Tuesday, 17 February 2015

A Williamsburg tragedy, a century-old disaster - and why crashes don't reflect the law of averages

When I was a regular traveller on the West Coast Main Line, the UK’s busiest long-distance rail route, I would keep a careful lookout for the two loops of track either side of the line just north of the England-Scotland border. They marked, I would tell more or less interested travelling companions, the site of the UK’s worst-ever rail disaster.
A lesson in negligence: a carriage burns at Quintinshill.
Photo: Illustrated London News

On May 22, 1915, a mistake by signallers led a southbound troop train to collide at Quintinshill, in Dumfriesshire, with a stationary northbound local stopping train that had been shunted into its path. A northbound express train, which the local train had been moved aside to let pass, then collided with the wreckage. The crash and a fire on the troop train – whose carriages were wooden and lit by gas lamps – killed an estimated 226 people. The burning of the soldiers’ regimental roll in the fire means the death toll has never been precisely known.

The disaster has been in my mind the last few days because of a debate following a crash in Williamsburg, not far from where I currently live in Brooklyn. On Friday morning, a bus driver negotiating a corner apparently drove through a crosswalk as Jiahuan Xu, a 15-year-old girl, was crossing with the right of way. The bus hit her and trapped her leg, which she’s likely to lose. The driver has been charged under road safety legislation passed last year with hitting a pedestrian who had right of way in a crosswalk.
A New York City bus: this one isn't being badly driven -
but that doesn't mean it should be above the law

The incident is linked in my mind with the far more serious incident at Quintinshill because it was through reading about the rail disaster as a child that I first encountered the idea someone might face criminal charges for negligence at work. The Scottish courts in 1915 jailed both George Meakin and James Tinsley, the two signallers whose negligence led to the crash, for culpable homicide – manslaughter, in English legal terms, negligent homicide, in US parlance – and breach of duty.

I've been surprised, nearly 100 years on, to find that neither New York’s main transport union nor a group of city council members seems fully to support a principle to which I'd assumed pretty much everyone assented.

Last Thursday, the council members - Daneek Miller, Peter Koo and Donovan Richards – introduced an amendment to New York’s right-of-way legislation – introduced only last year - to exempt bus drivers. Reginald Prescott, another bus driver, in December became one of the first people charged under the law after he killed Jean Bonne-Annee with his bus in East Flatbush.

"Your choices behind the wheel matter": a message that,
100 years after Quintinshill, shouldn't need spelling out -
but clearly does.
Then, on Friday, John Samuelson, president of the Transport Workers’ Union Local 100, protested after the arrest of Francisco de Jesus, the driver who hit Jiahuan Xu, that his members had a difficult job and it was unreasonable to hold them accountable.

“To arrest an operator for an unintentional accident is really just absolutely outrageous, illogical and anti-worker,” Samuelson said.

Samuelson’s view probably reflects many people’s feelings about prosecutions for dangerous driving. In the UK, juries are notably reluctant to convict drivers – probably on the grounds that they feel just such an incident could easily befall them. In November, Cyrus Vance, district attorney for Manhattan, explained his failure to bring more than a handful of prosecutions over road deaths to their being “accidents,” not results of criminal negligence.

“What should be criminal and what shouldn’t be criminal is obviously subject to very subjective and emotional reactions,” Vance told Aaron Naparstek, a safe streets activist, at an event in November

A rescue locomotive prepares to haul a train at Crewe, on the
modern West Coast Main Line. Such operations are far more
safely performed nowadays, thanks to the lessons of past
disasters such as Quintinshill.
Nevertheless, the principle that negligence can be criminal seems to me pretty clear from the Quintinshill case. The mistakes started with an unacceptable piece of risk-taking. To save themselves a mile-and-a-half walk from Gretna, the nearest station, the signalmen would occasionally, when starting work at 6am, take a local train to Quintinshill and get out as it was being shunted out of the way of the express. Because the train arrived around 6.30am, whichever of the men had been working overnight would write down train movements after 6am on a scrap of paper. The new man would write them in the official logbook in his own handwriting, to disguise the late start.

On the morning of the disaster, the filling in of the logbook so distracted the men that they forgot to place locks on the appropriate signal levers to remind them the local train was blocking the main line and prevent their letting a train onto the track. They also neglected to warn the next signalbox north that the main line was obstructed. One of them, forgetting about the local train’s presence, then accepted from the next signal box north the southbound troop train, setting off the calamitous sequence of crashes.

Meakin and Tinsley must have safely accepted trains from neighbouring signalboxes hundreds of times. They had no more intention that morning of causing a catastrophe than any of Mr Samuelson's members ever does. It is certainly true that the Caledonian Railway could have fitted better safety equipment at Quintinshill. The fire would probably have been less serious if the carriages had not been wooden and gaslit. The fireman of the halted local train was meant to check the proper safeguards were in place but failed to do so. 
My bike in Prospect Park: I'm very unlikely to kill or main
someone else while riding it. But I recognise my moral
obligation to exercise due care.

Yet, even as an 11-year-old, I came to realise after some initial reluctance that the men’s attitude was so cavalier as to be criminally culpable. Tinsley was sentenced to three years’ hard labour in prison, while Meakin was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment. No mysterious force prompted the signallers to make their errors. They acted with casual disregard for their responsibility for the fates of the hundreds of people moving about on trains around them.

Bus drivers, thank goodness, have never unleashed a catastrophe on the scale of Quintinshill and are unlikely ever to do so. Few probably make a string of decisions as poor as those of the Quintinshill signal workers. But they have just as sure an obligation to move their buses only when it is safe to do so as James Tinsley had an obligation to accept a southbound train only if the track was clear. Although Nicole Gelinas, a transport expert, has since put a kinder construction on events, initial accounts suggested de Jesus was turning fast through the crosswalk when he struck Jiahuan.

