Sunday, 7 September 2014

A loyalist village, a Scottish upbringing - and why I'm cycling with a schism in my soul

It was in July 24 years ago that, riding my bike near Airdrie, in Lanarkshire, I came across a scene that’s been in my mind a fair amount recently. Cycling from Glasgow, my home city, to Edinburgh, I passed through a village whose kerb stones were painted alternately red, white and blue. There was bunting strung between the buildings above, also in the colours of the union flag.

A cyclist in Cathcart, on Glasgow's south side,
an area with whose streets I was once intimately familiar
Anyone familiar with central Scotland will know what I’d come upon. The village was a stronghold of loyalism, the ideology that aligns low-church Protestantism with fanatical loyalty to the British state. The sentiment’s heartlands are Northern Ireland – which loyalists are determined not to let join the Irish Republic – and parts of the Scottish lowlands. July 12th, 1990 was the 300th anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, a key historic event for loyalists, in which William of Orange, a Protestant, defeated James III, the UK’s last Roman Catholic king, driving him into exile.

That village has been in my mind because Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom, the state that formed me and that commands loyalists’ loyalty, is in question in a way I’d never have imagined in 1990. In a referendum on September 18, Scotland – the bit of the UK where I grew up, was educated, learned to ride a bike, got married and started work – could vote to separate from England, where my wife, one of our children and I were born. I’ve spent all of my adult life since 1997 in either England, Hungary or the United States. But my mother, sister, nephews and niece still live in Scotland.

My mind has drifted to the potential split again and again as I’ve been riding to and from work the last few weeks. Although I’m watching developments from 3,500 miles away, this isn’t to me an academic question of geopolitics. It’s about a widening schism in my soul.

It’s partly because of the summer of 1990 that the schism feels so painful.
 
St Columba's Church of Scotland in London:
I was baptised here as a child, in a building
that symbolises much about
Anglo-Scottish identity
Scotland and I had got off to a difficult start. Having been born in London to Scots parents, I arrived at a Glasgow primary school, aged four, with an English accent. “What’s your bloody English name?” one child would demand each playtime, grabbing my jacket and pushing me up against a wall. I used to yearn to go back to London.

I was nevertheless shaped by some distinctly Scottish institutions. Our community was a local parish of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. My education taught me thoroughness and a certain toughness of thinking that reflected, I think, how Scotland’s intellectual climate is a little more dogmatic and a little less pragmatic than England’s. Our school debating club and Glaswegians’ fondness for the withering, harsh put down sharpened my sense of humour and gave it a hard edge.

But that summer 24 years ago, between my third and fourth years at university, made me appreciate the country far more fully. On days when I was free of duties clearing out my recently-deceased grandfather’s house, I could cycle north and soon find myself riding amid lush vegetation on the steep sides of a sea loch. I could ride south and cycle atop windswept moors. Ride east and I was speeding towards the gentle hills and old towns of Fife. Ride west and I could zig-zag down the coast of the Firth of Clyde. With all its flaws, the country – the miserable former mining villages and non-descript shopping arcades as well as the baronial castles, glittering sea lochs and twisting river valleys – felt like the landscape of home.
The Perthshire Countryside: the kinds of hills I grew to love
cycling among

I don’t feel that the I whom those experiences in Scotland shaped need be any less a Scot now that I start my daily bike rides in Brooklyn than when I started them on the south side of Glasgow.

But there are certainly senses in which I’ve grown more distant from my homeland. The yearning for the bustle of London, where no-one would decide who I was based on the school I attended, drew me south in 1997. A still greater wanderlust sent us from there to Hungary for four-and-a-half years. After another nine years in London, we’ve been in New York for two.

A fishing boat on a Scottish sea loch: the kind of scene
I discovered was just a short-ish bike ride from home.
I’ve overcome the culture shock of working for a rather English employer. (“It’s not often we bring somebody down from Scotland,” a senior manager told me shortly after I arrived. “So we wouldn’t want you to mess up.”) I find my heart lifted now more by the 17th century English of Anglican worship than the drier fare of Presbyterian devotions. I feel more in common with my English wife than with any Scottish person I’ve met. I love my children not a whit less for their having English accents than if they spoke, as I do, with the drawl of the West of Scotland’s professional classes. I love London – and the stirring feeling I had when I lived there of cycling through history – just as I love the excitement of cycling through a New York summer.
 
New York City: I don't only belong amid lochs and rolling hills
I feel, in short, a bit Scottish, a bit British – even a bit of a New Yorker. Looking back in my father’s family, I see generations who must have felt the same. An eccentric great-great uncle of mine designed the road on which I rode through Lanarkshire in 1990. I discovered among some family papers that another forebear – a proud Scot – once ran a doctor’s surgery round the corner from where we lived in South London.

My heart used to swell with pride when I worked in central Edinburgh, cycled home up the Royal Mile and pondered how David Hume, Adam Smith and other giants of the Scottish Enlightenment had worked in the same area. I also felt proud, however, when I parked my bike daily in London by the site where Shakespeare produced the first performances of many of his plays. The enlightenment thinkers, Shakespeare and geniuses from different parts of the UK have constructed an unusually rich, diverse culture that the UK's constituents share. I believe the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

The millions of personal ties across the UK's internal frontiers, that cultural heritage and some shared British characteristics - a distrust of high-flown rhetoric, reserve with others and reluctance to make a fuss - seem to me more significant than the points that divide the peoples.

I recognise that to independence supporters these points will seem nebulous – even perhaps a betrayal of this blog’s avowed distaste for policy-making by reference to the gut rather than the cerebral cortex. I do in fact have considerable policy concerns about the prospects for an independent Scotland. I’ve covered the affairs of many small, open economies and think the risks facing a country dependent on oil and financial services with messy fiscal and currency affairs are substantial. It’s long been clear to me – although Scottish nationalists have somehow persuaded people that this isn’t the case – that Scotland’s public spending is buttressed by considerable transfers from the wider UK. The end of those would cause considerable pain to ordinary Scots, especially those dependent on state benefits or working for the public sector.
 
Charles Rennie Mackintosh's Hill House in Helensburgh,
through which I cycled on a particularly memorable ride
in 1990: a blend of Scottish tradition and openness to the
latest worldwide trends I profoundly admire
I’m also sceptical that Scotland is somehow more virtuous or nurtures better political instincts than the wider UK. The scene I encountered in Lanarkshire is a reminder, for example, that Scotland has clung far longer than most of England or Wales to sectarianism between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Nor is it clear to me that a free-standing Scotland is fated to be better run than the UK. In the policy areas closest to my heart, the devolved Scottish government has built a destructive motorway across the south of Glasgow and undertaken the mind-bogglingly inane Niceway Code “share the road”campaign. The vigorous contest of ideas that comes from belonging to a larger state can be beneficial in making public policy operate better.

