Monday, 23 December 2013

A Brooklyn Heights commuter, an untimely Queens death - and how attitudes to roads might be the least of our problems

I’ve come across few sights on New York City streets that excited such mixed feelings in me as the one I encountered one morning last month on Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights. Just in front of me in the cycle lane on the street, which fills up with cars and taxis every morning, was the only child – he was probably ten or 11 – I’ve ever encountered riding on his own to school in New York City on the road.

I was, on one level, hugely excited. It would be an enormous improvement for every city in the industrialised world if the queues outside schools in the morning were of children waiting to park their bikes, not sports utility vehicles waiting to double-park. The boy had clearly been thoroughly trained and looked attentively from side to side at every junction.
Clinton St at Atlantic Avenue: I was excited to see a child
cycling here - but also apprehensive
But I also, I’ll confess, felt fearful. Motorists are apt to turn left or right suddenly on Clinton St or lurch into the cycle lane to avoid a suddenly-stopped taxi.  Drivers are prone to driving through the slow-moving traffic texting or sending emails. Car doors are apt to spring open or pedestrians to step into the street without looking. Knowing my own concerns about using the street, I willed the young man to make it to school safely. He eventually did.

That young boy’s been back in my mind since I heard on Friday about another boy going to school elsewhere in New York who didn’t make it safely.

On Friday morning, Mauricio Osorio-Palaminos, a truck driver, drove his truck out of 61st street in Queens left onto Northern Boulevard, cut well onto the side of the street for oncoming traffic and caught Noshat Nahian, eight, with the trailer’s rear wheels. Noshat, who was hurrying to school with his 11-year-old sister, died shortly afterwards in hospital.

The street Osorio-Palaminos was leaving was not, as far as I can tell, a designated truck route. Pictures showed his truck far over to the wrong side of the road. The driver was also the second in recent weeks to kill a pedestrian in New York City while driving commercially with a suspended licence.
The Invisible Visible Boy on a truck
meant to show cyclists how hard they are
to see. Let's hope New York's DoT trains
its drivers in spotting cyclists too.
Yet commenters on online news reports about the death homed in instead on police reports that Noshat had his hood up and was looking down when hit. There was abuse for his parents. One commenter said Noshat must have been looking for “suicide by truck”.

Noshat’s death is at least the 11th of a pedestrian under 13 so far this year in New York. Many people’s instinctive reaction has been to blame the victims.

In November, I attended a rally in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, calling for enforcement of traffic laws after a speeding driver killed Lucian Merryweather, nine, on a sidewalk. The rally heard a brave and heartbreaking speech from the mother of Samuel Cohen Eckstein, 12, who died in October when a car hit him on a crosswalk on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn. She was speaking a few days after what should have been Samuel’s bar mitvah.

Many internet commenters on Samuel’s death focused on how he was hit after going after a ball that had bounced into the street. They ignored how he had the light when he entered the crosswalk. Several cars stopped for him before a speeding van hit him.
A memorial where Lucian Merryweather died. I'd love
to take half the internet commenters on road safety
to this unspeakably sad spot.
The father of Allison Liao, three, who was killed in October crossing the street in Flushing, Queens, looked on, weeping, as Samuel’s mother spoke. Initial reports on Allison’s death focused on how she had allegedly broken away while crossing the road from her grandmother, who was holding her hand. Yet Allison’s family insist she was holding her grandmother’s hand – and the driver who hit her barged through the crosswalk when he should have yielded.

The circumstances of Noshat’s death are very similar to those surrounding the death in East Harlem in February of Amar Diarassouba, a seven-year-old. He also died under a truck’s rear wheels as he headed to school. Erik Mayor, a restaurateur whose business is near the crash site, despicably tried to blame that crash on Amar’s older brother, saying he “wasn’t paying attention.” The driver involved had, as in other cases, driven through a crosswalk when he should have yielded.

They’re stories that won’t surprise many adults who walk or cycle around New York City – or any other big city in the United States. When I cross streets on foot, vehicles constantly barge through crosswalks when I have the light in my favour. I have found myself caught unawares by the line a truck’s rear wheels have taken through a crosswalk and been forced to jump backwards out of the way.

On my bike, on the 1st Avenue bike lane in Manhattan, I need constantly to look over my shoulder at westbound cross-streets, knowing that cars will try to turn across my path. I have to signal forcefully to drivers to stop if they’re behaving dangerously. I need the sixth sense of the experienced urban cyclist to spot the vehicles that are about to pull out without looking from a parking space.

There’s an invidious assumption that, if children can’t at least match my skills at navigating streets, they shouldn’t be on the streets at all. The attitude is sometimes reminiscent of the sexual harassment that faces single women in some places in southern Europe. Anyone silly enough to enter the environment, it seems to be assumed, is fair game for any untoward consequences. A responsible parent, it’s  assumed, transports his or her children by car, prioritising their safety over that of others.
A cyclist on 55th Street in Manhattan. Remember: if
anything bad happens to a kid in this traffic,
it's probably the kid's fault.

Looked at dispassionately, however, the adults are behaving like stereotypical children. Many of my closest calls are with drivers who simply lose patience with waiting and pull out without looking from a traffic line. Most parents try to teach their children the kind of patience that drivers who drive while using their mobile telephones haven’t learned. Children are encouraged to face up to their responsibilities – yet many commercial trucking companies seem to employ unlicensed drivers. The police seem to shirk their duty to hold the worst drivers accountable.

I’ve come across plenty of children taking road rules far more seriously than many adults. The boy pedalling down Clinton St was paying far more attention to road conditions than most of the motorists. Esme Bauer, a young woman from Fort Greene, was one of the most powerful speakers at the rally I attended in November.

Many of the adults seem to be products of recent decades when parents feared to teach their children to navigate the streets. Having grown up with parents scared to let them out on the streets, they now sit, sucking their teeth, in their cars. Why, they wonder, are these children wandering about on the streets? What are their parents thinking?
New York needs more children commuting like this -
but will it take the steps to get them?
It’s a cycle that it’s obvious needs to be broken. Enforcement, road layout and general attitudes all need to improve to rebalance streets policy in favour of the pedalling boy commuter of Clinton St and away from the bad drivers around him.

