Sunday, 4 September 2016

A long-ish ride, confusing signs - and why cycling has to stop being towns' dirty, hidden secret

The taxi driver who had arrived to pick up the rest of the family could scarcely have expressed more astonishment if I’d announced I planned to ride my bike to the moon.

“You’re really going to ride that to Neston?” he asked, nodding towards my bike. “You know it’s a really long way?”

“Of course I am,” I replied with all the nonchalance I could summon up while fixing a puncture. “I can easily ride 100 miles in a day.”

Chester Cathedral: heart of a city I know well - but not well
enough to navigate by bicycle, it seems.
Yet the taxi driver’s scepticism about my plan to ride the 30 or so miles from Bunbury in Cheshire to my parents-in-law’s house near Neston on the Wirral would turn out to be better founded than I expected, albeit for reasons other than simple endurance. Once I’d finally, rather inefficiently, fixed my puncture, I ended up wasting around an hour trying to work out a route through central Chester, even though I know the city reasonably well, had a map of sorts and cycle in the city more than any British city other than London.

The experience made me realise the fundamental shortcomings of one of the most popular ways of providing cycling infrastructure in the UK and many other parts of the industrialised world - sticking it on disused rail lines, canal tow paths and other places where it won’t get in motorists’ way. The challenge, I came to realise as I took wrong turn after wrong turn, is that such approaches are fundamentally at odds with how nearly everyone understands cities and how nearly everyone travels. If a determined urban cyclist such as I, with a map, iPhone and some familiarity with the city, can’t find my way through the system, it’s hard to imagine these routes will tempt many novices into starting to cycle.

The Winsford, in Bunbury: starting point for the great 30-mile
Odyssey to Neston

As with many cycle schemes worldwide, however, the primary purpose of the routes through Chester barely seems to be to serve the needs of real, practical cycling. Instead, at points I felt as though I were cycling through some developer’s brochure for the new housing by the banks of the Shropshire Union canal. I imagined how some planning official had sighed with relief when the cycle paths were added to the development plans. The city had ticked the “green and sustainable” box in their programmes. I didn’t sense much confidence that anyone genuinely expected many people to cycle. Until something fundamental changes in how routes are constructed, the circle of poor design that leads to low use that leads to further poor design will remain unbroken.

The hold-ups in Chester were a particular pity because some of the early part of the journey was positively uplifting. I was in Bunbury at the end of a week’s holiday cruising the scenic Llangollen Canal. We were heading to the Wirral to see my parents-in-law. After I’d fixed the puncture, I found myself slipping along mostly quiet country lanes, rolling past the entrance to Beeston Castle and negotiating sudden, sharp climbs on bridges over the canal or neighbouring railway line. The experience was a fine advert for the not-always-enjoyable experience of cycling on roads in the British countryside.

St Boniface's Church, Bunbury: typical of the
picturesque countryside on my trip
But the trouble started as soon as I reached the outskirts of Chester. My intended route - variously labelled as National Cycle Route 45 or Regional Cycle Route 71 - started taking unsignposted turns through the villages of Waverton and Christleton. It then deposited me onto the Shropshire Union towpath, where the signage was so confusing that at one point I cycled back the way I’d come, convinced I’d taken a wrong turn, only to discover I had been going the right way all along.

Something else had also changed. By this time, I was negotiating a towpath through a distinctly unglamorous area on the east side of Chester. The canal was surrounded by the blank walls of neighbouring buildings. I became distinctly conscious of having relatively little space between the blank, overlooking walls and the canal’s forbidding-looking water. Had it been dark or had I been a woman, I’d have felt distinctly uncomfortable. I started to remember Jane Jacobs’ strictures in The Life and Death of Great American Cities about the importance of having eyes on the street, precisely because there were no such eyes on this towpath. I started to feel an urgent need to get away from the canal.