But, to me, living and cycling daily in New York City and without a vote on September 18, the biggest issues are emotional. The different bits of my background don’t feel to me like they should be on different sides of the bitter, angry debate that the independence referendum has stirred up. I don’t share the loyalists’ belligerent idea of British identity but love how the UK has balanced over the years different legal, historical, linguistic and religious traditions to make what seems to me a better whole.

If I wake on the morning of September 19th to find my fellow Scots have voted to leave that enterprise, I’ll still get on my bike, ride to work and get on with business. If I get into a dispute with a driver or chat to a fellow cyclist, I’ll still be just some big British person with an especially hard-to-understand accent. Inside me, however, part of my identity will feel torn and there’ll be a deep sorrow. I’m hoping, despite the current trend in the opinion polls, that I don’t have to feel it.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A street drug arrest, a crackdown on cyclists - and why Broken Windows is a bust

It was as I walked down San Francisco’s Market St with my family on August 10 that I spotted a scene I’d previously witnessed only in TV shows such as The Wire. Two policemen were running towards us, guns drawn. As I started shepherding the family out of the potential line of fire, I spotted the reason for the fracas. A young-ish black man was sprinting towards us. He threw a large, plastic wrapped parcel over a wooden hoarding then, having ditched the evidence, surrendered himself. We continued our stroll as he knelt on the sidewalk, face towards a building, with the police officers handcuffing his hands behind his back.
 
San Francisco's Painted Ladies: the epitome of Victorian
respectability - and only a short walk from where our family
encountered a street drugs bust.
I didn’t know it at the time but, the previous evening, half a continent away, a confrontation between a young black man and white police officers had ended tragically differently. In Ferguson, Missouri, a police officer had pumped six bullets into Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, who was apparently holding up his hands in surrender and saying, “Don’t shoot!” One shot – to the head – killed him. The source of the confrontation appears to have been a demand by the officer than Michael and his friends walk on the sidewalk, rather than the road.

The scene in San Francisco ran through my head over the next few days as we saw, despite our holiday isolation, pictures of police in Ferguson equipped for war but facing mainly peaceful protesters. I also found myself making mental links between the scene we’d encountered and a far less grave injustice that was closer to home for me – the New York Police Department’s disproportionately harsh Operation Cyclesafe crackdown on cyclists’ rule-breaking.

The street drugs bust, the events in Ferguson and the NYPD’s harassment of cyclists all look to me to be the work of police forces more concerned about asserting their own authority than actually making the places they police safer. It’s hard in light of these and other incidents to avoid the conclusion that many US police forces are currently bereft of ideas and moral sense. While UK police forces rethought some aspects of their policing 30 years ago after urban rioting, the Metropolitan Police’s recent purchase of a water cannon hints that such thinking is creeping back in the UK too.

NYPD cruisers: sensitive, intelligence-led policing
The priority is to end appalling injustices such as the killings of Michael Brown and, closer to my home in New York, of Eric Garner, choked in Staten Island as New York police officers arrested him for a minor alleged offence. But better police forces would also surely reassess which offences demanded most of their attention. They would surely take more seriously the dreadful toll of death and injury on the US’s streets and give that national – but largely unacknowledged – tragedy a far higher priority.

I wouldn’t say I was precisely naïve about the potential misuse of police power, even before recent events. In one obviously conflict-ridden society, Bosnia, I remember seeing Bosnian Croat police harassing the mainly Bosniak – Bosnian Muslim – passengers on a bus where I was travelling in 1995 during the Bosnian war. Hungary’s police seldom impressed me when I lived there.
 
A Kosovo Liberation Army "policeman"
smokes while supervising sales of
smuggled fuel: just one of many
less-than-impressive officers I've
encountered during more than two
decades' reporting.
I have a particularly vivid memory from my home country of watching the reaction of Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary in July 1996 to rioting by members of the mainly Irish Nationalist Catholic community on the outskirts of Portadown, in the centre of the province. For five days previously, the police – mainly pro-British Protestants – had reacted with remarkable restraint as Protestants rioted over the routing of a march by the Protestant Orange Order in Portadown. After the police finally forced the march down Garvaghy Road, against the mainly Catholic residents’ wishes, I watched the police fire rubber bullets freely. At one point, I saw people of all ages, violent and non-violent alike, flee into a narrow passageway between shops. The police pumped plastic bullets indiscriminately into the passageway, knowing they would hit rioters and non-rioters.

My personal experiences as a cyclist have made me realise that bad policing affects places other than obviously conflict-ridden societies and people other than clearly discriminated-against minority groups. I’ve been lectured by City of London Police officers who were themselves breaking the road rules about my allegedly irresponsible behaviour. In May, I encountered a man who claimed – to my satisfaction – to be an off-duty cop. He grew verbally abusive when I asked him to move his car out of a busy, two-way cycle lane. There are stretches of road in New York where I know I’m likely to encounter police cars or vans illegally parked in the cycle lane and to have to dodge around them.

Yet I had retained, I now recognise, a residue of rather British innocence about democratic countries’ police forces, a feeling that they must somehow be on the side of the law-abiding, no matter their colour or background, against those who would harm them. I remember the times my parents had to call on the police when I was young and their polite attitude when they visited our large, respectable house.
 
Broken windows might have helped to make it safe for me
to walk nearly anywhere in this picture - it hasn't necessarily
done the same for people with darker skin.
Recent events have washed that residue out of me. I increasingly recognise how it was my family’s whiteness and respectability that won the police’s politeness. If I were black or belonged to some other obviously marginalised group, I would have far more – and probably far worse – stories about police behaviour. I’m more and more sceptical of the policing philosophy that’s come to dominate much of the western world in recent years – the idea that police intolerance of minor misdemeanours is critical to tackling crime overall. Bill Bratton, the police commissioner who returned to the top post in the NYPD earlier this year, pioneered this “broken windows” approach in New York City. Its apparent success in making the city safe again in the 1990s has led to its widespread acceptance as a policing approach elsewhere.