It’s a question that goes far beyond transport policy, however. The disdain with which I saw some internet commenters react to Noshat’s death toppled over, it seemed to me, into expressing a generalised contempt for the weak and powerless. It’s an ugly attitude at the best of times. In this case, it was being expressed the week before Christmas about a young Bangladeshi immigrant crushed by a truck as he headed to take part in his public school’s holiday play.

In a city where someone can accuse such a young man of wanting “suicide by truck,” I’m tempted to conclude that New York’s transport problems are, perhaps, only a symptom – albeit a serious one – of a wider social malaise.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

A Jersey City leaflet, an East New York death - and why police are bothering the wrong people

It was near a Path subway station in Jersey City that I encountered a ripple from a wave of sloppy thinking currently sweeping the English-speaking world. On a corner on Grove St, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, a woman wearing a high-visibility vest approached me and thrust a leaflet into my hand.

The pamphlet contained a series of safety rules for pedestrians – among them “Cross at corners and intersections” and “Before crossing look left, right,then left again”– and threats of fines for pedestrians who broke the rules. There were also instructions to drivers. But, even as motorists barged past people crossing right by her, the woman kept thrusting the leaflets solely on people walking.
Hey, pedestrians: you can't say
New Jersey hasn't warned you
New Jersey’s safety drive is one of many currently under way on both sides of the Atlantic aimed at improving vulnerable road users’ safety by getting them to take more care. In London, a big part of the response to a spate of cyclist deaths has been to station police officers at key intersections to harass cyclists not wearing high-visibility clothing or helmets. In Park Slope, near where I live in Brooklyn, the New York Police Department’s 78th precinct reacted to a series of recent pedestrian fatalities by posting a list of pedestrian safety tips. They included advice that pedestrians should carry flashlights (torches, British readers) at night. People shouldn’t walk in snow or rain, it added.

The implicit assumption is clear. Vulnerable road users are vulnerable not primarily because they lack protection from the behaviour of motor vehicles but through their own irrational actions. Pedestrians wander heedless, according to this analysis, into the path of cars, whose drivers can scarcely be expected to miss them. Cars hit cyclists primarily because cyclists ignore red lights. It’s a view one can find repeated online in the comments under pretty much any news article about road safety – especially if it concerns bikes.
Hey, be fair. The card mentions motorists.
It's just that they don't give it to them.
Yet the worry should be precisely that crashes occur despite the best efforts of vulnerable road users to behave rationally – and because motorists correctly feel themselves largely invulnerable. A study  by researchers at Melbourne University, in Australia, found that 88.9 per cent of cyclists in a study were behaving safely and legally before collisions, near-collisions or “incidents” recorded on their helmet cameras. The figures tally with those in a Transport for London study of all the recorded injuries and deaths of cyclists from collisions with cars during 2010. The London study suggests around 74 per cent were the motorist’s fault, while the Australian researchers blamed the motorists for 87 per cent of the incidents. Studies from around the world regularly seem to find motorists to blame in around 75 per cent of bike/car crashes.

For pedestrians, a study in New York found that 44 per cent of those injured by cars were hit when in a marked crosswalk while crossing with the light, while another 6 per cent were hit on the sidewalk. Given that many of the other crashes will also be a result of motorist negligence, a clear majority of crashes involving pedestrians also appear to be the fault of the motorist concerned.

Pedestrians and cyclists appear, in other words, to behave like people who have a lot at stake on the roads and to take their own safety seriously. The crash on November 25 in East New York that killed Maude Savage seems, according to these studies, to be fairly typical. A surveillance video shows Ms Savage, a 72-year-old pedestrian, waiting and looking carefully before crossing, with the lights in her favour. A van then speeds around the corner and through the crosswalk, hitting her at speed. Robert Brown, the van driver, seems, to judge by the video, to have been driving like someone who recognised that, for him, the consequences of hitting a pedestrian wouldn’t be that serious. As things stand, it probably makes more sense for a busy technician like him – he was working for a cable TV company - to prioritise speed over avoiding a crash.
Cars on a crosswalk in midtown Manhattan.
The cars realise it's vital not to impede uptown progress
on 6th Avenue. So they block the crosswalk.

As with many road safety issues, however, many politicians and police officers seem to base their reaction to vulnerable road users’ deaths mainly on gut instinct and intuition. It’s often easy to sense frustration – “Why won’t these cyclists just get in a car or ride on the subway like everyone else?” Lord James of Blackheath, a Conservative peer, took such thinking to its logical – and absurd – extreme on November 22 when he claimed in a House of Lords debate that cyclists longed to be knocked down – to get motorists into trouble.

Even among people trying to make ostensibly saner points than Lord James, there’s considerable misunderstanding about where the risks lie. Politicians and police officers regularly whine about how cyclists allegedly cause crashes by ignoring red lights – but the Transport for London study found cyclists’ failure to obey a light was a contributory factor in only 61 crashes – against 2,650 involving motorists’ failure to look properly. It wasn’t significantly more common for cyclists to cause crashes by running lights than motorists – a motorist’s failure to obey a light was a contributory factor in 36 crashes. There’s a powerful tendency for policymakers to connect behaviour they observe – “some cyclists run red lights!” – to the death toll, without any further examination.
This car crashed at 100mph on West St in Manhattan.
How the NYPD thinks pedestrians can protect themselves
against such risks isn't clear.
There are certainly things that cyclists and pedestrians can do to protect themselves. In the Transport for London safety study, the top cause of crashes caused by cyclists was “failed to look properly,” just as it was for cars. “Failed to judge other person’s path or speed” was the second most common cause of crashes for both cyclists and drivers, while “careless/reckless/in a hurry” was number three for both. The Melbourne study of cycle crashes found that cyclists who looked over their shoulders a lot were least likely to be involved in crashes. There is clearly a great deal to be gained for any vulnerable road user through keeping keenly alert and watching out for the negligent behaviour of others.

Most people certainly make some trade-off in their road behaviour between convenience and safety. It’s surely worthwhile for the people with most to lose through a crash to let safety rule their judgement all the time – if only because it’s clear that people protected by metal shells feel free to prioritise their own convenience over other people’s lives. Last Sunday, riding down Garfield Place in Park Slope, I heard a woman in a car behind honking at me so violently that I, unusually, pulled over into the parked cars’ door zone so that she could squeeze past. “You should be over to one side!” she screamed at me as she zipped past too close, her face contorted with rage. The mismatch of concerns was precisely the one the TfL and Melbourne studies would suggest it might be. She was anxious I might hold her up by a few seconds. I was concerned her car might crush me to death.

