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
rationality
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.

17 comments:

  1. That's the thing, I don't think anyone does rational calculations of risk involving comparisons of Killed/Seriously Injured statistics per trip or distance travelled for different modes of transport.

    It is even worse for assessment of risk involving obesity or pollution as these generally mean the probability of shortening or reduced quality of life in the future so it is difficult to do a like for like comparison with a single life changing event like a collision.

    It all comes down to probabilities and people aren't very good at considering these.

    There was recent data published on pollution measurements in London and people in cars have more exposure than pedestrians and cyclists but I haven't seen calls for parents to stop transporting their kids around in cars because of this.

    Your point about the joy of cycling in cities resonated with me. I do regular recreational group rides in the country as well as commuting in London and a significant proportion of the recreational riders would never consider commuting in London by bike because of their perception of the risk.

    For me however, I can experience moments of joy both riding my bike down a deserted country lane and a crowded city street.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Michael,

      Thank you for your helpful comment.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  2. I've found the streets of New York an exhilarating place to ride a bicycle.

    Traffic is certainly more predictable than in my old home, Bristol in the UK (an official Cycling City, no less), and reacts well to confident, assertive cycling. Of course, it's true that the learning curve is steep.

    Most of my cycling strategies developed from a couple of advanced motor-cycling courses. Positioning and demanding eye-to-eye contact through a full face helmet were probably the most important skills I use on my bicycle.

    It's really a question of balance, to abuse a metaphor, between existing in a safe cocoon or living with with, and coping with, statistics.

    I feel far more exposed on the tracks that pass for roads in NJ than on the streets of NYC.

    Your friend really should try pedalling down Broadway. It's a blast.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Alan,

      Thank you for the comment. I'm perhaps a little less gung-ho than you about the mixing it with the city traffic. But I agree it's enormously helpful to be assertive and clear in communicating with drivers. People are a little less prone to injuring people who have just looked them straight in the eye.

      As for Broadway, I'm guessing you don't mean riding down the rather poorly-designed cycle tracks down much of Broadway between 59th St and Union Square. Part of that rather miserable facility is in the second picture on the blogpost. But many of the avenues can be fun if one's in the mood.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. NYPD certainly doesn't come off as likely to be fair to cyclists in the event anything goes wrong (according to what I read on the internet, so it must be true), and NYC's cab drivers are terrible (this, based on personal experience). I am frankly astonished that all the people in the city who don't regularly drive have not voted for a lot less space for cars and a lot more for people on foot, buses, and bikes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. dr2chase,

      Both the NYPD and taxi drivers are indeed a significant problem. But, unfortunately, there are a lot of vested interests in the city working hard to make sure things don't change too much.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  4. A wonderful column about the joy of cycling!! Sadly, I've had to put away my Brompton for cycling in London, as I'm forbidden that joy on account of my deteriorating sense of balance (Meniere's disease - don't have it, is my advice) but I still occasionally get to do it in parks and other safe spaces. Hurrah for the Invisible Visible Man! Fixx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fiona,

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I'm really sorry to hear about the Meniere's disease. You're not the only cyclist I've known to have had to give up because of it and it is a truly horrible thing to have. I hope you manage to get some relief from it at some point.

      I do hope you enjoy your occasional turns in parks and so on, safe in the knowledge you're behaving rationally.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  5. I don't live in NYC. I live in the DC-Metro region. From numerous ranking/opinion polls. Traffic is worse here. I choose to ride my bike for transport. Because, I don't have to encounter the sneers and jeers. When I have to show my disability fare card on public transit. People can be so mean.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Chris,

      Thanks for your comment. It's true traffic in the DC area can be pretty bad, although it generally seems a little calmer than in New York City. I'm sorry people are cruel about your disability card. That's very disappointing.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  6. "It is certainly true that the vast bulk of crashes between drivers and cyclists are mainly the driver’s fault." That wise and true statement illustrates WHY one must act as a shepherd to help one's motoring flock to make wise choices, just as cowboys act to drive cattle who could certainly squish them to an unrecognizable pulp...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Steve,

      Thanks as ever for the comment. I do indeed try to guide motorists as to how to behave. But it doesn't always work.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  7. I started cycling in London again after I started reading your blog, among others. You all seemed to be having so much fun. So I went and looked up the statistics, found it to be similar to walking, and bought a bike.

    Every day that I come over Blackfriars Bridge on the new cycle path, and see St Paul's and the Thames, I feel so lucky to be there. So thank you.

    There's a lot of campaigning still to do before it's that pleasant everywhere I want to go. A lot of experienced cyclists are baffled that (like most of the population) I'm not willing to brave the nastier bits.

    But even so, discovering how much of central London is less than half an hour's ride away has opened up caf├ęs and museums and concerts and parks that I never would have visited before. I could get to them, but the travelling used to be part of the cost, not part of the fun. Now I go out for a bike ride, and the world-class attractions are a bonus.

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    Replies
    1. Ollyer,

      You can have little conception how happy it makes me to hear this story. You're right it is fabulous fun to be out on a bike in a world-class city - and I'm glad some of the posts on here got that point across. It's certainly true that there's more work to be done to make it easier to cycle. But London has taken a great step forward with infrastructure like the Blackfriars Bridge cycle path and I hope that progress continues under the new mayor.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  8. UK resident Rob M - I fully agree with your constant comments that the road is not there solely for the use of people in motor vehicles. I shall continue to be on two wheels until I am no longer able. Although I now use the air horn sparingly and choose to instead listen to the music emanating from the speakers on my hybrid's handlebars. I am so lucky that 80% of my commute is on cycle paths through Trafford Park, Manchester. Yourself and NY Bike Snob are my favourite blogs to read. Keep on cycling.

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    Replies
    1. Roberto,

      Thank you for your kind words. Enjoy riding around in Trafford Park.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  9. Beautifully written, makes one think again about preconceived ideas. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete

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