Saturday, 14 June 2014

A broken bone, a painful boot - and how I plan to act towards the older me

It put the injury I’d sustained in a whole new light. My neighbour looked down at my foot as we stood in the elevator and gave me a pitying look.

“Yes, it’s easier to do that kind of thing as you get older,” he said. “And it starts to take longer to heal.”

It was the first that I’d thought of the misfortune of the broken bone in my foot as anything other than simple bad luck. I broke it, I think, in April and limped around all May in varying degrees of pain. Since the injury was finally diagnosed on June 3, I’ve been lumbering around in an orthopaedic boot, desperately hoping for the injury to heal.
My favourite conveyance, next to one I
dislike intensely: my bike and my
orthopaedic boot

But the moment I thought of my misfortune as a kind of memento mori – a portent of my steady progress away from birth and closer to death – I couldn’t unthink it. My injury made me, I realised, temporarily a person far older than my 44 years. It’s made me realise how apt my fellow New Yorkers – and I myself – am to judge someone by a superficial change to their appearance such as the sprouting of an ungainly plastic boot. It’s an insight that I hope to retain after the blessed day when the boot comes off and my bike once again leaves its resting place by the living room closet.

But I’d still far rather none of the sorry mess had happened.

It started with a dull pain I noticed in my left foot while cycling. It hurt when I put the foot down during stops at traffic lights. I assumed that, like most such aches and pains, it’d get better. Then, on the visit to Michigan that I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I walked around, putting weight on it, and found myself hobbling in agony. That pain was alleviated only when I returned to New York, resumed cycling and found the pain receded to a minor irritant. Then I went on a second cycle-less trip, to Colorado, resumed my agonised hobbling and realised I’d need to get it properly checked out.

The second doctor I saw worked out what was wrong.

“You’re broken clean through there,” he said, pointing on my x-ray to a bone that I now know to be the proximal phalanx in the fourth toe on my left foot. His colleague ten days before had pronounced the x-ray “normal”.

Is that car stopping or going? It's a question that's grown
more stressful for me lately.
The doctor produced an intimidating-looking boot and, over my protests that I’d cycled to the appointment, told me I’d be wearing it for at least two weeks.

It transformed my sense of myself. Now I was unable to do it, I realised how light and easy cycling feels to me. I feel much of the time as if I’m skipping round town on my bike. I suddenly felt slow, lumbering and foolish. I didn’t even have a heroic story. I don’t know for sure – beyond thinking I might have carelessly kicked a kitchen chair in bare feet – how I broke it.

That was before I even tried crossing the street.

When I approached crosswalks, I found all the things I normally took for granted – the ability to get across quickly, a confidence in facing down cars, an ability to take evasive action – had diminished. My stress levels rose in ways they never normally did over decisions about whether to cross when the right countdown clock showed, say, 10 seconds.

Even worse, I found some motorists seemed not only less solicitous than normal but actually less patient. When moving more slowly, I seemed to represent a greater possible obstacle. I became someone motorists were even keener than normal to have out of their way.
An odd kind of pain relief: my orthopaedic
boot, complete with inner tube lining.
On the subway, my boot seems to be invisible when I'm standing and need a seat, but to become hyper-visible if I'm delaying someone on the stairs.

I in turn have found myself growing still crankier than normal. The air sacs in the boot I was given turn out to be prone to puncturing. With the air sacs deflated, the boot rubs painfully against my ankle. The pain is like chilli powder rubbed into the open sore of my bad mood over needing the boot in the first place. The only comfort is that I finally hit on the solution. I’ve put a bike inner tube inside the boot and now use it to keep the boot comfortable.

The most shocking street-crossing incident came as I walked my son to school one morning, him on his bike and me hobbling on my orthopaedic boot. At a crosswalk near his school, I waved and shouted in frustration at a van whose driver barged through the crosswalk as we tried to cross. That served to irritate a driver behind, who lent out as I crossed to shout at me, “Why were you shouting?” When I stopped and turned round to answer him, he drove his car towards me to get me to move.

