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.


  1. Sadly, such a sea-change in moral development on a grand scale is a long, long way off all over the place, not just in New York.

    1. Babble On,

      Firstly, how nice to see you commenting here. I've read many of your comments over on Bike Snob NYC.

      There is a controversy, if I recall correctly, about whether the highest level of moral development exists at all, given how few people appear to have reached it. If motorists' traffic behaviour were the yardstick in this controversy, I suggest, it would no longer be a controversy. It would be clear that such a level of development doesn't exist.

      I trust, nevertheless, that people's traffic behaviour doesn't show their best side - and that such higher moral development is possible, if unlikely in rush-hour traffic lines.


  2. "...the truck policing unit that ticketed more cyclists than bikes"? I suspect "...than trucks" was intended.

    1. Anonymous,

      I'm very excited! You spotted the deliberate mistake that I now put into every post so that I can heap praise on a single reader who spots it.* Well done!

      I've now changed the passage back to what you correctly suspected I always intended to write.


      *All or part of this comment may be a lie to cover for my own negligence.

  3. What a thought-provoking post. Yet again. How do you do it?

    I'm sure I'll be pondering your ideas for days to come. I'm an NHS Manager in the North of England. I've had a very good experience of targets making a huge difference in my field, research. We've trebled the numbers of patients going into trials in the last few years by targeting recruitment. Enrolment in a trial is ethically controlled but also good for the patient, the hospital, the researcher and society. Now akmost 20% of cancer patients in England are in a trial compared to around 2% in the US.

    However the recent Francis Report into the tragedy at North Staffordshire shows what happens when the wrong targets are applied in the wrong way. Can a hospital be judged a success if it meets it's financial performance target, but an extra 5% more patients die? Clearly not.

    I realise this is off topic, but I think it is important we understand the effect on public servants of the targets we set them. It happens all over the place.

    1. Stephen,

      You are precisely correct. I was thinking about many of these issues as I wrote.

      Targets have had a bad press in the UK because they've been wrongly applied. For US police forces, meanwhile, the targets often seem to be just to stop or arrest a set number of people per month. The actual end product (crime levels, road deaths) seems to be left out.

      It seems to me that current New York road death levels (and indeed the US's 30,000 annual road deaths more generally) reflect an application of the wrong kinds of targets just as surely as the North Staffordshire hospital deaths do. I guess I'm appealing for people to come up with good, useful targets that push behaviour in the right direction.

      All the best,


  4. This is a very interesting way of thinking of things. The main flaw I'm seeing here is the idea of applying higher stages of moral thinking to a process which is inherently mostly automatic and thoughtless. I've noticed when I'm riding my bike, I'm nearly 100% on autopilot, simply reacting to things around me in a manner which my experience has taught me minimizes my overall risk. About the closest I might come to planning my actions in advance is to judge whether or not I can make the next few traffic signals, and if I must increase my speed to do so. That's the root of the problem here-you can't apply higher thought processes to something which by necessity must be nearly reflexive and thoughtless. It's possible to gradually effect long term changes in the way people react to given situations if there's some advantage to them personally for doing so. I've modified many aspects of my behavior over the years based on seeing what caused me to crash in the past, and then thinking what steps I could have taken to avoid such a crash. The first few times I take the new action when the situation arises I have to consciously think about it. After a dozen or so times it starts to become automatic as I want it to. Note however that the change in behavior always starts when I'm off the bike, thinking about what caused a crash or a near miss, not while I'm on it. I'm often on sensory overload while riding. The higher brain functions are pushed aside in favor of "animal" reactions because anything else would be suicidal. I don't have time to consciously reason "OK, if I'm passing a red light with given lines of sight then I need to figure what speed is safe". Rather, I just feel it out based on prior experience which I know has worked in the past. If it doesn't work as well as I thought it might, then I can tweak my reaction a little on the fly.

    Now how does this relate to what you're saying? Well, if we want drivers to behave "morally", then we have to make it in their best interests to do so. Punitive laws are generally not of much help there because we'll never have enough police to guarantee even a reasonable chance of getting caught every time you do something dangerous. The alternative is to make driving which is dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists also dangerous to drivers. We can do that by removing traffic controls at intersections. Drivers will slow down to 15 or 20 mph each and every time, not because of any concern for vulnerable users, but because they don't want to collide with another motor vehicle. And if intersections are closely spaced, as they are in most of NYC, they'll see little point of going fast in between intersections, only to slam on their brakes at the next intersection. In places where space between intersections is longer, you can curb speeding by putting bollards between lanes, or otherwise sprinkling in hazards which motorists can only avoid by going slow. Drivers will behave "morally" not because of higher thought processes, but because they'll crash their cars if they don't.

