Monday, 25 July 2016

A ride on autopilot, a famous cricket ground - and why I feel more optimistic when I'm on my bike

It was a curious feeling to ride my bike home from church this Sunday along the back-street cycle route that used to be my regular route between home and work. I felt a superficial unfamiliarity - it was my first time back in the area since spending four years living in New York. But at the same time so little had changed on many of the roads that a kind of auto-pilot took hold of me. I followed a complex, twisting and turning route with the instinctiveness that comes from having gone the same way literally thousands of times before.

Canary Wharf's towers loom over the neo-classical
splendour of maritime Greenwich: symbols of London's
endurance and its adaptability
The feeling reflects much of my wider experience of returning to living and cycling in London. There are some big, welcome changes - the new, segregated cycle superhighways being the most obvious. But I’ve been surprised in the last week to find that routes I’ve been using since 1997 - many using facilities designed to encourage cycling by the outmoded method of pushing cyclists towards back streets - still work surprisingly well. I’ve been navigating byways in Covent Garden and quaintly-named alleys in the City of London financial district with almost the same ease as if I’d never been away.

My experience doesn’t feel like a merely practical lesson in getting around London. I’ve come to feel that it’s telling me something wider about the metropolis as a place. London is in some ways peculiarly resistant to change - or at least has a great propensity to preserve the past. While St Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan feels almost miraculously old for dating from before 1776, I rode my bike to church partly down a road first laid down by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. I currently cycle daily past the Tower of London, whose construction started after the Norman Conquest 950 years ago, in the same year that the last Viking kingdom in England was defeated.

The Walkie Talkie, Cheesegrater and Gherkin:
what London's new towers' names lack in grace
they make up for in memorability
Yet the city also feels peculiarly adaptable. While the Tower has changed little in parts since the 11th century, several of the most prominent skyscrapers - including the Cheesegrater and Walkie Talkie - have sprouted just in the four years I’ve been away. While I didn’t want to leave New York, London’s mixture of stability and flexibility makes it a peculiarly comforting place to be living at a time when the world is descending into turmoil. I cycle daily past reminders that the city has withstood the Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, levelling by fire, the horrors of The Blitz and the vast IRA bombs of the early 1990s. If London spoke like a New Yorker, it might be asking fate, “Is that all you got?”

I encountered an excellent example of the city’s spirit during my ride back from church. I emerged from a back street onto a stretch of Harleyford Road in Kennington in the shadow of the Oval cricket ground. Surrey County Cricket Club’s ground hosted the first ever international cricket test match in 1880. Traditionally home of the last test of each English season, it is steeped in the history of acts of late summer sporting daring. Yet Harleyford Road - once the highest-stress part of my daily commute - has been enhanced with a new, two-way protected bike lane that carries cyclists all the way over the once-terrifying Vauxhall Bridge into Pimlico. The juxtaposition of the cricket ground’s Victorian grandeur and the bold new transport experiment was striking.

The glory days of Jack Hobbs, Surrey's master batsman,
are a thing of the past at the Oval, over the brick wall in this
picture. But so, thankfully, are the days of death-defying
cycling manoeuvres over multiple lanes of traffic
on Harleyford Road

The relative mildness of London’s response to change, of course, reflects partly the city’s being a less bracing place than New York. The crowding of the key bits of New York onto small areas of two islands in New York Harbour produces greater density and a greater propensity to eradicate the past. But it also propagates an impatience with anything that’s not immediately useful or profitable. That certainly helps to encourage some negatives - the dreadful driving standards, for example, or the peculiar anger over any effort to reallocate street space away from car parking. But it also produces an energy and buzz that aren’t quite there in lower-rise, lower-stress London.

I don’t mean, either, to sentimentalise London. I’ve noticed since I returned that my younger colleagues are living further and further from central London, pushed into more and more obscure outer suburbs by crazily spiralling housing costs. I’m protected from them only by the good fortune of having bought a house 12 years ago.