It was no more inevitable that the bus would move through the crosswalk that than that someone at Quintinshill would ring the bell to tell the neighbouring signalbox to allow the troop train to proceed. His union insists that de Jesus had a good safety record. That may well be true – but I on my bicycle, drivers in their motor vehicles and anyone whose actions could harm another has a responsibility to exercise reasonable care every single time.

Bus drivers in New York City have difficult, complicated jobs. But it is symptomatic of many drivers’ faulty assessment of the causes of street dangers that John Samuelson, president of Transport Workers’ Union Local 100, complains the police aren’t getting pedestrians out of his members’ way. That assessment flies in the face of the multiple pieces of research that show drivers cause the big majority of crashes between motor vehicles and pedestrians and cyclists, not the other way round.

The outcome of a driver's negligence in Inwood - or, if you're a
member of Transport Workers' Union Local 100, a
statistical inevitability
"They navigate incredibly difficult streets loaded with pedestrians, and they do this without any enforcement on the pedestrian end of things,” Samuelsen told the New York Times.

Another union representative, JP Patafio, portrayed bus drivers as nearly helpless victims of circumstance on the roads. That view is hard to square with the fact that, according to Transportation Alternatives, the pressure group, eight of the nine pedestrians who died under New York City buses last year were hit when in crosswalks, crossing with the light.

“We drive for a living on the busiest streets in America,” Patafio told the New York Daily News. “The law of averages has it we’re going to get into an accident.”

This is not, of course, to say that transport workers are automatically to blame whenever there is a crash. The High Court in Edinburgh acquitted George Hutchinson, fireman of the local train at Quintinshill, of culpable homicide and breach of duty on the grounds that he bore relatively little of the blame for the incident. Bus drivers are frequently involved in crashes for which they’re not responsible. Perhaps, as Nicole Gelinas suggests, de Jesus will be acquitted. Drivers should expect public sympathy and gratitude after being involved in incidents they did not cause, not blame.

There are also many different degrees of negligence - and it may well be that de Jesus, if he was negligent, was guilty of only a momentary lapse. Negligence, meanwhile, lies at the lower end of a scale of motor vehicle misuse that runs from inattention, to recklessness and can stray into acts most people would regard as terrorism.

But it is a piece of the purest cynicism – reminiscent of that of Ray Kelly, the former NYPD commissioner, who suggested “accidents” were inevitable – to suggest crashes are an immutable fact of life. The evidence from everywhere that has made a systematic effort to improve transport safety is that dramatic improvements have been possible. On the UK railways, for example, there has been only one passenger fatality in an incident caused by the rail system since 2002. The UK’s speed camera programme and other improvements helped sharply to reduce the number of road deaths before politicians grew nervous of continuing with it. Scores more people in the UK are leading productive lives and enjoying their families’ company than would be doing so if rail safety regulators or local authorities had shrugged and accepted the “law of averages”.
A sign seeking to improve safety on a road in The Wirral,
north-west England - defying the inevitable,
if one's Ray Kelly or a TWU leader

It also makes a mockery of the conscientious efforts of careful bus drivers, rail workers and ordinary citizens who act safely to pretend that the actions of the negligent are inevitable.

The highest stakes, after all, are not those that confronted Meakin and Tinsley – who both went on to live until after the second world war – or de Jesus, whose right-of-way charge carries only a $250 fine. They are those confronting the passengers, pedestrians and others whose bodies are at risk of mangling beneath or inside negligently-operated trains, cars and buses.

The consequences can be out of all proportion to the sometimes momentary negligence responsible. At Quintinshill, the soldiers of the Royal Scots, trapped in the wreckage and burning alive, are said to have begged their officers to shoot them to ensure a less painful death. On the street in Williamsburg, meanwhile, Jiahuan Xu grasped the hand of her father who came to comfort her and spoke to him in Chinese.

“She grabbed my hand and said, ‘Dad I felt pieces of my ripped up leg,’” her father, Jingxiang Xu, told CBS News.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

A barging garbage truck, a slippery Greenway - and why New York's bike routes are like a 747

It was far from being the most dignified manoeuvre I’ve ever made on a bicycle. Around 9.25am on January 29, as I rode to work down Prince St in lower Manhattan, I heard a garbage truck approaching me from behind, its driver blaring the horn. Since the bike lane was still full of snow and I was in the middle of the street’s single travel lane, I was immediately in the vehicle’s path – and fearful the driver wouldn’t stop before hitting me. I pulled over into a clear patch of the bike lane, jammed on my brakes and apologised to the cyclist following me for pulling across her path. The garbage truck careered past.
A bike on Vandam Street, SoHo, testifies to my fellow
cyclists' enthusiasm for tackling New York streets in the snow

The next morning, chastened by my experience and with fresh, light snow falling, I decided to mix with motor vehicles as little as practicable, to ride over the Brooklyn Bridge, through TriBeCa and up the Hudson River Greenway, which had been well cleared of snow the night before. But, when I pulled onto the Greenway, I found there had been no new treatment following the light overnight snow. I rode very gingerly uptown, worrying that the layer of slushy slow would cause my tyres to lose their grip.

The two experiences encapsulated the challenge that even I, a fairly hardy cycle commuter, face when trying to get around a city by bicycle, especially in winter. I need a network of viable routes I can follow to get places. I’m more likely than many people to regard a route that includes jostling with motorists or that isn’t marked as a bike route “viable”. Yet people unused to city cycling or in areas with poor infrastructure probably spend most of the time feeling the way I do when there’s snow and ice about. It’s as if the subway offered a choice of only highly circuitous routes or routes that stop every few blocks and required one to walk.
 
The Hudson Greenway after snow: a slippery connection in
the network
The realisation explains a fundamental disconnect I’ve noticed in perceptions of New York’s efforts to boost cycling. I regularly hear from cyclists in other places – particularly London – who’ve seen pictures of New York’s flagship cycle infrastructure projects and been impressed with the city’s apparent commitment to boost cycling. Few accept my reply that, since only 1 per cent of commuter trips in New York are by bicycle, the efforts are at least partially failing. “At least it’s better than we’ve got here,” they tend to reply, gazing longingly at pictures of the Prospect Park West bike lane or Allen St.

