Monday, 23 May 2016

A cancelled bike lane, a crowded F Train - and why New York planning has to start muting the noisy

A few times recently, while cycling in Queens I’ve taken routes that carried me across Queens Boulevard – once known as the “Boulevard of Death,” for its dreadful safety record – and seen some of its smart new bike lanes. But I’ve never actually used them, for a simple reason. While Queens Boulevard goes to some useful places, the current, 1.3-mile stretch of bike lane doesn’t link up to anywhere I want to go.
A sign points towards the Queens Boulevard bike lanes -
or, as Community Board 4 would have preferred,
the bike path to practically nowhere.

If Queens’ Community Board 4 had had its way, that arrangement would have continued. In a vote on May 10, members of the board – a strange, officially-sponsored but still only advisory and unelected local planning committee – voted to approve safety improvements for their stretch of the boulevard, the 1.2 miles immediately east of the existing bike lanes. But they voted to remove the bike lanes from the project (cyclists’ safety should be an “afterthought”, one member said). The step prompted bafflement and outrage because it threatened not only the stretch of the road in Community Board 4 but the whole effort to turn the Boulevard of Death into a less forbidding space.

Yet the story of CB 4’s bike lanes stands out in New York City’s transport planning only because of how the story ends. The decision was so obviously contrary to the public interest – and so procedurally flawed - that Bill de Blasio, the mayor, unusually found the courage to overturn the board’s recommendation the next day. He instead ordered the Department of Transportation to continue developing the improvements with the bike lanes intact. Plenty of other changes that would improve the city as a whole get blocked because a noisy handful of people on a community board or  other  group object loudly enough that the greater good doesn’t prevail. Two other bike lane projects have fallen foul of such objections just this month.
"What do you mean the city's transport is poorly planned?
"Oh, I see."
The question is whether it’s a bug or a feature of New York’s democracy – and that of many other places around the world – that relatively small, vocal groups can either bring to life or kill projects in a way that damages the wider society. It’s the kind of argument familiar to anyone who’s spent time in India, where desperately-needed infrastructure projects are often held up by scores of pettifogging obstructions. Officials when challenged on this – and the stark contrast with China’s greater effectiveness at getting things done – tend to hold up their hands in defeat and say, “But we’re a democracy”.

True democracy, I think, should be more sophisticated than the crude system often practised in New York, where the noisy enjoy disproportionate influence over the apparent will of the less vocal majority. The current system unsurprisingly suits many of those who have grown up with it, however. After the mayor’s overturning of the CB4 decisions, Melinda Katz, the Queens borough president, put herself firmly in the democracy-is-the-right-to-block camp.

“Any action to install bike lanes along this stretch at this time, regardless of merit, would… understandably be perceived as an imposition by the administration, running directly counter to and overriding the Community Board’s explicitly-stated wishes,” Ms Katz said in a statement.

The bizarre case of F Train express subway service in Brooklyn highlights how illogical the effects of this kind of democracy can be.
A F Train leaves Smith-9th St after stopping: David Greenfield
dreams of the coming day when it'll zip past, whisking
his constituents home faster

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state organisation that runs the subway, has been pressured into considering reintroduction of an express F subway service in Brooklyn – skipping all but a handful of stations in the inner parts of the borough – by a campaign by David Greenfield, a member of New York City council representing outer parts of the borough such as Bensonhurst and Borough Park. The idea has generally been regarded as a non-starter for practical reasons. Because capacity in Manhattan is restricted, any introduction of express trains would mean fewer local trains. Since the stations that have only local track platforms – including Smith-9th St, by my apartment - are mostly busier than those with express platforms, an express service would delay more people than it helped and increase overcrowding.

