Sunday 23 June 2013

Hear this: what I heard on the street - and what it says about cycling's merits

It was as inconvenient a time for a work call as I can imagine. I had grabbed my ringing phone from my pocket just as the lights turned green at an intersection on the Invisible Visible Boy’s short route to school. “I can’t talk now,” I shouted before stuffing the phone back into my pocket, leaning heavily down on my pedal and getting myself, my bike, the boy and his trailer bike all safely again into forward motion.

But, once I’d said goodbye to the boy and phoned back my colleague in London, he didn’t immediately want to talk about the matter in hand. Instead, he made me realise how thoroughly I’d taken for granted one of my key sources of information about the world around me as I cycled. I’ve been noticing ever since how many sounds I hear as I ride around – and how richly they add to my experience.

“You didn’t ring off properly,” my colleague told me. “I could hear the sound of the wind – and your son’s giggling.”

I had, I suppose, assumed before my colleague mentioned it that most of the time while riding I wasn’t hearing very much. For much of my journeys both to and from work, I work my way past long lines of waiting cars. No-one’s saying a great deal. Even though it’s New York, people mostly don’t even bother with honking. They just sit there.

Clinton St, Cobble Hill: very nice for people - and even,
the Invisible Visible Man was surprised to hear,
a hit with gentrifying birds
But, the moment I started thinking about it, I recognised how much information my hearing was giving me. The wind whistles in my ears, with anything from a whisper to the full-throated, jet-engine roar of a seriously stormy day. I hear the gentle whir of my bike’s rear hub. There’s the gentle clicking as I change onto an easier gear and sometimes a slight clang as the gear cable loosens and lets the chain slip down to a smaller sprocket. It’s a good sign if I don’t hear very much. Recently, a tiny bit of water crept into one of my pedals and I’ve run out of the grease I need to make it completely quiet again. Every now and again it emits a little squeak, sending my stress levels a little bit upwards.

Much of the time, as I pedal along steadily, songs play in my head, to the rhythm of my breathing and pedalling. For a while now, for reasons I don’t entirely understand, the tune seems to have been Lyle Lovett’s Walk Through the Bottomland – an obscure choice, even to me, but one whose deliberate beat seems to fit with the way I cycle.

The bike’s interaction with the road makes its own sounds. Occasionally, I’ll hit some stray stone on the road and send it flying – thwack! – into a parked car. My mudguard (fender, American readers) gives off a tiny bit of a vibrating sound – a very miniaturised version of an arrow hitting a target – every time my front wheel jars into one of the countless imperfections in the road surface. On the Brooklyn Bridge, there’s the steady clack-clack of the wooden boards on the walkway, as the bike hits each and sets it vibrating against the metal underneath. One night recently, I went over the Queensboro Bridge and enjoyed the sensation of racing down into Queens on a surface made up of jointed concrete slabs – ka-boom-ka-boom-ka-boom-ka-boom, steadily faster as I picked up speed. It’s hard to sort out in my head which of these sounds is audible to the wider world and which is conveyed direct from the road to my skull as the bike judders against the crack in the road or the joint in the concrete.
The Manhattan Bridge: a perfect urban cacophony
There are sounds of place elsewhere, too. As I leave my apartment, I hear subway trains growling complainingly around the Culver Viaduct high above my head. Then, the other morning, in another part of Carroll Gardens, I heard what I thought must be a novelty doorbell or strange alarm. No, I eventually concluded, there were actually some birds living happily enough in the trees along Clinton Street that they were singing out to each other one June morning rush hour. In some places, the audio soundtrack actually provides far more of the atmosphere than what one can see. Riding over the Manhattan Bridge yesterday, I noticed how I could hear the sound of wash breaking on the shore down below in Dumbo. Then a subway train rolled out onto the bridge, its clanking echoing off the roadway that runs above the tracks and drowning out the sounds of the motor traffic. As I raced the train over the bridge and gathered speed on the ramp down into Chinatown, I ran over one of the loose inspection covers. “Clunk-clank!” it went as I too sent the sound of my own progress echoing off the roadway’s underside.
This is how the bike lanes under the FDR Highway look.
But the Invisible Visible Man hears the sound of the cars
banging over the joints in the road above
My sudden noticing of the birdsong, the sounds of the road and the cacophony on the Manhattan Bridge have all made me feel far more positive about the sounds that surround me as I cycle than I used to. Then, I noticed mainly the sounds of stress. Like most cyclists, I’m constantly listening out for the tone of the engines behind me in traffic, ready to pick out the note of a driver who’s revving his engine, ready to accelerate dangerously. It’s one of the clearest warning signs one can encounter that a driver isn’t going to behave safely.