Still fewer correspondents contacting me from London accept my follow-up point. Although London currently lacks many showpiece, well-designed facilities to match the best in New York, I point out, 4 per cent of commuting trips in London are by bicycle. There is clearly some aspect of cycling policy in Londonbedevilled as it has been by a lack of boldness and a reliance on dubiously effective road markings – that has proved vastly more successful than New York’s approach. The question is what’s making the difference.
 
London from St Paul's Cathedral; there are networks there,
if you know where to find them
The answers, of course, don’t lie entirely in road layout. London has, for example, the Central London congestion charge, which over the last 12 years has sharply cut the numbers of vehicles entering Central London daily. Thanks partly to Sheldon Silver – the recently-disgraced former speaker of the New York state senate – New York lacks such a mechanism to keep through traffic out of lower Manhattan.

Public transport in London is also far more expensive than in New York, making a switch to cycling far more attractive financially.

London’s streets are, in addition, far safer than New York’s, even if that’s damning London with faint praise. For 2013, the last full year for which figures are available, there were 294 road fatalities in New York, which has a slightly lower population than London, including 168 pedestrians and 10 cyclists. In London in the same year, there were 132 road deaths in total, including 65 pedestrians and 14 cyclists. London’s far higher cycling rates make it clear that it’s a far safer place to ride per mile travelled than New York.

Yet one of the biggest parts of the answer, I’d suggest, can be found in thinking about the fate of the Boeing 747. The jumbo jet, hugely successful though it has been, faces phasing out at least partly because it was designed for an era when airlines sought consistently to operate “hub-and-spoke” services, feeding traffic from around a given region into a hub. Passengers would be transferred at those hubs onto long-haul flights on airlines’ hyper-efficient 747s.

The Allen St bike lanes: enjoy the view, wistful Londoners -
but be sceptical this picture tells the whole story
The jumbo is suffering partly, analysts say, from improving efficiency - the biggest 777 aircraft can carry pretty much as many people with just two engines. But it is also losing out to aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 that can fly long distances but are far easier to fill up. It’s much simpler with such aircraft to offer passengers direct flights from the city where they’re starting out to the city on another continent where they want to go. It turns out passengers don’t crave the excitement of running to transfer between flights at big hub airports, worrying whether their baggage is being treated with the same urgency. There's a growing preference for going the lowest-stress, most direct route.
 
New York, I’d suggest, has done an excellent job of sorting out a few key hubs for a network – protected lanes up Allen St and along Sands St sorting out some of the trickiest approaches to the Manhattan Bridge, for example. There’s a protected bike lane along Prospect Park West funnelling cyclists through Park Slope. There are bike paths along parts of the two sides of Manhattan. New York has provided the Atlanta-Hartsfield or London Heathrow type hubs and some of the routes that link them. But the system features too many disconnects – too many frantic dashes across the system’s gaps – to offer a full range of comfortable, point-to-point journeys.

First Avenue’s bike lane – often praised as a good example of recent improvements – disappears suddenly for 10 blocks (or half a mile) between the United Nations and 59th Street, pitching cyclists into chaotic motor traffic climbing towards the Queensboro Bridge. Worse still, anyone who has successfully cycled to the Upper East Side and is wondering how to head south again will find not even a painted bike lane for more than three miles on 2nd Avenue between 100th St and 34th St. The 8th Avenue bike lane disappears for five blocks around the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the chaotic point on the trip where cyclists are most in need of protection. The 9th Avenue bike lane disappears for a couple of blocks around Penn Station. There are more.
 
A sharrow marks a bike route in St George, Staten Island:
this look like part of a network to you?
Instead of a network, New York has built a series of sections of bike lane, with noisy objections to the loss of parking or some other complexity keeping the sections all too often separate from each other. The regular changes in colour of the routes on the city’s bike map – indicating a change from a protected lane to a painted lane, to mere “sharrows” then back – are testament to New York officials’ weakness in the face of noisy, local protest. Perhaps the emblematic failure relates to the Hudson River Greenway. It’s one of the safest, most comfortable to use bike facilities in the city. But nearly every means of accessing it south of 59th St involves a suicidally dangerous manoeuvre amid lines of fast-moving cars seeking to reach the West Side Highway.

It’s little surprise that, presented with confusing routes that disappear in the most dangerous places, relatively few New Yorkers are taking up the invitation to start cycling.

When I lived in London, by contrast, my head was full of the routes – often complex and roundabout, admittedly – of the London Cycle Network. The LCN – now out of fashion, since its introduction was overseen by Ken Livingstone, the former mayor - follows routes mainly along back streets across the city. It is so comprehensive that, by the time I left London, I could do 30-mile round trips on it without consulting a map. London’s existing Cycle Superhighways – appallingly designed as most are – at least seek to provide routes that take people to places. Both reflect what seems to me a greater tendency on the part of London’s planners than New York’s to think in terms of routes, not isolated projects.
Southwark Bridge, London: a key part of my mental map
of London's cycling networks

This week’s decision by Transport for London, the London mayor’s transport body, to go ahead with a comprehensive network of segregated bike paths should make the position far, far better. Unlike New York’s rather disjointed system, they should act more and more like the most efficient networks – like metro systems that draw commuters in from distant suburbs into heavily-used, highly-efficient core areas or express parcel networks. Such networks’ strength is their comprehensiveness – well-planned new metro lines generate disproportionately high numbers of journeys because they unlock new point-to-point journeys both on the existing network and the new line. London’s networks, at least in theory, aim to provide a reasonably consistent journey for a high proportion of the trips in the city that are possible by bicycle.
 
