Monday, 4 August 2014

A close pass, a misguided campaign - and why I won't just leave it on the road

On July 17, as I cycled to work, amid the chaos of rush-hour downtown Brooklyn, I spotted a narrow gap to the right of a line of stationary traffic. I moved into it and rode cautiously towards the next intersection. Then, to my shock, I realised a taxi driver had decided there was room between me and the other traffic for him also to squeeze through. He drove past me, much faster than I was going, leaving at most around six inches to spare. Knowing that any miscalculation would have had me tumbling under the taxi’s wheels, I felt a surge of panic and rage.
Close pass: here's how it looks when I try to photograph
a taxi moments after it's come within inches of me
with the lens on zoom and my hands still shaking
Numerous current road safety campaigns – including one by Transport for London, the London Mayor’s transport organisation – would imply that what I did next made me just as bad as the negligent driver. Catching up with him and still feeling the shock of his pointless, dangerous behaviour, I yelled at him: “You could have killed me. You’re a dangerous driver.” Looking at me with stone dead eyes, he languidly rolled up the passenger-side window and drove off as fast as the traffic jam would allow.

The Transport for London campaign – which inevitably uses the shopworn “share the road” slogan – would have enjoined me to ignore the driver’s actions, take a deep breath and head on my way as if nothing had happened. “Leave it on the road,” it advises road users. It isn’t, I think, advice about what one should do with the body fluids and teeth of people that rile one.

My example highlights the insane irrationality of such campaigns. A “leave it on the road” approach to road safety suggests that the real problem is people’s malice towards each other or negative perceptions. It ignores the evidence that negligence, inattention and poor risk assessment are significant causes of car crashes. It puts the focus on vulnerable road users’ reaction to negligent driving. It suggests that all cyclists and pedestrians are somehow collectively responsible for each others’ behaviour. Motorists are helpless vessels full of potential rage that cyclists or pedestrians can make explode or safely depressurise. The approach serves no conceivable purpose other than to comfort people like the taxi driver who put me at risk. “Yes,” is the hidden message. “The real problem is those nasty, lippy cyclists.”

Such campaigns nevertheless enjoy such continued credibility that I found myself arguing vigorously recently with a cyclist who trenchantly defended a campaign by the state government of Utah under the title “Respect is a Two-Way Street”. Most problems cyclists encountered on the road were a result of motorists’ past experience of bad cyclist behaviour, my interlocutor assured me.

I came upon this two-car shunt on Saturday on the Upper
East Side, an eminently respectable neighbourhood.
But was a lack of respect between drivers the real problem?
Utah’s campaign isn’t alone. David Zabriskie, the professional cyclist, has organised a similar (if more nuanced) campaign under the title “Yield to Life” that seeks to build “understanding, respect and appreciation for all life” between cyclists and motorists. British Cycling has called for “mutual respect” between cyclists and motorists.

Yet it’s self-evidently bizarre to argue that the solution to drivers’ killing people is to ask everyone to be nice. There is a quality-of-life argument for asking people to be calmer and more tolerant. I try when I haven’t been put in fear of my life to act considerately. But it’s hard to see that “share the road” campaigns are a better route to that destination than making the roads safe. The question is why “share the road” campaigns continue to consume energy that could be better directed elsewhere.

I suspect the answer is that transport authorities face a choice between conveying messages that are broadly popular and bringing about changes that are likely severely to annoy many. It’s not a surprise – though it’s certainly a disappointment – that the former so consistently wins.
Cyclists respectfully wait when asked to stop at this year's
Summer Streets event. What is it about this motor
vehicle-free environment that suddenly makes cyclists
show people more respect?
It’s not hard, after all, to guess such campaigns’ genesis. Many cities worldwide, in gestures towards environmental concern, congestion relief or obesity prevention, have sought to encourage cycling, many with more success than they expected. Surges in cyclist numbers on roads designed to facilitate smooth car movements have often led to spikes in cyclist deaths, even if the death rate per mile cycled has usually fallen. “Share the road,” “mutual respect” and other similar campaigns are all manifestations of public officials’ dilemma. They don’t want to stop the growth of cycling but lack the political capital or courage to upset vocal motorist groups, local shopkeepers, the local newspaper or the many other noisy defenders of the status quo. It must seem a beguilingly simple solution to tell everyone to up their game and hope the problem goes away.