The MTA has nevertheless caved to David Greenfield’s campaign. On May 17, the subway operator announced its decision to restart service in 2017 alongside publication of a feasibility study that, to the casual reader, seemed stuffed with evidence that that was a terrible idea. While express service users would on average get a journey 3.4 minutes shorter, the study said, local train riders would be suffer an average 1.3 minute delay standing gazing at the new express service zipping by. Since there are more users of the local train stations and some could suffer serious overcrowding, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the new service is a retrograde step being taken solely for political reasons.
A sign apologises that some F Trains
are passing stations without stopping -
but today's service disruption could be
next year's service "enhancement"
In both the F Express and Queens Boulevard cases, small, geographically distinct groups have advocated for their needs to dictate how the whole of a particular bit of road or subway track is used. The Bensonhurst would-be express train riders will produce negative knock-on effects all along the line. Similarly, community board members who express horror about potential bike lanes’ effects on “their” parking spaces affect road users all along the corridor.

The current approach virtually ensures the city’s infrastructure works less efficiently, less safely and less fairly than it ideally would do. To become better-functioning, more effective democracies, New York and other big cities need the ability to plan carefully and to push through elements of the plan that will benefit the whole city even if small, vocal groups protest. There is a strong case for introducing a far more comprehensive process of strategic planning for the city to try to cut down on the number of wasteful subway services started and stranded, isolated bike lanes.

Change is particularly urgent because many of the problems facing the city require solutions to problems that affect nearly everyone a little but that a few noisy interest groups oppose. There can be little doubt, for example, that the congestion-charging system proposed under the Move New York plan would be at least as successful as London’s equivalent. But no noisy interest group is as interested in solving the problem as a handful of motorists are in continuing to drive free into Manhattan.

The city’s housing crisis drives up nearly everyone’s rent. But the interests of people who don’t want a new apartment tower next to their brownstone help to ensure it goes unaddressed. It’s no coincidence that road safety – which few people regard as a big problem for them personally – has suffered under the current arrangements. Few people recognise how grave a threat dangerous streets pose to them, while a handful of passionate people are determined to defend their access to free parking from safety improvements.
A CB4 member called cyclists "missiles on wheels".
Here, some refuel.
The lack of a strong planning function reflects deliberate choices, rather than mere happenstance. Robert Moses, the bureaucrat who shaped modern, car-dominated New York, carefully demolished efforts to introduce systematic planning in the years between the first and second world wars. Robert Caro’s The Power Broker details how that gave Moses free rein for decades to build in the city more or less whatever  he chose – and to avoid building things he disliked, like new subway lines.

David Greenfield and other loud-mouthed politicians currently operate in that Moses gap, as do community boards. If the city had a comprehensive planning function that measured the city’s needs as a whole, it would probably provide a strong counterbalance to politicians’ efforts to push plans that sacrifice the city’s needs to those of their constituents. If the city had a strong planning function, it would take into account legitimate concerns from people like CB4. But it would surely not stand for the present approach to building bike lanes, where it’s a battle to build each short stretch and the differences between community boards manifest themselves in bike lanes that are high quality for 20 blocks or so before disappearing for the next 20.
A picture of Clinton Avenue makes it clear just how
damaging it could have been to make it one-way
and install a two-way bike lane.
The effects of the failure to act are everywhere. On Saturday, I hauled my son on his trailer bike from our home to the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria. Our route to the Flushing Avenue bike lanes was less safe than if the city had already built the proposed two-way bike lane on Clinton Avenue in Wallabout that was scrapped last week because of residents’ objections. We saw signs to the Queens Boulevard bike lanes. On Sunday, a fellow parishioner at my church talked in really panicky terms about the effects of rent increases. Because I’m going on a trip this week, I used the F Train to get to work this morning, boarding at Carroll St, one of the stations whose users will suffer if the poorly conceived express plan is carried out.

Yet the system’s attractions for politicians and powerful interest groups are obvious. Even in London – a city that’s generally, I think, better governed than New YorkBoris Johnson on becoming mayor removed the west London extension of the congestion charging zone. There are persistent rumours that Sadiq Khan, who’s just been elected to replace him, will harm well-thought-out plans to develop a network of protected bike lanes by scrapping some future parts of the programme.