A London cycle path: an example of
the "infrastructure" that made me once
doubt infrastructure was the answer
Not, of course, that the simple dichotomies are the whole story. London’s cycle planners are, I know, prone to some of the same shortcomings as those in New York. I so despaired when I lived in London of the dire quality of much of the existing cycle infrastructure that I preferred an approach that sought to make onroad cycling safer. The roundabout, backstreet routes I often used are so circuitous that many simply won’t use them. In thousands of rides past South London’s busy Elephant & Castle interchange, I took one of the avoiding routes off the main roads every single time. To many other people, that route is so painfully slow that they prefer the main roads, where there are regular deaths.

New York’s project-based approach has at least improved some of the biggest barriers to cycling, even if it has always joined the bits together. I find the experience of mixing with fast-moving traffic on multi-lane New York streets sufficiently scary that I welcome any relief from it. I also understand, given the challenges of getting anything meaningful done in New York, why Janette Sadik-Khan - the city’s former, much missed, transportation commissioner – focused so hard on some flagship projects. The projects have proved resounding successes – had she sought to turn the projects into perfectly-realised networks, she could easily have become bogged down in the bureaucratic malaise that seems to have swallowed Polly Trottenberg, her well-meaning successor.
 
Copenhagen: an acutal cycle network, in magnificent action
Nevertheless, New York currently risks, it seems to me, watching from the sidelines as London’s new network of protected routes turns the city’s existing provision into a still more successful network. It’s hard to imagine New York’s achieving anywhere close to its target of having 6 per cent of trips by bikes by 2020 until it starts taking the challenges of providing a real network seriously.

Ms Trottenberg may be about to start tackling the issue in earnest, even if her department's record of retreat on markings for "slow zones" suggests otherwise. But the history of the Bleecker St – Broadway-Lafayette station on the New York City subway is a stark reminder that such changes don’t happen on their own in this city. The city’s IND subway network built Broadway-Lafayette station in 1936 immediately under Bleecker St station of the Interborough Rapid Transit Corporation. In 1940, the city subsequently took over the IRT and its rival BMT subway, forming them with the IND into an allegedly unified system enjoying the benefits of being a single network. Yet it was only in June 2012, after I arrived in New York, that a full connection between the two stations – which had sat immediately adjacent to each other for 76 years – was finally opened.

If New York is serious about encouraging more than a hardy band of souls to cycle round the city, changes to its cycling infrastructure cannot possibly take that long.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Some strolls in Detroit, a warning about safety - and how cars are keeping people apart

On Sunday, January 11, as I have done on the equivalent Sunday for three consecutive years, I flew from New York LaGuardia Airport to Detroit for the first day of events related to the annual North American International Auto Show. I took a taxi – the only really viable means of transport – to downtown Detroit for my first meeting. Then, lacking a bicycle – my preferred urban transport option - I started walking.
 
The Rosa Parks Transit Center: start and end of many of my
Detroit perambulations
I walked from Greektown to the Rosa Parks Transit Center to catch a bus to Windsor, Ontario, where my hotel was (there is, sadly, no way to walk across the Detroit River that marks the international frontier). I walked from Windsor bus station to my hotel and back. I walked from the Rosa Parks Transit Center to Detroit’s eastern market. I walked a mile back to Greektown and then I walked back to the Rosa Parks Transit Center in the evening.

I walked because I dislike being cooped up in cars and paying for taxis. I prefer to get some exercise and see cities on a human level. But an incident part way through the evening reminded me that walking can be a radical – almost political – act, just as cycling is in some circumstances. In cities that have been set up to suit only motor vehicles, someone who walks sets an example of how it’s possible to break established patterns. Each pedestrian on a once-deserted street helps to prove it can be safe to abandon the cocoon of a motor vehicle.
 
Detroit's magnificent, art deco Guardian Building:
the kind of detail it's worth taking a risk to see.
Yet many of the people I meet when I go to Detroit think I’m simply inviting a mugging or other violent crime by wandering through “dangerous” areas. Some of them, I suspect, would be far from sympathetic if my foolishness led to my being hurt or killed.

It’s an issue that resonates well beyond Detroit. On December 20, it emerged last week, police in Montgomery County, Maryland, forcibly picked up two children – Rafi Meitiv, 10, and Dvora Meitiv, six – whom their parents had allowed to walk home from a park a mile away. The local government’s child services division is investigating the parents for neglect. The numbers of children walking or cycling to and from school in the UK have plummeted.

The walk from the bus station to Eastern Market helped to remind me why walking remains a minority activity in many cities like Detroit. I walked on sidewalks that were in poor repair and closed in places. I passed whole blocks of empty, brownfield space. The motorists using the roads across these wastelands were driving at grossly excessive speeds that made crossing the road an uncomfortable experience. Although most of the sidewalks had been cleared of the recent snow, not all had.

A considerable part of the walk was blighted by the presence in the area of a vast cloverleaf interchange between the I-375 Interstate and the Fisher Freeway. I walked on bridges over each, noting how, as some of Robert Moses' roads did in Brooklyn, they had cut through formerly coherent, walkable communities. Other streets were effectively slip roads for the freeways, with vehicles driving at commensurate speeds. The walk was also, thanks to Detroit’s low-density, sprawling geography, a mile-and-a-half, even though the areas looked close to each other on the city map.
 
Holy Trinity Lutheran: a stirring reminder
of Detroit's better past
I nevertheless arrived safely and in good time for the event I was planning to cover – the unveiling of some new models by General Motors’ Buick brand. I had the chance along the way to appreciate the fine architecture of Trinity Lutheran Church, a rare surviving reminder on Gratiot Avenue of how this neighbourhood must once have thrived. I was able to marvel at the resilience of the Busy Bee hardware store at the corner of Gratiot and Russell, still standing and serving customers when much of the surrounding area was derelict. I was able to appreciate the skyline – a mixture of modern attempts and redevelopment and art deco from the city’s early 20th century heyday. I spotted how close my next appointment – with Volkswagen in Greektown – appeared to be. I resolved to walk there too.

