Saturday, 14 July 2012

Grids, lights and why New York's traffic should be less metronomic

All day long, as I look from the 14th floor window of my new office in midtown Manhattan, a hypnotic scene plays out in the streets below. As one set of traffic lights turns green, vehicles – sometimes swarmed four or five deep across the street – resume their journey, like so many multi-coloured woodlice, north up sixth avenue towards Central Park. Then the lights change and two ant-like swarms of pedestrians march out from either side of Sixth Avenue and merge in the middle. One swarm of woodlouse-cars meanwhile makes its way west along 51st street and a second heads east along 50th. Then, at a regular tempo, the pattern starts again, changing only when some oddity comes along. I watched one day as a food vendor pushing his cart across the intersection was marooned mid-crossing by a change of lights. Cars nudged up against the unexpected obstruction and pedestrians marched round it, like water finding its way around a rock newly fallen into a stream.

Then, every now and again, between the woodlice and the ants appears a gnat – a bicycle picking its way around the parked cars and zig-zagging between the pedestrians. Both the pedestrian-ants and the woodlouse-cars seem impatient with them. It is, after all, especially clear from my vantage point that the bicycles – dodging out behind stopped cars, darting between the ranks of cars stopped at lights – travel in very different lines from the straight up-and-down or across-town of most other Manhattan traffic. Every now and again, some sudden lurch by a taxi or truck has me fearing I’ll need to run to the elevator, head down to the street and act as a witness on some prone cyclist’s behalf.

West 15th Street: Orderly, but not in a very human way
The view from my window has sprinkled yeast on an idea that’s been fermenting in my mind all the three weeks I’ve so far been cycling around New York. It’s that the shape of a city’s infrastructure does more than anything else to forge the culture of its roads. New York’s infrastructure, moreover, seeks a lot of the time to force human beings into the neat patterns that sprang from the minds of its 19th century planners. It was a bold idea, a refreshing change from the haphazard patterns of a city like London, whose street plan in parts dates back as far as Roman times. But it’s hardly suprising that the less-than-straight lines of most humans’ attitudes and behaviour sometimes lead them to burst out of the grid’s constraints.

When I tell people I’m cycling in New York, it conjures up a mental picture for most of my pedalling down some vast Manhattan avenue, skyscrapers towering over me and threatening streams of cars, trucks and buses roaring past. In fact, most of my Manhattan cycling has involved my making my way to the car-free Hudson River Greenway, cycling to the appropriate cross street then cutting across the island to my destination. A brief ride this week was a rare exception. Keen to pick up a train ticket quickly from Pennsylvania station, I headed down Broadway, through Times Square and on down 7th Avenue.

I was suddenly after leaving the Broadway bike lane one of the gnats I could see from my office window, navigating along the line of parked cars to the side of four roaring streams of traffic. At cross streets where the lights were in my favour, I would still frequently face obstruction from a turning car, trying to nose its way through the cross-street pedestrians but stuck in my path. I had to maneouvre out round each, trusting that I wouldn’t find myself, if one of the vehicles made a sudden change of course, heading for a collision.

The 7th avenue experience was almost wholly a product of the city’s decisions about how to use its space. Seventh Avenue could have been a perfectly adequate – and probably far less intimidating – two-way street, with traffic forced into the relatively narrow confines of most London thoroughfares. Cars would then have been far less inclined to swing wildly across the lanes, ignoring general traffic law and the speed limit. Someone preferred, many years ago, to prioritise the swift passage of cars on the avenues over making them feel more human-scale. It created vast tarmac tracts that, when empty, must feel to a driver like some huge auto playground.

The West Side highway, with the Hudson River Greenway:
a chance to watch nearly every road user type breaking rules.
I face a different set of challenges using the Hudson River Greenway. The Greenway may, as I’ve noted before, be the finest piece of cycling infrastructure in the English-speaking world. It’s spacious, largely unaffected by traffic and offers fine vistas across the river to New Jersey. It even afforded me, one recent morning, the chance to race a ship. The general cargo vessel was heading up the Hudson at, I think, a speed of around 15 knots – more or less the perfect pacer for a cyclist heading into the wind on an old hybrid. I was able to catch up at points but held back now and again by traffic lights.

