – is one of New York’s least accessible by bike for anyone arriving from the south. Having prided myself on finding a viable but unconventional bike route up 1st avenue to 55th street then up Park Avenue to 60th – I found myself dismounting and pushing rather than deal with the gridlock (and yet more ice patches) on Park Avenue.

The experience was a useful reminder that, in an ideal New York City, there would be no real skill to cycling in step with the city’s gyrations. Far more experiences would be like riding along the best sections of the Hudson River Greenway – a chance to travel quickly around New York, put no strain on the city’s environment or infrastructure yet take in the city’s excitement. I was torn between cursing three things: my own cowardice in intimidating conditions, the city’s unwillingness to provide a joined-up cycling network and my own stubborn refusal to give up cycling in the face of these facts.
The Queensboro Bridge: where my journey started to go right.
Yet, as I pondered at the end of the day how to get home after my unpromising outbound trip, I realised I was only a few blocks from the Queensboro Bridge and its bike path. I set off and was soon barrelling at nearly 25mph down the bridge into Queens, under the elevated subway tracks then over another bridge into Brooklyn.

I covered the route, though it was long, quickly and efficiently. I took routes through Greenpoint and Park Slope that I’d devised only after many attempts and much trial-and-error. I was able to enjoy the grandeur of the panoramas over the East River and take in the city’s details. I saw the Polish shops in Greenpoint, the Yiddish writing on the buses for Hassidic Jewish schoolchildren in South Williamsburg and the soul food restaurants run by African-Americans in Fort Greene.

I grew briefly frustrated with a cluster of visiting-hour cars outside Methodist Hospital on 6th St in Park Slope but soon slipped past them too and sped, unmolested, down the hill towards home.

It was, in short, the kind of rare, transcendentally enjoyable trip that explains my refusal to give up. It’s the kind of experience I may, if anyone asks me soon if he or she should cycle in the city, recount as evidence for the “yes” side.

But I probably won’t dare articulate my true feeling about how such a near-perfect journey feels. In my head, New York City and I were, for that hour or so, spinning and whirling across the dancefloor in a rare, elegantly-executed and ecstatic waltz.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Barging in TriBeCa, a Top Gear boor - and why I'm proud to be a Roundhead worrywart

It was one morning at the end of January in TriBeCa that I encountered the very personification of motorist arrogance. As I rode down a single block of Reade St that was still mostly clogged with snow, I used the middle of the lane to signal that there was no room to pass me safely. But a block of driving more slowly was unthinkable for a driver who was approaching me from behind in his Lexus SUV. He first leant on his horn to try to bully me out of the way then swerved into the parking lane and passed me close and fast on my right.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I screamed at him as I, inevitably, caught up with him at the next traffic lights. “There was a bike lane!” he yelled back as though that were some kind of explanation. “It was full of snow,” I screamed back.
A Brooklyn bike lane after one recent snowfall. The angry
Lexus driver of TriBeCa wants me to ride in such lanes
and get myself out of his way.

The driver was one of the scores, possibly hundreds, I’ve encountered over more than two decades of urban cycling whose anger at my presence on the road went far beyond what any actual hold-up or inconvenience at my being on the road might justify. My making a different transport choice seemed to present an existential affront.

The tendency would exist, I’m sure, without Top Gear, the BBC-made show that presents such motorist arrogance as entertaining, clever and part of the natural order of things. But the show, which is syndicated or remade in nearly every country around the world, gives such views far more legitimacy than they would otherwise enjoy. Any number of mind-numbing cable shows and irresponsible adverts feed similar thinking among many US motorists.

Broadcasting House: who wouldn't make their
point by driving an armoured vehicle here?
I’ve consequently found it depressing how much support Jeremy Clarkson, Top Gear’s star and chief boor, has attracted since he was suspended on March 10 from work on the show after a “fracas” – a British way of saying he apparently punched a producer. A petition demanding his reinstatement – started by Guido Fawkes, a political blog – attracted nearly 1m signatures. It was, tastefully, delivered to the BBC’s Broadcasting House in a tracked armoured vehicle. Clarkson’s suspension seems as much of a threat to some people’s sense of themselves as my cycling in the middle of the road was to the driver of the Lexus SUV.

But a row I had on Facebook with a friend of an old school friend has crystallised in my mind the nature of what’s going on. The role of the motor car appears, for better or worse, to be part of a cultural battle in many industrialised societies.

The Top Gear tendency among motorists is, it seems to me, part of a wider conservative predilection for accepting certain established social facts – including the motor car’s dominant role - as so inevitable that it’s eccentric even to question them. Top Gear seeks to celebrate the joys for those who already have power of exercising it.

 From such a worldview, naturally, people who question the established way of doing things are apt to look like joyless worrywarts. If one can’t see why it’s worth questioning the promotion of high-speed motor vehicles for use in urban environments, it must be frustrating to see people like me poring over statistics and presenting philosophical arguments for change.

The division looks a lot like the classic one that has run through much British politics for centuries and is replicated in many other English-speaking societies. On one side stand care-free conservative bon-vivants, the Cavaliers. On the other are puritanical, uptight progressives, the Roundheads. Society’s overall view of the two sides probably remains much as the two sides in the English Civil War are described in the satirical history 1066 and All That. The Cavaliers are “Wrong but Wromantic,” while the Roundheads are “Right but Repulsive.”