A graffiti mural in Park Slope, Brooklyn: a reminder of
New York's more frenetic street life
The riots in many parts of the city in 2011 suggest many members of poor minority groups feel little stake in London’s wellbeing. Some of the UK’s poorest people continue to live in such jarring proximity to members of the global super-rich that it seems remarkable the city has maintained such relative social peace.

The city’s tolerance of change and incomers is perhaps the flipside of a rather English reserve about them. In the serviced apartment complex where my family, my bike and I are currently living, no-one seems perturbed that the staff all speak Romanian to each other. But most people barely seem to notice the staff at all.

The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid - formerly the Spitalfields
Great Synagogue, formerly London's Huguenots' Neuve
Eglise: symbol of London's flexibility
Nevertheless, I am reconnecting with the city’s distinctive spirit. I rode down on Saturday, for example, to Greenwich through the Isle of Dogs. I cycled part of the way with a group of boys whose accents were a strange mixture of Caribbean, South Asian and traditional cockney. Given the mixture of the language and their own ethnicites, their term for each other - “bruv” - sounded like a strangely universal embrace.

Our temporary accommodation, meanwhile, is near the Brick Lane Mosque - a building famously built by Huguenot refugees, subsequently taken over by Jewish refugees and now a place of worship for east London’s Bangladeshis. Its history seems mainly to be a source of some pride, rather than anguish over what has been lost.

Striking juxtaposition: a man rides down a few months old
cycle track, past a tower whose origins go back 950 years
These positive feelings, of course, could prove fragile. As the UK’s wealthiest, most international city, London has far more to lose from the economic pain of leaving the European Union than some other parts of the UK that, unlike London, voted in favour of leaving. Having experienced the trauma of the July 2005 terror attacks on London, I know that the city’s relative calm could be tested if the successor to the Nice or Munich terror attacks takes place on London streets.

But I ride daily amid a city that feels as if it’s flourishing, despite the abundant evidence of past catastrophes. The ground below Upper Thames Street where I ride each morning contains piers abandoned by the Romans when they left the city in ruins. To my right as I ride to work is the monument to the dead of the city’s 1666 Great Fire. A mere recitation of the grim facts of London's current situation makes it feel as if it's undergoing another historic disaster. But, riding a bike amid the ghosts of past horrors overcome, it's far easier to feel optimistic.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

A prosecutor's phone call, remembrance of stresses past - and why I'm glad of a public policy miracle

It was on Friday afternoon, as I was sitting at my new desk in my office in London, that a phone call took me lurching back into the stresses of my daily cycle commute in New York.

The North-South Cycle Superhighway, at Southwark Street: surprising balm for the soul.
The call came from a prosecutor at the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission who was dealing with a complaint I’d submitted in May. Within a few minutes, I was being sworn in and examined at a hearing of the commission’s tribunal. It was the first time, after a succession of driver no-shows and last-minute plea bargains, that I’ve actually had to testify against a driver. Then, I was cross-examined by the attorney for a driver who’d first tailgated me and a group of other cyclists then driven down a street yelling abuse at me. I felt my heart racing and my temper rise.

But it was only a little later, as I discussed the joys of London’s new cycle superhighways with colleagues, that it dawned on me why the call from New York had set off quite so many fight-or-flight responses. Having arrived back in the UK with my family early on Thursday, I’d had two days of mostly stress-free cycling riding on London’s new segregated cycle tracks. The experience, it dawned on me, had lifted a burden of anxiety that had sat on me all the time I battled with New York’s drivers. As I recounted the tailgating then dealt with the cross-examination from the driver’s attorney, the burden’s full weight came crushing down on me again.

That low-stress riding has produced in me - to my own surprise - an unusual feeling of lightness of spirit when I’m on my bike. This weekend, staying with my parents-in-law in rural Cheshire, I noticed when I took my bike on a muddy, sometimes hard-to-navigate country trail that I was willing to tackle trickier slopes and tougher surfaces than I had been when riding similar routes while living in New York. There are undoubtedly complex public policy questions about how much road space in London to allocate to bicycles and how much to other traffic. But, for me in the short term, the changes’ effect has been to liberate a little joy in my soul.