That resolve remained when I got a call from a colleague who had been at another event and was being driven by its courtesy shuttle service to Volkswagen. “Can my driver stop by and pick you up?” he asked. It was fine, I replied – I would walk. My phone buzzed a few minutes later with a text message. “Driver insisting we pick u up – safety an issue,” it read. My head started whirling with the implications of what my colleague was saying, that the driver was implying my behaviour was so foolish I should be given no choice about persisting in it. “Tell him I walked here,” I texted back. I started on what turned out to be a long search for my coat, for which I’d lost my coatcheck ticket.

I considered, of course, the crime risks – the ones to which my colleague’s driver was referring. It’s undoubtedly true that the Motor City has a serious crime problem. Detroit, with a population of 700,000, in 2013 recorded 316 murders. That’s only just short of the 334 recorded that year in New York, which has a population of 8.4m. I kept my iPhone mostly hidden as I walked, recognising it was one of the most obviously stealable items in my possession. I kept my eyes wide open for any suspicious activity.
 
A downtown Detroit alleyway: no, even I
probably wouldn't stroll down there.
But warnings against walking in Detroit don’t often feel to me based on careful calculation of the crime risks in any given area. I once had an alarmed auto company executive offer to find me a hotel room somewhere other than touristy Greektown because she presumed the area so unsafe. The warnings tend to come disproportionately from white residents of Detroit’s outer suburbs who never venture into the city proper outside a motor vehicle. Many people’s fears seem to reflect the high numbers of homeless people panhandling for money in some areas. I had one such person shout at me as I walked from the bus station to the Eastern Market. But, while I’ve sometimes had such panhandlers follow me for considerable distances, I’ve never felt seriously in danger.

It is certainly not comfortable to encounter the myriad social problems from which Detroit – which is mainly poor, 85 per cent black and whose city government has only just emerged from bankruptcy - suffers. “It’s because of you I caught my domestic violence conviction!” I heard a man shouting into his iPhone one night at the Rosa Parks Transit Center. “I learnt from the way I saw you treating my mother!” It’s hard, however, to avoid the impression that many non-residents remain instinctively suspicious of the city out of proportion to the current, falling crime levels.

There is no doubt at all, meanwhile, that the thinking that constrains the lives of children like the Meitivs is seriously flawed. Parents typically give far less freedom of movement to children than 40 years ago, yet rates of crime against children are far lower than they were then.
 
Gratiot Avenue in the snow: my colleague's driver understood
none of why I was prepared to walk in these conditions.
The empty sidewalks show how many people share his opinion.
It consequently felt like almost a moral imperative when the driver said I shouldn’t be walking to prove that it was indeed possible to do so. Having finally located my coat, I strode purposefully towards the exit. I kept striding even once I’d discovered, to my mild consternation, that it had started snowing steadily while I was inside. I was soon on my way back down Gratiot Avenue, face buried in my collar against the wind, towards the Volkswagen press event. Later that evening, my colleague and I both walked to the bus stop by the entrance to the cross-border tunnel. On the way, we saw almost no-one outside a motor vehicle. The walking felt mundane, rather than risk-laden.

In the days since, however, the experience of getting around Detroit and Windsor by bus and on foot has played on my mind. I’ve been considering it particularly over the past weekend, which includes a holiday to remember Martin Luther King, jr, the civil rights leader. In that context, the name of Detroit’s central bus station – the Rosa Parks Transit Center – has seemed especially apposite. It was Ms Parks – who spent the last several decades of her life in Detroit – who drew Dr King into the civil rights movement through her famous refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, for a white man.
 
Downtown Detroit in auto show week: it looks smart -
but what would Martin Luther King make of the way
its people get about?
The battle over shared space on buses that Ms Parks set off was possible, it occurs to me, only because black and white people in Montgomery were indeed sharing space on public transport. Such a struggle is unthinkable in contemporary Detroit largely because white and black people so seldom share space when getting about. They are closeted either in private motor cars or on a bus system that almost no whites use

It would be fatuous, of course, to claim that my stubborn determination to walk a few times in Detroit did anything to alter those dynamics. The risks of crime in the city are real and substantially higher than in New York, which remains less safe on average than the UK. My stance will look less clever if, one day, I find myself beaten to a pulp over my phone or laptop – or worse.

But, as I walked past lonely, derelict buildings, I imagined how the now-abandoned stores must once have relied on passing foot traffic. The scaring away of pedestrians after Detroit’s 1967 riots must have marked the beginning of their end. It is hard to imagine the city’s reviving without its becoming far more comfortable for far more people, as I did, to devise a route to a destination a mere mile away, put his or her head down and get there under his or her own power.

Monday, 22 December 2014

A ride with the police, a senseless attack - and why I'm seeing visions of injustice this Christmas

It was one Saturday back in September that I had much my most positive experience with officers of the New York Police Department. My family and I were taking part in a Kidical Mass ride for families from a park in Gowanus, near our home, to the Brooklyn waterfront. Two bike patrol officers from the NYPD’s 78th precinct joined us, as did a community relations officer and Frank DiGiacomo, the precinct commander. The officers stopped traffic to allow our families to ride through difficult intersections and chatted to us as we rode along.

A positive cyclist-police interaction: Hilda Cohen, ride
organiser, photographs two members of the 78th Precinct's
bike patrol.
By the time we reached Pier Six looking across to Manhattan, I was feeling warm enough towards them to try a gentle joke.

“I suppose I don’t really need to ask a police officer whether he’d like a doughnut,” I said to one of them, as I proferred him a bag of police officers’ favourite treat.

He felt sufficiently friendly in the other direction that he replied with a friendly punch to my shoulder.