    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment.

      You are, I think, right to say there's not much time when actually riding one's bike to think about the morality of one's behavior. But there is plenty of time before and after. One can even start a blog where one gets one's knickers all in a twist (as we British say) about the morality of one's behavior and its higher meaning. Not that I'd recommend such an extreme course. Good or bad behavior becomes automatic the more one does it.

      I'd certainly favor a change to the layout of New York City streets (I argued so here: But I do think enforcement is needed to push people in the right direction. It's one of the great merits of speed cameras that they catch people reliably and take away the chance element that one's only caught when there's a policeman about. But I think the effect of enforcement isn't just on the person who's caught. It's on the person who drives by and thinks "that could have been me" and the person who finds out his friend has lost his license for speeding. That's what makes the real difference - the example effect.

      All the best,


    2. I agree that enforcement can serve a valid purpose when it's selectively aimed at the most dangerous types of behavior. I would like to see a lot more enforcement of failing to yield to pedestrians because that's something which routinely kills/injures people. And I think speed enforcement should be automatic, but only after making sure speed limits are properly set (or the cameras will be opposed because they mainly serve to generate revenue, not to increase safety). I'm a big proponent of strictly camera enforced speed limits on crowded urban streets. On the flip side, in the interests of fairness, I feel many highways shouldn't have speed limits unless dictated by curvature or lines of sight. The idea is obviously to let motorists go fast where it's relatively safe, and doesn't endanger vulnerable users, but not in crowded cities where speeds much over 25 or 30 mph really have no place.

      I also think the biggest way enforcement can help by example is as you said-when people lose their licenses for "amoral" behavior. In that regard, I would really like to see anyone who seriously injures or kills a vulnerable user through negligence, recklessness, or plain old incompetence lose their driver's license for good. That would certainly stick with others who might start thinking "Hey, I really better be careful or I might not be driving any more, either." So yes, I agree with you-mainly focus on changing street layout but reinforce this with zero tolerance for the most dangerous types of behavior, and also zero tolerance for anyone who actually kills people while driving.

      BTW, I'm Joe R. from Streetsblog. I'm just posting anonymously because none of the other options work for me.

  5. What a thoughtful post - loved it. You've a new fan.

    Re the morality issue - I think being enclosed in a car can have the effect of making the people around you seem "other".

    Similar to the ease with which one might press a red button to drop a bomb in some distant location - when you're a driver in your metal bubble, you don't really interact with those people around you - you just (hopefully) obey the signals. RED. GREEN. PAUSE. GO FOR IT! etc etc. You barely notice those humanising details all around you.

    I almost never see a cyclist barging through pedestrians or causing people to be scared at intersections - I think most cyclists are like me - happy to wave someone infront, give a smile or go round the long way, regardless of what color light happens to be shining. And this is because we are forced to be in contact with our surroundings. If cyclists do break the rules of the road by briefly using a pavement or crossing a red light, 99.9% of the time it's with caution and care - and in a way that endangers no one.

    it would be great if we could find a wider way to communicate these things, but there I am at a loss.

    (And yes skimming over manhattan bridge bike path is the best - one day i will fill those too-wide gaps with something though...)

    ps. Just to counter the wonderfully thoughtful tone of the article, i'd like to say here on this public forum, ABSOLUTELY. FUCK. THE. POLICE. (please mentally re-size those capitals to a four-figure font)

    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for your kind words. New fans are always welcome (hey, so are old fans - don't feel neglected, the rest of you).

      The ultimate problem is that cars feel like a private space but drivers are engaged in about as complex a social activity as anyone engages in (at least after people stop trying to pick up life partners in bars, as someone pointed out to me). There is definitely a distancing effect.

      As for the NYPD, their current attitude to cyclists will, no doubt, one day be held up for ridicule the way old attitudes to race (come to that, their present attitudes to race) are now.

      The current stance, however, is utterly disheartening.

      All the best,



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