A Cadillac ATS at the Detroit Auto Show:
people like me seem like joyless prudes
if we suggest this maybe isn't an ideal urban car.
I stumbled into the Clarkson discussion by agreeing with an old friend who had commented that Clarkson was “beyond ghastly” in another friend’s post about his suspension. I expressed the hope that the producer – whom Clarkson appears to have hit because a hotel wouldn’t provide him with hot food late at night – had excellent legal representation. I would have left it there had not a third person – whom I don’t personally know – chimed in with a rebuke.

“He is a legend...someone who can laugh at himself and others,” the poster wrote of Clarkson. “Some people have had humour bypass surgery.”

An ironic, amused detachment from events is such a critical attribute for a British man that this was, of course, a serious charge.

So I went on to list some of the many recent controversies surrounding Clarkson and inquire where the joke in them was.  Last year, for example, he was recorded using the word “nigger” – a profoundly offensive racial slur – during taping of Top Gear. In 2011, he denigrated Mexicans as “lazy, feckless, flatulent [and] overweight.” In 2009 he described Gordon Brown, the then UK prime minister who lost an eye in childhood, as a “one-eyed Scottish idiot”.

The jokes are funny only if one presupposes that people’s being different from oneself is inherently funny. They assume, variously, that it’s intrinsically funny to use a racial slur; that some people belong to a different culture from one’s own; that some people have a disability; or that some people are from a less powerful bit of one’s own country. I suggested that Clarkson was indulging in the lazy humour of the school bully, mocking weakness and difference to denigrate them.

My reaction then became part of the joke.

“It is funny, isn’t it – especially the reaction,” the poster replied, with problematic punctuation.

It’s probably easier, however, to recognise the problems with Clarkson’s attitudes if one’s dealing daily with the boorish driving that he and like-minded people, like the worst Daily News and New York Post columnists, endorse. An encomium to the joy of a high-powered vehicle seems less entertaining if one’s just been buzzed by a muscle car with tinted windows on an urban street. Top Gear’s admonishment to cyclists to learn the difference between red and green traffic lights looks less self-evidently side-splitting if one regularly sees motorists speeding at 40mph down residential streets.

The Cavalier driver speeding and jumping lights probably feels free to do so because driving feels to him or her like a private matter. We Roundheads on the outside tend to suck our teeth and worry about how driving on a street means taking part in a complex social transaction. At high speeds one has far less scope to adjust to how other people act - and a far greater chance of harming them.
A crossroads in Long Beach, California, suggests to me that
car-dominated spaces can have drawbacks - which probably
makes me a joyless worrywart. 
The heavy use of cars in cities presents real moral dilemmas. It’s vital that people who want to think seriously about that aren’t mocked into silence by boors.

Yet I’ve concluded from the Clarkson episode, my Facebook argument about it and countless other expressions of support for inconsiderate driving that there’s an asymmetric battle under way. Advocates for change often earnestly wheel out studies and campaigns as if it were enough to have a better case and better arguments. There are, however, millions of people for whom even the notion of a serious discussion about such matters seems to be beside the point. The first battle has to be against the very assumption that any effort to change or examine the current state of affairs is absurd in itself.

The Clarkson episode is also further proof that what people think and say are closely linked to how they actually act. While Clarkson is often defended as a harmless japester, there has long been a singularly nasty whiff around his behaviour. In January 2014, for example, he tweeted a picture of a cyclist on the narrow backstreets of Chelsea, West London, taking the lane and commented how it was “middle-of-the-road pointmakers like this” who made drivers so angry with cyclists. A person claiming to be the cyclist – who was riding absolutely correctly given the nature of the streets – later claimed that Clarkson forced him off the road by passing when there was insufficient room.

The incident that provoked the latest controversy, meanwhile, apparently involved an angry confrontation. Many accounts suggest that Clarkson called Oisin Tymon, the producer, a “lazy Irish c***” and punched him, splitting his lip. That would suggest a still darker side to Clarkson’s enthusiasm for xenophobic slurs, although he seems to deny either speaking xenophobically or punching the producer.

The most important lesson, finally, may be that large numbers of people are nasty, callous and lack a moral compass. Oisin Tymon appears at the very least to have been badly bullied at work by a far more powerful individual. He may also have been subject to slurs on his ethnicity and an assault that resulted in his going to hospital for his injuries. The response of nearly a million people in the UK to this has been to demand that the perpetrator be allowed unconditionally to return to his job. A significant minority has added to the victim’s suffering by abusing him online. A glance at any online US media report about the death of a cyclist will confirm there’s no shortage of similar scorn for weaker road users on the Atlantic’s western shore.

If that’s what it looks like to be wrong but wromantic in 2015, I’m more willing than ever to accept being repulsive but right.

Update, March 25:
The BBC has decided - using unfortunately mealy-mouthed language - not to renew Jeremy Clarkson's contract. An internal investigation found that he harangued Oisin Tymon for a prolonged period and assaulted him for 30 seconds. Thinking he had lost his job as a result of Clarkson's anger, he drove himself to hospital. The BBC's report and the decision to suspend Clarkson's contract has had the predictable - but depressing - effect of making many of Clarkson's fans furious with Clarkson's victim.