|Prospect Park in the snow: however badly I ride round it,|
it's a breathtaking backdrop for my humiliation
Saturday, 8 March 2014
It’s not the kind of issue that normally preoccupies me while I’m cycling. But, glancing down at my bike computer, I could see my pace had dropped. Where shortly before the average speed figure had been showing 16.5mph, it was now showing 15.1. The dip gave me fresh determination. “Speed up!” I ordered myself. “Reach the top of the hill without dipping below 15!” A few seconds later, I crested the hill in
Park, near my house in Brooklyn, with my computer still showing a 15mph average
speed. Slipping my chain onto the biggest chainring, I sped up off down the
hill towards . Grand
This wasn’t my normal kind of bike riding, however. I’d seen earlier in the day the forecast for yet more snow for
New York City – it’s already the city’s
seventh-snowiest winter on record – and I thought my chances of commuting by bike
in the next few days were limited. I consequently decided, although I didn't have anywhere to go, to use a break in the weather to get some exercise. Checking that I had no immediate domestic
responsibilities, I slipped off after church for a very brief bout of cycling
purely for the physical activity.
I’ve found myself, when I’ve been undertaking these rides, involved in an activity that’s both entirely familiar to me and rather alien. I’m used, of course, to riding my bicycle (even if this winter has made that hard-going at times). I’m accustomed, however, to focusing on getting where I’m going in one piece – which can be demanding in a city full of angry drivers and bad road surfaces. I’m not used to focusing on the cycling – or its effect on my body – for its own sake.
I’ve been interested to discover how negative many of the associations in my mind of taking pure exercise are. As my pulse rises and my breath grows wheezier, I’m back amid the humiliations of a secondary school playing field. I feel the scorn of the teachers and my fellow, marginally less inept pupils for my uselessness at playing rugby union. As steely-faced weekend road warriors pass me, their wheels making the distinctive rumble of expensive carbon-fibre, I feel fat, lethargic and more than a little silly.
And, yet, I have to remind myself, it is this alien activity – rather than my daily transport cycling – that many people regard as the most authentic way to ride a bicycle.
This isn’t to say I’ve never cycled just for the sake of it before. My love for cycling developed substantially during my years at
, when I’d ride off some
Saturdays or Sundays towards Crail, Anstruther or one of the other nearby
fishing villages. The whipping coastal winds would propel me one way. Then,
after I started heading back, I’d have to dip my head down into the wind and speed along the quiet, undulating country roads across the moors. St Andrews University
That early, carefree exploration culminated in the summer of 1990, when I alternated between working at clearing out my recently-deceased grandfather’s house and spending days exploring Scotland. I’d head off in the morning for a ride that took me up the shore of the Gareloch – a ride made spookier by the area’s hosting the tightly-secured base for the
nuclear missile submarines. I’d head back to Glasgow
via the shores of Loch Lomond. I’d ride,
pushed by the prevailing winds, from Glasgow to Dunfermline in the morning. Then I’d push down hard on
the pedals and hunch down for a long ride back – via the Forth Road Bridge and into the wind - west.
I didn’t find things too complicated back then. I wore no helmet, carried no supplies, rode a very basic
Raleigh bike and worried about pretty much
nothing. Caught in a tropical-style West-of-Scotland summer downpour? Dry
yourself off under the hand dryers in the lavatories at lunchtime. Bit off more
than you could chew with this 100-mile ride? Stop in every other village for a
pint of milk to glug down.
I’ve had occasional bouts of just-for-the-sake-of-it riding since then, albeit the time constraints and obligations of adult life have curtailed them. When I lived in
London, I’d occasionally
make it to Richmond Park – the vast royal park in south-west London - where rides are enlivened by the possibility of a collision with a big, wandering deer. Last
summer, with the family absent, I took two long rides over New
York City’s boundaries, over into New Jersey
and up into Westchester.
But there’s something about riding in circles in
– Brooklyn’s smaller equivalent of Central Park,
non-New Yorkers – that feels far more self-consciously like Exercise - or Training, as it's now been rebranded - than any
long trip to the different scenery out of town. The other riders in mostly wear the set, grim
expression of a person battling to wrest back top spot on some Strava segment.