It’s to some extent because of broken windows that officers felt justified, I suspect, in violently restraining Eric Garner while arresting him for the minor crime of selling untaxed cigarettes. It’s because police officers are encouraged to create an orderly atmosphere on the streets, I suspect, that officer Darren Wilson thought it important to confront Michael Brown and his friends about where they walked. It’s a sense that street drug-dealing is worse than more discreet drug-dealing that leads to scenes like the one we encountered in San Francisco. I’ve long had a strong sense that the broken windows approach explained the NYPD’s tendency to give disproportionate numbers of traffic tickets to cyclists. If one believes that a police force’s main goal is to tackle the problems that create most noise at public meetings, it might well make sense to run a two-week crackdown on dangerous cycling.
 
Midtown Manhattan: a bad place to break a window,
thanks to Bill Bratton, but not a bad place, necessarily,
to commit a serious fraud
The approach’s limitations are clear as soon as one starts examining them. Any strategy that deliberately devotes disproportionate resources to small, “quality-of-life” offences by its nature takes resources away from investigating the crimes – racketeering, murder, rape, fraud – for which society imposes the harshest penalties. The approach quickly degenerates into an anti-intellectual tendency to go after the crimes whose victims make the loudest noise, rather than those that are the biggest problem. It’s obvious that the arrest of one street-level dealer is unlikely to do anything to eradicate demand for illegal drugs in San Francisco or the business of supplying them.

Some good might yet come out of the grim events in Ferguson and elsewhere in the US this summer if they prompt a thorough re-examination of how the US is policed – a change that would surely have repercussions in other countries too. It would be heartening to see police forces question whether the constant harassment of the poorest groups under broken windows makes sense. There is surely scope to ponder which offences cause the most overall harm and start to tackle them.

I’ve argued before that traffic policing would be far better if commanding officers’ pay depended partly on the numbers of people injured on their areas’ streets, rather than the numbers of tickets handed out. A police force focused on preventing crime rather than enforcing order would surely not have thought a confrontation over where a group of young men walked worth provoking. Intelligent traffic policing might even seek to encourage cycling, recognising that cyclists are far less likely to kill other road users than motorists are.

It’s hard to be optimistic that such changes are coming soon, however. Reaction to the events in Ferguson has followed a pattern all too familiar in the contemporary US – right-wingers have defended the police, while the left have criticised them. On Twitter last week, Bill Bratton wrote that he was “gratified but not surprised” that New Yorkers appreciated “quality of life enforcement measures”. I’ve seen even cyclists welcome Operation Cyclesafe’s misdirection of resources, saying that, since they never break the rules, they have nothing to fear from it. Few people seem to recognise how crackdowns on minor crime misdirect resources.
 
Operation Cyclesafe made this cycle lane on my route to work
no safer for me to use
Two experiences on our return from California crystallised the nature of the problem. I returned to my regular cycle commute in the last days of Operation Cyclesafe to find that the crackdown had unsurprisingly done nothing to make the streets safer for cyclists. The cycle lanes appeared still more regularly blocked than normal and drivers’ behaviour still worse than normal.

The Invisible Visible Woman, meanwhile, heard two women discussing Eric Garner’s death on the street. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that broken windows policing has turned some police forces into vehicles for the kinds of prejudice our neighbours were expressing.

“People say they heard him say, ‘I can’t breathe’,” one of them commented to the other, who nodded sagely. “But you have to remember – this was a man who’d been to prison ten times.”

An uncritical readiness to go after the offences that most annoy people quickly degenerates into a readiness to go after the people that most annoy the majority. That will sometimes be cyclists. It will far more often – and with far more deadly outcomes – be poor people like Eric Garner, condemned by prejudice to miserable and public deaths.

Monday, 4 August 2014

A close pass, a misguided campaign - and why I won't just leave it on the road

On July 17, as I cycled to work, amid the chaos of rush-hour downtown Brooklyn, I spotted a narrow gap to the right of a line of stationary traffic. I moved into it and rode cautiously towards the next intersection. Then, to my shock, I realised a taxi driver had decided there was room between me and the other traffic for him also to squeeze through. He drove past me, much faster than I was going, leaving at most around six inches to spare. Knowing that any miscalculation would have had me tumbling under the taxi’s wheels, I felt a surge of panic and rage.
 
Close pass: here's how it looks when I try to photograph
a taxi moments after it's come within inches of me
with the lens on zoom and my hands still shaking
Numerous current road safety campaigns – including one by Transport for London, the London Mayor’s transport organisation – would imply that what I did next made me just as bad as the negligent driver. Catching up with him and still feeling the shock of his pointless, dangerous behaviour, I yelled at him: “You could have killed me. You’re a dangerous driver.” Looking at me with stone dead eyes, he languidly rolled up the passenger-side window and drove off as fast as the traffic jam would allow.

The Transport for London campaign – which inevitably uses the shopworn “share the road” slogan – would have enjoined me to ignore the driver’s actions, take a deep breath and head on my way as if nothing had happened. “Leave it on the road,” it advises road users. It isn’t, I think, advice about what one should do with the body fluids and teeth of people that rile one.

My example highlights the insane irrationality of such campaigns. A “leave it on the road” approach to road safety suggests that the real problem is people’s malice towards each other or negative perceptions. It ignores the evidence that negligence, inattention and poor risk assessment are significant causes of car crashes. It puts the focus on vulnerable road users’ reaction to negligent driving. It suggests that all cyclists and pedestrians are somehow collectively responsible for each others’ behaviour. Motorists are helpless vessels full of potential rage that cyclists or pedestrians can make explode or safely depressurise. The approach serves no conceivable purpose other than to comfort people like the taxi driver who put me at risk. “Yes,” is the hidden message. “The real problem is those nasty, lippy cyclists.”

Such campaigns nevertheless enjoy such continued credibility that I found myself arguing vigorously recently with a cyclist who trenchantly defended a campaign by the state government of Utah under the title “Respect is a Two-Way Street”. Most problems cyclists encountered on the road were a result of motorists’ past experience of bad cyclist behaviour, my interlocutor assured me.

I came upon this two-car shunt on Saturday on the Upper
East Side, an eminently respectable neighbourhood.
But was a lack of respect between drivers the real problem?
Utah’s campaign isn’t alone. David Zabriskie, the professional cyclist, has organised a similar (if more nuanced) campaign under the title “Yield to Life” that seeks to build “understand, respect and appreciation for all life” between cyclists and motorists. British Cycling has called for “mutual respect” between cyclists and motorists.

Yet it’s self-evidently bizarre to argue that the solution to drivers’ killing people is to ask everyone to be nice. There is a quality-of-life argument for asking people to be calmer and more tolerant. I try when I haven’t been put in fear of my life to act considerately. But it’s hard to see that “share the road” campaigns are a better route to that destination than making the roads safe. The question is why “share the road” campaigns continue to consume energy that could be better directed elsewhere.