Passengers board an already-crowded F Train at Carroll St:
let's hope the right lessons are learnt when this gets
far worse next year.
In New York, the current arrangements sometimes suit even politicians who disapprove of the system’s outcomes. Mayor de Blasio was able to win far easier, more immediate praise from safe streets activists for overturning the Queens Boulevard decision than if he’d had to work to make sure there was a more rational system in place at the start. Andrew Cuomo, New York’s governor, may one day heroically intervene to cancel the F Express plans - with even more fanfare than he deployed in the first place to announce them.

There remains, nevertheless, the possibility that, as the poor decisions mount up, the public will start to demand serious reform. While I hope that there are no deaths or injuries on Clinton Avenue, if any occur advocates should point out noisy special interests’ responsibility for them. The people with whom I shared the F Train this morning may also prove a powerful constituency in future. The train at Carroll St was packed this morning, as it is nearly every morning. It was bizarre to reflect that the MTA was contemplating measures that would worsen the position still further. If the express plans proceed, I hope the jammed-in commuters will remember to blame not only David Greenfield but the rotten system that allows him to succeed.

Monday, 9 May 2016

A sobering email, writing about cycling - and why my rational choice brings me joy

It wasn’t the most depressing email I’ve ever received. But it was one of the more disheartening related to this blog. A couple of weeks ago, an old, London-based contact emailed to let me know he was moving to New York. But, while I eagerly agreed to his suggestion we meet up, his second paragraph gave me pause for some gloomy thought.

“I shall not be cycling,” my contact wrote. “I have read enough of your blogs not to tempt fate.”
Cyclists literally queue up at the Manhattan Bridge
to tempt fate
The line made me realise my fundamental failure to strike a balance in how I’ve written about cycling. While I would like New York conditions for riding to be far better, I haven’t, I recognise, given nearly enough space to why, amid all my complaining, I continue to ride a bicycle.

My dismay has grown all the greater subsequently as I’ve received repeated reminders that large numbers of people either think it wholly irrational to ride a bicycle in a city or misunderstand the rationale for doing so. Two days after I received the email, Lucy Kellaway, my colleague at the Financial Times, published a column saying she longed to return to cycling after a recent crash while cycle commuting. But she said many readers had assured her the crash should have served as a warning to her to give up. The day before Lucy’s piece, the New York Times published an article of advice for would-be urban cyclists. The Times’ piece dwelt at length on the need to wear a helmet and follow all the road rules but suggested one simply had to trust drivers not to pass one too closely. Most despicably, AMNewYork, a New York news site, on Monday published a piece of unpleasant clickbait listing the "Worst Things about Bicyclists in New York City".

Such criticism of the choice to cycle often seems to me to miss a core point about cycling as an activity. Cyclists, to read many people’s writing about the subject, are helpless subjects of the dangers of the roads, who can do no more to mitigate the risks than wear a plastic helmet. This is essentially the way a cyclist must look to an onlooker driving a motor vehicle.

Yet the arguments in favour of cycling all focus on its nature as an active form of transport. There are significant health benefits to be derived from cycling as a physical activity. It’s also possible to act in ways that, to a limited extent, mitigate the dangers. I’m convinced that, when these points are thrown into the balance, the cost/benefit ratio swings overwhelmingly in favour of cycling. I regret having given a different impression.
The Broadway bike lane: not a clear signal of cycling's
It’s perhaps worth asking, however, why it even matters to me that my choice is rational. It’s irrational, after all, to eat and drink as much as I do. It’s almost certainly not sensible to work as hard as I do at a job that’s far less significant than it feels when I’m wrapped up in it. I could simply say – as Lucy’s piece concluded – that a cold-headed assessment of risk doesn’t capture why I cycle. I could say that I ride my bike because of the joy of feeling in step with the city, of the extraordinary things one sees late at night, or because I feel when I'm cycling as if I have a superpower.