I’ve been thinking about that incident in the last few days because of an appalling act of brutality against two NYPD officers just a few miles from where I gave the bike patrol officers their doughnuts. On December 20, as my family and I were packing for our Christmas break in the United Kingdom, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, a 28-year-old black man, walked up to a police patrol car and shot the two police officers inside - Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos – in the head, killing both. Brinsley, who had posted anti-police messages on Instagram, then ran into the Willoughby Avenue subway station and, as police closed in on him, shot himself fatally in the head.

Given that Brinsley’s aim appears to have been to kill New York police officers no matter who they were, he could just have easily targetted any of the four who accompanied us.

The incident has challenged me to consider whether I, as someone who’s regularly complained about the attitudes of the NYPD both over traffic policing and race relations, helped to create the atmosphere that led to Saturday’s horrendous deaths. Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, the New York police union, expressed fury in the wake of the crime over the criticism his members have faced in recent weeks.

"There's blood on many hands tonight - those that incited violence on the street under the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day," Lynch said outside the hospital where the officers were taken. "We tried to warn - 'it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated’. That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor."
 
The Invisible Visible Man and Bill de Blasio, while the now-
mayor was campaigning. Both of us, I'm sure, have had reason
these past few days to reflect on Pat Lynch's criticisms.
Lynch’s comments, although intemperate, have made me look back on that September bike ride and wonder if those cycling officers perhaps represented a truer face of the NYPD than I’ve previously recognised. I’ve consistently focused on the negatives about the force. As a well-off white person, after all, I don’t rely as heavily on the police’s protection from crime as residents of the Tompkins Houses public housing, outside which Liu and Ramos were sitting. I encounter officers mainly when they’re in my way – for example, when they’re blocking bike lanes.

Since the police department’s handling of the issue that most acutely concerns me – road safety – is grossly inadequate, I’ve tended to feel resentful when I’ve encountered individual police officers, especially when they’re engaged in some pointless traffic policing. Because statistics show that there are disproportionately high numbers of brutality claims from blacks and Latinos, I’ve sometimes assumed that pretty much any police officer I encounter is likely to be racist.

It’s easy for someone such as me to ignore the effects of, say, last year’s sharp drop in New York City’s murder rate. That was achieved, according to the police, by examining patterns of Facebook and other messages surrounding gang violence, particularly in The Bronx. They brought conspiracy charges against the associates of those responsible.
 
Families part-way through September's Kidical Mass ride:
a scene I should recall when I wonder what the NYPD
has done for me
I’ve sometimes, I suspect, drifted close to the same thinking error as Ismaaiyl Brinsley, by viewing individual members of the NYPD as if they were responsible for the collective failures of the group or its culture. Liu and Ramos, as far as I know, were no more responsible for the wider failings of their department than I am responsible, say, for the conduct of cyclists who misbehave on the roads, or for the shortcomings of other British journalists.

Yet it remains fatuous to pretend that Brinsley decided to act as he did other than of his own free will. Even if the protesters’ rhetoric had not been mostly admirably temperate, only Brinsley himself decided to pervert the understandable, justifiable anger over the police’s killing of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, into murderous rage against individual officers. The story is at least complicated by Brinsley’s having shot in Baltimore, before he headed to Brooklyn, Shaneka Thompson, his girlfriend, who is not a police officer. She remains in hospital.
 
NYPD officers calmly march at the head of December 13's
Millions March NYC event: just because we take for granted
their readiness to protect marchers criticising them
doesn't mean it's not hard to do.
It makes no more sense to claim protesters somehow prompted Brinsley’s misdeeds than to claim that the NYPD somehow deserved them.

Instead, Brinsley was acting like the worst of the police officers he so hated. He showed the nihilistic lack of self-control that is a hallmark of many police brutality cases. Like the worst police officers, he used unjustified violence in such a way that the victims would have no reasonable chance to respond. He seems to have shared with violent cops a determination to impose his will on others no matter the havoc he risked unleashing.

It is certainly an important distinction that police officers are sometimes entirely justified in using violence, in a way that ordinary citizens seldom are. It’s also critical, however, that police officers are expected to act with discipline and self-restraint in a way that no-one expects a common criminal to do.

It’s vital to point out the balance of risks. New York police officers kill multiple unarmed people every year, yet Saturday’s killings were the first of an NYPD police officer on duty since 2011.
 
Marchers on the Millions March NY protest: some of them
shouted, "How do you spell racist? NYPD." I'd now be more
careful to point out it's the overall system - rather than each
individual officer - that's racist.
US Society, however, shouldn’t be tolerating even that limited amount of violence against police officers – just as it most assuredly should not tolerate the casual tossing aside of black people’s lives. While Ismaaiyl Brinsley had no justification for his brutal killing, there was also no justification for the actions of “pro-police” demonstrators who on Friday evening, the night before Brinsley’s attack, paraded outside New York’s City Hall wearing, “I Can Breathe” sweatshirts. The shirts mocked the proliferation among protesters of sweatshirts bearing the legend, “I Can’t Breathe” – the words that Eric Garner gasped out 11 times as a police officer throttled him on a Staten Island sidewalk.

It’s critical if this rift is to be healed to get away from the divisive rhetoric that currently disfigures nearly every debate in US public life. While there are certainly intemperate anti-police voices, there’s an equally disturbing tendency for any web story about a police killing of a young black man to become infested with slanders and lazy assumptions about the person’s lifestyle or behaviour.

US society has, somehow, to learn again to recognise the humanity of people on different sides of its profound racial and ideological divides.

I would normally offer policy prescriptions for how I think that can be achieved. But, after a year of chronicling dispiriting car crashes and a miserable deterioration in the US’s race relations, this final blow feels as much emotional and spiritual as practical. Brinsley twisted a knife in deep wounds that Eric Garner’s killing, the non-indictment of his killer and many other cases have left in New York’s body corporate this year.

