Tuesday, 27 August 2013

A midtown tragedy, a TriBeCa run-in - and taxi drivers' economic incentives

It’s a key survival skill for a New York city cyclist to learn to spot the looming lurch-out-of-the-lane – the manoeuvre whereby a frustrated motorist, tired of waiting for an obstruction to clear, pulls out of the line of cars into the bike lane without checking his mirrors. But, even by such moves’ poor standards, the sudden turn into my path late last year by a yellow taxi cab one evening in TriBeCa was a close-run thing. I managed to swerve round the cab into a delivery bay before getting back into the bike lane and catching up with the offending driver.

When I told the driver that he’d nearly knocked me off, however, he was not only indifferent but chased after me for a block, driving deliberately close to me and taunting me. So, at the next traffic lights, I took a different tack. I knocked on the passenger door. When the occupants – who turned out to be a group of fairly terrified-looking tourists – wound down the window, I told them: “Please don’t tip this man. He’s a dangerous driver. He needs to learn a lesson.”

A taxi blocks a cycle route on W54th street.
Who knows whether he'd do this if his fares
kept withholding tips when he did?
The incident in TriBeCa has been in my mind this week because of the grim series of events  last Tuesday in midtown Manhattan that led a taxi driver to drive his vehicle onto a 6th Avenue sidewalk with a cyclist on the hood. He then slammed into a couple of British tourists, severing the leg of one of them, Sian Green, a 23-year-old woman.

My experience has made me look at the horrible, apparently deliberate crash a little differently from some other commentators, however. It is entirely true, as many commentators have said, that Tuesday’s crash would probably have been avoided if either the New York Police Department or the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission had taken seriously their duties to police motorist behaviour in New York City. It’s also true that, were it not for the widespread demonisation of cyclists and the poor understanding of their rights, the taxi driver - Mohammed Himon – probably wouldn’t have felt the same outrage at Kenneth Olivo, the cycle courier whom he knocked onto his vehicle’s hood. It’s certainly deplorable that some sections of the media have used the incident’s circumstances as yet another opportunity to vilify cyclists, claiming that Olivo, who was arguing with Himon about his efforts to pass him near a busy crosswalk, played a “big part” in causing the crash.

Yet that incident in TriBeCa - along with others where I’ve taken a similar approach – has also made me realise that it’s far easier to reach across the steel barrier separating taxi drivers and other paid drivers from those around them than it is with other drivers. All over the world, such drivers are open to price signals that anyone who cares about road safety can send or ask other people to send. The weak official response to Sian Green’s maiming – the taxi and limousine commission has so far suspended Himon’s licence for only 30 days – underlines how urgent it is that people in New York in particular start using such signals more regularly and concertedly.
A cab on Sixth Avenue illustrates the high driving standards
for which the profession is known in New York. Thankfully,
everyone in this incident seems to have kept their limbs.

It’s unfair, of course, as I’ve argued in the past when cyclists have done bad things, to extrapolate from a single incident to the behaviour of a whole wider class of people. There are many charming, considerate taxi drivers. Shortly after my run-in with the terrible turning taxi-driver of TriBeCa, I found myself riding one evening down W55th street with a taxi behind me. The driver not only let me pull over to take the lane at a point where the road narrowed but told me at the next traffic lights to “take it easy” after I’d visibly hurried up to avoid slowing him down.

It’s also worth pointing out that, just as minicab drivers in London appear to be on a collective mission to make black cab drivers seem courteous and sensible, New York’s limousine services make yellow cab drivers seem like airline pilots in their regard for safety. There’s a particular limo service operating near where I live in Brooklyn whose drivers I’ve given an especially wide berth ever since I saw one of their drivers dump a package out of the vehicle one Saturday lunchtime. It turned out to contain an empty spirits bottle. Shortly before my TriBeCa run-in with the cabbie, a limo driver had squeezed past me one morning on a wet, slippery W54th street when it clearly wasn’t safe to do so. When I told him he could have killed me, he answered laconically, “I still can.”

Nevertheless, in cities where roads policing and taxi regulation have been made lower priorities than they should have been it’s not unreasonable to expect the drivers putting in the longest hours in the most congested places to pick up bad habits. Serious crashes involving yellow cabs – many of them fatal – are a regular, depressing feature of New York life. Himon’s cab wasn’t even the only one to end up on a sidewalk on Sixth Avenue last week. Two days after Sian Green was maimed, two taxi drivers racing to get to the same fare collided with each other at 37th street, sending one cab onto the sidewalk.
Taxis on Sixth Avenue, not far from where Sian Green was hit:
sheer numbers make regulation both difficult and vital.
The sheer volume of yellow cabs in New York makes its challenges particularly acute. There are serious issues with cab driver behaviour nearly everywhere, however. The strict licensing requirements for black cabs in London - where drivers have to pass such a rigorous test that it changes their brain structure - make serious crashes less common than in New York. But I still had some seriously frightening run-ins with black cab drivers when I lived and cycled in London. The occasional helpful response to complaints from London’s Public Carriage Office only made its other complacent efforts to shrug off responsibility more frustrating.