Yet the fact remains that New Jersey’s police forces, the New York Police Department and Metropolitan Police are all placing a lot of the emphasis in their road policing efforts on berating the victims rather than the perpetrators of crashes. The tactic is reminiscent of the times – sadly, not too long ago in some places – where the answer to preventing sexual assault was meant to be to stop women walking alone at night or wearing “provocative” clothing. It’s a tactic that, by the nature of what causes the crashes, can never work. It’s patronising and demeaning.
The true effectiveness of years of "Share the Road" efforts
is clear from this picture of a midtown Manhattan Street.
Note the Cadillac blocking the route of the cyclist
using the bike lane.
The correct solution is hiding in the plain sight of that TfL report and Melbourne University study. There simply aren’t enough incentives for motorists to care as much about vulnerable people’s safety as they care about, say, making that important ‘phone call. The driver who ran into Maude Savage appears, according to Streetsblog, the campaigning site, to face no more than a $500 fine or 30 days’ jail, for example.  He faces that only because he turned out not to have a driving licence. It will be only when drivers face a good chance of heavy fines, losing their licences or imprisonment for negligent driving that the convenience/safety trade-off will start favouring safety more often.

Yet the chances of a big change in attitude soon seem remote. Appeals for everyone to “share the road” have the advantage of seeming even-handed and fair. Pleas for vulnerable road users to look after themselves better have the advantage of addressing those with most interest in improving road safety, even if they miss those best placed to improve the position. The alternative is to start acting on the reality of the picture that the research paints. That is that private motor vehicles – the dominant form of transport in most developed countries – pose big risks to those around them, and most drivers drive as if they didn’t. That seems like the kind of truth that politicians will put off addressing for as long as they possibly can.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

A futurist, an urban bike ride - and why we're slaves to yesterday's vision of tomorrow

I’ve long enjoyed pondering how living today measures up to yesterday’s vision of tomorrow – and how it falls short. I can now receive wirelessly once-unimaginable volumes of information – but poor software makes the device responsible crash. I can find out almost whatever I want at the press of a button – and I get it surrounded by links to stories about how celebrities look without makeup. I can theoretically work as easily in a 150mph train as in my office – but humans overload every system they build, so I can’t. It was always smoother and cleaner in science fiction.

Sheikh Zayed Road: Bel Geddes' vision realised
in a dusty desert dystopia
Yet, even as a connoisseur of the former future’s shortcomings, I was taken aback when I visited an exhibition on the work of Norman Bel Geddes, an early to mid-20th century futurist. I went to the exhibition – at the fabulous Museum of the City of New York – largely to let the six-year-old Invisible Visible Boy gawp at Bel Geddes’ plans for streamlined bubble cars, vast flying boats carrying 500 passengers and a plan for a floating air terminal off the tip of southern Manhattan. But suddenly, as I looked at one of Bel Geddes’ plans for a future city, I saw a plan eerily similar to a place I know – Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road – staring back at me. The more I looked, the more I noticed how Bel Geddes’ strange, extreme visions for the future had shaped not only relatively exotic places like Dubai but the environment I could see outside the museum’s Upper East Side windows and that I’d known in other parts of the world.

The exhibition brought home to me a new version of a famous quote from John Maynard Keynes. Practical men who believed themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence were “usually the slaves of some defunct economist,” Keynes said. Town planners, it occurred to me, were normally grappling similarly with some dead thinker’s vision of the future. The continuing legacy of people like Bel Geddes – and people he influenced, like Robert Moses, builder of much of contemporary New York and influencer of planners worldwide – explains why roads in so many cities cater so poorly to the full spectrum of users. I left struck with the obligation for the present to bequeath the future something better.
Central Park, near where I rode: cycling here didn't fit
with Norman Bel Geddes' vision
My revenge on Bel Geddes had started even before I got to the museum, though. Bel Geddes’ vision of the US in 1960 – unveiled at the 1939 World’s Fair in Queens and sponsored, tellingly, by General Motors – envisaged a country criss-crossed by highways with pretty much all transport provided by some form of motor vehicle. Bel Geddes specifically called for creation of urban motorways. “There should be no more reason for a motorist who is passing through a city to slow down than there is for an airplane which is passing over it,” Bel Geddes wrote. I scoffed at his ideas by enjoying a 12-mile cycle ride to the museum - over the Brooklyn Bridge, up the Hudson River Greenway and through Central Park.

But it was also clear once I’d visited the exhibition that I’d ridden through some concrete-and-steel expressions of Bel Geddes’ ideas. As I headed north of 59th street, my cycle route ran under the Henry Hudson Parkway, one of many freeways that Robert Moses designed to realise a vision similar to Bel Geddes’ to cater to motor cars. When I lived in London, I would sometimes cycle under the Westway, another urban motorway intended to speed motorists through an urban landscape as if it wasn’t there. Glasgow, where I grew up, has built so many urban motorways it sometimes feels as if there’s little city left.

Robert Moses' Verrazano Narrows Bridge across
the entrance to New York Harbour: typically bold and
audacious - and, equally typically, part of making Staten
Island New York's most car-dependent borough
All of those roads started out offering glamorous promises for a better, freer tomorrow and are now clogged up by congestion. When everyone tries to drive a car into a city, it turns out, they often end up slowing each other down.

Those visions of future utopias had become dystopias, it occurred to me as I rode home, because of shortcomings that become obvious on closer examination. In such visions of a smoothly-running automotive future, cars are only ever shown moving, not parked. That’s not an omission that seems credible to anyone who’s ever cycled around Brooklyn on a street-cleaning day. Street after street clogs up as drivers double-park their vehicles on the other side of the street to let the cleaning machine past.
The cycle and walkway by Robert Moses' Shore Parkway:
People squeezed into a space full of cars
The cars also run an orderly distance from each other in past visions of the future. At the World’s Fair, Bel Geddes made it clear that he thought radio control by 1960 would be preventing cars from crashing into each other. Pedestrians seem to have been out of the equation because Bel Geddes thought they would all be on elevated walkways. Although pedestrians are segregated on walkways in some places – like Hong Kong – his vision is laughably at odds with the honking, disorderly reality of contemporary urban roads.