None of that is to suggest, however, that the most noticeable sounds don't cause me anxiety. The volume of honking gradually rises each morning as I ride towards the Brooklyn Bridge – especially if there’s a garbage truck blocking Clinton Street emitting the strange low-high-low hum of its hydraulic crushing mechanism. The honking reaches a pitch as I struggle my way through TriBeCa. On Friday morning, an angry motorist in a hurry slammed on her brakes when I stopped for a red light where Chambers Street crosses the West Side Highway. She gave me a long, unmistakeably intimidatory blast of her horn for having the temerity to stop her from running the light.

Those aren’t the only worry-inducing sounds. Any encounter with a large, road-hogging SUV has an extra edge when it’s blaring out rap so loud that the whole car vibrates. The motorists with most faith in honking’s efficaciousness seem least ready to move aside for emergency vehicles and I hear their drivers using their sirens to plead their way out of traffic. The mixture of short blasts, honks and steady whines they emit sounds like nothing so much as a pitiful trapped dog. Probably no motorist driving along Boerum Place in downtown Brooklyn the other night was able to hear how desperately the woman traipsing along the street at 11.30pm with a toddler son and luggage was swearing as she pleaded for help or criticised or did whatever she was doing to the person on the other end of her ‘phone call.

But the exposure to the stress is a flipside to the joy of hearing all this sound. It’s a pleasure of cycling round the city that all my senses are in immediate, unfiltered contact with the world around me, rather than being filtered through tinted windows and soundproof doors. I’m experiencing the city far more fully than I would in a car or a subway train.

That came home to me most fully late last summer, when I had not long moved to New York. As I stopped for one of the last sets of lights near my home, an old sedan drew up next to me, its windows rolled down. For a few seconds, I was treated, wholly unexpectedly, to a blast of sublime 1960s jazz, saxophones running riot over a pulsing bass line. I looked over at the driver. We both smiled, surprised to find ourselves sharing a brief transcendent moment of musical appreciation.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Red lights, stress hormones - and sympathy for Dorothy Rabinowitz

It’s the kind of scene that anyone using a busy city’s streets in the last few years will have encountered. “Hey, red light!” a pedestrian shouted at a couple riding down the Tillary Street bike lane. Unabashed, they continued through the crosswalk and on towards the Brooklyn Bridge. I, with the Invisible Visible Boy on his trailer bike, waited for the family to finish crossing. The man did so glowing with self-righteous indignation at the cyclists who had rolled slowly through the crosswalk a few yards ahead of them.

It was an inconsequential incident, in an area where I’ve encountered the aftermath of several nasty car crashes. The family in the crosswalk were not in any way seriously endangered, while the cyclists were far from completely reckless. I partly understood the cyclists’ behaviour. The crosswalk in question is lightly used – and any cyclist who waits until the lights turn green risks either a long wait to ride onto the Brooklyn Bridge or a dash across in front of traffic just as the lights there change.

But the family, I suspect, will have gone home cursing “scofflaw” cyclists. Next time one of their friends mentions the possibility of starting to cycle to work or to get the kids to school, they’ll suck at their teeth and mention how that couple totally blew through the lights by the federal court in front of them. When they’re driving, they’ll perhaps be a little less inclined to see cyclists as fellow human beings and a little more as the kindred of those people who rode in front of the family (the closeness of the encounter may by now have become considerably exaggerated).

The back of the New York City Cycling map:
an impossibly obscure place, it seems, to hide from senior
journalists what cyclists are told about the law.
I’ve been pondering the extraordinary mismatch between the irritation over cyclist misbehaviour and the actual danger it poses over the past fortnight since the Wall St Journal published a bizarre video featuring Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of its editorial board, sharing her thoughts on New York City’s new Citibike bikeshare scheme. Among her claims were that “everyone” in New York City knew cyclists posed a greater danger than yellow cabs (a collision with a bike last killed someone in the city more than four years ago). She also complained about seeing instructions on the doors of taxis warning her not to door cyclists, claiming that cyclists were not given similar instructions on safe behaviour (a glance at a Citibike, the NYC bike map or pretty much every other piece of cycling-related literature from the NYC Department of Transportation could have swiftly debunked this claim). The videos have helped to spur plenty of discussion about the virtues or otherwise of cycling in New York City – but have started the discussions off from a profoundly unhelpful point.