The crosswalk run-in chimed with something I’d heard from an older neighbour who cycles but is currently injured after a fall from his bike. He’d been impressed one time recently, he said, when a motorist had been unusually tolerant in letting him cross a crosswalk. But the driver then lent out of his car and shouted, “Walk faster!”

There’s a malice about both incidents that goes well beyond New Yorkers’ focus on those using their own means of transport or an understandable desire to get about as fast as they can in a city that often doesn’t facilitate it. It topples over at times into a bullying impatience with the weaker based on what seems like contempt for their weakened state. It’s something that I imagine less mobile people in other big cities also experience. But I have a feeling it might be especially acute in New York City, a dark negative to the city’s remarkable, positive get-up-and-go energy.
Less dodging through blocked crosswalks for me
once this boot's off my foot.
The two-week minimum period the doctor prescribed for me in the boot concludes on Tuesday. I’m already picturing myself, if a new x-ray is clear, ditching my orthopaedic boot, rushing home and heading into the city on my bike. I will, I’m sure, feel a new appreciation for the privileges of being able to cycle in one of the world’s greatest cities, taking in the view each morning from the Manhattan Bridge and enjoying the feeling of speeding away from the traffic lights on Allen St.

I’m planning to be more solicitous once I’m free, however, of the needs of people who can’t get about as easily. I won’t be on the subway as much in future – but, when I am, I want to be one of the people who’s given me a seat, rather than one of the masses of people who’ve sat and watched me balance on my boot. I’m acutely conscious of how the boot seems to have changed how people react to me, without there having been any significant change in my personality.

In the hurly-burly of the city, I probably won’t live up to my intentions all the time.

But I should bear in mind my neighbour’s remark in the elevator. I’m fortunate that, for the moment, being less mobile is only a temporary state for me. Yet, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, I’ll one day be so much older that the effects are obvious all the time. I want to fix in my mind how, when I’m impatient of older pedestrians’ slow walk across a crosswalk or down a street, I’m demonstrating a bullying callousness I don’t want people to show the older me.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

An uptown ride, a Hudson incident - and why some safety messages spell danger

On April 25, instead of heading straight to the office, I cycled up the Hudson River Greenway to the ghastly Javits Convention Center, for an event grandly titled the World Traffic Safety Symposium. The centrepiece turned out to be a much-hyped announcement about improving pedestrian safety by David Friedman, acting administrator of the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Hudson River Greenway: a ride up here put me
in a sombre mood

A scene I encountered as I cycled there shaped my experience of the event, however. Around Pier 59 in Chelsea, I found a swarm of emergency vehicles blocking most of the cycle path, busy working at something in the river. It wasn’t hard to work out that they were retrieving something significant – probably a dead person – from the water.

The sense that I’d brushed someone’s tragedy on the way put me in no mood to listen to the convenient messages that their public relations departments had given the speakers to parrot about improving road safety. It fuelled my conviction that their approach to road safety had been infected by one of the signature thinking failures of the contemporary age. Faced with a big problem with complex roots, they had decided – by stressing everyone’s collective responsibility for safety - to blame everyone involved, rather than the people most responsible.

The indignation that overtook me was similar to what I feel when I hear or read, for example, that it’s impossible to tell whether Russia or Ukraine is more to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the wake of the revelations about the US National Security Agency’s excessive spying, I’ve read suggestions that, since America is less free than was previously supposed, it’s really no different from China or North Korea. Other cynics say that, since it’s hard to tell which of the various UK political parties at present is least bad, one might as well regard them as all the same.

Such ideas invariably serve to help the powerful and ill-intentioned – an authoritarian Russia against a democratic if flawed Ukraine; China’s repressive government against its own people and the UK independence party against less nasty groups.