However, the biggest failing of the former futurists’ vision is that they fail to recognise how the future has to fit into past visions of the present. It’s seldom possible to build a city from scratch with no regard to the existing buildings and streets – although, of course, many of the attempts to realise the futurists’ visions were made in cities razed by second world war bombing. Only Robert Moses’ remarkable political power allowed him to demolish so many New York neighbourhoods to accommodate his grand road schemes.

Varick Street, lower Manhattan:
Robert Moses would have liked to clear
these pesky pedestrians away.
It was the clash between the past and the future that finally put a stop to Moses’ drive in New York. A film at the Museum of New York describes how his attempt to build an expressway across lower Manhattan foundered on the unlikely rock of Jane Jacobs, a writer and theorist who organised opposition and had the scheme stopped. Jacobs loved the architecture and streets of Greenwich Village, where she lived, and thought the area’s townhouses and tenements worth preserving. There would be similar battles fought - some won, like the battle to stop Edinburgh's Old Town from being demolished for a motorway, and some lost - right across the developed world in the decades to come.

Even the United Arab Emirates has started to realise that car-dominated cities pose severe problems. There’s now a metro line along Sheikh Zayed Road, running above the cars. Last time I visited the UAE, I was also able to visit a more Jane Jacobs-ish model of a Gulf city in Masdar, outside Abu Dhabi. While it features a rather Bel Geddes-ish underground electric car system, Masdar is designed to replicate the traditional urban patterns of middle eastern cities, with fountains, high stone walls and structures designed to produce natural breezes. Cars are banned from the heart of the town and the planners intend that cycling will be one of the ways inhabitants get about.

Masdar: a Gulf vision Bel Geddes didn't inspire
Few places, however, have the luxury of starting from scratch as the Masdar planners have done. New York and other big cities consequently live with some of the kind of old infrastructure that Jane Jacobs fought to preserve and some of the futurist infrastructure that Robert Moses promoted. The challenge is to work out how best to adapt both to fit the future.
The Williamsburg Bridge's bike and pedestrian lanes:
proof the future contains more bikes, but looks less neat,
than Norman Bel Geddes envisioned
The tension has struck me powerfully this week. There is some excellent, new provision for me and my bike in contemporary New York, built by city authorities who think the city in the future will need more people to get about roughly the way I do. I’ve also, however, attended this week a protest calling on the police to stop speeding drivers after the death on October 26 of Lucian Merryweather, hit by a speeding driver on a Fort Greene sidewalk. I’ve also a couple of times had to cycle down part of 2nd Avenue in Manhattan and then onto the East River bike path.

The cars on 2nd avenue, when not caught in a traffic jam, would buzz me at intimidating speeds. Then, as I sought to get onto the East River bike path, I had to cross an off-ramp from FDR Drive, the kind of urban expressway I’d seen staring back at me from Bel Geddes’ pictures.

The cars came roaring off the expressway into the city streets, most still running at a good 60mph. As I watched them, wondering when I would safely be able to cross, I thought of Norman Bel Geddes. Some of his vision now looks strange and much of it looks downright dangerous. But there remain many drivers who see no reason why a car should have to slow down just because it’s in a city.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Invisible Visible Man, a low-rent PJ O'Rourke - and a day off for the higher brain centres

I've long been keen when reading history to study the people who were really, seriously wrong about things. The people who airily dismissed Charles Darwin seem almost as interesting in their pig-headedness as the great man was in his insightfulness. I'm interested in the prelates that persecuted Galileo or, on a smaller level, the Daily Mail editor who refused to believe his fashion editor the miniskirt would be a hit.

I'm consequently intrigued to think how fascinating Rod Liddle of the UK's Spectator magazine will seem to future generations. He has a remarkable knack of stating with verve, passion and an absence of judgement rotten arguments that time will surely only make smell more putrid. It’s even a matter of some pride to me that this blog provided the jumping-off point for a piece by Mr Liddle – think a low-rent, less-coherent PJ O’Rourke, American readers - that I predict could face ridicule for decades or even centuries to come.

The Invisible Visible Man's helmet: of note, a lack of
pomposity and, come to that, points
My first concern, however, is to ensure than no-one mistakes Liddle’s piece on cycling in the latest Spectator – entitled “Off yer bikes! Cyclists are a menace to society — and self-righteous to boot” – for a serious, thought-out argument about cycling’s merits. As with other recent attacks on cyclists – including that by Dorothy Rabinowitz in May on the Wall Street Journal’s website - the piece’s few factual assertions crumble into nothing on any examination. The rest of the argument rests on allegations made noisily, in the apparent hope their volume will make them seem more convincing.

The nature of Liddle’s thinking is clear from his targets. There are, to be sure, the now-traditional self-contradicting attacks on people who cycle on pavements (sidewalks, American readers) as well as those who ride on roads; attacks on cyclists who are too slow and hold up traffic as well as those who “whizz” by him. But Liddle also refers to the ownership by cyclists he dislikes of “a pompous little pointy plastic hat, hilarious goggles, a fatuous water bottle”. By the time a writer is imputing motives to inanimate objects and shouting at them, I could understand why readers might be pulling me away from Liddle shouting, "Leave him! He ain't worth it!"

Yet I feel compelled to respond to at least some of Liddle’s ravings because they start off with a typically selective, misleading quote an old post on this blog (which he erroneously calls "The Invisible Cyclist") examining why some people feel such anger towards cyclists.
My water bottles. They're trying to be fatuous -
but just can't get animated about it.
My post begins with an account of a conversation with a driver who wanted to intimidate me off the road so that she could get to the end of a traffic jam faster. When I (inevitably) caught up with her, she moved quickly from leaning on misleading points about the financing of roads to suggesting that I, as a Scot, shouldn’t be in London. The post links (reasonably, I think) the woman’s intolerance of my ethnicity to her intolerance of my being on a bike on a road. I suggest that people’s unreasonable intolerance of people on bikes has points in common with other forms of intolerance – including homophobia and anti-gypsy prejudice in Eastern Europe. It seems to me they all reflect a general anger at anyone who’s seen to be doing something different. I go out of my way to make clear that gypsies, gays and other oppressed groups face far more wide-ranging problems than mostly well-off cyclists. But I suggest the feelings have a similar genesis.