I suspect the answer is that transport authorities face a choice between conveying messages that are broadly popular and bringing about changes that are likely severely to annoy many. It’s not a surprise – though it’s certainly a disappointment – that the former so consistently wins.
 
Cyclists respectfully wait when asked to stop at this year's
Summer Streets event. What is it about this motor
vehicle-free environment that suddenly makes cyclists
show people more respect?
It’s not hard, after all, to guess such campaigns’ genesis. Many cities worldwide, in gestures towards environmental concern, congestion relief or obesity prevention, have sought to encourage cycling, many with more success than they expected. Surges in cyclist numbers on roads designed to facilitate smooth car movements have often led to spikes in cyclist deaths, even if the death rate per mile cycled has usually fallen. “Share the road,” “mutual respect” and other similar campaigns are all manifestations of public officials’ dilemma. They don’t want to stop the growth of cycling but lack the political capital or courage to upset vocal motorist groups, local shopkeepers, the local newspaper or the many other noisy defenders of the status quo. It must seem a beguilingly simple solution to tell everyone to up their game and hope the problem goes away.

The laws of physics, human nature and psychology keep getting in the way, however.

The taxi driver who brushed by me was driving a Toyota Highlander – a vehicle that weighs 2.5 tonnes – and moving considerably faster than I. That would have made a critical difference if he had actually hit me. His vehicle’s momentum, mass and size surely meant he had a far greater duty to be careful than I had. The emotional stakes were also entirely different. I seek to keep myself safe precisely because I know the odds if I’m hit. The driver could afford to keep his sang froid precisely because, as the driver of a large SUV, he was effectively invulnerable. I was acutely aware of how close he’d come to me because I was out in the open and constantly watching for danger. Sitting on the far side of a 6’ 4” (nearly 2m) wide vehicle, the driver probably had little conception of quite how much he was endangering me.

A car parked on a Bronx sidewalk-cum-cycleway. If only
that cyclist had shown more respect, perhaps the driver
wouldn't have felt forced to act this way.
New York City has not actually run a “mutual respect” campaign in the time I’ve been here but I’ve heard all the most senior road safety figures in the city – the transport commissioner, head of the police’s traffic squad and the head of the state department of motor vehicles – back the approach in speeches. The police commissioner erroneously claimed earlier this year that fatally-struck pedestrians tended to cause their own deaths – an entirely untrue assertion that, if it were true, would make some sense of “share the road” campaigns. The tenor of many of the police’s actions – the determination to hand out traffic tickets to pedestrians and, disproportionately, cyclists as well as motorists – seems to reflect the same thinking.

This “even-handed” approach isn’t making people safer, however. According to figures from WNYC, the radio station, 141 people had died in traffic in the city up to August 1, which makes it seem likely there will be almost as many traffic fatalities this year as the 274 in 2013. I can’t find any statistics for road deaths so far in London this year but there’s little indication its record – while far better, per capita, than New York’s – is improving much.

Parked cars block the new two-way bike lane on
Kent Avenue, South Williamsburg: it's absolutely clear
how much extra mutual respect would help alleviate
this problem.
There isn’t any great mystery which approach would make the big cities of the English-speaking world genuinely safer. London has a better record than New York partly because London has far more automated speed and red light enforcement via cameras. It’s also pretty obvious to anyone with experience of British cities’ side streets that there are far more speed humps, road narrowing, raised crossings and other measures to slow traffic down and make pedestrians more visible. The cities with the best cycling safety records tend to give over substantial, well-designed space to cyclists on their streets. Anyone who’s looked at the situation rationally will find these points unsurprising. There’s overwhelming evidence, from repeated studies in multiple places, that drivers’ inattention, excessive speed and other mistakes cause the vast bulk of crashes. Measures that constrain their speed or force them to pay attention unsurprisingly tend to make everyone safer.

But such measures seem to give rise in many people to a kind of existential panic. Powerful groups – men, privileged races, imperial powers – tend to think that they have their jobs, their access to better schools, their political power or their access to road space by right and by merit rather than as a result of rigged power structures. The howls of protest have the same tone of injured innocence I’ve heard in the past from Northern Irish Protestants, Kosovo Serbs and others who see privileges taken for granted being eroded.

I don’t pretend that it’s an easy political choice to take on those vested interests. There would be bitter, angry complaints if New York City’s Department of Transportation decided to put in a well-designed protected bike lane for the many cyclists riding down Smith and Jay streets every morning. It’s my own choice to take – and try to manage – the risks inherent in cycling while those arrangements aren’t in place. But, until something effective is done, I’d rather the authorities not add insult to the threat of injury. I don’t respect drivers who think their desire for convenience trumps my right to life.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A Concrete Plant Park chat, a Roosevelt Drive rollover - and why I may be becoming a New Yorker

The brief conversation in the park was rather different from many of the on-street discussions I have with New York City drivers.

“Hi there, how’s everything going?” the elderly man asked me, with such enthusiasm it took me slightly unawares. “Good,” he replied when I assured him things were going pretty well. “You have a good day.”
Concrete Plant Park: a park that used to be a concrete plant -
with older gentlemen speaking in Spanish

Having wished him a good day in return, I pushed my bike towards a bench, rummaged in my pannier bags and got out my lunchtime sandwiches. I ate my lunch contemplating the scenery – if that’s not too strong a word - of the Bronx River. The older man continued an animated discussion with a friend in Spanish.

The interchange in Concrete Plant Park was one of many joys of my bike ride this past Saturday almost all the way across New York, from my home in Brooklyn, to City Island, in The Bronx. I enjoyed stunning views, weather a little less stifling than the city summer norm and arrived at a charming New England fishing village strangely marooned in the city.
The Hutchison River: not most people's idea of
what The Bronx looks like

However, the aspects of the trip that stood out weren’t those I’d been anticipating. I’d expected to explore New York’s relationship with the inlets of the sea, rivers and islands that define the city’s unusual geography, confining high-rise Manhattan to one small island and allowing other parts of the city to sprawl.

I came back with a still more powerful sense of the city’s remarkable atmosphere – of its people’s readiness to engage, their straightforwardness and their sense of fun. My only regret is that the city still hasn’t properly harnessed its people’s vigour and enthusiasm to a serious effort to make its streets safer. That feeling is all the more intense because I came on my way home on the aftermath of a car crash. While it seemed to have had no serious consequences, it could easily have killed someone.