Pedestrians in midtown Manhattan: crossing the street
almost as if it weren't their personal responsibility
to keep themselves safe from the poor cars.
But this act of intellectual surrender was all the more invidious because none of the speakers – who included the commissioner of New York State’s department of motor vehicles, New York City’s traffic commissioner and the New York police’s head traffic cop - seemed to recognise it as such. In fact, they presented their message – that everyone shares responsibility for making the roads safer – as if it were the plainest common sense.

“It begins with personal responsibility,” Friedman said, before going on to say how indispensable it was that everyone take ownership of his or her own safety.

“In a rush, we might cross against the light,” he said. “On our bikes, we might not stop at every stop sign. As drivers, being late for work can mean the temptation to rush into a crosswalk before the pedestrian does to get across and save a bit of time instead of waiting for them to walk safely by.”

Friedman invited us, in other words, to equate in blameworthiness nipping across a pedestrian crossing against the light when no vehicles are around, jumping a red light on a bike when one can see a phalanx of charging cars behind one and barging one’s car through a crosswalk of children walking to school.

Riding down the 9th St bike lane in Park Slope, Brooklyn?
Don't forget to exercise your personal responsibility
to keep yourself safe there.
Research into road crashes highlights such a suggestion’s preposterousness. Every bit of research I’ve read on crashes between motorists and pedestrians or cyclists attributes blame for between two-thirds and 80 per cent of crashes to the motorist. People’s gut instinct about where the power lies between a half-tonne speeding vehicle and a vulnerable cyclist or pedestrian already appears to be making them risk-averse around cars. In New York City, more serious pedestrian injuries seem to occur to people crossing with the light in the crosswalk than crossing against the light. People who cross when traffic’s clear but the light’s not in their favour seem to do better than those who rely on turning drivers to yield to them.

The effects of this misallocation of blame are real. Since New York embarked on its effort to eliminate road crash deaths in January, police in many precincts have stepped up harassment of cyclists and pedestrians but not policing of refusal to yield or speeding. When a driver hit and killed Nicholas Soto, a 14-year-old boy, crossing the street in Red Hook, a few blocks from my house, last Monday, the instant reaction was to blame the boy’s sweatshirt for obstructing his view. But the car involved seems to have been going far too fast and the boy was in a crosswalk. The implicit assumption that responsibility for road safety lies equally with the driver of a speeding performance car and a schoolboy running for the bus has led police to blame the victim, rather than the perpetrator.
Remember, folks: exercise your personal responsibility
in getting around the cars the police have allowed
to block the sidewalk and bike lane.

On a wider scale, both in New York and other parts of the world, failure to understand crashes’ causes leads police to harass groups that don’t cause crashes and leave alone others that do. In my native Scotland, the Scottish government last year embarked on an especially bizarre "mutual respect" campaign called "the Niceway Code". The evening before Nicholas' death, I'd even come across police supervising minivan drivers who were parking blocking a sidewalk and most of a two-way bike lane. It was as if they were trying to demonstrate unequivocally whose interests they represented.

Nor is it adequate to claim that, somehow, the misleading message about safety is effective because it overcomes drivers’ resistance to being told it’s all their fault. After a taxi driver honked at me to hurry me out of a crosswalk earlier this year, he told me that, no, it wasn’t the fault of drivers like him that pedestrian deaths in the city remained high. It was the fault of pedestrians distracted by their telephones. I wasn’t using a mobile device as I crossed the street. I am confident that he is one of many drivers who, when hearing that road safety is a shared responsibility, concludes it isn’t really his at all. It’s hard not to be reminded of the way some police forces used to combat sexual assault. Yes, men, you shouldn’t rape women. But, come on women, watch how you dress and where you go. Any message that disperses blame for a problem takes pressure off the most blameworthy party.
Cycle or walk responsibly through the intersection
of 54th Street and Broadway. Otherwise you
might not be safe.