I’m not quite prepared to do that, however. It would feel, partly, like a betrayal if, having criticised the irrationality of so many other people’s thinking about transport, I decided it was a matter of personal taste. I’d also risk sounding like the archetypal annoying hipster explaining how he likes a band you “probably won’t have heard of” – “I like cycling in New York – but it’s probably a bit too hardcore for you”.

I want, as I wrote four years ago, to live what Gordon Graham, one of my moral philosophy lecturers at university, called “the rational life”. Someone living a rational life seeks to use reason to decide how to behave. If I didn't think the way I got about was rational, I'd find another way to travel.

Yet there is no doubt that there is at least a superficial case that I'm taking on an unnecessary risk when I cycle. I have, over the course of more than two decades' urban cycling, been twice knocked off by motor vehicles and once by another cyclist. It was only good fortune that none of these crashes involved a serious, long-term injury. There is a small - but not entirely negligible - risk that some day I too will end up, through no fault of my own, crushed under the wheels of a badly-driven truck or sent flying into the air through a taxi driver's inattention.

Make a wise choice, folks: drive a car instead. Oh.
But that fails to capture anything like the whole, complex picture of the risks I'm managing. Heart disease, cancer, stroke and my tendency to put on weight all pose far more serious risks to my life expectancy than the small risk of a fatal crash. Figures years ago from Cycling UK suggested that someone who cycled regularly into middle age – that’s I now, folks – increased his or her life expectancy by an average 24 months. The reduction from crashes was, on average, two months. While the figures for deaths per mile in the US are hard to find, the risk per mile of cycling looks to be just short of twice as high, leaving the benefit: cost ratio still a healthy 7:1.

I am not, either, a helpless victim of those averages. It is certainly true that the vast bulk of crashes between drivers and cyclists are mainly the driver’s fault. But I have, I think, learnt over the years a “well-managed fear”. I let my nervousness about the vehicles around me prompt me towards holding the road when drivers try to bully me out of the way, making clear, understandable movements, rather than sudden, darting ones. I try to communicate clearly with drivers. Such behaviour can guard against the negligence of people who have far less at stake than I. A good knowledge of safe routes and the skills to take up the necessary road space to discourage dangerous passing are far more useful than most of the “safety tips” that the New York Times’ piece gave.
Should New York's cycling facilities make it clearer
cycling's a good idea? Guess what I think, based on this picture.
It’s because cycling is a rational choice, meanwhile, that it’s folly for cities to seek to cater to cyclists merely as part of a policy of offering a choice of travel modes. Given that cycling makes personal sense for vast numbers of people, makes excellent use of road space and reduces pollution, it should be incumbent on cities actively to promote cycling. City departments of transportation should ask themselves if few people choose to cycle why their road designs are instead promoting less rational options. The risks of cycling should undoubtedly be less than they are. But better-designed roads would not only reduce those risks but make it far clearer how rational a choice it is to cycle.

Better facilities would make it far easier for citizens to appreciate the true balance of risks they face. All forms of transport entail some form of risk. I was knocked down as a child while crossing a street. I crashed my dad's car off the road during my first driving lesson. I've been caught underground in a subway train during a track fire. Riding a bicycle represents, even under current sub-optimal conditions, a good trade-off between risks and rewards.
The USS Intrepid: a sight I'd have missed in the subway.

Yet I can’t deny that I’m happy to find cycling rational because it’s also a joy. I was acutely aware of that on Friday when I finally met up with my old contact. Leaving the office, I pedalled up Hudson St then out onto the Hudson River Greenway towards midtown. It was a journey my colleagues assumed I wouldn’t do by bike because of the looming threat of rain. My contact assumed I wouldn’t have enjoyed because I’d be battling through traffic. It nevertheless lifted my spirits in a way that a subway trip could never have done and got me there promptly and cheaply in a way a taxi ride could not have. As I zipped along by the water under leaden skies, looking up at the Empire State Building, marvelling at the USS Intrepid and hearing the splash of the water, I reflected on the straightforward pleasure the ride was bringing me. There are few satisfactions greater, I realised, than indulging in an activity that's both rational and brings one immense joy.