I’ve felt disinclined, however, to dismiss Ms Rabinowitz’s ravings entirely since a discussion with a colleague in the wake of the video’s release. I related to this colleague – who is certainly not unreasonable or poorly inclined towards cyclists – how that morning I had seen police stopping a cyclist who was riding recklessly. She expressed relief, on the grounds that more needed to be done to stamp out bad cycling. New York’s police department, I pointed out testily, already gave cyclists more traffic tickets than their share of the traffic would suggest they should receive. The ticketing was even further out of line with the damage that cyclists did to other people. It was motorists’ law-breaking that needed to be a higher priority. When cyclists rode on the sidewalk and she was walking her dog, however, she feared they were going to harm her dog, she replied. We both grew steadily more agitated.
Since we're talking politeness, I could have done without
the language on this parked single speed. Thank you.
We had both, I realised afterwards, started during our conversation to recall stressful incidents we’d experienced on New York’s streets. The stress hormones that had coursed through our bodies at the time began to move again. As our adrenalin rose, we both gradually became more defensive and less amenable to reason. The conversation made me realise that, yes, some people do find interacting with cyclists inherently stressful. In fact, looking at the stream of abuse one encounters in most online fora that discuss cycling, most people – drivers or pedestrians – find it stressful in some way. Pedestrians often fail to spot even cyclists who are behaving entirely properly – and hence get a shock when one whistles by as they stride out into the street sending a text message. Motorists find it stressful to manoeuvre around vehicles that have such different shapes on the road and move in such different ways. Handling some of these situations seems to activate ancient flight-or-fight responses in the human brain, well away from the brain parts that undertake moral and intellectual reasoning.

Not, of course, that people should surrender to mere gut instincts on these issues. No matter how irritated Dorothy Rabinowitz feels if a cyclist passes her on the sidewalk, she ought – particularly given her exalted position on a quality newspaper – to recognise there’s no intellectual basis for saying cyclists pose a bigger danger than yellow taxis. Incidents involving yellow cabs are often fatal in New York City – the last one involving a cyclist was on June 6, while one last killed a pedestrian (by mounting the kerb) on February 24. Livery cars (the New York equivalent of minicabs) pose far greater dangers.

As the February 24 death suggests, even when walking on a sidewalk (or pavement, for British readers) pedestrians are in far more danger from motorists than from cyclists. I’ve mentioned before how I ride every morning past the site where a car on the sidewalk killed Martha Atwater on February 22. There have been many such incidents across the city since – including the very sad death on June 4 of Ariel Russo, a four-year-old hit by a 17-year-old involved in a chase with the police. Any pedestrian worried about his or her safety in New York City should, logically, be begging the city authorities to encourage cycling. It’s far safer for pedestrians to be around relatively light, relatively slow bicycles than to be around cars.

A cyclist and his son on the lovely Manhattan Bridge
bike lane: cyclists can't expect nice things like this,
Sarah Goodyear says, if we keep being naughty.
Nor am I making a point like the one that Sarah Goodyear made in a now mildly notorious piece on the Atlantic Cities website about how cyclists allegedly “wanted it both ways” demanding better enforcement against dangerous drivers while being reluctant to behave better themselves. Cyclists couldn’t expect better infrastructure, such as bike lanes, if they didn’t improve their behaviour, she argued. It’s quite clear that, if officials’ willingness to give a road user group infrastructure depended on the group’s behaviour, there wouldn’t be much road space devoted to cars. There’s no evidence that cyclists’ rule-breaking (archetypally, red light-jumping and sidewalk riding) is more widespread than motorists’ tendency to speed and pay insufficient attention. There’s plentiful evidence that cyclists’ misbehaviour causes less harm to others than motorists’.

A Citibike rider checks out the rules:
bet she'll be nicer to cyclists
next time she drives
I also stick to the view that many people’s views about cyclists are based on simple prejudice and irritation towards people who decide to do things differently, rather than either objective factual points or stress from near-misses with negligent cyclists. It’s one of my hopes for the Citibike scheme that, if it encourages more first-time New York cyclists to ride, it’s going to create a new group of pedestrians and motorists who have some understanding of the pressures on people who cycle.

But I’ve personally taken the view for a long time that there’s little point in antagonising pedestrians or motorists unnecessarily. It’s far simpler to take the position that a red light means “stop” than to engage in some complex – and inevitably error-prone – risk assessment at every traffic light-controlled junction. I don’t ever want to be in the position of being the cyclist who crashed into me near Elephant & Castle in March 2009 after going through a red light. “I didn’t see you,” he complained. “There was a red light to tell you not to go,” I replied.

