Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Falling scaffolding, a sidewalk driver and how safe it's your job to be

Unusually early for a Saturday, I cycled off September 14 towards Sheepshead Bay, a distant corner of Brooklyn, to help out with a relief project dealing with the continuing unrepaired damage from last year’s Superstorm Sandy. Running late as ever, I started off at a sprint over a lift bridge near our apartment that takes Brooklyn’s 9th street over the Gowanus Canal and under Smith and 9th street subway station. The subway sits high on a viaduct above.
The great 9th Street scaffolding collapse: I can't think how
anyone would have blamed me if I'd got caught up in this.
But I'm sure they'd have found a way.
A couple of hours later, a large truck carrying building materials made the same journey over the bridge as I - but with a crane on its back sitting a little higher than it should have done. The crane caught a piece of corrugated iron on a vast network of scaffolding erected for a renovation project on the subway station. I returned from Sheepshead Bay to find 9th street barred to me and police and fire officers milling around a tangled mess of truck, corrugated iron and other bits of the scaffolding. Had I been riding over the bridge at the same time as the truck, I would have been helpless. Sheets of metal and steel poles would have tumbled on top of me, while the driver, protected by his cab, was unhurt.

Yet, had I found myself crushed under the scaffolding, at least some people, I’ve come to realise, would have blamed me for not looking after myself better. That’s the implication of the response to an appalling incident on September 12 when a motorist in Maspeth, part of the New York borough of Queens, drove onto a sidewalk and hit five children, three of whom are seriously injured. One child, although initially regarded as only slightly hurt, has since died of an asthma flare-up which, the laws of probability suggest, was probably related to the crash.

In the wake of the incident - captured on the disturbing video below - the school’s principal wrote to parents asking them to ensure their children avoided wearing earphones or using mobile devices when walking to school. The suggestion – not borne out by the horrific, disturbing video of the incident – was that the hospitalised children should somehow have avoided the speeding vehicle by paying greater attention.

The letter – which education officials seem to have insisted the principal sent, over his objections – is all the more astounding since it makes no suggestion that parents drive more carefully – and the driver responsible seems to have been dropping his own child at the school.

The education system’s reaction was far from unique. I recently read with dismay the comments under an old news article about the death in 2011 of Johannah Bailey, a cyclist hit by a van driver on Cavendish Road, part of London’s South Circular in Clapham, that I’ve often ridden myself. The van driver, Andrei Dulgher, rounded a bend in the road so fast that he drove over a traffic island before hitting Ms Bailey – on a turning lane in the centre of the road - and sending her body flying high into the air.

One ostensibly sympathetic comment from someone who’d witnessed the horrific incident – which came to my attention when Dulgher was cleared of causing death by dangerous driving – expressed horror at what happened and appealed to all cyclists to “take care” when riding. How cyclists were meant to “take care” around vehicles coming round blind bends at speed in the wrong part of the road was not made clear.

The scaffolding incident and the strange comment on Ms Bailey’s death have prompted me to think hard not only about how other people think vulnerable road users should behave but how I myself think. Where is the line between a crash that the victims clearly couldn’t have avoided – such as that in Maspeth or Johanna Bailey’s killing – and an incident where the victim’s negligence clearly contributed to what happened? Why do so many people place the blame so firmly on the vulnerable? How does that affect my own road behaviour?

The Invisible Visible Man is comfortable with fewer risks
than this helmetless, dark-clothed midtown Manhattan
cyclist. But he still recognises it's the cars that pose the
main risk
I don’t, unfortunately, need to think too hard to imagine the circumstances of a crash for which I’d blame a cyclist. It happened at 1.30am one Saturday a few months ago as I cycled home from a very late night at work. Tired and feeling stressed by the speed and volume of traffic in downtown Brooklyn, I took a rare opportunity when no traffic was on my tail to make a rapid left turn across Boerum Place’s six lanes, into quiet State Street. I’d forgotten that traffic heading the other way along Boerum Place wouldn’t have a red light. Suddenly, an SUV came tearing around the corner from Atlantic Avenue, the next intersection along, and hurtling towards me. I jammed on my brakes and the SUV swerved and also braked. Catastrophe was averted – but I could have had little complaint, despite the road’s confusing layout and the driver’s speed, if the car had hit me. I’d made a stupid – negligent – mistake.