The only comfort I could draw was that the sums being put into this new initiative are so small they’re unlikely to do much harm. Friedman had come to New York to announce awards of $1.6m – the price of a few rooms of a Brooklyn brownstone – for pedestrian safety, split between three cities. New York was to receive $800,000 while the remainder would be split between Philadelphia and Louisville, Kentucky. I had no time to follow the group to a nearby celebratory press conference. So, robbed of the chance to ask awkward questions, I headed back to the office.

It was to be a memorable ride downtown. I reached Pier 59 to find the emergency vehicles gone. Only two policemen remained, seated at a picnic table playing cards. At their feet was a sheet, hiding the unmistakeable outline of the body they’d hauled out of the river.

It was hard not to see the little tableau as a metaphor for how New York and many other cities treat deaths. We’re constantly surrounded by fatal tragedies – a young man who’s jumped off a bridge, or another who’s been hit by a car. Yet we seem all too often to be so distracted, impatient and easily bored that we don’t give their deaths the respect and reflection they deserve.

There are no easy solutions. A patrol cop in the precincts by the Hudson probably sees enough bodies fished out of the river that he can be forgiven his sense of ennui. It’s hard when driving to hold onto a full sense of one’s responsibility to those around.

But, at the moment, the rush after a fatal crash is all too often to assure the survivor that, no, he couldn't have done anything to avoid it, to heap the blame on the person whose life has just been taken away. As long as that's the instinct, there won't be much reduction in the numbers of the recently-deceased left lying in the street, hidden by only a sheet, for the medical examiner to take away.

Monday, 2 June 2014

An idle hour, worried taxi drivers - and why only the dumbest don't plea bargain

The man looked me up and down and, mistaking my light grey, Brooks Brothers suit for a sign I had an official role at the Taxi and Limousine Commission tribunal, asked me, “Are you the lawyer?”

“No, I’m a witness,” I replied.

A brief, awkward silence ensued.

“You are in favour of the driver?” he asked, in the accent of somewhere in South Asia.

“No,” I said. “The driver tried to assault me, so I’m very much not in favour of the driver.”
New York City taxi drivers, before humanisation
The man’s error, I realised during the 90 minutes I spent this past Thursday at the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission, was an understandable one. We were all at the TLC’s Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings because of things that had happened somewhere on New York City’s streets. The steady stream of mainly South Asian men that trooped out of the elevators on the 19th floor of the TLC’s building in the Financial District had all, presumably, done something negligent or dangerous that would have infuriated or horrified me if I’d witnessed it. There’s an equally strong chance that, had we encountered each other on the street, we'd have been yelling at each other.

But, as I waited for my moment of courtroom drama, I found myself viewing the drivers, shorn of their yellow cabs or Town Car limousines, differently. They were hard-working immigrants worried about what their day at the tribunal would mean for their livelihoods. Once there was no obvious sign (apart from the pair of pannier bags at my seat) that I was a cyclist, I suddenly turned into someone who might make this bad day better for them. Off the roads, our shared humanity came to the surface.
The scene of, if not the crime, at least the breach
of Taxi and Limousine Commission regulations
Not that the reason I was there was touching or reassuring. I was due to attend a hearing over my complaint against a car service driver that I found one night in March blocking a cycle lane at a particularly dangerous junction in downtown Brooklyn. Since he was leaning against the car and there were plenty of legal alternative places to park, I asked him to move. After he angrily refused to do so, I tried to take a picture as evidence for the TLC. That sent him spiralling into a far more intense fury and he not only swore at me and called me a “white devil” but made grabs for both my camera and bike.

When I arrived at the office at 8.50am on Thursday, however, I recognised none of the drivers waiting anxiously for hearings. A short while later, a TLC prosecuting attorney emerged to tell me my driver had so far not turned up. If he hadn’t arrived by 10am, he would be in default and found guilty of all the charges. He apologised for making me wait.
A New York taxi cab in action: quiet professionalism

But I was already growing interested in the transactions I could hear taking place around me.