A muddy section of the Wirral Trail, in Cheshire:
site of my unaccustomed boldness

Even if I’d still been in New York, however, it would still have been stressful to relive the events of the morning of May 12 - all the more so because they reflected failings typical of New York’s streets. I’d complained about a taxi driver who drove close behind me and some other cyclists, trying to honk us out of his way, as we moved to turn left at the busy intersection of Canal and Allen Streets. After I photographed the driver so that I could report him, he drove parallel to me as I rode up Allen Street, shouting what sounded like abuse at me as I rode in the street’s - thankfully protected and segregated - bike lane.

The incident reflected many of the weaknesses of New York’s provision for cyclists. The two blocks of Canal St where I was riding connect the Manhattan Bridge bike path - one of the city’s busiest cycling locations - with the bike lanes on Allen St, a critical, high-quality, north-south route. Yet those two blocks are busy, chaotic and devoid of any cycling provision save for some rather optimistic “sharrow” markings. Those are generally obscured beneath double-parked vehicles.

Conditions were particularly challenging on the morning in question because Canal St had just been milled - had its surface removed prior to laying of new tarmac. The manhole covers and other ironwork - always potential landmines of the New York streetscape - were sticking up well above the temporary surface, presenting a high-stakes obstacle course for commuting cyclists.

The honking taxi driver of milled Canal St:
a picture to get the stress hormones racing
By contrast, the striking feature of my rides so far on London’s new cycle tracks is that they provide seamless journeys. The paths are generally continuous, mostly wide and, so far at least, have excellent, high-quality surfaces. I can think of almost no piece of cycling infrastructure in New York - including the Hudson River Greenway, the city’s best route - that so completely eliminates the challenge for cyclists of interacting with drivers.

The London routes don’t, like so much provision in New York, disappear at the points where conditions get most challenging. From my temporary accommodation in Limehouse, East London, I zipped to work on Thursday and Friday down Upper Thames Street, a traffic sewer through the City of London financial district. Riding there used to involve terrifying games of chicken with big trucks and black taxis. Last week, it was, for the first time I can recall, a positive pleasure to ride on, thanks to the east-west cycle superhighway, which bore me down towards Southwark Bridge untroubled by any interactions with the neighbouring vehicles. The contrast with the treatment of difficult areas in New York - say, the section of Second Avenue where cyclists have to deal with traffic turning into the Queens-Midtown Tunnel - could scarcely be more stark.
Upper Thames Street: a cycling paradise if not exactly
regained, at least found for the first time

Yet the grudging tone of those involved in the Taxi and Limousine Commission hearing was at least as depressing as the recollection of the incident itself. There seemed to be a general feeling that for a group of cyclists to be followed closely by an angrily honking taxi driver wasn’t really that big a deal. The defence attorney, meanwhile, demanded to know if I’d been in the bike lane when honked at. The question suggested the attorney didn’t know the street had no bike lane. It was built on the false assumption that bike lanes should serve as prisons for cyclists, not havens. It also entirely missed the point that a left-turning cyclist could scarcely stay in a bike lane on the right, even had one existed.
The Victoria Embankment not only hosts
those darling little lights - but an actual,
well-designed cycle track junction

London’s new cycle tracks, by contrast, feel like acts of generosity. They are mostly wide and those I’ve used so far seem well designed. My enthusiasm for them isn’t unique. One colleague - previously only an intermittent commuter cyclist - raved to me about how she could scarcely believe London had built such things. “They’ve got those little lights!” she squealed excitedly, referring to the small repeater traffic lights positioned at cyclists’ eye level. The other striking point is how quickly it’s possible to get around a city by bike when one isn’t constantly dodging around cars double-parked in bike lanes or grappling with “mixing zones” of vehicles trying to cross one’s path. My bike computer is consistently telling me I’m going around 1mph faster on average than I used to in New York.

The tracks’ building is clearly an act of political boldness that far outstrips even Janette Sadik-Khan’s efforts to put in cycling infrastructure in New York. The scale of that boldness was clear to me as my family and I rode on Thursday morning from Heathrow Airport to our temporary accommodation. At mid-morning, as we were making the trip, motor traffic remained heavy and very slow-moving while, next to us, wide, well-designed cycle lanes stood, getting only relatively light use.