I headed out partly because I was lonely, after my wife and children went to visit family in the UK, and because I wanted to regain some fitness after being off my bike for two weeks in June with a broken foot.
Financial District skyscrapers, reflected in the East River:
giraffes round a watering hole - or something.

I planned my route to take in all the city’s boroughs, except for Staten Island, and a series of different land masses. I would start on Long Island, where I live, cross over onto Manhattan Island, then the twin, linked Randall's and Wards Islands in the East River. Then I’d cross onto the US mainland in The Bronx and finally out onto City Island in Long Island Sound. I was particularly determined to have a positive experience after someone suggested to me I always made New York sound an appalling place when I wrote about cycling here.

I had the idea for the route because I’m struck by how it’s the areas where it’s impossible to build – the East River, the Hudson, New York Harbour – that give the land in the city its sense of place. Some of the city’s densest, highest-rise areas are crowded round the water, as if the buildings were so many giraffes, crowding round a drinking hole. The meandering Thames and the city’s other rivers and canals give parts of London a similar feeling. But there's nothing there quite as spectacular.
The 103rd St bridge: drama - and a passing New Yorker too

The moments of greatest drama were indeed bridges that swept over key canals and inlets of the sea. The Pulaski Bridge carried me over Newtown Creek from Brooklyn to Queens, with a dramatic view of midtown Manhattan to my left; the Queensboro Bridge soared high above Roosevelt Island in the East River; the graceful 103rd St foot and cycle bridge carried me from Manhattan onto Wards Island, in the centre of Hell Gate at the junction of the East River, Harlem River and Long Island Sound.

I was struck anew as I rode – but not surprised – by the influence over the city of Robert Moses, the powerful – unelected – official who shaped planning for New York City and state between 1924 and 1968. Moses was a passionate fan of open-water swimming, roads and parks. It was unmistakeable how that trio of interests had led him to make particularly wrenching changes to the bits of the city nearest the water. As I rode up by the East River in Manhattan, I was pedalling at one point on a promenade that Moses built above a section of East River Drive that he designed, looking across towards Randall's and Wards Islands, which he entirely reshaped, and at his Tri-Borough Bridge.
 
East River Drive, Tri-Borough and Wards and Randalls
Islands: Robert Moses' influence on the city, crowded round
the East River
But a different sensation started to creep over me. It began with the driver in Cobble Hill who carefully waited for me to start when some lights changed and I was stuck behind a car. “You goin’?” he asked politely, before letting me move off. It continued with the man in Concrete Plant Park. Then I noticed a man ahead of me as I rode along the Pelham Parkway in The Bronx. He was an almost laughably complete picture of how people would imagine a cyclist from the area that first spawned rap should look. His baseball cap faced backwards and his BMX bike was so tiny he had constantly to stand up. Yet he was looking, like me, to get somewhere particular, as fast as he could.

Orchard Beach?” he asked me as we waited at a crossing over a road. He was referring to a vast beach that Robert Moses created just north of City Island. “Where dat at?”

I advised him to follow me.
 
The Bronx River, from Concrete Plant Park:
can there be nature that's also grittily urban?
Again and again as I rode, I was aware of how the city’s people were working as hard on this hot, not-too-humid Saturday at enjoying themselves as they would during the week at their jobs. As I returned home through Concrete Plant Park, I stopped to fill my water bottle at a drinking fountain and interrupted a girl – maybe three or four – filling a vast pile of water balloons. Her mother, who was assiduously helping her, told her in Spanish to wait while I filled my bottle. Then the great task – whose ultimate goal was unclear to me – continued.

Other parks were full of the elaborate barbecue parties that will be familiar to anyone who knows New York. Moustachioed fathers were lugging big grills into position while women fussed over coolers full of marinating meat. Sound systems blared Latin music.
 
City Island: different from most outsiders'
perceptions of The Bronx
It was almost an anti-climax after immersing myself in the vibrant, multi-ethnic atmosphere of The Bronx’s parks to ride over the bridge onto City Island and find a neat suburb of clapboard houses and seafood restaurants. I rode down to the island’s tip, took some pictures of the seagulls flocking round the seafood restaurants, then rode back up the island to the Lickety Spit café. The ice cream felt well-earned.

The impression of New York as a vast, crazy communal effort grew on me still further as I headed home. I puzzled a group of young, African-American men just after I left City Island by asking if they needed any tools for the bike they were trying to fix. It was fine, one of them assured me. He looked up, however, and added: “Thank you, my brother.”

The South Bronx: battered by Robert Moses,
but unbowed
The streets grew more and more crowded as I headed south and the sun sank in the sky. In East Tremont in The Bronx – an area where Robert Moses’ cross-Bronx expressway wreaked particular social devastation – there were little knots of people out on the streets, gathered round attractions whose significance I didn’t understand.

I was feeling, I realised, the flipside of the atmosphere in New York that makes drivers short-tempered and intolerant. Its being a hard and uncompromising place to live, I began to feel, gave many of the city’s people a directness and determination that felt life-enhancing and exciting to be around. New York has a way of pummelling the timidity and shyness out of one.
 
East River Drive: it's possibly to drive too directly and frankly
Yet, perhaps inevitably, I was to come across a reminder that that frankness and directness don’t always mix well with being on the roads. As I rode along the East River shore of northern Manhattan, I noticed an unusual number of emergency vehicles heading south on the adjoining East River drive. Rounding a corner, I found a group of them working to turn back upright an car overturned in the lanes nearest the cycle path. “It just started turning over,” I heard the clearly stunned – but thankfully not badly hurt – driver telling an ambulance crew.

“People think they can drive any speed and nothing will go wrong,” I remarked to another onlooker, trying to put across a road safety message.

He wasn’t ready to hear.

“Yeah,” he replied. “But to walk away from that – impressive!”

It was a response that, under some circumstances, I could have found depressing. It’s dispiriting that so many people focus when thinking about their road behaviour on what they can walk away from, rather than what’s rational for them and those around them. I could also have grown frustrated at how many of the miles of waiting drivers I subsequently passed were leaning on their horns, as if their frustration would make the emergency workers go faster.
 
The East River Promenade: nice enough to make one forget
the city's shortcomings.
But, even as I rode past the honking vehicles, I was taking in the different – but still positive – atmosphere of this far more prosperous part of the city. People sat on benches looking over the East River watching the powerful currents that tear through the area around the tip of Roosevelt Island. Residents of the Upper East Side wandered along the esplanade so calmly and contentedly in the setting sun that it felt almost like riding through an idealised architect’s drawing of a perfect urban scene. I noticed as I rode across the Queensboro Bridge how beautifully the bridge was reflecting in neighbouring glass buildings.

