It was always going to be a moderately challenging bike
ride. It was the early evening of Christmas Eve and, after it emerged that our
local wine merchants was already shut, I and my bike had been deputed to lug
back from somewhere further away the wine supply for the holiday season. Even a
solidly-built touring bike is apt to handle oddly when laden down with 12
bottles full of wine.
|My bike laden with groceries: not the machine on which|
to face harassment
But the trip became significantly more stressful after the
driver of an SUV started driving close behind me, honking, in an effort to bully
me out of the way. I was riding well out in the lane, to avoid a deep and
dangerous crack in the tarmac. That outraged the driver, who thought he shouldn’t
have to cross into the neighbouring lane to pass me.
“I thought you should be riding further to the left,” he
said, when I found him unloading passengers near my building and asked what had
“There was a huge crack in the road, which I was avoiding,”
I told him.
“I didn’t know that,” he replied.
“Which is exactly why you should concentrate on overtaking
me safely, and not trying to get me to ride in the place of the road you think
I should,” I said.
The incident was one of countless times I’ve had to cope with
road users’ efforts to bend someone else’s driving, cycling or walking to their
will. Just a few weeks before the Christmas Eve incident, I’d had a driver
deliberately accelerate his SUV at me in Greenwich Village
after I shouted out to him to alert him to my presence, to ensure he didn’t
swing across my path.
Yet I also recognise there are plenty of times I try to influence
other road users to prevent their harming me. I had, after all, shouted at the
driver in Greenwich Village
to try to ensure
he didn’t drive into me.
|A mixing zone on the Broadway bike lane:|
traffic engineers think this a model way to handle bike traffic
The question is when it’s legitimate to try to influence
other road users’ behaviour and when it’s bullying. Most importantly, it’s vital
to ask why there’s all this frustration in the first place and whether it can
The Christmas Eve incident was emblematic of the worst kind
of desire to control other users because of the infuriatingly wrong-headed thinking
that lay behind it. The driver insisted he’d wanted me over nearer the
parked cars because he wanted, he said, to pass me safely without causing an
“accident”. It’s the thinking that lies behind vast numbers of drivers’
complaints about cyclists and pedestrians – a thinking on the drivers’ part
that they’re the serious adults
in the situation, while pedestrians and
cyclists are heedless, child-like creatures who have no idea of the danger they’re
The thinking betrays a wholesale failure to understand that
the driver has prime responsibility for moving his vehicle safely and that
safety doesn’t consist primarily of people’s staying out of his or her way. The
driver eventually seriously endangered me because I veered into the crack in
the road and came close to losing control of the bike.
|Chaos at a SoHo crosswalk: if the cyclists of pedestrians|
yell at the drivers here, they're punching up
The fatuousness of this thinking doesn’t stop
its being widespread. It’s one of the signature features of the driving culture
that stems from New York
poor enforcement and dreadful road design that drivers honk all the time. Every
time a driver sounds his or her horn as a rebuke or to prompt someone to move,
it’s an effort to control the other person’s actions. It’s nearly always an
effort to make life more convenient for the person doing the honking.
The big difference between the honking, tailgating behaviour
and my regular pleas to drivers to look out for me or stop during an illegal
move across my path is the power balance. When I ride through an intersection
crying out “Watch out! Wait there!” at drivers, I’m trying to get them to follow
rules meant to protect vulnerable road users in cycle lanes and crosswalks.
There seems to me a huge moral difference between such a “punching up” effort
to control others and the “punching down” effort of drivers like the Christmas
Eve minivan drivers to sweep people aside as mere inconvenient obstacles.
|Park Slope snow the day after the January 23 blizzard:|
much of this was still affecting the roads a week later
Yet it was an incident last Sunday, January 31, that brought
home to me the reason for all this frustrated communication and how it can be
eliminated. I was riding up 7th
in Park Slope, near my home, on my weekly journey to church
. I would normally when harassed by drivers on that trip move
confidently into the middle of the lane and prevent their passing until the
next intersection. But, last Sunday, unmelted snow from the January 23 blizzard
meant the lanes were narrower and harder to navigate. I felt even less
confident than normal about trying to “control
the lane”, as vehicular cyclists put it.
Consequently, when a driver started
tailgating me, I meekly moved over to
the side of the road and let him pass. A change in the structure of the road
had changed, I suddenly realised, my confidence in influencing other road users’
That, it came home to me, was critical to all the incidents
I encountered. The driver who’d harassed me on Christmas Eve had been deceived
by the layout of Court St – which allows two uninterrupted streams of one-way
traffic on an urban main street – into thinking he was on little short of a
limited-access highway. The driver who drove at me in Greenwich
was angry partly that I was appearing in his path from a
poorly-marked, oddly-placed bike lane that must have made it feel to him as if
I were deliberately obstructing him. The dreadful “mixing areas” that bring
together left-turning drivers and cyclists going straight ahead on many New York
designed like freeway sliproads, to allow turning drivers to slow down without
impeding those going straight ahead. While the drivers clearly should obey the
rules and yield to the cyclists riding into these areas, it’s unsurprising that
so few do.
The problems in New York
while less grave than in many parts of the US
are far more acute than those in London
where I’ve done most of my cycling as an adult
. Roads in London
, while still imperfect for cyclists,
are filled with multiple cues to tell drivers what speed to drive and who has
I now recognise New
York’s honking problem for what it is. It’s the sound
of the expectations that the infrastructure has given drivers being dashed
against a messy reality that the street design doesn’t reflect.
|Court St tells drivers, "Go as fast as you like. It's pretty much|
Better street design isn’t the only solution to the problem.
It’s noticeable, for example, that one almost never sees bicycles chained to the
railings at subway entrances. There’s a general expectation that bicycles
chained in such areas will be removed and cyclists have adapted their behaviour
to cater to that. There’s little doubt that similarly consistent enforcement of rules
about driving might have similarly striking results. That's one of many reasons why New York needs more speed cameras
But it’s pretty clear that it’s vital to rebuild urban
streets so that they no longer look like urban freeways. Cycle lanes should
never be painted, as most are at present, in the most dangerous part of the street
Areas designed to bring cyclists and motorists across each other’s paths
shouldn’t look like they can be navigated at 30mph.
For the moment, however, those of us who ride are forced to
put up with occasional bullying like that I encountered on Christmas Eve – and to
do our best to counter it.
In a city as disorderly as New York
, however, that can take real energy
and flair – as I discovered one morning last summer as I rode up 1st Avenue
towards the New York Public Library.
Around 17th St, I encountered, as so often, a
line of left-turning drivers blocking the bike-and-car mixing zone as I sought
to ride straight ahead. I bleated, “Wait there! Stop!” - to little effect.
A Black cycle courier who slipped through the gap between me
and the rearmost car showed me the level of determination needed to affect the behaviour
of New York
“No,” he shouted at the driver, before administering a
resounding slap to a side panel. “You gonna resPECT this one, Muthafucka!”
Helped more by the drivers’ astonishment than by any actual
change of heart, we both slipped by the previously threatening drivers, and
headed on north.