Which brings me back to my experience in TriBeCa.

I have no idea whether the tourists I accosted withheld the driver’s tip, as I requested. The chances are that they didn’t. Even I when in a motor vehicle with a taxi driver tend to feel a certain fellow feeling with him or her that makes it awkward to criticise the driver’s conduct. The emotional cost of the conflict with an unhappy driver refused a tip can certainly seem higher than the few bucks’ cost of peace.

But the fate of poor Sian Green and the crash later the same week on Sixth Avenue are both reminders of where the economic incentives for drivers currently point. Under current circumstances, higher speeds and refusal to yield when required to pedestrians merely get taxi drivers faster through their current fare or to the next fare more quickly. Only a change in the value of the tip – a higher tip for good driving, a lower one for poor behaviour – can shift the balance in the other direction.

All that would change, of course, if city authorities were to start enforcing traffic rules in a systematic, sensible way. Speeding would become a costly activity for taxis. The price of blowing through a crowded crosswalk might be permanent loss of a licence.
The taxi driver who nearly doored me. His intense interest
in my comments on his conduct is evident
But two scenes I encountered in the week before Sian Green was maimed illustrate how far New York City at least is from such a logical system. On Wednesday, August 14, as I cycled to work, Sebastian Delmont, a safer streets activist who was commuting south on the Hudson Greenway, warned me that police were stopping cyclists further up. Sure enough, at 39th street police were stopping cyclists who failed to stop for the red light by an exit from a ferry terminal where most of the time barely any traffic crosses. They were ignoring the next intersection, at 40th street, where taxis and buses regularly refuse to yield to bikes and pedestrians.

The following morning, meanwhile, I was forced to brake hard as I rode to work when a taxi driver opened his door into the bike lane on Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights. His response when I asked him what was wrong with him was to reply, “I saw you.”

As long as traffic police in big cities worldwide think cyclist harassment a better use of their time than policing speeding and taxi drivers have no fear of the consequences of bad behaviour, it’s incumbent on everyone else to act. I plan to step up my efforts to make professional drivers’ tips reflect how they respect other road users. I hope other readers of this blog will do the same.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

A ride past City Hall, a rally - and why I probably should have joined in

As I peered through the arches at the bottom of Manhattan’s imposing borough hall the other Saturday, I could hear a distinctive voice echoing round the area inside, outside the New York Police Department headquarters. Al Sharpton - who is, depending on one's point of view either a veteran civil rights campaigner or a rabble-rouser – was addressing a rally of thousands of people. They included Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, the young, black teenager murdered last year in Florida. The rally was protesting over the trial of Trayvon’s killer, which a week earlier had led to the killer’s acquittal on all charges.

Manhattan Borough Hall: its design alone
shows how close the city wants to be to
street-level concerns
My better self – which is even more outraged at the continued racist treatment of many black people in the United States than the rest of me – urged me to lock up my bike and join the protest, changing my plans to cycle in the day's stifling heat up to Westchester County. The rest of me was bearing in mind that it was already nearly lunchtime and, if I was to complete my planned 50-mile round-trip, I’d better keep riding onward. My least noble side wondered whether a rally over the fate of a young, black man in Florida was really the most relevant protest for a middle-aged white Briton resident in New York to join. The rest of me won the latest of many easy victories over my better self and we all rode on.

Yet, on the day of the protest, I was feeling so profoundly exercised about another issue that I would gladly have abandoned my ride to Yonkers to protest about it. The previous evening, Hilda Cohen, a New York cycle activist whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a couple of times, had described online the series of events that led to her receiving two criminal charges over her cycling on her way home. Her crime had, essentially, been to encounter a police trap for cyclists and two officers frustrated at her failure to do anything wrong. When she protested that, no, they couldn’t charge her for riding through a yellow light, they charged her for reckless operation of a bicycle and obstructing traffic – because she had left the street’s narrow (non-compulsory) bike lane to navigate round their police car.

The treatment of Hilda – a conscientious cyclist known for her enthusiastic opposition to bad cycling behaviour – filled me with the mixture of rage and personal fear that only a deep injustice that impinges on one personally can. “If it can happen to her, it can happen to you,” the Invisible Visible Woman pointed out to me.
On my way back from Westchester:
Not shown, my better self (absent)
Hilda’s treatment crystallised for me a sense that just by riding a bike daily in New York I was putting myself in the way of harassment from the city’s police department. Since the launch of the city’s Citibike bikeshare scheme, the police have increased the number of ticket traps they operate to catch cyclists, often stationing themselves on, for example, quiet sidewalks by uneven, cobbled streets. The clear intention has been to maximise the number of tickets issued, regardless of the relative innocuousness of the targeted behaviour.