Yet, if the SUV had hit me, it would have been a relatively unusual type of crash. Every survey I’ve read, including a very detailed one from Transport for London, attributes most crashes involving cyclists to a relatively small number of causes – motorists’ failure to look properly, motorists’ failure to judge cyclists’ speed or direction and motorists’ passing cyclists too fast and/or too close. It’s not, in other words, that common for cyclists or other vulnerable road users to take suicidally silly risks or make utterly inept mistakes. The people who are hidden inside steel shells so have least to risk tend to be the biggest risk takers.
I ride in such a way as to reduce my risks. I wear – unlike many of my fellow New York cyclists – a high-visibility vest and even a reflective snap bracelet, intended to help drivers to see when I’m signalling left. Convinced that protection for my body’s densest, most sensitive part must do some good, I use a helmet. I also – again, unlike a puzzlingly high proportion of New York cyclists – use lights at night, two at the rear and one at the front. When riding on a cycle lane between a line of halted or slow-moving cars and parked vehicles, I ride slowly, aware that a door could suddenly fly open or a car lurch suddenly into my lane.

Possibly most importantly of all, I try to communicate with drivers. “I’ll be going straight ahead here, OK?” I occasionally say through an open window. “Stop! Wait there!” I’ll tell one who’s turning illegally across my path. “Please stop using your phone,” I’ll tell another. “It’s making you drive badly.”

It’s no coincidence, however, that my efforts are designed either to help me to react in circumstances where I know drivers are likely to be negligent or actually to influence drivers’ behaviour. I concentrate on taking reasonable steps to mitigate the most serious risks. I don’t pretend that, walking on a sidewalk, I could protect myself against an out-of-control SUV hurtling towards me. I don’t believe I – or the poor children so horribly hurt in Maspeth – bear responsibility for crashes where the driver has been negligent and the victim wasn't.

These drivers blocking a crosswalk on W54th street know
who's boss: and it ain't the pesky people on foot
But the reaction to Johannah Bailey’s death perhaps explains why so much thinking on this subject is so woolly. Both the commenter and, perhaps, the jury that acquitted Andrei Dulgher probably thought of themselves mainly as drivers. That seems to create a barrier as impermeable as a car’s body shell between the driver and the complex reality of life outside the car, including its destructive potential. When that destructive power crushes a pedestrian or throws a cyclist 30ft into the air, it can be hard for motorists not to put themselves mainly in the place of the driver, rather than the cyclist or pedestrian. No matter the circumstances, there seems to be a thought that motorists drive of necessity and are a fact of life. Others have made a conscious, eccentric decision to walk or cycle – and can’t complain too much when a motorist’s negligence makes it go wrong.
That thinking, it seems to me, lies behind responses like that of the New York Department of Education to the Maspeth tragedy. Many people seem to see cars as the natural, inalienable rights-holders in public places. Cyclists and pedestrians are the parent-in-law house guests – just about tolerated, but only with the poorest of graces. The streets would surely be safer if more people thought of roads as places where multiple types of road users mixed, rather than places where cars drive and others fit around them.

It will, ironically, be when most people think automatically on hearing of incidents like the Maspeth crash, “How negligent of the careless driver” rather than, “How negligent of the walking teenagers” that people will start to hear of far fewer happening.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

A speeding cyclist, momentum - and how sustained velocity is the enemy of consideration

Even by the high standards of a fine, late summer morning in New York, the weather was remarkably pleasant on Friday – not too hot or too humid and with a cloudless sky. The view from the Brooklyn Bridge as I rode down into Manhattan, the Financial District’s skyscrapers glinting in the sun, seemed calculated to convince even the most sceptical of the accuracy of New York’s claim to be the greatest city on earth.
The Brooklyn Bridge's Manhattan
off-ramp: an invitation to let one's
momentum overtake one's manners
But the cyclist who followed me down off the bridge was in no mood to admire the view. As I sat towards the left of the stream of descending bike traffic, seeking a safe opportunity to pass a slower rider I’d been following, I heard a shout of “On Your Right!” Suddenly confused, I nearly clattered into the rider squeezing between me and the railings by the walkway edge. He zipped past me – at a fair rate, given my speedometer was reading 18mph – and swung into the walkway’s crowded pedestrian side to round the guy in front. Then he disappeared off down the slope.

But he went on his way, I imagine, feeling a little more stressed than he’d been anticipating. “Idiot!” I shouted at him as he sped past. “You shouldn’t be…” he shouted before finishing the sentence with an angry gesture towards where I’d been sitting in the lane as I tried to pass the rider in front.

It was the kind of clash I’ve experienced a disproportionate number of times over the last week, as I’ve returned to New York cycle commuting after two weeks’ vacation on Cape Cod. Time and again, I’ve encountered people who’ve been utterly determined to conserve the momentum of their car, or bicycle or walking or running body at the expense of others’ safety and convenience. All seemed caught up in the idea that the complex social activity of sharing a road or path was a private enterprise, where one needn’t take account of others.

I’ve also, however, been struck by the power of fellow feeling with the road users around me to influence my own and other people’s behaviour. People caught up in the bubble of their own, desperate need to reach their meeting or soccer practice or date or whatever can transform back into normal, civil civilians the moment that they recognise how they're threatening someone else.