Most seem to form a spooky unity of body, bike and clothing. Shoes merge into
pedals, gloves into handlebars. The helmet might as well be some final,
elaborate cap on top of the whole bike, rider, clothes ensemble, rather than a
separate piece of clothing. Prospect Park
No-one would make that mistake with me. I arrived in
last Sunday wearing woollen
trousers, a cotton shirt and leather shoes. My waterproof jacket, trouser
straps, helmet and gloves were my only cycling-specific clothing. And, of
course, I was not wearing my clothes over a body honed by constant training for
some forthcoming triathlon. I carry about in my body the evidence of thousands
of late nights at work, followed by dashes home and swallowings of hurried
dinners with wine. My clothes and body were both as floppy and
aerodynamically-inefficient as many other riders’ were taut and tight-fitting. I look what I am - like a cyclist whose rides are nearly all, in sports cyclists' dismissive term, "junk miles". Prospect Park
That self-consciousness only rose as I started to ride, heading down the hill towards Flatbush, and sped along the road between the lake and the parade grounds at the park’s lower end. It became clear as I started climbing the hill – the ridge over which British and American forces fought the battle of
in 1776 – that I was making an effort. I started to breathe hard and wondered why I
always seem to have a cold. I briefly felt myself once again 15 and on a
mud-spattered, rain-soaked cross-country run.
But much of the reward of this exercise is that I’m avoiding not doing it. In weeks when it’s been hard or impossible to ride, I’ve built up a deep twitchiness at my lack of activity, the shortage of time spent outside, a feeling of being trapped when commuting, sedentary, on the subway. Even a short, fast ride starts to scratch that itch.
And, as I powered up the hill, I remembered that I was no longer entirely the unfit, unco-ordinated teenager. While my flabby torso isn’t much of an advert for commuter cycling, it sits atop a pair of legs that have spent years propelling me to 4,000 miles or more a year of riding first through South London and, now, daily between Brooklyn and lower Manhattan. Even if some of the weekend warriors overtake me on a climb, I generally gain the occasional, minor victory, pumping my legs up the hill past one of them.
I started to feel the pleasure of how a bicycle magnifies one’s effort. Pumping my legs, I climbed the hill smoothly by my standards, at around a steady 14mph. Down the hill, my biggest gears propel me to close to the park’s 25mph limit and I felt the childish sense of joy that always comes with giving oneself over to gravity’s acceleration. I started to feel a deep sense of contentment - the result, I imagine, of the release of endorphins, the exercise-related high that people keener on exercise for its own sake chase so hard.
I realised after a while that that feeling of contentment wasn't unfamiliar. I recognised how much of the time when I’m riding I’m running late, pushing myself to reach the next lights before they turn red, powering up the Manhattan Bridge to avoid being late for a meeting, switching to the big chainring to get uptown faster, accelerating away from traffic lights to get out of the way of that badly-driven taxi.
There’s no immediate danger of commuter cycling’s turning me into a lean, efficient cycling machine like the ones whirling efficiently round Prospect Park each weekend. But, as I turned out of the park again and prepare once again to tackle the indifferent conditions of
New York City’s streets, there was no
doubting that I was feeling better.
I appreciate with my higher brain centres the many more and practical reasons why more and safer cycling would make the city a better place. But the deep satisfaction that I felt flooding through my body reminded me that, no matter how deep my embarrassment, I retain a childish joy at the simple act of riding a bicycle. The day it starts to fade will be the day I feel as old as I look.
Monday, 17 February 2014
It’s not a term that many people would associate with a journey on the
New York City
subway. But, as I trudged up the steps on Thursday from the C Train station at
Spring St, I felt a warm glow of admiration. I emerged onto Vandam St to find that day’s blizzard –
which would eventually drop 14 inches (36cm) of snow on parts of the city –
still in nearly full flow. The transit system had nevertheless transported me
with what seemed to be insolent ease from an above-ground station in Carroll
Gardens down into the tunnels to downtown Brooklyn then, on another train,
across the east river to the west side of lower Manhattan.
|Vandam St in a snowstorm: a contrast to the order|
beneath the streets
The journey’s smoothness was a tribute to the virtues of forward planning, teamwork and operational excellence that make for a smoothly-running transit system. At street level, by contrast, a rental truck whose driver had got it stuck on a pile of snow was blocking the street, holding up a snow plough.
Yet, just the day before, it occurred to me, I’d been raving about how magnificently satisfying my cycle ride to work had been. I’d braved well-below-freezing temperatures and persisting patches of ice and snow to ride to work on both Tuesday and Wednesday, enjoying the challenge of the unpredictable conditions and taking in magnificent views of the city spread out before me.
Wasn’t there a contradiction, I thought to myself, about my two positions? If I enjoyed using perhaps the most individualistic of mechanised transport methods – the bicycle – wasn’t it odd I also admired such an obviously shared form of transport as the subway? Moreover, it occurred to me, why wasn’t I alone in my shared enthusiasm? Why did so many of the cyclists and cycling advocates I knew have a decided preference for subways and buses over cars in conditions when they couldn’t get about by bike?
|Trying to leave an F Train when the track ahead is on fire.|
I can tell you what it felt like - just be grateful I can't
make you smell the acrid smoke.