It is hard to imagine any contemporary senior New York politicians’ having the nerve to try to push such a network not only through the city council but also through the myriad of community boards that are determined to obstruct progress. My experience of testifying before the taxi and limousine commission’s tribunal was certainly a reminder that there is so far not even the vaguest consensus in New York that cyclists have a legitimate place in urban transport.

In London, meanwhile, I share my colleague’s wonder at the cycle tracks’ construction. The tracks are associated closely with Boris Johnson, a bumbling mayor whose other contributions to British public life - including his role in the recent European Union referendum - have been almost entirely negative. The tracks were shepherded through by Andrew Gilligan, Johnson’s “cyclist tsar,” who received substantial, justified criticism for his shoddy methods in the 2004 Hutton Inquiry into the suicide of David Kelly, a government scientist whom Gilligan had used as a source.

London cyclists like these were yearning
for a miraculous transformation.
Astonishingly, they seem to have found one.
The tracks came to be built only after Johnson rashly built a network of extraordinarily dangerous “cycle superhighways” consisting only of paint on very busy main roads. The decision to build something better followed the justified outcry over the number of cyclists killed riding on the old super highways. That such a flawed process and flawed individuals could end up producing excellent, well-designed infrastructure feels like a public policy miracle.

But, of course, the miracle is a limited one. The cycle tracks cover only a relatively small area of central London. When not on them, I’ve already had some negative experiences. I was, for example, chased down a bus lane on Brixton Road on Thursday by an impatient van driver who should not have been in the lane at the time. This evening, as I cycled home from Euston station, on one of the few parts of the journey where I wasn’t using protected infrastructure, a minicab driver cut me off as I sought to pull out round a parked car. I can only hope that the cycle tracks are not so bold a step that they end up ripped out, as New York’s first experiments in segregated bike lanes were, when the complaints from motorists complaining about congestion became too much.

The other worries are for the future, however. I continue in many ways to pine for New York - its unique atmosphere, the open, friendly people, even the excitement of discovering the city by bike. But London’s bold cycling experiment makes me glad, at least when I’m on my bicycle, that I’m here.

Monday, 4 July 2016

A tour of tolerant diversity, the horrors of its opposite - and why I'm sorry to say goodbye

I was waiting in line for Salvadorean food, standing next to a black fellow cyclist after the Transportation Alternatives Brooklyn-Queens Tour through New York’s two most diverse boroughs, when the announcement came for a moment of silence. Because we’d been riding our bikes, few of us knew what had happened. “Fifty people?” the rider next to me asked, in a tone of shock. I started trying to work out how one person could possibly have killed so many people.

By the end of June 12, however, I was not only learning far more about the day’s appalling massacre at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, but on my way to a hotel near the scene to report on it. The job of covering the attack was all the more traumatic because I’d, unusually, remained ignorant for so long of its happening.
Cyclists wait at Citi Field to start the Brooklyn-Queens
Tour. The same parking lot was the scene, later the same day,
of a horrific revelation for many riders

Yet the experience of having ridden my bike through Brooklyn and especially multicultural Queens before heading to Orlando kept informing my thinking over the following two days. The areas where I’d been riding are some of the most diverse in any major western city, with people from countries all over the globe living next to each other in a miracle of tolerant diversity. I couldn’t help but wonder what made the difference between very different people’s ability to live together in areas like Crown Heights – where observant Jews live next to black people from the Caribbean – and the impulse that drove the hate-filled Orlando attacker.

My reactions were all the stronger because I’d undertaken the Brooklyn-Queens Tour as a farewell to New York before I leave the city to return to London on July 6. The looming deadline has made me think harder about why I love the atmosphere of New York City so deeply, despite the chaos – even the corruption - of much of the city’s functioning. I’ve decided that the chaos and its loveability are closely tied up in each other. It’s just unfortunate that the chaos overpowers the loveability on the roads, while it’s mostly the other way round everywhere else.