That, however, wouldn’t prove easy. Although the new, waterfront developments in central Chester make the towpath there feel far less threatening, it remained nearly impossible to work out which way I had to go. Routes off the towpath that I tried took me towards a meandering, riverside cycle path that would substantially lengthen my journey, onto a busy, car-clogged road engineered to steer traffic away from anywhere useful in Chester’s ancient centre, and onto residential streets labelled as a “home zone” full of traffic calming but with no signposts for cyclists pointing anywhere other than the railway station. An information point for cyclists directed me towards a “black route” and a “brown route”, information that was of no value to someone who did not know the colour of the route towards Neston. Finally, in frustration, I struck out, on busy roads, in the general direction of the cycle path heading where I needed, which runs along an abandoned railway. Having found a bridge that passed under the route, I cycled parallel to it until I found a way on.
Wayfinding on the Chester Greenway: fine for those who've
already managed to find the route

Yet it remained obvious, once I’d made my way onto the old railway line, that the route was hardly being used at all for the purposes that the signs seemed to foresee. While the signs pointed people towards local destinations, the cyclists that I saw either seemed to be training for road-bike racing or, like me, to be making longer journeys. The route was akin to a cycling motorway - a great means of making long, inter-urban journeys but a poor method of undertaking short-distance trips. The light use of the route reminded me of the complaints I heard shortly after the opening of Birmingham’s Metro light-rail system. The system was free of interference from motor vehicles because it ran along an abandoned railway line. But the operators found potential passengers tended to stick to a parallel, slower bus route because it allowed them to stick to the street network, which they could understand.

Speed bumps on the Chester to Connah's Quay
cycle path: further evidence that the builders
of this excellent, high-speed long-distance
cycling route didn't realise that that was
what they were building.
The shortcomings of the area I sought to navigate were very similar. The centre of Chester - a walled city founded by the Romans - is surrounded by busy arterial roads. There was no real attempt to provide a hospitable cycling environment either on those roads or to carry cyclists across them. In riding along the towpath into the city centre, I had inadvertently trapped myself in the middle of the city walls. There was no pleasant or easy way that I found for getting out again. Both the towpath and the railway line were largely isolated from the system of streets that most people understand to make up a city.

The problem, it occurred to me as I rode on to Neston, was that the routes through Chester had not taken cyclists’ needs as their starting point but those of planners charged with finding a use for a troublesome old railway line or for finding a better use for the canal towpath. The attempt to signpost such a route for short-distance journeys seemed to me to misunderstand the way that most people’s short journeys actually work. If going shopping or on some other errand by bike, I will generally need to go to several places, rather than making the kind of clean trip from point A to point B that might be facilitated by a path that takes me entirely off the street network. While I don’t want to ride on a terrifying stretch of high-speed urban road, it’s not, either, a particularly pleasant experience to ride through one of England’s most picturesque, historic cities staring at the featureless grass bank of an old railway cutting.

The Shropshire Union towpath, from the
Greenway: a convenient link - if only
I'd known about it.
The challenge is not so different from those in New York presented by the city’s heavy reliance on waterside paths like the Hudson River Greenway. Such paths are by their nature cut off from the hustle of city streets. They are useful only if one presupposes that cyclists are willing to make significant detours for the privilege of riding unmolested by drivers. The solution to some of the problems of Birmingham’s tram has been to extend the end of the route out onto the city centre streets, into an area passengers can understand. Rail lines and towpaths would make far better cycling routes if there were a concerted effort to open them up in the densest urban areas so that they feel integrated with surrounding streets, rather than like hunting grounds for the area’s muggers or hiding spots for underage drinkers. The downside to that from planners’ point of view would be that old rail lines or towpaths would no longer be simple, cheap places to hide cycling but would demand changes on neighbouring roads and disruption to traffic flows.

Yet the frustration is that there is a genuine role for paths like the Chester to Connah’s Quay path, when they can be found. The opening of a new link to the rail path now allows me to cycle between Chester Station and my parents-in-laws’ house near Neston without braving any part of the frequently scary A540 road, which I used to have to use. Even with my long delay in Chester, I still arrived at my destination only a little after the rest of the family. They’d had to take a taxi into Crewe, a train from Crewe to Chester, another train to Shotton then a third train on to Neston. In areas with public transport options as poor as those, routes that allow one to cycle 30 miles at speed can be a viable alternative. I would even have been able to make the journey fairly quickly if the signposts had been more informative. As I rode out of Chester, I noticed, with a sinking feeling, that my route was passing the canal towpath and there was a link between the two. I could have stayed by the canal and avoided all my frustrations.