I should start answering those questions by making it clear that not all – possibly not even most – of the subway journeys I’ve been forced to take for weather reasons in recent weeks have evoked the warm feelings that my trip on Thursday did. I’ve had plenty of long waits for trains and other disruptions, including the two-hour journey home I mentioned in a previous post. Worst of all was my experience on the morning of February 3. After unwisely guessing that the F Train to
4th St would be my quickest route to SoHo, I found myself trapped underground for 40 minutes.
The live rail in the station ahead was on fire and power to our train was cut
while the fire department tackled it. I don’t especially recommend the
experience of standing in a confined space with emergency lighting, no
air-conditioning and a growing smell of acrid smoke in the air.
I should also confess that part of my feeling for subway systems stems from my background. My late father, who taught me to ride a bike, devoted his whole working life to subways – first in
then in Glasgow.
While my journey to work last Thursday might have seemed easy to me, I know that
subways do anything but run themselves. My dad, I recall, diverted the taxi
taking him and my mother to their 20th wedding anniversary dinner to
the subway depot. A train had derailed at a critical point and he wasn’t going
to relax until he was sure it was on its way to being put back.
I associate the
subway also with my grandfather, who visited New York as a seafarer in the 1920s and told
us wide-eyed children decades later about the marvels of express and local
trains and the other complexities of the subway system.
As I spot some complicated bit of lineside equipment or work out some intricacy of the
City subway system’s workings, I often feel a sharp
pang at not being able to share it with my father, who died in 2002. “My train
was diverted over the disused express tracks, dad!” “I got a good look at the
But there are also plenty of things about transit systems that cyclists can appreciate even if they haven't got my back story, I think. While many motorists seem to view their car as an extension of private space, I recognise clearly when I’m on my bike that I’m involved in a complex social interaction. The difficulty of communicating with other drivers is one of the things I least like about driving. It’s less of a stretch for me than for a driver or habitual taxi user to have to negotiate the scores of interpersonal transactions involved in using busy subway trains.
|Copenhagen's cycle rush hour: they could have got|
a nice train instead, lucky people.
It’s certainly no coincidence that cities that are good for cycling also tend to have good public transport.
Copenhagen has a magnificent driverless metro
system as well as good suburban S-Trains. Amsterdam
has a formidable tram and suburban rail network. In the US, , has both some of the
highest cycling and some of the highest transit ridership figures. Portland,
Oregon Washington, DC, also
enjoys a combination of relatively good cycling conditions and good public
transit (even if the Washington
metro’s train frequency and reliability could do with improvement). The careful
planning and forward thinking required to build a good public transit network
also tend to produce the kind of civic-minded thinking that prompts cities to curb car traffic, police streets well and put in good cycling facilties.
|A partly-cleared bike lane: cyclists and transit users|
have both been getting spotty service
|There are days when, sorry, even I can't cycle|
The spotty service I’ve experienced in recent weeks in
New York is consequently an excellent summary of how the city is faring in both cycling and public
transport. There are moments when the smoothness and progress from the worst
times seems like a miracle. There are others when the main improvements from
the city’s darkest days seem to be that the ageing trains are no longer covered
with graffiti. The fire that kept me stuck underground isn't the only one I've encountered lately.
The subway's challenges regularly remind me that I prefer to cycle when I can. I also enjoy the exercise, the fresh air, the views from the
relative reliability. Cyclists also avoid some of the hassles that come in
winter as the homeless and disturbed crowd onto subway trains for warmth. Manhattan
Bridge and cycling's
But, on days when the weather gives me no choice, the subway reminds me of the excitement I still feel at living in this mad experiment of a city, scattered on the islands and peninsulas around
. New York Harbour
|"This is a World Trade Center-bound E local train!" -|
words that still sound oddly exciting to me.
Even the littlest detail of the journey can send that welling up in me. There’s the rattling of an express train through a local station, its lights flashing as they pass the support pillars. There are the names that evoke a thousand novels, songs and films. There’s the bizarre mixture of all kinds of cultures and classes one finds crammed onto many subway cars.
All are summed up sometimes in the announcements that squawk out over the public address as I step onto the train.