Liddle, on the other hand, says I think I’m “special” because I ride a bike and hence a Victim, complete with sarcastic capital V. He goes on to regret that fewer cyclists are being killed annually on the UK’s roads and attributes it to the dead hand of Political Correctness. He then goes on to show a bizarre lack of insight into other people's thinking by saying that – hahahahaha – he’s only joking but humourless activist cyclists won’t realise that. He doesn't seem to realise that people know he thinks he's joking when he says hateful things. It’s just that only a seriously unpleasant, callous fool regards it as funny to joke about wanting cars and trucks to crush more people annually from a group he's decided to find annoying.

There were, as it happens, 118 cyclists killed on Great Britain’s roads in 2012, a 10 per cent increase on the number in 2011, in a period where other kinds of road user fatalities mostly fell sharply.
My new glasses. Are these goggles ridiculous enough
for you, Mr Liddle?
I've made unusual choices, rather than being special in the sense of being morally superior. Only between 1 and 2 per cent of trips in the UK, where I lived when I wrote the piece Liddle attacks, are by bike. Only 0.6 per cent of commuting in the US, where I’m now based, is on a bicycle. I’m interested in why I experience a level of anger when I’m riding a bike that I simply wouldn’t while walking or taking public transport. Someone, for example, threw a bottle at me as I rode home from church on Sunday evening, something I’ve experienced several times while cycling. I’m curious why some people, Liddle included, find cyclists self-evidently suitable targets for particularly intense scorn and rage.

The piece does at least make a pretense at wheeling out a few rather shop-worn facts to try to back up the simple assertions. Liddle writes, for example, that it’s more dangerous to be a pedestrian in the UK than a cyclist. An examination of crash statistics for 2012 shows that the UK suffered an average 38 fatalities for every billion miles cycled, against 37.6 fatalities for every billion miles walked. Liddle also asserts that it’s necessary to pass laws to rein in cyclists to protect pedestrians such as him. Yet of the 420 pedestrian deaths in Great Britain in 2012, only 2 – 0.48 per cent – were a result of collisions with cyclists, which accounted for 0.11 per cent of all road deaths.

Given that bikes account for, say, 2 per cent of traffic – and far more in the busy places where most pedestrians are hit – it’s obviously disproportionately safe for pedestrians to be around cyclists. There is not the slightest evidence for Liddle’s assertion that injuries to pedestrians from cyclists are rising.

In a rational world, a Rod Liddle who was genuinely concerned about pedestrian safety would be calling for far more journeys to transfer from cars to bicycles, to protect people on foot. Even in the strange world of a conservative columnist's mind, it's hard to think of other areas where people rant about a group that are causing 0.11 per cent of the problems they profess worry them, while ignoring those causing 99.89 per cent.
An anonymous bike blogger,
hiding in plain sight

But Liddle’s writing sadly isn’t marked by any kind of intellectual curiosity. He remarks, for example, that this blog is “anonymous” as if that were inherently suspicious. Yet my identity is hidden only until one reaches the bottom of the page and sees who owns the copyright. I suggested in one recent post that readers follow me on Twitter – where I give my real name – and some commenters address me as “Robert”. There's a picture of me on the blogpost he quotes.

On Friday, the day after Liddle's piece appeared, a stranger cycled up to me as I waited at traffic lights during my morning commute and asked, based on the work security pass hanging from my belt, if I was author of this blog. The contrast with Liddle's failure to spot the obvious was telling.

There's a similar lack of originality. Liddle’s piece reflects nearly perfectly the advice in a “terrible journalist’s guide to writing an article about cycling” that Mark Treasure, a British blogger, wrote more than a year ago. Liddle even recycles some of his own, stale ideas. The original post that he quotes mentions a previous attack he wrote on cyclist’s “pompous plastic helmets”. He saves some time in getting the piece finished by reusing pretty much exactly the same language.

It’s pretty clear that any purported facts – indeed any real relationship to the outside world – are mere jewels encrusting an object made up of bilious ventings from Liddle’s gut. His higher brain centres – which might have over-ruled some of the absurdities – seem to have been given the day off.

Yet there’s nowhere, it seems to me, where Liddle gets it as wrong as he does when discussing cyclists’ characters.
Rod Liddle's angry cyclists sometimes don't use bike lanes.
So here's a nice picture for him of a bike lane
not being used by cyclists.

It’s true, I’ll admit, that it can bring out a certain defensiveness in cyclists to be constantly dealing with baseless rantings like Liddle’s. It doesn’t help that those rantings seem to fuel unreasonable behaviour on the street. As well as dodging the thrown bottle on Sunday, I had on the way to put up with a runner who insisted on running in front of me down the 1st Avenue bike lane. When I called out, “Watch out in the bike lane, please!” behind him, he replied, “What the…f*** off!” 

I don't repent either of liking cycling’s environmental credentials. Liddle dismisses cyclists as people who “think they’re saving the bloody planet” and sneers at the idea. Yet it’s pretty hard to see how anyone who accepts the reality of global warming – something many Spectator readers don’t, of course – can dispute the idea that using an emissions-free means of transport has to be some help in reducing global emissions.

It's obvious I'm a roundhead to Liddle's cavalier, just as I'm a cyclist and public transport user while he, I'm imagining, is a significant customer of London taxis.

But my moral convictions wouldn't have got me riding as much as I have round the three cities I’ve most recently lived – New York, London and Budapest. I’ve done it because riding a bike lets me hear the sound of the birds in the trees where I live, appreciate the streets and the history, see remarkable sights late at night and creep up unheard on deer on a quiet country road. I ride a bike mainly because the simple pleasure of doing so fills me with a simple sense of youthful joy. Having just marked my 44th birthday, I desperately need that.