Yet, despite the numerous signs telling them to follow their own path, the cycle track is thick with runners, often pushing strollers (baby buggies, for British readers). Overtaking them safely requires a swing into the opposite lane, often into the face of an oncoming cyclist intent on maintaining the appropriate tempo for his triathlon training. The Greenway is also, while less stop-and-start than a Manhattan Avenue, dotted with traffic lights, protecting turnings across the path into the police department’s pound for towed vehicles, the city’s cruise terminal, the 30th street heliport and others.  A number of these lights spend much of their time showing red for cyclists and green for cars, even though motor vehicles are rare. The pattern at the cruise terminal remains unchanged, for example, whether a ship is disembarking or the terminal’s gates are locked. Even a cyclist as rules-obsessed as I finds it impossible to stop at these junctions, sticking pointlessly to the letter of the law while around motorists zip at 50mph down the 35mph westside highway, cyclists buzz pedestrians and runners jog, talking on their iPhones, down a path meant only for cyclists and skaters.

The traditional response to all these different forms of chaos is to bemoan road users’ failure to obey the rules. The still-more traditional response is to berate cyclists as if they were the only ones breaking them. There is obviously some merit in wishing road users were generally more careful of others’ needs. I was certainly embarrassed on behalf of cyclists generally when, one Sunday morning, I watched a string of speeding cyclists yell out of the way cruise passengers trying entirely legitimately to use a crossing on the Greenway.

But it’s more interesting, I think, to examine why New York’s traffic system seems to encourage possibly even more widespread rule-flouting than London’s more chaotic sprawl.

Police horses on Sixth Avenue:
not every animal in the traffic is metaphorical
The answer, I’d suggest, lies in the similarities between renting a New York apartment and riding in the city. Both exhibit America’s tendency to make every rule clear and unambiguous – for the avoidance of doubt, as a very American phrase puts it. Large British corporations may, I suspect, have been bought and sold with less paperwork than was required for me to rent a Brooklyn loft for my family. Everything from whether the building had ever had a bed bug infestation to whether we needed guards on the windows to protect the children was carefully and methodically spelt out. On the roads, a far higher proportion of intersections in New York are traffic light controlled than in London. There’s far less reliance than in London on allowing road users’ good sense and public spirit work out the best traffic flows at less busy junctions.

That stems in part from an admirable instinct. The United States, a country founded by dissidents and populated by immigrants, recognises that not everyone implicitly shares the same approach to problems. It codifies nearly everything. That has many undoubted strengths over the British assumption that good chaps will have the common sense to understand how things should be done. One country has a hallowed constitution whose workings are overseen by nine learned justices. The other has never even written its constitution down. The American principle, as laid down by John Adams, the second president, is “the rule of laws, not the rule of men”.

Yet there’s a risk, as with any regulation, that it becomes like the Russian tax system – so onerous that, because no-one can fully follow it, it hands arbitrary power to the rule-enforcers. With the apartment, the bureaucratic problems seemed insurmountable until I threatened to take my business elsewhere and the formalities concluded suspiciously speedily. As a cyclist, it is surprisingly difficult heading along a Manhattan avenue not at least to rush through traffic lights as they’re changing. The blocks’ shape – shorter north-south than they are east-west – and the lights’ timing to suit motor vehicle, rather than cyclist, speed mean one can face a red light close to every 100 yards. With the short time pedestrians have to cross, it’s small wonder so many start crossing streets with lights on red, neglecting to look out for cyclists following behind the mass of traffic. The police effectively have free rein to issue violation notices to pretty much any road user they choose – and cyclists, who are far less likely to cause fatalities than motorists, are often the target.

Greeley Square, in midtown: tailored to motorists' speed,
rather than cyclists' comfort
Even more corrosively, the burden of rules can send a message to road users to abandon judgement and good sense. The red lights protecting roads on the Greenway seem to me a subtle message that the rules are arbitrary and weighted against cyclists. While it’s unfortunate, it’s small wonder that so many then go on to ignore the rules designed to protect pedestrians at crossings.

None of this is to say that New York doesn’t work for cyclists. I’ve encountered, I think, less straightforward aggression from motorists than in London. With the competition for road space less frantic, fewer drivers seem to feel quite as embattled as the worst in London. I’ve had no-one deliberately try to intimidate me with his or her driving yet – a fairly regular occurrence in London. Many of the cycle facilities are excellent.

But I can’t help thinking a slight change in New York’s approach might produce some surprising results. A few less traffic lights and I would certainly be looking down from my window at a less metronomically regular scene. I might even be observing one where the woodlice and gnats were willing to let the ants cross - and the woodlice less prone to cutting across the zig-zagging gnats’ paths.