It was, in the end, a round-trip of 56 miles on a day when temperatures reached nearly 30C. I arrived home hot, sweaty and feeling a keen need for the Chinese food I’d put aside that morning.

But I’d worked at enjoying myself just as much as the grill-lugging fathers I’d seen in the parks, and I came home feeling more connection with the city’s alternately infuriating and endearing people than I’ve ever felt before.

Perhaps, a voice inside me suggests, I am becoming a New Yorker.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

A Chinatown honker, an interborough trip - and how city cycling betrays my kids' innocence

It wasn’t, in most respects, a particularly exceptional piece of abuse. The man leaned loudly on his horn, squeezed his vehicle through a narrow gap to my right, leant out his window and gestured towards the kerb. “You should be over to the side!” he shouted.
 
A clear incitement to driver rage
But the abuse felt different for one reason. I wasn’t riding last Saturday on my own, as I usually do, but with my wife, the Invisible Visible Girl, 12, and the Invisible Visible Boy, six. The driver was harassing two children who’d been given limited choice about whether to come with us. He threatened them, effectively, with being run over for turning left. It was one of several incidents of low-level harassment we suffered as we rode from home to a Hudson River playpark and back, more slowly and cautiously than I would on my own.

It felt – not for the first time – as if I was giving the children a harsh introduction to the hypocrisies of the adult world. They’ve heard at school and on television about how they should look after the environment and how cycling is a good way to do so. I’ve stressed to them the importance of responsible behaviour on the road. They’re led to believe that most adults want to protect children.

Instead, we faced some motorists who felt entitled to scare us off the roads by brute force. While we tried to keep to the rules of the road and respect others, we found motorists turning across our path, driving dangerously fast and generally treating their legal and moral obligations to other road users with contempt.
 
The Invisible Visible Boy and trailer bike:
it's OK; you're allowed to smile at us
The overall atmosphere even made me feel irritated about one of the positives of riding with children. After they’d done a double-take at my son’s trailer bike, many passersby would smile or even give us a thumbs-up, responding to the sense of joy and freedom that children seem to feel when cycling. In light of the other behaviour, the friendly gestures felt somehow irritatingly superficial.

It speaks volumes about quite how superb an experience cycling in a city with children can be that we still thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Part of the problem is that few parents in New York or many other big cities – including London, where we used to live – would even countenance undertaking a 12-mile, cross-city round-trip with two children by bike. I’ve read suggestions that parents who cycle with children in London should be prosecuted for child abuse. I remember one disapproving woman in London who saw me negotiating a junction in London (on foot, to reduce the danger) with my son and his trailer bike. “That’s so dangerous!” she said in a stage whisper.

The thought’s the logical extension of the common, mistaken notion that cyclist and pedestrian negligence causes crashes, while speeding, telephone-using motorists are the hapless agents of fate. Parents who cycle with their children are somehow meant to be the only living creatures on earth who don’t care if their progeny survive. The disapproving woman in London presumed she cared more about my son’s welfare than I did. Drivers’ behaviour around cycling families is unlikely to improve until they’ve had more practice encountering them.
The view from Pier 25: worth a few hassles to cycle there.

I'm carefully balancing the risks and rewards when I ride around with the children, however. I’m partly looking to the long term, when the likelihood is that a cycling habit will extend their life expectancy by far more than the risk of a crash will curtail it. I also undertake careful risk analyses. I thought carefully on Saturday about whether the roads would be quiet enough over a holiday weekend for the whole family to follow the route I take to work each day. We then headed a little further to Pier 25 on the Hudson.

The trip brought immediate benefits. As soon as we set off, I was being treated to a burbling stream of the boy’s observations on life and the passing city. When might he fit his older sister’s old bike? Were we in Chinatown yet? Were we out of Chinatown? Why was it called Chinatown? Which floor in that building was my office? My wife, following behind, had the pleasure of hearing the Invisible Visible Girl, riding her own bike, reflect on the shops along Prince St in SoHo.
 
I'm still a hero when I can fix the Invisible Visible Girl's
bike, if at no other time
It was as if the simple act of getting on our bicycles had wiped away the generation gap in perceptions and enthusiasms within the family. Cycling’s an activity for which many children feel an infectious enthusiasm. It lets adults – myself included – give free rein to their inner child. It’s one of the first activities where children exercise the adult responsibilities of getting about independently. It’s an activity where my modest mechanical expertise continues to give me hero status with my daughter, even as she draws close to becoming a teenager. I’m handing on to my children knowledge about bikes that I learnt from my father and that he learnt from his father before him.

Because of how the experience bonded and relaxed us, I felt guilty when I lapsed into my stressed adult self at a few points in the journey. I found myself gesticulating, exasperated hands aloft, as a truck overtook us then swung right across our path at Spring St and Broadway. I gestured frantically at motorists lining up at the scary intersection of W Houston and West St not to try dangerous overtaking moves. It always feels unfair when I let the children see the more anxious, stressed me of points in my workaday life, rather than the in-control daddy I try to give them.
 
The Invisible Visible Boy absorbs another family interest
Yet, after 45 minutes or so, we had reached the calm of the bike-only Hudson River Greenway for the short ride down to Pier 25. The boy splashed in the water to cool off from the 90F heat and humidity. The girl, who normally has her head in a book or her iPad, briefly tried out a climbing wall. We visited an old lighthouse tender moored by the pier, where the boy made my heart sing by taking a close interest in the triple-expansion steam engine. Looking up at the lower Manhattan skyscrapers, it felt a privilege to be on bikes in this spectacular city.

The incident with the honking driver – in Chinatown, as we returned to the Manhattan Bridge – detracted only a little from the day.

It was hard, nevertheless, not to feel wistful as we returned home that the experience could not be easier and more straightforward. While I’m prepared to take the boy most places in the city on a trailer bike behind mine, I’ve so far turned down his requests to be allowed to ride alongside us on the sidewalk on his own bike on short, local trips. The girl, older and more attuned to the risks of the roads, never much likes riding into Manhattan because of the challenges of the traffic and impatient drivers.

It would take relatively little improvement, I’m sure, to coax far more parents to get out their children’s bikes for family trips, rather than resort to the subway or a car. Even on Saturday, there were parts of the journey – on the Allen St protected bike lanes, on the Hudson Greenway, on the Manhattan Bridge – where I had no worries about the children’s safety. With further work, I might start feeling more confident about letting the boy ride on his own. With only minor improvements, I might start acknowledging on their own, friendly terms the thumbs up and smiles of well-meaning passersby.