Liddle’s rants at what he imagines to be the politically correct conspiracy of the British establishment seem weighed down with bitterness and cynicism. It's hard to imagine he couldn’t do with experiencing some of that youthful joy too.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A Fort Greene tragedy, London's missing road dead - and why New York's mayoral election matters

The Saturday before last, facing a day of boring but necessary chores, I persuaded my family that we could alleviate the tedium by going for lunch in Fort Greene, one of my favourite bits of Brooklyn. After I’d cycled there and everyone else had taken the G Train, we settled on eating in Black Iris, a middle eastern restaurant at the corner of DeKalb and Clermont Avenues. We ate looking out on the mixture of brownstone houses and fashionable businesses that makes Fort Greene such a likeable part of the city.
A bikeshare station near the site of Saturday's tragedy:
shamefully, where to position these stations has generated
far more debate in Fort Greene than the threat posed
by deadly drivers

I found myself looking at some of the same scenes again this past Saturday, in far less happy circumstances. Returning home from a bike ride with the children, I spotted on Twitter pictures of a pharmacy that I realised was diagonally opposite Black Iris. Next to it was a Ford sports utility vehicle on the sidewalk, with sheets covering a body and police tape cordoning off the scene.

Some poking around revealed that, around 12.45pm, a driver had crashed his SUV through the front of Black Iris – no doubt as diners like us tucked into the grilled meats and Mediterranean pizzas that our family had enjoyed a week before. After hitting the restaurant, the driver, Anthony Byrd, reversed at speed, made a U-Turn, swerved, hit some cars on the other side of the street by the pharmacy, mounted the sidewalk and hit a mother and her two boys. The sheet was covering the body of Lucian Merryweather, a nine-year-old, crushed on the sidewalk by the pharmacy. His five-year-old brother is in hospital. Byrd also hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
The Invisible Visible Family's bikes visit the Brooklyn
Academy of Music on a previous Fort Greene trip
It’s the kind of incident that ought – as multiple-victim public shootings once were – to be shocking, garner exceptional media attention and be fully investigated for lessons. But it’s actually depressingly routine. A Streetsblog post from September suggests that cars mounting sidewalks have already killed at least nine pedestrians so far this year in the city. Those figures don’t include Sian Green, the British tourist whose leg was severed in August when a taxi driver mounted the sidewalk while trying to ram a cyclist. Nor do they include Michael Gomez, who died of an asthma attack a few days after he was one of several children hit in Queens when a driver mounted a sidewalk.

Much coverage of these events has focused on their individual, exceptional circumstances and the culpability or otherwise of the drivers – and sometimes even the victims – involved. The attitude of New York's police has been reminiscent of the fatalism of some Hungarians when I lived in Budapest about the country's shortcomings. “Hat, mindenhol a vilagban (Well, everywhere in the world)” they would say over problems that were objectively, verifiably much worse in Hungary than elsewhere.

The folly of that complacency was exposed on Friday from the other side of the Atlantic when Transport for London published its annual health, safety and the environment report. The report – which was given a rough reception because it suggested safety for some categories of road user was falling - showed that 134 people died on London’s roads in 2012. That’s less than half the 271 who died on New York’s streets the same year, in a city with roughly the same population and traffic flows. New York killed more pedestrians in 2012 – 135 – than died on all modes of transport on London’s streets.
The Invisible Visible Girl's bike with its
Vote deBlasio spoke card. If any of us had
a US vote, we'd choose him, we promise.
Although it’s tragically too late for Lucian, New York this week has a chance of making a new start on road safety issues. The day after our visit to Fort Greene, our family emerged from church to find our bikes had been festooned with spoke cards suggesting we vote in the mayoral election – this Tuesday, November 5 – for Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate. During the Democratic primary, de Blasio loudly proclaimed his support for Vision Zero, a policy that targets eliminating city road deaths entirely.

If deBlasio does go for the systematic casualty-reduction technique of Vision Zero, it should, I think, prove far easier than anyone expects to bring down New York’s deaths to levels far closer to London’s. London’s figures, after all, are achieved in a city where some vehicles still speed, where the police response to many road incidents is grossly inadequate and where the poor design of parts of the mayor’s hurriedly-introduced cycling network has led to a series of appalling deaths. On the most basic levels in London, I suspect the superiority of its road safety record is down to drivers’ reasonable expectation that a speed camera will catch them if they speed, to the calming effect on traffic of the central London congestion charge and a total ban on vehicles’ turning through crosswalks when pedestrians have a green light.

There is also, I suspect, an effect of the reduced politicisation of policy-making compared with the US. The UK’s independent civil service tradition ensures that many of the senior officials grappling with road safety issues in London are the same people who have dealt with them for many years. There is less need to make the big policy splash that mayors in big North American cities crave when introducing an initiative. That civil service’s tradition is to work by producing dull, practical reports and recommending policy solutions mainly on a practical basis, often by formal cost-benefit analyses. A small group of officials, I suspect, will have had charge of producing TfL’s health, safety and the environment report. Their job prospects, I suspect, are closely tied to the health of the city’s road culture. It’s probably no coincidence that introduction of the poorly-designed Cycle Superhighways - one of London's worst-designed policies - is among those most closely associated with an individual politician.

In New York's case, it’s hard to imagine a man capable of running a slick election campaign can’t – if he’s willing – introduce fairly quickly policies to bring the city's road safety practices closer to London’s. Ideally, he'll choose somewhere still more safe.

It's a comparison of which I know the presumed mayor is aware. I saw him one morning campaigning outside my son’s school and forcefully told him about it. “I moved in August last year from London,” I said. “It has 100 fewer road deaths annually, with around the same population.”
Me and Bill deBlasio: I hope he remembers what I said
and wasn't too busy thinking, "Why is this strange man
shouting at me and gesticulating so hard?"

A picture that another parent took shows the candidate and his staff looking a little taken aback at the vehemence of my point-making. De Blasio’s body language looks a little defensive. There have been signs – including some remarks about pedestrian plazas in a debate that suggest an only partially-digested sense of his policy’s implications. The candidate nevertheless mentioned his support for Vision Zero when I spoke to him and trumpeted his Streetspac endorsement.

I remain nervous, nevertheless. I can only hope in light of the Merryweather family's appalling grief over a young life wasted that my parting shot to the future mayor will prove prophetic.

“You can fix this,” I said, jabbing my hand towards his chest. “You can do it.”