“This is a Manhattan-bound A train,” I hear with childish excitement. “Next stop:
Stand. Clear. Of the closing-doors!” High
Sunday, 2 February 2014
My neighbour looked at me aghast as I wheeled my bike in through the door of our apartment building, accompanied by a sharp blast of the well-below-freezing air outside. “You’re officially crazy,” he said. The guy who sits next to me at work took a similar view another day, “You didn’t bike in today, did you?” He was persuaded I had only when I shook my water bottle – with lumps of ice from the freezing journey - at him. Yet another day, a woman from another department of my company, who never talks to me, approached me to demand, “Bet you didn’t ride in today, did you?”
|Snow swirls in SoHo: definitely a "defying|
the laws of physics" day as far as I'm concerned
All of my interlocutors shared the view of probably the vast majority of New Yorkers about cycling in the depths of a harsh winter – that it’s not only impractical but a little bit wrong or insane even to try. The sentiment seems all the more dispiriting for being so often expressed with a kind of glee: “Ha! So that’s put a stop to your little cycling experiment, hasn’t it?” Riding to work is only a hobby, go the none-too-subtly expressed subtexts. It’s a lifestyle choice that I can and should reverse at the slightest provocation.
However, the ferocity of the current New York winter – which has seen me cycle to work in temperatures of -13C (9F), with windchill making it feel like -23C (-9F) - has forced me to re-examine my view that I can cycle to work pretty much every day during winter. For a solid week recently, slush lay stubbornly on the roads, unmelted as temperatures remained below freezing, making any attempt at cycle commuting feel foolhardy.
I’m consequently working on a new principle. I’m happy to fight the forces of nature, I’ve decided, but won’t defy the laws of physics. The challenge now is to work out which days fall into which categories.
|Piles of snow days after a snowfall. It's not|
picturesque, but it's not dangerous either
It’s not all bad, after all, trying to ride a bike in winter in
New York City.
Last winter, my first as a New York resident,
I was delighted to discover some advantages of the city’s winters over the less
cold ones through which I’d cycled in London.
Because the temperature would stay below freezing for days at a time, snow
cleared from the roads generally stayed cleared rather than melting,
refreezing and turning into icy slush. Because the air was less damp, on
snowless days temperatures could plunge far below freezing without producing
the thin coating of black ice customary on London streets in such weather.
Every night for a whole week last winter, I’d ride across the Brooklyn Bridge on the way home, glance at the big thermometer perched atop the Watchtower building by the bridge and see temperatures no higher than -8C (17F). I managed an 18-mile round trip in such temperatures by putting on more layers than normal, I told myself. What winter weather was likely to stop me?
It’s a question to which I’ve had a few clear answers this winter. One morning, for example, I decided that the previous snow was now so well cleared that it was safe to try riding to work. Part way across the
, I discovered the peril of
judging conditions by roads already warmed by hundreds of cars. The snow on the
bridge, I discovered, had half-melted then frozen again as water on each of the
hundreds of wooden boards making up the bridge’s walkway. Even walking the
remaining mile or so across the ice sheet to Brooklyn Bridge Manhattan was a desperately slow, laborious
process. Another morning, relieved to be cycling to work after a few days
thwarted by snow and ice-covered roads, I emerged from my apartment to discover
freezing rain was falling. The sidewalk below my feet was already slick with
ice. Back to the apartment went the bike. Shoulders down and gingerly to the
subway station went I. The morning my neighbour told me I was crazy, I was
actually returning, crestfallen, from the briefest of attempts at cycle
commuting. Finding that, three days after a big snowfall, residual snow on the
road felt so slippery I was fearful of going any further, I was returning my
bike to my apartment and heading, yet again, for the shelter of the F Train.
|A delivery cyclist in the snow: oblivious to his effect|
on my self-esteem.
At its worst, this run of weather has left me feeling something not far short of a crisis of identity. I feel like myself when I ride my bike to work and not when I don’t. “Ha, ha, ha!” say my nastiest inner demons. “You present yourself as a tough, bold fearless cyclist and you haven’t been on your bike in a week! You’re probably on the brink of ditching cycling forever and commuting all the time by subway!” The lack of my wonted exercise has certainly left me feeling fidgety and sluggish a lot of the time. I even had a day off sick last week – for the first time in at least two years. I am, I tell myself, just another unfit, middle-aged man resenting a commute in the kind of proximity to strangers that I’d normally consider with no-one but my wife. At lunchtime, I’ve looked mournfully at delivery cyclists, marvelling at their ability to handle their bikes on the snow and ice and cursed myself for not being prepared to do the same. I’m even cursing myself by comparison with my past self. Is this, I ask myself, the same man who rode home from work through a blizzard in
in January 2009? Or is it a mere pale imitation of him?