Saturday, 14 June 2014

A broken bone, a painful boot - and how I plan to act towards the older me

It put the injury I’d sustained in a whole new light. My neighbour looked down at my foot as we stood in the elevator and gave me a pitying look.

“Yes, it’s easier to do that kind of thing as you get older,” he said. “And it starts to take longer to heal.”

It was the first that I’d thought of the misfortune of the broken bone in my foot as anything other than simple bad luck. I broke it, I think, in April and limped around all May in varying degrees of pain. Since the injury was finally diagnosed on June 3, I’ve been lumbering around in an orthopaedic boot, desperately hoping for the injury to heal.
My favourite conveyance, next to one I
dislike intensely: my bike and my
orthopaedic boot

But the moment I thought of my misfortune as a kind of memento mori – a portent of my steady progress away from birth and closer to death – I couldn’t unthink it. My injury made me, I realised, temporarily a person far older than my 44 years. It’s made me realise how apt my fellow New Yorkers – and I myself – am to judge someone by a superficial change to their appearance such as the sprouting of an ungainly plastic boot. It’s an insight that I hope to retain after the blessed day when the boot comes off and my bike once again leaves its resting place by the living room closet.

But I’d still far rather none of the sorry mess had happened.

It started with a dull pain I noticed in my left foot while cycling. It hurt when I put the foot down during stops at traffic lights. I assumed that, like most such aches and pains, it’d get better. Then, on the visit to Michigan that I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I walked around, putting weight on it, and found myself hobbling in agony. That pain was alleviated only when I returned to New York, resumed cycling and found the pain receded to a minor irritant. Then I went on a second cycle-less trip, to Colorado, resumed my agonised hobbling and realised I’d need to get it properly checked out.

The second doctor I saw worked out what was wrong.

“You’re broken clean through there,” he said, pointing on my x-ray to a bone that I now know to be the proximal phalanx in the fourth toe on my left foot. His colleague ten days before had pronounced the x-ray “normal”.

Is that car stopping or going? It's a question that's grown
more stressful for me lately.
The doctor produced an intimidating-looking boot and, over my protests that I’d cycled to the appointment, told me I’d be wearing it for at least two weeks.

It transformed my sense of myself. Now I was unable to do it, I realised how light and easy cycling feels to me. I feel much of the time as if I’m skipping round town on my bike. I suddenly felt slow, lumbering and foolish. I didn’t even have a heroic story. I don’t know for sure – beyond thinking I might have carelessly kicked a kitchen chair in bare feet – how I broke it.

That was before I even tried crossing the street.

When I approached crosswalks, I found all the things I normally took for granted – the ability to get across quickly, a confidence in facing down cars, an ability to take evasive action – had diminished. My stress levels rose in ways they never normally did over decisions about whether to cross when the right countdown clock showed, say, 10 seconds.

Even worse, I found some motorists seemed not only less solicitous than normal but actually less patient. When moving more slowly, I seemed to represent a greater possible obstacle. I became someone motorists were even keener than normal to have out of their way.
 
An odd kind of pain relief: my orthopaedic
boot, complete with inner tube lining.
On the subway, my boot seems to be invisible when I'm standing and need a seat, but to become hyper-visible if I'm delaying someone on the stairs.

I in turn have found myself growing still crankier than normal. The air sacs in the boot I was given turn out to be prone to puncturing. With the air sacs deflated, the boot rubs painfully against my ankle. The pain is like chilli powder rubbed into the open sore of my bad mood over needing the boot in the first place. The only comfort is that I finally hit on the solution. I’ve put a bike inner tube inside the boot and now use it to keep the boot comfortable.

The most shocking street-crossing incident came as I walked my son to school one morning, him on his bike and me hobbling on my orthopaedic boot. At a crosswalk near his school, I waved and shouted in frustration at a van whose driver barged through the crosswalk as we tried to cross. That served to irritate a driver behind, who lent out as I crossed to shout at me, “Why were you shouting?” When I stopped and turned round to answer him, he drove his car towards me to get me to move.

The crosswalk run-in chimed with something I’d heard from an older neighbour who cycles but is currently injured after a fall from his bike. He’d been impressed one time recently, he said, when a motorist had been unusually tolerant in letting him cross a crosswalk. But the driver then lent out of his car and shouted, “Walk faster!”

There’s a malice about both incidents that goes well beyond New Yorkers’ focus on those using their own means of transport or an understandable desire to get about as fast as they can in a city that often doesn’t facilitate it. It topples over at times into a bullying impatience with the weaker based on what seems like contempt for their weakened state. It’s something that I imagine less mobile people in other big cities also experience. But I have a feeling it might be especially acute in New York City, a dark negative to the city’s remarkable, positive get-up-and-go energy.
 
Less dodging through blocked crosswalks for me
once this boot's off my foot.
The two-week minimum period the doctor prescribed for me in the boot concludes on Tuesday. I’m already picturing myself, if a new x-ray is clear, ditching my orthopaedic boot, rushing home and heading into the city on my bike. I will, I’m sure, feel a new appreciation for the privileges of being able to cycle in one of the world’s greatest cities, taking in the view each morning from the Manhattan Bridge and enjoying the feeling of speeding away from the traffic lights on Allen St.

I’m planning to be more solicitous once I’m free, however, of the needs of people who can’t get about as easily. I won’t be on the subway as much in future – but, when I am, I want to be one of the people who’s given me a seat, rather than one of the masses of people who’ve sat and watched me balance on my boot. I’m acutely conscious of how the boot seems to have changed how people react to me, without there having been any significant change in my personality.

In the hurly-burly of the city, I probably won’t live up to my intentions all the time.

But I should bear in mind my neighbour’s remark in the elevator. I’m fortunate that, for the moment, being less mobile is only a temporary state for me. Yet, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, I’ll one day be so much older that the effects are obvious all the time. I want to fix in my mind how, when I’m impatient of older pedestrians’ slow walk across a crosswalk or down a street, I’m demonstrating a bullying callousness I don’t want people to show the older me.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

An uptown ride, a Hudson incident - and why some safety messages spell danger

On April 25, instead of heading straight to the office, I cycled up the Hudson River Greenway to the ghastly Javits Convention Center, for an event grandly titled the World Traffic Safety Symposium. The centrepiece turned out to be a much-hyped announcement about improving pedestrian safety by David Friedman, acting administrator of the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Hudson River Greenway: a ride up here put me
in a sombre mood

A scene I encountered as I cycled there shaped my experience of the event, however. Around Pier 59 in Chelsea, I found a swarm of emergency vehicles blocking most of the cycle path, busy working at something in the river. It wasn’t hard to work out that they were retrieving something significant – probably a dead person – from the water.