I take that position not least because it’s such a distraction from the important issues if I encourage people to complain even more about cyclists. There was a chilling illustration of that on June 8, when the Wall Street Journal – encouraged, perhaps, by the website traffic from Dorothy Rabinowitz’s original rant – posted a second video featuring her views. Having considerably improved her make-up and clothes, she launched into further strange denunciations based on misunderstandings of the facts – and heaped abuse on a couple of fairly mild questions from viewers about her opinions. Around my office, I spotted headphones going on and browsers being directed to the Journal’s website as even colleagues with no interest in cycling sought to gawp at the latest episode.

Yet, just as the Journal’s editorial staff were posting the video, on 5th Avenue, just around the corner from the Journal’s offices, the driver of a sports utility vehicle lost control, mounted the sidewalk and ploughed into a crowd of people, sending six – including a small baby – to hospital. The incident was depressingly routine – but, given the numbers of people involved, I’d have hoped to see more comment and perhaps some more information on Twitter and some of the news sites I regularly visit. Instead, most were full of arguments about the largely illusory danger that bikes pose to pedestrians such as Ms Rabinowitz.

It’s my goal, as far as I can, to cycle in such a way that I don’t cause unnecessary stress to other people that I encounter. I don’t want to encourage them to focus on the pointless ephemera that were the subject of Dorothy Rabinowitz’s complaints. I hope to leave them at least a little freer to concentrate on the hundreds of annual deaths from motor vehicle crashes in New York City and other large cities worldwide. It is, after all, those, rather than a few stray bikes on sidewalks, that represent the true roads scandal of our time.

Sunday 2 June 2013

Citibikes, drivers - and the science of moral development

When I first started cycling to work down W54th street in Manhattan, I used to find it puzzling how cars would suddenly come to a complete, but brief, halt half way between 7th and 6th avenues. Then, after a while, I realised what was going on. There was a stop sign intended to protect a crosswalk on the new 6½ Avenue pedestrian path half-way along the block. Cars would carefully come to a complete - but milliseconds long – halt at the sign, to fulfill the legal requirements.

But I quickly recognised a second phenomenon. When I approached the crosswalk, I would stop if I saw pedestrians waiting to cross and let them go.  Most motorists would do the brief halt and drive on regardless, forcing the pedestrians to wait until a break in traffic.

The crosswalk came to symbolise for me the way that many drivers in cities worldwide end up reacting to road rules. They follow what they understand to be the letter of certain laws – in this instance, that cars must stop fully at a stop sign in New York City. But they ignore the wider spirit – that one should not barge past pedestrians trying to cross the road at a designated crossing point. The road environment for pedestrians trying to use 6½ Avenue is little safer as a result of the drivers’ brief stop at the stop sign than if they simply blew through. The sign plays next-to-no role in reducing the horrific annual death toll on New York City’s roads.
Five New York Police Department cruisers on W55th Street.
A heroic guess: in none of these vehicles is an officer pondering
how to push road users towards Kohlberg's higher stages
of moral development.
The behaviour puts me in mind of the famous work on moral development by Lawrence Kohlberg, a psychologist who classified people’s moral development from the earliest stage – when they merely sought to avoid punishment – to the highest – when they behaved according to an established set of ethical principles. The drivers’ behaviour around the stop sign demonstrates the kind of moral reasoning that, in other fields, one might associate with a toddler seeking to be naughty but get away with it.

The question is how a city – any city, but the most pressing examples for me at present come from New York – can become a place where people interact according to the most advanced stages of moral development. Cities should be striving towards roads where users treat each other out of genuine concern and insight into the other person’s interests.
A Citibike stand, by the Brooklyn Waterfront, complete
with neophyte cyclists. Let's hope they're as keen
when they've completed the ride as before
The subject has been particularly on my mind this week because of the launch of New York’s Citibike bike-sharing scheme. It’s clear – from my own observations and from Dmitry Gudkov’s excellent stories and pictures of riders – that many new riders are using bikes for transport for the first time in New York City. It would be a tragedy if, after such a positive start, those new cyclists were to find themselves put off by the near-misses and abuse that other cyclists all too often experience.

The answer, it seems to me, lies in a shift in policing thinking intended, as good parenting should, to push road users gradually towards more considerate use of the road. It is likely unfortunately to prove a long, slow process.