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A SoHo epiphany, a South London mugging - and the loneliness of the small-hours cyclist

It was around 12.45 in the early hours of last Thursday morning, as I bounced and dodged along the rutted, uneven surface of Grand St, my new route home through SoHo, that I came across an obstacle of the kind one’s apt to encounter at that time of night in a big city. Workmen had closed the street as they moved equipment into and out of the work sites that have been dotted along much of that street for the last year or so. A big sewer underneath is being replaced. I picked up my bike and, eager to get home after a 16-and-a-half hour work day, wheeled it along the sidewalk past the obstruction. Then I got back on, cycled a block and waited for a red light.
A late-night workman bars my way by London's Southwark
Cathedral: similar to my Grand St experience,
if less poetically picturesque
As I paused, however, I experienced one of those moments on a bike that takes the mind racing off to all kinds of other places. To my left, peering into one of the holes for the sewer, was a safety-helmeted workman. The man, who looked to be of Amerindian descent, looked weather-beaten and sad. I could see his wizened, resigned face in minute detail because of the lights shining up from the work site down in the hole. The expression and unusual lighting gave the picture a timeless feeling. The scene I was witnessing on a New York city street in 2013 could almost as easily have been from some 17th century painting depicting shepherds peering from the dark into a lit stable to adore the newborn Christ.

It was also, it occurred to me, the kind of encounter that’s more common when one’s cycling very late at night or very, very early in the morning – the times when one’s out on one’s bike and most of the rest of the world is asleep. The few people one sees are out for some specific purpose – fixing the streets or transit system, disposing of yesterday’s detritus, delivering the coming day’s food, continuing a celebration that started the previous evening or ensuring public safety. The encounters take on a far more intense flavour than the countless interactions of a bike journey at a more normal time of day. I’ve had things thrown at me at those times of day, helped a mugging victim and come upon a lone woman jogging through an entirely darkened city park.
Cycling late at night can feel ghostly quiet. But I've never
felt quite as ethereal as I made this Copenhagen cyclist look.
However, my main memories are of the peculiar euphoria that comes from rushing (as one often can) through a city that’s so calm and devoid of its usual sounds as to seem like an entirely different place.

It’s a form of riding of which I have disproportionate experience. Early in my career, when I worked for The Scotsman in Edinburgh, I had bursts of working as the late-shift reporter. I’d come into the office for 6pm, work until the paper’s final edition was done at 1am then head home by bike through the Scottish capital’s old town. I remember bowling across the Meadows – a rough Edinburgh mixture of Central Park and Boston Common, American readers – on crisp, clear nights, along lines of trees, speeding towards home.
A lit-up building by Park Lane: a scene
I'd witness looming across the road at me
as I cycled early morning or late at night
to or from Paddington Station.
When I moved later to London, I often had to catch early-morning trains or flights. Quite the most challenging were the times I had to go to Paris for the day and catch the 5:25am train from St Pancras, eight miles from my house, checking in at 4.55am. I’d dash across town in the early morning quiet, down roads that a few hours later would be prohibitively busy, at a steady 20mph. On arrival, I’d often wonder that I’d dared go as fast as I had, given the load of laptop, washbag and so on often weighing down my panniers, threatening to pitch me into the road if I hit a pothole.

On such journeys, the loudest sound to be heard was often the long rattle as some early morning shopkeeper or underground station manager lifted up his security roller shutter. The rat-a-rat-a-rat-a-rat-a sound would echo off the face of the opposite buildings, disturbing the dawn stillness. There was also sometimes, on side streets, the distinctive hum-and-rattling-bottles of a British electric milk float doing its rounds.

Other than that, there was a strange feeling that this was a world with its mute button on. Police vans or ambulances would often rush by, at speed, but on empty roads only the lights would flash and the engine emit the slightly higher-pitched hurry-hurry-hurry sound that says the driver has his foot firmly to the floor. There would be a gentle “whoosh!” sound as the vehicle passed, then a resumption of the quiet.

But one would also come upon people. One frosty morning in February 2006, I cycled from Brixton to Shepherd’s Bush to give a 6.30am interview at BBC Television Centre. As I rode shortly after 5am through a pitch-black Battersea Park, I was surprised to find I was not alone. There, running along entirely unlit roads, was a woman I took to be London’s most dedicated fitness fanatic.

A couple of years before, cycling home late on a Friday night through Camberwell, South London, I noticed a woman hunched over on the pavement by the roadside shouting, “They got all my money!” Looking down the road, I saw the silhouettes of three young men running away across the street. I talked to her and took her into a neighbouring ambulance station while we waited for the police. The incident – along with the time I heard the smash of a thrown bottle that had just missed me at midnight in a public housing estate – persuaded me to stick mainly to main roads at such times of the night.

The ambulance crews offered the woman tea and very British calming words as she sobbed hysterically about how she was meant to be at a friend’s wedding the next day. It was another scene played out in a mixture of darkness and the warm light from inside the ambulance station. The picture – the ambulance drivers gathered in quiet concern round the seated, weeping victim – had an Old Master timelessness similar to the scene I would much later witness by the hole in Grand St.
A night-time church spire in Carroll Gardens,
Brooklyn: home - who knows - to depictions
of magical scenes similar to those the
Invisible Visible Man has encountered late
at night on New York's streets
But the level of activity I encountered last week on Grand St – and the fact I was also recently stopped there late at night for a filmshoot – illustrate something rather different about cycling late at night in New York. The subways don’t stop just after midnight as the London Underground does. One’s apt to come upon sudden busy scenes even in the small hours of the morning. A couple of times recently, I've cycled across the Manhattan Bridge at 12.30am and seen below me three lanes of traffic on FDR Drive. How strange, it seems to me, cycling on my own a hundred feet above them, to be stuck as 1am approaches, staring at the rear lights of the car in front.

There are, however, subtle signs in New York when it’s late. One’s more likely to pass a work train rumbling behind a diesel engine along the Manhattan Bridge subway tracks than during the day. The garbage trucks are more likely to be private operators picking up restaurants’ potato peelings and empty bottles than city trucks picking up every house’s refuse.
A late-night New York City skyline: fine fingers of Art Deco
elegance from the Empire State and Chrysler buildings.
But there is still a special magic about riding when most people are sleeping, even in the city that itself never does so. I saw one woman striding down Boerum Place in downtown Brooklyn at 11.30pm, holding a small child’s hand and yelling accusations desperately at whoever was on the other end of her cellphone. There was the guy I encountered one night recently so drunk that I feared I’d be obliged to accompany him all the way home.

