Sunday, 7 February 2016

Christmas Eve harassment, a sociopath in Greenwich Village - and how design can cut out honking

It was always going to be a moderately challenging bike ride. It was the early evening of Christmas Eve and, after it emerged that our local wine merchants was already shut, I and my bike had been deputed to lug back from somewhere further away the wine supply for the holiday season. Even a solidly-built touring bike is apt to handle oddly when laden down with 12 bottles full of wine.
My bike laden with groceries: not the machine on which
to face harassment
But the trip became significantly more stressful after the driver of an SUV started driving close behind me, honking, in an effort to bully me out of the way. I was riding well out in the lane, to avoid a deep and dangerous crack in the tarmac. That outraged the driver, who thought he shouldn’t have to cross into the neighbouring lane to pass me.

“I thought you should be riding further to the left,” he said, when I found him unloading passengers near my building and asked what had provoked him.

“There was a huge crack in the road, which I was avoiding,” I told him.

“I didn’t know that,” he replied.

“Which is exactly why you should concentrate on overtaking me safely, and not trying to get me to ride in the place of the road you think I should,” I said.

The incident was one of countless times I’ve had to cope with road users’ efforts to bend someone else’s driving, cycling or walking to their will. Just a few weeks before the Christmas Eve incident, I’d had a driver deliberately accelerate his SUV at me in Greenwich Village after I shouted out to him to alert him to my presence, to ensure he didn’t swing across my path.

Yet I also recognise there are plenty of times I try to influence other road users to prevent their harming me. I had, after all, shouted at the driver in Greenwich Village to try to ensure he didn’t drive into me.
A mixing zone on the Broadway bike lane:
traffic engineers think this a model way to handle bike traffic
The question is when it’s legitimate to try to influence other road users’ behaviour and when it’s bullying. Most importantly, it’s vital to ask why there’s all this frustration in the first place and whether it can be averted.

The Christmas Eve incident was emblematic of the worst kind of desire to control other users because of the infuriatingly wrong-headed thinking that lay behind it. The driver insisted he’d wanted me over nearer the parked cars because he wanted, he said, to pass me safely without causing an “accident”. It’s the thinking that lies behind vast numbers of drivers’ complaints about cyclists and pedestrians – a thinking on the drivers’ part that they’re the serious adults in the situation, while pedestrians and cyclists are heedless, child-like creatures who have no idea of the danger they’re facing.

The thinking betrays a wholesale failure to understand that the driver has prime responsibility for moving his vehicle safely and that safety doesn’t consist primarily of people’s staying out of his or her way. The driver eventually seriously endangered me because I veered into the crack in the road and came close to losing control of the bike.
Chaos at a SoHo crosswalk: if the cyclists of pedestrians
yell at the drivers here, they're punching up

The fatuousness of this thinking doesn’t stop its being widespread. It’s one of the signature features of the driving culture that stems from New York’s poor enforcement and dreadful road design that drivers honk all the time. Every time a driver sounds his or her horn as a rebuke or to prompt someone to move, it’s an effort to control the other person’s actions. It’s nearly always an effort to make life more convenient for the person doing the honking.

The big difference between the honking, tailgating behaviour and my regular pleas to drivers to look out for me or stop during an illegal move across my path is the power balance. When I ride through an intersection crying out “Watch out! Wait there!” at drivers, I’m trying to get them to follow rules meant to protect vulnerable road users in cycle lanes and crosswalks. There seems to me a huge moral difference between such a “punching up” effort to control others and the “punching down” effort of drivers like the Christmas Eve minivan drivers to sweep people aside as mere inconvenient obstacles.
Park Slope snow the day after the January 23 blizzard:
much of this was still affecting the roads a week later
Yet it was an incident last Sunday, January 31, that brought home to me the reason for all this frustrated communication and how it can be eliminated. I was riding up 7th St in Park Slope, near my home, on my weekly journey to church. I would normally when harassed by drivers on that trip move confidently into the middle of the lane and prevent their passing until the next intersection. But, last Sunday, unmelted snow from the January 23 blizzard meant the lanes were narrower and harder to navigate. I felt even less confident than normal about trying  to “control the lane”, as vehicular cyclists put it.

Consequently, when a driver started tailgating me, I meekly moved over  to the side of the road and let him pass. A change in the structure of the road had changed, I suddenly realised, my confidence in influencing other road users’ behaviour.

That, it came home to me, was critical to all the incidents I encountered. The driver who’d harassed me on Christmas Eve had been deceived by the layout of Court St – which allows two uninterrupted streams of one-way traffic on an urban main street – into thinking he was on little short of a limited-access highway. The driver who drove at me in Greenwich Village was angry partly that I was appearing in his path from a poorly-marked, oddly-placed bike lane that must have made it feel to him as if I were deliberately obstructing him. The dreadful “mixing areas” that bring together left-turning drivers and cyclists going straight ahead on many New York streets are designed like freeway sliproads, to allow turning drivers to slow down without impeding those going straight ahead. While the drivers clearly should obey the rules and yield to the cyclists riding into these areas, it’s unsurprising that so few do.

