“Hey, that was a good run!” the person who’d been riding behind me down the Hudson River Greenway on Friday evening shouted to me. He’d cycled on my tail from
St, as I returned from giving a television
interview about Scotland’s independence referendum, down as far as Warren St. Every time he’d come close to
my rear wheel, I’d sped up a little and we’d done a steady 18mph – 19mph for
“Safe ride home!” my travelling companion yelled as I turned off the path towards the Brooklyn Bridge and he continued on south.
Yet, on Friday, instead of feeling pleasure at the excitement of an enjoyable, fast-ish ride by the river, I felt a sharp stab of guilt. What if I’d been irresponsible? What if I’d been riding so fast that I’d have hit a pedestrian stepping onto the path? Did I risk running into one of the many stray runners on the cycleway?
I felt the guilt in the aftermath of a crash in Central Park on Thursday afternoon in which Jason Marshall, a cyclist on a fast training run round the park, hit Jill Tarlov, a 59-year-old woman from
Connecticut who was crossing the road in
front of him. Although she was on life support on Friday, she has since, very sadly, died.
News of the crash had left me with an acute sense of my responsibility towards other road users. I also anticipated – correctly – new calls for a crackdown on the menace of “killer cyclists”. As I was speeding down the Hudson River Greenway, I was feeling a strange mixture of unjustly put-upon and guilty over my complacency about the risks cyclists pose to others. Did I need to change the way I rode to ensure I kept other road users safer? Would everyone now assume I posed a deadly risk to them, just because one other cyclist had been involved in a high-speed crash?
|Central Park: spectacular setting for an appalling tragedy
The big challenge in understanding events like Thursday’s crash is precisely that they’re extremely rare, whether in
or anywhere else. Thursday’s crash is the second fatal pedestrian-cyclist
collision in New York in recent months – a
crash with a 17-year-old cyclist, also in Central Park,
killed Irvin Schachter, 75, in August. But the last fatal bike-pedestrian crash
before that was in 2009. There have consequently been three pedestrian fatalities in bike crashes over a six year period
when crashes involving motor vehicles have killed more than 1,500 people.
A competing challenge is that people get away so often with risky behaviour that nearly everyone is confused about which behaviour actually poses a risk. Motorists who drive down urban streets at 50mph or more seldom encounter a pedestrian unexpectedly stepping out from a kerb or a motorist unexpectedly in an intersection. They can consequently lapse into thinking that 50mph is a safe speed on an urban street. The speed’s effect on their stopping speed and the vehicle’s higher momentum nevertheless make it profoundly unsafe and deadly when something unexpected does occur.
Cyclists racing round Central Park – or
near my apartment – grow so used to dodging successfully round pedestrians that
many must assume there’s little risk in doing so at the 25mph and higher speeds
that I see many going. Many leave far too little margin for error. Prospect Park
To confuse matters still further, cyclist and motorist behaviour seems to feel different to pedestrians. Given that motor vehicles killed 168 pedestrians in New York last year, pedestrians are in some senses constantly at risk from negligent motorist behaviour. Yet the ubiquity of motor vehicles and the difficulty distinguishing the seriously risky behaviour from the less dangerous seem to stop many people from understanding the risk’s scale.
Fast-moving, quiet cyclists often take people by surprise, however, even when they’re behaving safely. This seems to lead many to perceive wrongly that the danger from bicyclists – who were involved in no fatal crashes with pedestrians between 2010 and last year – is on a comparable level to that from motorists.
|This car crashed at 100mph on the West Side Highway,
near where I worried my 18mph to 19mph speed was excessive.
However loud the understandable outcry, the
Central Park crash hasn’t undermined the strong moral case for using a bicycle to get about, rather than a car. Cyclists are
generally moving more slowly if they collide with people than motorists are.
The lower weight of a bicycle and rider compared with a car and driver also
reduces the energy released in a collision. I posed less risk to a pedestrian
stepping out onto the Hudson Greenway than the scores of cars driving at 50mph,
60mph or more on the neighbouring, speeding-plagued West Side Highway.