For the moment, however, cycling facilities all too often remain projects to be done on the cheap, to revitalise wasteland. They seem far too often aimed at getting bikes out of drivers’ way than at finding a way to get drivers out of cyclists’ way. As long as the fundamental misconceptions about design remain, I’m likely to keep finding myself lonely in using such paths as genuine means of practical transport.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

A daily obstacle course, a problem denied - and why I think it's vital to tackle congestion

One of the many old habits I’ve resumed since returning to London is to buy my lunch from a branch of Eat cafe very close to my office in Southwark, on the south bank of the River Thames. I head up the stairs from my first-floor desk, leave the building by the second-floor entrance on Southwark Bridge, then cross the road before descending again to reach the cafe, on the riverside walkway.

But a key aspect of the experience has unmistakeably changed in the four years I’ve been away in New York. The challenge used to be to dodge cars and trucks speeding across the bridge towards the City of London, the financial district. The task most days now is to pick a way between the long line of vehicles backed up across the bridge.

Traffic on Southwark Bridge: a barrier between me and
my lunchtime pie
The Southwark Bridge hold-ups are only one manifestation of a gradual worsening of traffic congestion across London in recent years. The problem has grown despite the gradual decline in traffic levels as a result of the Central London congestion charge and the general absurdity of bringing a private car into London. Average motor traffic speeds in London in the first quarter this year were down 3.9 per cent on a year before, according to Transport for London statistics, despite a 1.1 per cent decrease in the volume of traffic on major roads.

I first noticed the change on July 7, the day I returned from New York. It took me and my family a good two hours from Heathrow Airport to reach our temporary accommodation in Stepney. Forced to take a taxi by the challenges of moving five suitcases and a bicycle, we sat in nose-to-tail traffic for nearly the entire journey.

Yet I have the feeling I’m relatively rare among London cyclists in thinking that this congestion is a serious problem, which cyclists have at least as much a stake as others in having tackled. Most comments from cyclists about the issue on Twitter dismiss the problem as a reflection of motor traffic’s fundamental inefficiency. There has been particular anger over a flawed report by David Begg, a transport economist whom I’ve known for 20 years, that linked the delays facing bus passengers partly to the building of London’s segregated cycle superhighways on some roads.

Yes, the mode on the left wastes road space and, yes,
the mode to the right takes up less road space than some
critics contend. But it's still worth pondering how scenes like
this look to people stuck in traffic jams.


But, having cycled the past four years in New York, I worry about how present conditions might influence policy, particularly as Sadiq Khan takes over from Boris Johnson, champion of the superhighways, as mayor. I’ve lived, after all, through the long backlash that followed the departure from office of Janette Sadik-Khan, New York’s former pro-cycling transport commissioner, at the end of 2013. For most of the time I was in New York, few new cycling facilities were built and those that were constructed were insultingly inadequate. Those already in place were allowed to decay or become useless through non-enforcement of rules over parking or yielding to cyclists.

As long as cyclists downplay or ignore the seriousness of London’s current congestion problems, the debate about how to tackle the problems will be left to others. The ultimate risk is that London’s authorities follow the lead of Ed Koch, New York’s mayor from 1977 to 1989. In 1980, concerned about high fuel prices, Koch installed high-quality protected bike lanes along many of Manhattan’s busiest avenues. Stung by criticism of their effect on congestion and modest use levels, he then went on to rip the lanes out again within weeks. His volte face was so complete that he even sought to have cyclists banned from midtown Manhattan altogether.

I should stress, of course, that none of my concerns means I’m accepting the simplistic account of London’s congestion problem that attributes a significant role to the reallocation of road space to the cycle superhighways. Transport planners have known for many years that the number of lanes on a road has far less effect on its capacity than might be supposed. A large amount of congestion comes from motorists’ unnecessary lane-changing, which elimination of a traffic lane can actually reduce. It’s also clear - as David Begg tells me he now accepts - that the figure of 25 per cent for the reduction in road space is a ridiculous exaggeration.
The north-south Cycle Superhighway in Waterloo:
no mistaking the success

It’s also unmistakeable that the segregated superhighways are proving hugely popular as a commuting route. This past Thursday, when we moved back into our house in Brixton, I cycled in the morning rush south down the north-south cycle superhighway. I was astonished at the vast numbers of cyclists heading the other way, north into central London. Pelotons of 30 to 40 riders powered past me in clumps formed by the timing of the traffic lights. Much of the time, there must have been at least as many people using the narrow cycle track as using the far wider road for motor traffic. That striking result has been achieved only a few months after the cycle paths’ opening and before the two main cycle tracks have been extended as far as is eventually intended.