The problems in New York, while less grave than in many parts of the US, are far more acute than those in London, where I’ve done most of my cycling as an adult. Roads in London, while still imperfect for cyclists, are filled with multiple cues to tell drivers what speed to drive and who has priority.

I now recognise New York’s honking problem for what it is. It’s the sound of the expectations that the infrastructure has given drivers being dashed against a messy reality that the street design doesn’t reflect.

Court St tells drivers, "Go as fast as you like. It's pretty much
a freeway."
Better street design isn’t the only solution to the problem. It’s noticeable, for example, that one almost never sees bicycles chained to the railings at subway entrances. There’s a general expectation that bicycles chained in such areas will be removed and cyclists have adapted their behaviour to cater to that. There’s little doubt that similarly consistent enforcement of rules about driving might have similarly striking results. That's one of many reasons why New York needs more speed cameras.

But it’s pretty clear that it’s vital to rebuild urban streets so that they no longer look like urban freeways. Cycle lanes should never be painted, as most are at present, in the most dangerous part of the street. Areas designed to bring cyclists and motorists across each other’s paths shouldn’t look like they can be navigated at 30mph.

For the moment, however, those of us who ride are forced to put up with occasional bullying like that I encountered on Christmas Eve – and to do our best to counter it.

In a city as disorderly as New York, however, that can take real energy and flair – as I discovered one morning last summer as I rode up 1st Avenue towards the New York Public Library.

Around 17th St, I encountered, as so often, a line of left-turning drivers blocking the bike-and-car mixing zone as I sought to ride straight ahead. I bleated, “Wait there! Stop!” - to little effect.

A Black cycle courier who slipped through the gap between me and the rearmost car showed me the level of determination needed to affect the behaviour of New York drivers.

“No,” he shouted at the driver, before administering a resounding slap to a side panel. “You gonna resPECT this one, Muthafucka!”

Helped more by the drivers’ astonishment than by any actual change of heart, we both slipped by the previously threatening drivers, and headed on north.


  1. As I read it, horn honking merely because someone is going "too slow" is against the law in NYC. Impatience is not an emergency. (See ).

    Drivers who honk are breaking the law, and the police aren't doing their job when they consistently fail to enforce this law. That they allow drivers to think that this is legal then results in rude and dangerous behavior by impatient drivers who think that slower traffic in front of them should be removed from the road, instead of politely endured.

    1. dr2chase,

      Thanks for the comment. I didn't realise it was flat-out illegal to honk under those circumstances and I imagine few drivers do. It could be fun to see what would happen if the NYPD started enforcing this rule. But, on balance, I'd prefer them to start enforcing, say, the speed limit and failure-to-yield rules. I'm confident that, if they started on those, honking might die off substantially as well.

      All the best,


  2. True but that is but one of the obvious, dangerous, and common violations committed by drivers every day in NYC and almost none are enforced. I've become convinced that the NYPD should be ignored as a possibility for making cycling better--it's wasted effort to even consider their help

    1. Paul,

      Thanks for the comment. I share your pessimism about the NYPD, an appalling flawed police force. The problem is that the city needs some body to enforce the road rules and, absent the job's being handed to the Department of Transportation (which I don't expect), it's hard to see who else can do it.

      All the best,


  3. I believe that you are missing three words from the caption accompanying the photograph of the Broadway bike lane. It should read "Traffic engineers 'in New York' think this a model way to handle bike traffic."

    I suspect that traffic engineers in The Netherlands have a somewhat different opinion. The question is, how do we raise New York traffic engineers to the same level of competence and professionalism?

    1. Kevin,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I guess the issue in New York is that cycling is seen as a marginal activity for which it's essentially impossible to hold up drivers. The priorities in the Netherlands are (rightly, in my view) very different. The answer, as I argued in the blogpost I put up yesterday, is to bring to New York the determination to overcome resistance to change that planners in the Netherlands had in the 1970s.

      All the best,


  4. For reference, I think you'd really enjoy the Strong Towns Blog if you haven't visited it before. It is at strongtowns dot org slash journal (keeping any robots from getting too eager!). They are very keen on how city and roadway design can make things much sweeter for those of us that don't feel compelled to drive out to our mailboxes to check the mail.

    1. Steve,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I've looked at Strong Towns from time to time but not systematically. I'll try to be more consistent, based on your recommendation.

      All the best,



Please feel free to leave civilised comments - positive or negative - here. I'll try to reply too.

Abusive comments will be moderated out and won't appear.