The most striking moments, however, are the ones where the dark and the shafts of light interact to pick out a startling detail. One’s eye will catch the lights on the Chrysler Building’s spire, fine fingers of art deco elegance pointing into the night sky. Or one will find a man who’s peering into a sewer - but providing for a brief moment a reminder of some of the most sublime moments in western art.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

A Film Set, a New Route - and the Joy of Rediscovering Urban Cycling

It’s the kind of intervention in one’s journey home that’s never normally welcome. As I rode my way down Grand St in lower Manhattan around 10.30 in the evening, I found a skinny young man wearing a headset blocking my way. No-one was allowed onto the next block, he said, until the film crew had finished this take. It took only a couple of minutes – although the time felt longer, given that I’d rashly for the time of year put on only a t-shirt on my top half.
Grand St in Chinatown: city street, film set or cyclocross
track - it can't settle on a single role
But, despite the inconvenience, I felt a little thrill at being stopped on my way home on Friday. That a film crew was filming on a road on my way home was confirmation that I was, once again, the kind of cyclist whose routes lay along grittily interesting urban streets. For more than a year since moving to New York, I’ve done the majority of my Manhattan cycling on the waterfront greenways, riding often at speed but grappling only in little bites with the serious urban cycling of riding on a street with traffic. Following a move in my employer’s office, I now ride across lower Manhattan from the Manhattan Bridge to Hudson St in SoHo, on city streets for nearly all the distance.

The change has reminded me of some of the sheer pleasures of being an urban cyclist. My riding patterns far more closely resemble those I had in London, where I’d ride mostly along the London Cycle Network of routes along quiet back streets. I’m catching once again little vignettes of city life – I notice, for example, how oddly resigned and depressed the faces of the people waiting each morning for the opening of the Prince Street Apple store are. Pushing a hot dog cart to its place in the morning looks like really hard work.

The contrast between midtown and the relatively relaxed cycling environment in lower Manhattan – where there’s motor traffic, but not on the same scale as further uptown - has also highlighted another truth. Cycling in any place where cars dominate the public space can be pretty dispiriting. I’m missing the last mile of my old work route – where I’d battle my way up 54th street from the Hudson River to my office – not at all. If big cities want to encourage cycling, conditions in such forbidding areas need to be addressed.

The USS Intrepid: just one of the Hudson River landmarks
no longer on the Invisible Visible Man's daily route.
Yet these aren't the reactions I'd expected. For months before the move, I’d been telling anyone who’d listen – and a fair few that wouldn’t – how I was dreading the move. I’d grown used to commuting nine miles each way to and from work, including a four-mile sprint up the Hudson River Greenway along the west side of Manhattan. I was particularly concerned about my waistline. Within a few months of undertaking a daily 18-mile round-trip commute, I was noticing the difference when I stood on the bathroom scales in the morning. I’d dropped a good five or six kilos compared with when I moved in August 2012 from London.

There are certainly sad points about no longer having a daily ride by the Hudson. On my last morning on my old route, I was looking wistfully across at the buildings in New Jersey, glittering in the autumn sun on the river's far bank. I cast a sentimental glance to my right up at the Empire State Building, which I now see only in the distance. I took a picture of the USS Intrepid as I passed it for the last time as a commuter. I was dreading not only the new route’s reduced riding but also the stresses of the new route I’d planned. To the west of the new office – the angle from which I planned to approach – streets buzz with high traffic volumes, pouring into and spewing out of the cross-river Holland Tunnel.
The bike route onto the Manhattan Bridge: a quick route
to lower Manhattan streets - and romantically urban to a fault.
But, on my second morning in the new office, it occurred to me that it was worth trying the simplest, straightest route across town to the new site. I sped over the Manhattan Bridge, instead of the Brooklyn Bridge, dropped down into Chinatown and navigated my way across to Prince St. I discovered how the old, muddled-up street plan meant no-one expected to speed across SoHo. More to the point, I arrived with a smile on my face. The route had been chaotic, grimy and a little bit noisy – far more unmistakeably a ride through New York than my former ride on a calm, orderly path up by the Hudson.

I also, I’ll admit, felt a little bit cooler than before. For the last 14 months as I’ve fulminated about this or that aspect of New York’s road culture, I’ve had a sneaking feeling that maybe I wasn’t quite getting it. Nearly two-thirds of my ride to work was car-free and I’d found some of my efforts at on-street riding pretty terrifying. I’d watched on Twitter the discussions between more seasoned New York cyclists of their experience in the lower east side, SoHo, Chelsea and elsewhere in the island’s lower reaches and suspected they were simply cooler, more sophisticated, bolder people than I. Most of them remain, no doubt, cooler and more sophisticated than I – but I have less awe of their willingness to ride on these areas’ streets.

Bike lanes on Allen St at the Rivington St intersection:
a small-time entrepreneur wheeling goods down the bike
lane adds an authentic detail.
It’s certainly not a perfect experience. The journey would be more fun still if more New Yorkers had a better understanding of where the stress in the phrase “bike lanes” is meant to lie. Many seem to hear the term “lanes” and adopt them as the ideal spot to wheel their food truck, haul their suitcase or park their police car. Better protection for many bike lanes would be welcome, as would a reining-in of many vehicles’ speed. I’ve also yet to find an ideal route home. One of those cooler, more experienced cyclists, Joanna Oltman Smith, warned me before the move to avoid Grand St, the most direct route, which extensive sewer works have turned into a cross between a slalom course and a rutted country track. I’ve not yet found a better alternative – and, truth to tell, am enjoying the sense that I might be quietly training for unexpected stardom on the seniors cyclocross circuit.

On the other hand, I now look almost fondly on the elderly Chinese woman I see each morning blocking the Rivington Street bike lane stuffing her bags full of recycling. I marvel at the Beaux Arts magnificence of the Little Singer Building as I cross Broadway. I note how adept the city – like London, my former home – has been at reinventing itself. I see neglected-looking synagogues built for a Jewish community now mainly departed from Chinatown. Factories that once made clothing have been transformed into trendy offices for those of us in the media set. I hear even more of the city's sounds. Next summer, I expect to be still more aware of its smells. I was cycling round New York City on my old route. Now I arrive at the office, a smile on my face, excited at how I've been riding in it.