“OK, so the complaint’s withdrawn,” I heard a TLC official telling a woman I took to be a driver’s lawyer. “So he doesn’t have the points. You just have to make sure he doesn’t get two more points or he’ll get another summons.”

Another driver was standing, head cocked, listening carefully to a TLC attorney.

“This is the offer,” he was being told. “We give you a $300 fine and no points.”
There was then some discussion about whether the driver had been given a previous chance to consider the offer, before it became clear that he would accept it.

“If that’s what you want to do, we’ll go in front of the judge and withdraw everything else,” the official told him.

Would you feel like veering left round a limo parked
at this intersection? One evening back in March, I didn't.
The tribunal, I started to realise, seldom dealt in courtroom drama of the To Kill a Mocking Bird kind. I’d carefully taken pictures of the intersection involved to show the judge how dangerous it was to park in that bike lane. But I’d never been likely to get my moment in court. The tribunal dealt instead in the kind of mildly unsatisfactory plea-deal compromise that Maurice Levy would persuade a drug gang’s members to accept in The Wire. The transactional nature of the interactions was such that I even heard someone who seemed to work at the TLC shouting cheerily to someone who appeared to be a driver, “Nice to see you here again!”

My mind went back to my most recent journey in a New York City taxi – my first since I moved permanently to the city nearly two years ago. Arriving at nearly midnight at LaGuardia Airport ten days ago, I opted for a taxi over the late-night vagaries of bus and subway. I found myself hurtling at 70mph along the uneven surfaces of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The driver hunched over the wheel of his Ford Escape, a hunted look in his eyes.

It was obviously dangerous driving – he tailgated other vehicles, drove too close to the concrete dividing barriers and generally, I eventually told him, drove like someone who would one day kill another road user. He didn’t seem in any way a bad person, however. He was remarkably calm and receptive once I started fully explaining to him why his driving terrified me. I slightly reduced my tip in line with my previous advice on how to shape taxi driver behaviour. I couldn’t help wondering how well the endless transactions at the TLC fulfilled the wider goal of persuading drivers like mine to use their vehicles more safely.

Yeah, sure it looks like a clear rule breach
to you. What will it look like after a
plea bargain?
Yet, as my hour ticked by, it became clear I’d got into a row with one of the few for-hire drivers who didn’t understand how to play this game. My driver had been charged with three counts – a parking violation; harassment; and making threats of, or actual use of, physical violence. He faced points on his licence for the parking, a $200 to $1,000 fine for the harassment and a fine of up to $1,500 for the violence element. He could, in theory, face a suspension or revocation of his licence but the prosecutor made it clear the judges didn’t like using that.

Having listened to the other conversations, I’m confident the prosecutors had foreseen a deal dropping the violent element in exchange for guilty pleas to the two other charges. As it turned out, unless the driver can provide a good reason why he didn’t attend, he’s been found guilty of all the charges and could face the maximum penalties.

It was an outcome that initially pleased me. I headed back outside to find the Financial District bathed in bright, warm sunshine I’d been unable to see inside, unlocked my bike and prepared to head back to the office. I remain grateful to the TLC for taking my complaint seriously and acting on it. It’s better than the only previous time I complained to them, when they insisted they couldn’t identify the driver involved based on his licence plate number.

But Beaver St, outside the offices, was packed with cars, their drivers leaning impatiently on their horns. As I headed north towards the Hudson River Greenway, motorists were cutting inside each other, jostling for minuscule advantages with little regard to the danger or inconvenience their behaviour was creating for other people. As I rode home that evening, I once again had to dodge round a for-hire vehicle parked exactly where the driver I encountered had been. I hadn’t the heart to ask him to move.

I’d won one hollow, easy victory in the campaign for more civilised streets. But I got home far from certain the war was being won.

Update, June 10: I've just heard that the driver was indeed found guilty. He will have to pay a $3,050 fine and have four points on his licence.