I encountered evidence of the scale of the challenge on my way to work on Friday, as I made my way down E55th street. A car started pulling out into the bike lane as I approached, trying to push into a traffic jam, despite my repeated shouts that he was pulling into my path. When I finally, despite his continued efforts to block me, squeezed past, he shouted after me, sanctimoniously, “Share the road!”

There’s a simple problem underlying these complex issues, however. The NYPD, like probably quite a few police forces worldwide, doesn’t seem to have much of an idea what it’s trying to achieve with its road policing. That’s self-evident looking at most precincts’ traffic ticket statistics. Ticketing focuses heavily on issues like excessively tinted windows that are easy to prove, rather than on offences such as speeding or distracted driving where the behaviour is harder to prove but creates far more danger.

Only basic laziness – and the need to meet some arbitrary monthly target for ticketing – can explain incidents such as the one in April where several policemen - from a force, remember, that claims to have too few resources to investigate crashes properly - stationed themselves late at night on part of the Hudson River Greenway and ticketed and fined cyclists “for their own safety” for the purely technical offence of being in a New York City park (rather than on the far more dangerous roads) after the parks’ official 1am closing time. This and other similar incidents – the truck policing unit that ticketed more cyclists than trucks, for example – suggests the pressure on NYPD traffic cops is to meet quotas for ticket issuing, rather than to make the streets safer.

If such an approach is at work, it would chime with the evidence that’s emerged from the civil case against the NYPD over “stop and frisk” – the NYPD’s insistence on stopping young men to search them for weapons on even the most flimsy evidence. That trial has produced evidence that officers were told to meet targets for monthly stops, rather actually arresting criminals for serious offences. The force is facing legal action because many officers seem to have assumed – and in some cases to have been explicitly told – that the goal was to harass young black and Latino men.
Traffic infringements abound on W54th street.
A simple contribution to the police benevolent fund,
however, and no driver need worry.
On traffic policing, meanwhile, another regular sign of attitudes is the proliferation on cars of signs showing support for one or other police organisation or benevolent organisation. The signs clearly reflect an attitude that a traffic ticket is a piece of random bad luck to be made go away, rather than a punishment for a serious offence that could kill or maim another human being. That these signs continue to be so popular suggests they are effective at deterring trouble – and that many police officers agree on road offences’ importance.

It would surely make far more sense for senior police officers’ pay or promotion prospects to depend on measures of desirable outcomes on the roads. Would a precinct commander who knew his pay depended on a 20 per cent fall in road deaths and serious injuries send officers to harass cyclists using an important cycle path simply because it was too late at night? Would he allow his officers to hand out as many or more fines for excessively tinted windows in a month as for the widespread – and deadly – offence of speeding? It’s instead far more likely, I’d suggest, that officers would start to think seriously about policing the crimes that kill and injure large numbers of people every year. It should also help to stop the nonsense that drivers effectively buy immunity from prosecution via donations to police benevolent associations.

I can’t pretend, of course, that such a change would immediately turn every city road user everywhere into a practitioner of the highest, level six stage of moral development under Kohlberg’s principles. Those who have reached level six apply universal moral principles to their interactions with others, seeking to be entirely fair. Most UK police forces concentrate more on the deadliest offences – even if I disagree with many of their attitudes – and drivers in London remain often aggressive and inconsiderate.

But a clearly-signalled change of strategy would surely indicate to drivers that the outcomes of their behaviour – the numbers of pedestrians mowed down in crosswalks, for example – matter. It would shift drivers’ thinking about road policing away from a focus on the grubby transaction – how do I get this officer to ignore my speeding? – towards something a little more positive. What happens if I speed here, hit someone and get treated as other killers would?

The Manhattan Bridge: it is physically impossible, in good
weather, to bowl down the bike lane unobstructed
without a smile on one's face
I recognise such a change remains, sadly, far off in New York, although it may be closer – or may even have arrived – elsewhere.

The scene I encountered in the early hours of Saturday as I rode home makes me wish that were not so.

I had to work late and took a convoluted route home, through Times Square, the Broadway Bike Lane and the east side bike path to the Manhattan Bridge. As I started my climb onto the bridge around 1.30am, I encountered a young couple whizzing the other way on Citibikes, wearing the broad grin that pretty much anyone who’s ever barrelled down that lane unobstructed on a warm summer’s night must have done. A week before, they probably weren’t New York City cyclists. I can only now imagine they’re warmly commending the experience to their friends. It would be sad if a nasty grouch such as E55th street man were to change their minds – and an unspeakable tragedy if something still worse were to befall them.