A series of events since have reinforced my sense that there are many people worldwide – in positions of varying authority – who feel towards cyclists the mixture of resentment and violent rage that racists feel about those different from them. The Friday after my ride to Westchester, I was disturbed to read another account of anti-cyclist harassment from London – this time from Elisabeth Anderson, a young London cycle blogger – describing how two cars drove straight at a group of cyclists towards the end of that evening’s Critical Mass ride in central London. One motorist deliberately drove over one of the victims “like a speed bump,” Anderson recounted.

A street in Cathcart, Glasgow. The cyclist here has
the same obligation to keep this road safe as all the cars,
according to a breathtakingly misguided campaign.
My anger hasn’t been at all assuaged by the launch last Monday in Scotland, my home country, of a bizarre “road safety” campaign, known as the Nice Way Code, paid for from the Scottish government’s cycling budget, urging all road users to show each other “mutual respect”. The campaign, which claims that all road users have an equal duty to make the roads safe, is a stinging slap in the face for the relatives of most vulnerable road users killed on Scotland’s roads. However little role their loved one’s own behaviour had in his or her death, it seems to suggest, maybe it wouldn’t have happened if the victim had shown the perpetrator more “mutual respect”.

The question, consequently, is: how far I was right to think the Trayvon Martin rally wasn’t my personal battle? Don't civil rights issues affect me?

The clearest point to make is that, as a cyclist, I have the distinct advantage over other groups the police and politicians don’t like. I – and the vast majority of cyclists in the UK and US – am able most of the time to exercise the privileges of being a reasonably well-off, articulate, well-connected member of the professional classes. Were I to be shot dead on the street tomorrow by a vigilante, provided my bike wasn’t involved, my death would be treated very differently from that of Trayvon Martin. My assailant’s murder trial probably wouldn’t be allowed to turn into a trial of my posthumous reputation.

It consequently makes little sense to put cyclists’ problems in the same bracket as those of, say, the non-white people rounded up on the street in the UK for no reason other than their having no immediate way of proving their right to be in the country. I would expect, through legal due process or moral persuasion, to be able to get out of patently unjust, trumped-up charges such as those Hilda Cohen faces. I will be still more alarmed about the general state of New York justice if Hilda doesn't succeed in having her charges overturned.
A New York food delivery biker. Want to know how the
authorities would like to treat you, New York cyclists?
Look at how they regulate this guy.
In fact, however unfair the harassment that commuter cyclists can face, the plight of New York’s food delivery cyclists shows how much worse things could be. A city council that frequently seems bored by the challenges of New York’s high road deaths rate seems never to tire of thinking up new regulations to make the already trying lives of the delivery cyclists - mostly poor immigrants - more difficult. New York's articulate bike lobby might not be, as the bizarre Dorothy Rabinowitz has claimed, "all-powerful" but it has at least saved commuter cyclists from food delivery rider style registration and over-regulation.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to see striking similarities between aspects of some drivers' and police forces' stances towards cyclists and the general climate of prejudice that some racial and other minorities face. It’s hard, for example, not to see the police’s harassment of Hilda Cohen and disproportionate ticketing of cyclists as another expression of the attitudes that have made the NYPD such enthusiastic advocates of “stop and frisk” – the department’s tactic of stopping and searching large numbers of young, mostly black males on minimal pretexts. It’s hard to escape the idea that some policemen’s instincts are that both minorities and cyclists represent potential trouble, needing constant reminders to keep in their place.

The violence of many people’s language when talking about cyclists and their desire to run them over is also clearly reminiscent of racism. Incidents like the one Elisabeth Anderson witnessed, where drivers use their vehicles as weapons, are a still more disgusting expression of that same kind of impotent, incoherent rage against the different.

The Nice Way Code, meanwhile, is a reminder of prejudice’s insidiousness. The campaign’s authors have been busy protesting since its launch that its intentions are good. But it’s hard not also to see their insistence that cyclists can’t expect to be respected until they behave better as a new expression of old kinds of prejudice. Yes, rape is awful – but why did she wear such a short skirt? Hey, we’re letting you vote in Mississippi – now forget the uppity manners that Dr King taught you, boy.

NYPD squad cars: when I'm on my bike, I think the
"Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect" motto on the side is
satire. When I'm walking, I see it as a reassuring promise
The cyclist’s plight, in other words, reflects a rottenness in some police and public attitudes with, it seems to me, similar roots to racism, homophobia and misogyny. It reflects a refusal to extend equal legal protection to all that should worry even people who never ride a bicycle. In the worst cases, anti-cyclist attitudes can leave a person dead, as Trayvon Martin is, yet failed by the legal system, as he has been.

There needs, however, to be some other word – “justice-denied groups,” perhaps? – for those of us fortunate enough to be able to choose our fate. I might wince when I see an NYPD squad car while cycling, fearing the officers will invent a crime for me to have committed. My experience of that feeling should, perhaps, have made me dismount and stand with Trayvon Martin’s mother. But I must also bear in mind that I have the privilege of putting my bike away and walking down the street. As a middle-aged, affluent white man, I can at least choose to have less to fear from the police than many millions of less fortunate fellow UK citizens and inhabitants of New York.