The contrast has been so striking that I’m currently seeing nearly everything I encounter on the roads as a conflict between these two instincts – to set one’s own pace and to treat others as one would like to be treated oneself. Every journey, I’m spotting people caught up in the excitement of their own speed and a reluctance to change it. Every journey, I’m spotting how a glance into another person’s eyes brings daylight and a sense of the wider world into that tunnel vision.

I’ve been reading some news items through the same prism. I was horrified by how proud a driver calling himself Afroduck was of his “achievement”of driving a circuit round Manhattan’s expressways in 24 minutes. As a Christian – and currently an adherent of a Presbyterian congregation – I was profoundly disappointed by reports of a lobby of Free Church of Scotland ministers to the Scottish government on widening of the A9 road serving some of the Free Church’s highland strongholds and the installation of speed cameras on the road. "Frustration" with slow cars caused more accidents than fast ones, claimed Rev Colin Macleod, who I fear didn’t ask himself how Jesus would drive a car. "Speed cameras... will lead to more frustration, more accidents and more funerals," Rev Macleod told The Scotsman.

However, it was an incident the night before that close Brooklyn Bridge pass that made clear to me the tension between the two tendencies. As I rode up Warren St in TriBeCa, I saw a BMW trying to cut across my path by pulling across the cycle lane at an intersection and into the stream of cars. As I arrived at the traffic lights, I pulled firmly into the driver’s path, looked down towards his open window, signalled to him to stop and said, “Please wait.” Somewhat to my surprise, he did.
A warning to cyclists on Kent Avenue, Williamsburg:
a reluctance to yield at junctions comes from the same
desire to conserve momentum as bad overtaking.
But, after he passed me and we carried on down the street towards City Hall, I noticed another cyclist riding into a temporarily narrowed section of road by some road works. Unconstrained by any personal interaction, the BMW driver barged past him in the narrow section. The rider’s arms flew up in exasperation and fear as the driver passed him with inches to spare. It was only the rider’s quick reactions that prevented his being battered into the concrete barriers, with potentially serious consequences.

It’s hardly surprising, however, that so many road users are so keen to conserve their momentum. It’s one of the great joys of piloting any vehicle – a car or especially a bicycle – to feel one’s moving at speed without having to make an effort. It’s no coincidence that I regularly hear businessmen speaking in the wooden-tongued jargon of contemporary American business describing their company as having “momentum”. It’s what political campaigns seek too. There’s a pleasure in that feeling of being carried along by the effort one’s already made, or by gravity or the wind that adds up to far more than merely the product of one’s mass multiplied by one’s velocity. I’ve described myself the pleasure of a downhill run on one of New York’s East River bridges when clear of obstructions. The desire to maintain one’s momentum comes, I suspect, from some of the deepest, most primitive bits of the brain, which house our deepest joys and fears.

There’s a serious discipline, meanwhile, involved in applying one’s brakes to suit another person. All the pleasures of feeling that onward progress disappear. It’s an effort to get going again. As the story of the barging bicyclist of the Brooklyn Bridge shows, it’s a discipline that cyclists often struggle to exercise. Yet, of course, the danger from people driving motor cars is all the greater. Someone shut inside a metal box is apt to be insulated – as Afroduck seemingly was – from the sheer danger that his or her speed represents to others. Drivers are consequently likely to behave more dangerously.
Cars zip down 8th Avenue, in Park Slope:
how conscious are the drivers of each others' humanity?

There is, nevertheless, joy in exercising that discipline. I’ve been trying especially hard since realising how much I enjoy my own momentum to stop for pedestrian crosswalks even when most other cyclists don’t. The tense faces of people glancing up and down the Hudson Greenway waiting for a gap in the bike traffic melt into a smile when they realise someone’s halted for them. There’s an inner satisfaction from knowing that one isn’t going to pass another cyclist before there’s enough, safe room for it and that one’s unlikely consequently to scare the other rider. I’ve long tried to exercise the same discipline on the rare occasions I drive a car, knowing how fearful cars can make me when they pass too fast or close.

It’s a far less visceral pleasure than the rush that Afroduck would have experienced from rounding Manhattan at an average speed of 66mph. It’s the kind of behaviour that can exasperate people who feel they must get past at any cost. Freud would have said it’s an action motivated by the superego, while the pleasure of speed belongs to the id.

Yet to use one’s brakes to act considerately towards others is also to recognise a profound truth about roads, cycle paths and all the other places that people use vehicles close to each other. They’re places that pitch us into some of the most complex social interactions possible. When so many people treat those places as if they were their own private domains, it’s no surprise so many of the people around them – the people whose reality they’re ignoring – end up getting killed.