From the very start of my day’s riding on June 12, I’d been reminded how a cyclist – riding at moderate speeds on surface streets - is uniquely placed to appreciate the intricacy of the stitching that holds together New York’s ethnic patchwork. The morning of the Brooklyn-Queens Tour, I started at my home in traditionally Italian-American Carroll Gardens to ride to Citi Field, the New York Mets’ stadium, 13 miles away, for the start of the event. The trip took me through mainly African-American housing projects near the Brooklyn Bridge, Hasidic Jewish South Williamsburg, heavily Polish Greenpoint then over the Greenpoint Avenue Bridge into areas of Queens that are variously East Asian, South Asian and Hispanic.
Diversity Plaza: a twee name for a high ideal
At one point where a particularly large number of seams come together, in Jackson Heights, I rode along a block recently rather tweely renamed “Diversity Plaza”. A nearby block is almost exclusively filled with Tibetan restaurants and grocery stores, while other shops nearby sell saris to local Tamils and a Chinese supermarket supplies the neighbourhood’s Chinese. The area hums to the tune of dozens of different languages.

The boundaries between the different groups’ areas are porous and unclear. The Chinese supermarket in Jackson Heights, for example, stocks some Filipino and Vietnamese food because it recognises that the area’s far less uniform than, say, Manhattan’s Chinatown.

The arrangements are the exact opposite of what I remember seeing when I visited Bosnia in 1995 during its war of independence. As I rode with a bus full of refugees from Tuzla to Split, we kept encountering checkpoints still operating after the brief war between the Bosnian government and Bosnian Croats. The papers of the people on the bus – mostly Bosniaks, as Bosnian Muslims call themselves – all had to be carefully checked to prevent unauthorised crossing of ethnic dividing lines. While the streets of, say, Little Italy were once guarded by men who kept strangers out, there are no barriers for a contemporary New Yorker to wandering around densely-packed areas full of people who look different from him or her.

A bicycle saddle is also an excellent vantage point to see how little obvious planning has gone into forming the city’s ethnic jigsaw puzzle. Old groceries get converted into churches as new groups take over areas that once belonged to another. A grand former synagogue on Pike St in Lower Manhattan is now a mixture of a Buddhist temple, businesses and apartments. The city’s history is that it’s largely when people are able to choose their own patterns of settlement that the process goes most smoothly.
A viaduct on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway:
Robert Moses' sensitive approach to city planning
on full display
It is certainly no coincidence that the neat mind of Robert Moses – the “master builder” who transformed New York in the mid-20th century – abhorred both diversity and the narrow local streets where it flourishes. In the years after the second world war, he demolished multiple areas that he regarded as slums, replacing them with whiter, duller institutions such as the Lincoln Center or expressway roads. It was obvious at many points along my ride how highways such as Moses’ Brooklyn-Queens Expressway severed once-thriving communities. The city is in many ways only just recovering from his insensitive desire to destroy in the course of building.

Perhaps the truest expression I’ve encountered of New York’s diversity is a scene I encountered on my bicycle while apartment-hunting four years ago. In a tyre shop on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn one evening, white-robed men were hunched over drums performing a Sufi Islamic ritual. The ceremony looked imported unchanged from the back streets of the Maghreb. It was being performed in a space intended for another purpose. Yet it was going on not only in full view of the street but on an avenue a mere five blocks from Ocean Parkway, the heart of one of the western world’s most thriving Jewish neighbourhoods.
A Jewish couple wait to cross Ocean Parkway - an ethnic
stronghold, yet close to diversity.
During the 40-mile Brooklyn-Queens Tour, the starkest reminder of New York’s remarkable success in building reasonably tolerant diversity was my ride through Crown Heights. The area was the last to feature full-scale inter-racial rioting in New York – in 1991, when a fatal crash involving a driver in a leading rabbi’s entourage and a Guyanan man set off three days’ clashes between black people and observant Jews. Yet, riding through the area on the Sunday morning of the tour, there were the same ambiguities as in other areas about the boundaries separating different groups. I noticed, with a sigh, that the congregation of a large, black Pentecostal church had blocked a stretch of bike lane and sidewalk as they parked for Sunday morning worship. The next moment, I was seeing boys wearing smart white shirts and kippahs heading off to Sunday morning religious classes.