Given the time of year, I’ve been prompted regularly in recent weeks to advocate that somehow the wider city could be more like the Episcopal Church I attend every Sunday in Park Slope. The congregation is made up of a vast range of people – around half of them black – of many different ages, backgrounds and sexual orientations. There is what feels to me, as a relative newcomer, a remarkable sense of unanimity for such a diverse group.

Note to self: next time you see a line of cars like this,
remember there are people inside
I attend the church partly because its clergy have been so quick to recognise the spiritual importance of contemporary events in the US. I’ve sat at points in tears as preachers have related the injustices that people who in some cases live very close to us have suffered to ancient spiritual themes and long-ago suffering.

While I know that few if any of my readers will share my specifically Christian experience of the last few months’ events, I imagine I can’t be the only one who’s had a sense of something truly momentous happening. The questions feel bigger than individual human beings.

I found myself describing to my wife recently the powerful sense I’ve experienced at points in recent weeks of how my faith relates to my feelings over the injustices I’ve seen being perpetrated.

“I keep thinking that somehow Jesus is there,” I told her, of Eric Garner’s death. “He’s lying facedown in front of a row of tacky shops in Staten Island.”

I have a similar sense about Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri – and about the fates of the many victims of traffic crime that go neglected by the police and criminal justice systems.

They’re thoughts that will, I’m sure, seem to many like the kind of foolish sentimentality against which I normally rail. To atheists, they will seem like the kind of deliberate missing-of-the-point of which they accuse all religious people.

Perhaps they are right.

But, for the moment, I also can’t help feeling that the central figure of my faith in some sense also sides with officers Liu and Ramos. Five days before Christmas, Jesus lay on the sidewalk beside them as paramedics worked in vain to undo yet another senseless injustice.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

A protest march, a German thinker - and how injustice for some is injustice for all

The chanting on the night of December 4 sounded muted heard from my eighth-floor office. But there was no mistaking what was going on. Rushing over to the window, I peered down into Hudson Street and saw the front of a line of hundreds of protesters. The leaders were carrying black placards with slogans picked out in LED lights. “Justice 4 All” and “Black Lives Matter,” they read.

I felt admiration and fellow-feeling for the demonstrators, protesting against the decision of a grand jury in Staten Island, just across New York Harbor from where I was, to bring no charges against the police officer who killed Eric Garner. The officer placed Mr Garner, a black man, in an illegal chokehold in July as he sought to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. The protesters were shouting “I can’t breathe” – the last words that a video of the event captured Mr Garner gasping out 11 times.

Drivers held up by protests over police brutality:
far from determined to uphold the rules themselves.
But I faced an immediate problem - how, with protests swarming over much of lower Manhattan, I would get myself and my bicycle home to Brooklyn. I opted for a route somewhat to the north of my normal one and successfully reached the Manhattan Bridge. Yet my biggest challenge turned out not to be the protests but the behaviour they encouraged in drivers. Many expressed their frustration at being delayed by driving into cycle lanes, executing illegal u-turns, honking loudly and otherwise behaving irresponsibly and illegally.

The experience was, it subsequently occurred to me, an excellent encapsulation of the crisis in policing of both the US’s roads and minority – especially black – communities. Far from looking down on the law, the most vulnerable people – the protesters, people who don’t own cars – have high expectations of law enforcement. Fair, undiscriminatory enforcement of society’s agreed rules is their main protection against those who have more power than they - or operate vehicles with greater momentum.

Meanwhile, it’s the people commonly regarded as upholders of society’s order – police officers and those who have taken driving tests and invested in cars – who often seem, consciously or otherwise, to hold those rules in most contempt. Many seem to think themselves responsible or respectable enough not to need to follow the pettifogging details of the rules.
An emblem of the NYPD's style: some officers are prone
to brutality and the department cites shortages of resources
as a reason not to investigate traffic deaths. But even on a cold
winter's evening at present there are four police interceptors
parked on the Brooklyn Bridge to guard against tampering
with the Stars and Stripes on the towers.

The episode brought to mind a famous passage in which Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, wrote about how justice’s significance went far beyond any practical effect its execution might have.

Kant expressed his views in relation to the death penalty – and took a position about the morality of capital punishment with which I profoundly disagree. But his take on justice’s significance captures something of why the families of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – as well as those of Allison Liao, killed by a driver in Queens, and Cooper Stock, killed by a driver on the Upper West Side – protest so loudly over the system’s failing them.

“Even if a civil society resolved to dissolve itself with the consent of all its members… the last murderer lying in prison ought to be executed before the resolution was carried out,” Kant wrote. “This ought to be done in order that every one may realise the desert of his deeds, and that blood-guiltiness may not remain upon the people.”

The acute problem, however, is not so much that the US – and some other societies worldwide – is failing to prosecute some brutal police officers and many, many negligent or even deliberately violent drivers. It’s that by doing so the authorities send a message to those who follow the rules that they’re mugs. Refraining from violence at risk to yourself, police officer? Why not just grab the suspect round the neck? Ignoring that cellphone call so you don’t endanger other road users, taxi driver? Why? It might be a customer calling to book a long, profitable ride.

Minor lawlessness, certainly - but evidence of a corrosive
contempt for the rules: a private garbage truck blocks the bike
lane, while a delivery truck double parks outside
The challenge is less that the guilty are going unpunished and more that virtue is punished by default.

These ideas started forming in my mind nine days before the December 4 protests, as I took a bike ride on a rare day off work the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. I rode from home in Brooklyn all the way up Manhattan’s 1st Avenue towards The Bronx. Yet it was soon apparent that the relatively new protected bike lane north of 60th Street wasn’t going to live up to its promise. I had to leave the lane repeatedly and pull into fast-moving traffic. Some of the obstructions were because of building work – but most were because cars were illegally parked in the bike lane or improperly turning across my path. More than once, on pulling out of the lane and round the legally-parked cars, I found a third barrier in the form of an illegally double-parked truck.