There might not even, it seems to me as a layman, be a solid case for charging Jason Marshall with a serious criminal offence under New York's shockingly lax road safety laws. Newspaper reports gave lurid accounts of how
“ploughed” into Ms Tarlov. But Marshall
seems to have hit her after swerving to avoid other pedestrians and yelling out
a warning that she seems not to have heard. He might – might – have been going
below Central Park’s 25mph speed limit and
doing his best to avoid people crossing the road against the pedestrian traffic
signal. New York
motorists would generally have to behave with far more obvious recklessness to
face serious criminal sanctions. When I rode in Central Park one time recently at a time cars were allowed to use part of the park, few seemed to adhere to the 25mph speed limit.
Yet all of these caveats only go to underline the most critical lesson that anyone who ever uses a street for any purpose should take away from Thursday’s tragedy. It’s that everyone’s primary focus should be, as far as possible, to avoid unnecessarily harming others. However solitary one might feel riding a bicycle or driving a car, one’s involved in an intense and complex series of social interactions. The scope for misunderstanding is so vast that it is always imperative to act cautiously.
|Taxis - and other users - face a barrage of rules
in Central Park. But the imperative to behave
ethically should be even stronger
Anyone who’s ridden a bicycle in Central Park,
or some other big urban park - like London’s Hyde Park or Regent’s Park - knows that the park’s users
are apt to behave far more unpredictably and casually than they would around a
normal road. Many are oblivious to the presence of even large numbers of
cyclists. On the rare occasions when I go to a park to ride in circles, I try
to ensure I pick up speed only when I can be certain the road is clear of
obstructions for a suitable distance ahead.
Under those circumstances, there can be no moral excuse, it seems to me, for riding round a park so set on achieving a set speed that one is reluctant to reduce speed or make space when passing other park users. To judge by accounts of Jason Marshall’s keen pursuit of records on Strava, the online bike-racing app, his overall, incautious determination to maintain his speed may have been far more culpable than anything specific about his reaction on encountering people crossing the road.
It is, of course, apt to sound like a counsel of despair to enjoin road users to behave more ethically towards each other. Many road users struggle to understand rules about yielding when turning and other straightforward road rules. Others display such failures of compassion towards other road users that it’s hard to imagine their taking a truly moral stance.
It doesn’t help that the traffic rules in most places fail to push people towards moral behaviour. Police enforcement in many places seems almost designed to reinforce the worst kinds of attitudes. The cry for road-users to act morally can easily sound like the helpless cry of Rodney King, victim of a police beating, as
Los Angeles erupted in
flames amid protests over the policemen’s acquittal: “Can’t we all just get
|The 1st Avenue Bike Lane: easy to feel frustrated,
vital to behave ethically
But any of us who thinks seriously about how we use the roads can set an example. I can avoid recklessly swerving into the oncoming lane to overtake slow cyclists in front on the blind bends on the
bike path. You can
overtake carefully and with plenty of space even the infuriating runners who
run down the Hudson Greenway’s bike lanes. I can slow even for pedestrians with
the maddening habit of waiting to cross Manhattan
Bridge 1st avenue while standing in
the busy, hard-to-negotiate segregated bike lane. You can wait until it's safe to pass that pedestrian who's insisting on walking down the narrow, constricted Allen St bike lanes.
Even on Friday evening, despite my guilt pangs, I had, looking back, kept looking carefully for pedestrians and runners and sought to take evasive action in good time when I saw one. I stopped for one crosswalk by the Chelsea Piers and so surprised one waiting pedestrian she took a moment actually to cross. I tried, albeit probably imperfectly, to live up to my moral principles.
It is, after all, the central tragedy of traffic in
other big cities that so many people walking and cycling – using the least
harmful transport modes – end up in cold mortuaries and warm intensive care
units. It’s a horror that’s no less intense for being widely taken for granted.
I will do everything I reasonably can to ensure I’m not responsible for putting
anybody else in those places. New York City