It is, of course, far easier to describe what a peaceful city looks like than to describe why someone like Omar Mateen, the Orlando killer, erupts into hate-filled violence. I got the call asking whether I could go down to Orlando as I approached home at the end of a total of nearly 70 miles’ riding. Within a few hours, I’d made my excuses for a dinner party I’d been looking forward to, taken myself to LaGuardia Airport – near where I’d started my ride at Citi Field – and checked into a suburban Orlando hotel.
Reporters near the scene of the Orlando massacre:
feeding an unspeakable horror into the 24-hour news cycle
Starting reporting the next morning, I headed to a family reunion centre near the massacre site and spoke to C├ęsar Flores, a Guatemalan immigrant whose 26-year-old daughter, Mercedez Marisol Flores, was among the 49 people Mateen killed before he was himself shot. Exactly 24 hours after I’d been riding round Brooklyn and Queens marvelling at their peaceful diversity, I watched Mr Flores hold his phone to show reporters a Facebook picture of his daughter, surrounded with the Pride flag colours. This, it was clear, was the price of  intolerance of diversity.

“She was a very happy girl all the time, a good student, a hard worker,” he said, tearfully. “But she’s gone.”

I began to make the connections between my Sunday experience in New York and my reporting in Orlando on Monday evening, as I attended a vigil for the dead in downtown Orlando. Speaker after speaker pleaded, essentially, for the values that have rescued New York from the low point of the Crown Height riots. They called for gun control – an area where New York is about as strict as the US constitution allows – and for different social groups to safeguard each others’ interests. Muslim speakers defended gay people’s rights, while speakers from gay advocacy groups denounced any potential reprisals against Muslims.
The Orlando vigil: a critical reminder of the importance
of "safe spaces"
It was the praise for the role of the Pulse club among Orlando’s gays that finally drove  the point about diversity home. Several speakers described gay clubs as “safe spaces,” vital to giving lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people the self-confidence to deal with a sometimes hostile wider world. The remark made me think of the multi-ethnic New York I’d witnessed both during the Brooklyn-Queens Tour - and during all my four years riding in the city - as a complex mix of safe places and meeting points between communities. While it’s unknown precisely what mixture of mental disturbance, islamist radicalism and homophobia drove Omar Mateen, it’s striking that such attackers often seem to come from less cosmopolitan, self-confident places. Greater tolerance should at least play a role in averting future horrors.

Not, of course, that I should sentimentalise New York. During nearly all the sections of the tour that involved riding on roads with cars, I was jostling with drivers for space. The principle that a “safe space” creates an environment for healthy interaction with others extends, I think, to well-designed protected bike lanes, of  which the city still has far too few. The city’s ethnic geography is not entirely a result of happy happenstance. Black people were barred for decades from large areas and economic injustice continues to keep some people in less desirable areas. The New York Police Department continues to do a far less good job than it should do. The police shrug at road safety problems – and it is becoming gradually clearer that police corruption drives many of their decisions about how to manage the roads.
The graduation ceremony at Brooklyn College: a case study
in the value of "defending the hyphen".

But an event on June 21 underlined for me the privileges of having lived and cycled four years amid this bracing, if untidy, experiment. I rode from my office in Manhattan down to Brooklyn College in Flatbush that evening to see my daughter graduate from middle school. For me, a highpoint of the event was a brief address from Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president, in which he told us it was vital to “defend the hyphen”. It was critical, he said, in an era of intolerance to celebrate both the diversity in a Brooklyn full of African-Americans, Puerto Rican-Americans, Russian-Americans and the factors that made them all Americans too. It was a message that was easy to appreciate in a hall packed full of families originally from Asia, the former Soviet Union and South Asia all seeking similar success for their children. But it was all the easier to believe because I’d so recently come face to face with the principle's appalling opposite.