At one point, I found a huge semi-trailer truck (articulated lorry, British readers) had blocked the bike lane to deliver to a store. I appealed to a nearby traffic police officer to ticket the driver. The driver treated her with contempt and berated me, as a proxy for all other cyclists, for having forced him to park there. A previous cyclist had, apparently, sued after the driver struck him with a trolley while moving goods across the cycle lane from a legal parking place.
It's no illegal chokehold - but the parking outside the 52nd
precinct in The Bronx police station suggested to me something
about its officers' conception of enforcing the law.

It was no surprise when, later in the ride, I had to manoeuvre delicately around police cars parked illegally on the shared sidewalk and bike path outside the NYPD's 52nd precinct in The Bronx.

None of what I experienced went beyond inconvenience and I suffered no real harm. But I was soon feeling humiliated and powerless in the face of the bullying of those who were refusing to follow the rules. I felt angry that so little was being done to ensure a more equitable, fairer outcome.

Given my feelings over this minor injustice, I can only imagine the blind rage that Michael Cheung must feel over the failure to take any serious action against the driver who killed his 90-year-old mother as she crossed a street with the light in New York’s Chinatown in October. It must be indescribably painful for a mother such as Dana Lerner to hear that district attorneys are declining to bring criminal charges against the cab driver who killed her nine-year-old son, Cooper Stock, on the grounds the weather was bad when it happened.

I spoke recently to the daughter of someone killed by a negligent driver while he cycled in Central London. She expressed her rage at the failure of the police there to investigate the crime thoroughly and of prosecutors to bring a prosecution over the case.

It can only be worse still to learn that a relative has died because of illegal behaviour by those meant to uphold the law – and that those responsible will not be held to account. The killings of Eric Garner on Staten Island, Akai Gurley in East New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland in countless other cases are shocking because they contradict so many of the theoretical principles of life in the US – and anywhere that human rights are held in any regard. A mixture of rage, impotence and grief that must boil inside the victims' relatives at the thought that many of these incidents happened mainly because of their family's skin colour and others' assumptions about people of their race.
 
He agrees with Kant: a demonstrator voices humans' shared
yearning for justice.
Police officers and district attorneys who flout the law or ignore rule-breaking not only disgrace their offices - and sometimes break the law themselves – but breach a fundamental clause in western societies’ social contract. Civil legal authorities centuries ago largely removed from individuals the burden of pursuing those who had criminally wronged them. The promise was that justice would be more fairly, impartially and efficiently dispensed when its pursuit was no longer clouded by issues to do with victims’ personal power, prestige, feelings or wealth.

That principle has been abandoned, it seems, when it comes to many of those killed or injured on the roads or minority community members harmed by police officers. Many prosecutors in the US – and in the UK, I increasingly fear – are ready to pursue only cases where either overwhelming evidence or a plea-bargained guilty plea make a conviction nearly certain. On the rare occasions I cycle through New York’s Foley Square, past the steps that featured at the end of the classic legal drama Twelve Angry Men, I give a rueful smile at how such finely-balanced court cases increasingly seldom come to court.

Despite my misgiving about Kant’s support for the death penalty, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that his feeling about a wider society’s guilt for unpunished crimes captures something about the deep wrong of the Eric Garner and other cases. If this behaviour isn’t regarded as wrong, if wider society imposes no consequences for these kinds of actions, what does it say about the wider society? How far into lawlessness is society prepared to let its roads or its police officers descend?

While the problems of unaccountability spread across the United States and some other developed countries, there are also very specific New York issues. Bill de Blasio stood as mayor on prominent pledges to improve police treatment of black people and to tackle the city’s epidemic of traffic deaths. It’s dispiriting that he appears so weak in face of his police commissioner’s apparent reluctance to act decisively on either.

Yet the outrage I witnessed from my 8th floor window and the growing disquiet over traffic deaths give me at least some hope. The United States might finally be preparing, as Winston Churchill would say, to do the right thing, having exhausted all other options.

Santa-conners in the 2nd Avenue bike lane: our trip would
have been depressing if we'd seen only sights like these.
That hope was boosted this Saturday, December 13, when I took my son Christmas shopping by bicycle in Greenwich Village.

We rode first up 1st Avenue and encountered drunk participants in the gruesome, annual Santacon bar crawl by young fraternity boy-types and like-minded women around the Lower East Side. The partygoers – who had noisily asserted their “right” to pursue their drunken binge in the preceding days – were the epitome, it seemed to me, of privileged refusal to follow generally accepted rules. They wandered over sidewalks, shouted across streets at each other and behaved self-indulgently and short-sightedly.

But, even as I mentally shook my head over them, I heard the first protest chants.

“I can’t breathe!” “Hands up – don’t shoot!”

We arrived at the Strand Bookstore on Broadway just as the front of the Millions March NYC protest headed by. Many of the participants were of the same twenty-ish age group as the Santacon participants. But there was an impressive earnestness about them that was entirely absent amid the Santacon foolishness.

There were also far more of them than of the Santacon-ners. We emerged after 20 minutes in the bookshop to find the march still in progress down Broadway. We joined them for a symbolic two blocks, wheeling my bike and the Invisible Visible Boy’s trailer bike.

“How do you spell racist? NYPD!”

A brief spasm or the start of real change? The Millions March
NYC protest just before I and the Invisible Visible Boy joined.
For those two blocks, it was possible to get caught up in the earnest passion of the crowd, the frustration that so little has changed. My heart sang to see several bicycles among the protesters, symbols of the union of my various political and policy positions.

But I’d have come away less optimistic had I not come away with the sense that others better equipped than I to understand the crisis also thought that, just maybe, these protests might be the harbinger of real change.

As my son and I walked those two blocks, I noticed a tall black man grab the hand of his young son – maybe three or four – and lead him across Broadway through the crowd. He was determined to get him a better view of the event.

“Come on,” he said impatiently, looking down at him. “I want you to see this.”