It is clear, meanwhile, to anyone observing with an open mind that there have been far more dramatic changes on London’s roads than the handing over of a single lane on a small number of roads to cyclists. For example, the traffic that I dodge as I go to buy my lunchtime pie is currently made up far more than in previous years of heavy dumper trucks going to and from the huge numbers of development sites dotted across the City. The rise of Uber has produced a surge in the numbers of private-hire vehicles on the roads, which Transport for London has very little capacity to restrain.

In the past week, I’ve cycled on multiple bits of road whose capacity was restricted for one reason or another. But they included road narrowings for work on both Crossrail, the project to build an east-west rail line right across central London, and the extension of London Underground’s Northern Line to Battersea. Both of the rail projects are generating significant construction traffic and forcing the narrowing of roads in a number of places.
Cyclists by the new route over Vauxhall
Bridge: all modes are contending with
restricted road space.

Nevertheless, I keep returning to the feeling I had as I sat in that taxi from the airport on July 7 as I sat in stalled traffic. It was hard as I looked at nearly-empty, mid-morning cycle superhighways not to yearn for my taxi driver to turn onto the invitingly open stretch of tarmac to shorten our interminable journey. If I thought that as someone who would later the same day be cycling along the same routes, it’s hardly surprising if people with less stake in encouraging cycling feel frustrated at the current situation. If that feeling is not to end up leading to the abandonment of the superhighway programme, it is vital that something is done to tackle the on-street congestion.

That, David Begg tells me, is the essential argument he was seeking to put across in his report in June on the impact of congestion on bus passengers. While much of the commentary around the report focused on the erroneous 25 per cent figure and some loose phrasing that Prof Begg tells me he also now regrets, it’s hard to escape the report’s central argument. Boris Johnson encouraged changes to the use of London’s streets that were bound to make streets more congested without having the courage to make anti-congestion measures like the congestion charge more effective. The former mayor instead did a great deal to exacerbate the congestion crisis by removing the congestion charge in Kensington and Chelsea. He also replaced high-capacity, articulated buses with the lower-capacity New Bus for London.
Another day, another set of people failed by roads policy

If cyclists are not to suffer the consequences of Boris Johnson’s policy failures, it is vital that cycle campaigners start to recognise the nature of the competition under way for scarce road space. People who start cycling, after all, are mostly switching to riding from underground, rail or bus so are not self-evidently reducing the burden on the road network.

Cycle campaigners consequently have to start noisily pointing out that the present crisis’s causes extend far beyond the installation of cycle lanes. It's also vital to start advocating for measures to manage other modes' use of that limited space. There’s a powerful case, for example, for charging lorries far more for entering central London in peak hours, for encouraging the shift of far more short-distance deliveries by bicycle, rather than van and for installing new, better-protected bus lanes to ensure buses don’t sit trapped in traffic created by demand for Uber and Amazon Prime. It’s absurd that neither taxis nor minicabs currently pay the congestion charge when they enter central London and it’s imperative that they start to do so.

These are all sensible policy measures that I’d support even if I weren’t a cyclist. As a person interested in transport policy and determined in particular that bus passengers should get a better deal, I’m convinced on principle that it’s critical to come up with solutions to pointless, wasteful congestion.
The Great Bus Wall of Fleet St: proof of failing policies
But an experience on Friday underlined to me how it’s also in cyclists’ selfish interests to deal with congestion. Coming back from a meeting on High Holborn, I rode my way through the quiet urban oasis of Lincoln’s Inn Fields and out onto Fleet St, seeking to make my way to the east-west cycle superhighway. I was greeted, however, with a scene of chaos, a nearly immobile wall of buses crowded onto the historic street, edging forward at well below walking pace.

I was in the fortunate position that I could edge my way through cracks between vehicles the few hundred metres I needed to go, find an alley leading down to the Thames and escape to the generously-proportioned, fast-to-travel-on superhighway. I am conscious, however, that the passengers on the buses - a vital form of transport used disproportionately by the poor - lacked that option. They remained stranded as I slipped away. No-one who has London’s interests at heart can think such a situation should be allowed to persist.

Monday, 25 July 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 July 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 4 July 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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