The sense that I’d brushed someone’s tragedy on the way put me in no mood to listen to the convenient messages that their public relations departments had given the speakers to parrot about improving road safety. It fuelled my conviction that their approach to road safety had been infected by one of the signature thinking failures of the contemporary age. Faced with a big problem with complex roots, they had decided – by stressing everyone’s collective responsibility for safety - to blame everyone involved, rather than the people most responsible.

The indignation that overtook me was similar to what I feel when I hear or read, for example, that it’s impossible to tell whether Russia or Ukraine is more to blame for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the wake of the revelations about the US National Security Agency’s excessive spying, I’ve read suggestions that, since America is less free than was previously supposed, it’s really no different from China or North Korea. Other cynics say that, since it’s hard to tell which of the various UK political parties at present is least bad, one might as well regard them as all the same.

Such ideas invariably serve to help the powerful and ill-intentioned – an authoritarian Russia against a democratic if flawed Ukraine; China’s repressive government against its own people and the UK independence party against less nasty groups.

Pedestrians in midtown Manhattan: crossing the street
almost as if it weren't their personal responsibility
to keep themselves safe from the poor cars.
But this act of intellectual surrender was all the more invidious because none of the speakers – who included the commissioner of New York State’s department of motor vehicles, New York City’s traffic commissioner and the New York police’s head traffic cop - seemed to recognise it as such. In fact, they presented their message – that everyone shares responsibility for making the roads safer – as if it were the plainest common sense.

“It begins with personal responsibility,” Friedman said, before going on to say how indispensable it was that everyone take ownership of his or her own safety.

“In a rush, we might cross against the light,” he said. “On our bikes, we might not stop at every stop sign. As drivers, being late for work can mean the temptation to rush into a crosswalk before the pedestrian does to get across and save a bit of time instead of waiting for them to walk safely by.”

Friedman invited us, in other words, to equate in blameworthiness nipping across a pedestrian crossing against the light when no vehicles are around, jumping a red light on a bike when one can see a phalanx of charging cars behind one and barging one’s car through a crosswalk of children walking to school.

Riding down the 9th St bike lane in Park Slope, Brooklyn?
Don't forget to exercise your personal responsibility
to keep yourself safe there.
Research into road crashes highlights such a suggestion’s preposterousness. Every bit of research I’ve read on crashes between motorists and pedestrians or cyclists attributes blame for between two-thirds and 80 per cent of crashes to the motorist. People’s gut instinct about where the power lies between a half-tonne speeding vehicle and a vulnerable cyclist or pedestrian already appears to be making them risk-averse around cars. In New York City, more serious pedestrian injuries seem to occur to people crossing with the light in the crosswalk than crossing against the light. People who cross when traffic’s clear but the light’s not in their favour seem to do better than those who rely on turning drivers to yield to them.

The effects of this misallocation of blame are real. Since New York embarked on its effort to eliminate road crash deaths in January, police in many precincts have stepped up harassment of cyclists and pedestrians but not policing of refusal to yield or speeding. When a driver hit and killed Nicholas Soto, a 14-year-old boy, crossing the street in Red Hook, a few blocks from my house, last Monday, the instant reaction was to blame the boy’s sweatshirt for obstructing his view. But the car involved seems to have been going far too fast and the boy was in a crosswalk. The implicit assumption that responsibility for road safety lies equally with the driver of a speeding performance car and a schoolboy running for the bus has led police to blame the victim, rather than the perpetrator.
Remember, folks: exercise your personal responsibility
in getting around the cars the police have allowed
to block the sidewalk and bike lane.

On a wider scale, both in New York and other parts of the world, failure to understand crashes’ causes leads police to harass groups that don’t cause crashes and leave alone others that do. In my native Scotland, the Scottish government last year embarked on an especially bizarre "mutual respect" campaign called "the Niceway Code". The evening before Nicholas' death, I'd even come across police supervising minivan drivers who were parking blocking a sidewalk and most of a two-way bike lane. It was as if they were trying to demonstrate unequivocally whose interests they represented.

Nor is it adequate to claim that, somehow, the misleading message about safety is effective because it overcomes drivers’ resistance to being told it’s all their fault. After a taxi driver honked at me to hurry me out of a crosswalk earlier this year, he told me that, no, it wasn’t the fault of drivers like him that pedestrian deaths in the city remained high. It was the fault of pedestrians distracted by their telephones. I wasn’t using a mobile device as I crossed the street. I am confident that he is one of many drivers who, when hearing that road safety is a shared responsibility, concludes it isn’t really his at all. It’s hard not to be reminded of the way some police forces used to combat sexual assault. Yes, men, you shouldn’t rape women. But, come on women, watch how you dress and where you go. Any message that disperses blame for a problem takes pressure off the most blameworthy party.
Cycle or walk responsibly through the intersection
of 54th Street and Broadway. Otherwise you
might not be safe.

The only comfort I could draw was that the sums being put into this new initiative are so small they’re unlikely to do much harm. Friedman had come to New York to announce awards of $1.6m – the price of a few rooms of a Brooklyn brownstone – for pedestrian safety, split between three cities. New York was to receive $800,000 while the remainder would be split between Philadelphia and Louisville, Kentucky. I had no time to follow the group to a nearby celebratory press conference. So, robbed of the chance to ask awkward questions, I headed back to the office.

It was to be a memorable ride downtown. I reached Pier 59 to find the emergency vehicles gone. Only two policemen remained, seated at a picnic table playing cards. At their feet was a sheet, hiding the unmistakeable outline of the body they’d hauled out of the river.

It was hard not to see the little tableau as a metaphor for how New York and many other cities treat deaths. We’re constantly surrounded by fatal tragedies – a young man who’s jumped off a bridge, or another who’s been hit by a car. Yet we seem all too often to be so distracted, impatient and easily bored that we don’t give their deaths the respect and reflection they deserve.

There are no easy solutions. A patrol cop in the precincts by the Hudson probably sees enough bodies fished out of the river that he can be forgiven his sense of ennui. It’s hard when driving to hold onto a full sense of one’s responsibility to those around.

But, at the moment, the rush after a fatal crash is all too often to assure the survivor that, no, he couldn't have done anything to avoid it, to heap the blame on the person whose life has just been taken away. As long as that's the instinct, there won't be much reduction in the numbers of the recently-deceased left lying in the street, hidden by only a sheet, for the medical examiner to take away.