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.