The laws of physics, human nature and psychology keep getting in the way, however.

The taxi driver who brushed by me was driving a Toyota Highlander – a vehicle that weighs 2.5 tonnes – and moving considerably faster than I. That would have made a critical difference if he had actually hit me. His vehicle’s momentum, mass and size surely meant he had a far greater duty to be careful than I had. The emotional stakes were also entirely different. I seek to keep myself safe precisely because I know the odds if I’m hit. The driver could afford to keep his sang froid precisely because, as the driver of a large SUV, he was effectively invulnerable. I was acutely aware of how close he’d come to me because I was out in the open and constantly watching for danger. Sitting on the far side of a 6’ 4” (nearly 2m) wide vehicle, the driver probably had little conception of quite how much he was endangering me.

A car parked on a Bronx sidewalk-cum-cycleway. If only
that cyclist had shown more respect, perhaps the driver
wouldn't have felt forced to act this way.
New York City has not actually run a “mutual respect” campaign in the time I’ve been here but I’ve heard all the most senior road safety figures in the city – the transport commissioner, head of the police’s traffic squad and the head of the state department of motor vehicles – back the approach in speeches. The police commissioner erroneously claimed earlier this year that fatally-struck pedestrians tended to cause their own deaths – an entirely untrue assertion that, if it were true, would make some sense of “share the road” campaigns. The tenor of many of the police’s actions – the determination to hand out traffic tickets to pedestrians and, disproportionately, cyclists as well as motorists – seems to reflect the same thinking.

This “even-handed” approach isn’t making people safer, however. According to figures from WNYC, the radio station, 141 people had died in traffic in the city up to August 1, which makes it seem likely there will be almost as many traffic fatalities this year as the 274 in 2013. I can’t find any statistics for road deaths so far in London this year but there’s little indication its record – while far better, per capita, than New York’s – is improving much.

Parked cars block the new two-way bike lane on
Kent Avenue, South Williamsburg: it's absolutely clear
how much extra mutual respect would help alleviate
this problem.
There isn’t any great mystery which approach would make the big cities of the English-speaking world genuinely safer. London has a better record than New York partly because London has far more automated speed and red light enforcement via cameras. It’s also pretty obvious to anyone with experience of British cities’ side streets that there are far more speed humps, road narrowing, raised crossings and other measures to slow traffic down and make pedestrians more visible. The cities with the best cycling safety records tend to give over substantial, well-designed space to cyclists on their streets. Anyone who’s looked at the situation rationally will find these points unsurprising. There’s overwhelming evidence, from repeated studies in multiple places, that drivers’ inattention, excessive speed and other mistakes cause the vast bulk of crashes. Measures that constrain their speed or force them to pay attention unsurprisingly tend to make everyone safer.

But such measures seem to give rise in many people to a kind of existential panic. Powerful groups – men, privileged races, imperial powers – tend to think that they have their jobs, their access to better schools, their political power or their access to road space by right and by merit rather than as a result of rigged power structures. The howls of protest have the same tone of injured innocence I’ve heard in the past from Northern Irish Protestants, Kosovo Serbs and others who see privileges taken for granted being eroded.

I don’t pretend that it’s an easy political choice to take on those vested interests. There would be bitter, angry complaints if New York City’s Department of Transportation decided to put in a well-designed protected bike lane for the many cyclists riding down Smith and Jay streets every morning. It’s my own choice to take – and try to manage – the risks inherent in cycling while those arrangements aren’t in place. But, until something effective is done, I’d rather the authorities not add insult to the threat of injury. I don’t respect drivers who think their desire for convenience trumps my right to life.