Two full months of harsh winter gone by, however, and I am, perhaps, finally coming to some kind of radical acceptance. My caution, I keep telling myself, is largely warranted. Men of six foot five on touring bikes have, after all, a high centre of gravity and limited purchase on the road. It’s probably a risk not worth taking.
My readiness to withstand the low temperatures is also, I tell myself, a bit beyond most other people’s. On that coldest morning, when it felt like -23 C, I not only found that my water bottle had frozen solid by the time I arrived but that my gears stopped working properly, as the grease I’d used to lubricate them started to freeze. Mornings such as that have counterbalanced the days I’ve felt a failure for slinking off to the subway. While they wouldn’t seem extraordinary to cyclists from cold-weather cycle-friendly countries such as
they give a temperate-climate cyclist such as me the illusion of having
achieved something by riding to work.
I was delighted in a recent Transportation Alternatives video to find some
other cyclists feel the same.
|Hoyt-Schermerhorn station's A Train platform one recent,|
snowy morning. This was on a morning when the subway
claimed to be offering "good service" on this line.
As for the feeling that I might be tempted to switch permanently to the subway, I’m always surprised by how quickly it evaporates. Certainly, the subway itself has done its part in that direction. On Friday, minor problems on the A Train produced vast crowds at the station where I needed to change trains. On the worst of the recent snow-affected nights, I found myself trapped for 40 minutes on a train stopped on a viaduct 50 yards from my house but unable to get off. The entire journey home – at most 45 minutes by bike – took two hours.
Yet being on my bike is a still bigger factor in changing my outlook. There remains a skill to riding in the cold even on the days when it’s not prohibitively dangerous. I’ll glide over this ice patch then swerve round the next one, I tell myself. I try to distinguish leftover snow from gritting salt. I devise strategies to get my gears moving again when they’re gumming up. Most of all, I enjoy how extreme cold brings out yet another face of the city. I see ice floes packed by the banks of the
River and notice how professionally the city’s people wrap up for such
|Brooklyn in winter: sure, I took this picture from the subway|
station. But days when I ride in winter I see far more
of this crisp, beautiful light.
It may, I suppose, seem a little crazy to far more people than just my neighbour and my gloating colleagues. There are mornings when I certainly feel less stressed to be letting the subway worry about the weather conditions for me. But there are other mornings. They’re mornings where I negotiate the ice patches at the start of the
Bridge bike path, ride out over the
river and am confronted with New York
in one of her most beautiful moods. Thin whisps of steam spiral up from
chimneys into a clear blue sky and the low sun shines the crispest, clearest
light imaginable on the city, casting buildings half into bright sunlight and
half into deep shadow.
I ride over the crest of the bridge such mornings and down towards the star anise smell of Chinatown’s restaurants and tell myself: if this is crazy I barely really want to be sane.
Sunday, 19 January 2014
New York Police Department,
1 Police Plaza,
January 19, 2014
Dear Commissioner Bratton,
Vision Zero and Statistics
Congratulations on your appointment as NYPD commissioner. Like many New Yorkers, I feel optimistic based on most of your public statements that you’re determined to build on the progress made on public safety in your previous term at the department. I am particularly optimistic that you are determined, at last, to set about reducing the appalling toll of death and injury that motor vehicles exact from New Yorkers every year.
I wanted to pick you up, however, on a puzzling statement on January 15 at the launch press conference for the mayor’s Vision Zero initiative. You said pedestrians contributed to causing 73 per cent of pedestrian-motor vehicle collisions last year and that pedestrian actions were directly responsible for 66 per cent of those collisions. It’s a figure that on my reading of the figures is demonstrably incorrect. I fear that, if the NYPD genuinely thinks this figure reflects reality, it could seriously distort the department’s efforts to reduce the grim toll of unnecessary suffering on our city’s streets.
|Waiting for a new boss: NYPD officers|
outside the new mayor's inauguration
I would be interested to know the basis for your assertion – and grateful if you could put the figure right if, as I am sure it is, it is mistaken.
Your figure is implausible to start with. It implies that motorists - who stand almost no chance of injury in a collision with a pedestrian, often drive at high speed and are easily distracted – are more solicitous of pedestrians’ safety than the pedestrians themselves. That seems at variance with my experience of human nature as well as with my observation that pedestrians are generally watchful when crossing city streets and motorists often cavalier when driving on them.
The statistic is also starkly at odds with all the research I’ve read either in
New York or elsewhere on
the causes of crashes between motor vehicles and vulnerable road users –
pedestrians and bicyclists. For example, a study published in 2013 by NYU Langone Medical Center found that 44 per cent of pedestrians treated for injuries after collisions had
been hit in a crosswalk while crossing with the light. Another 6 per cent were
hit on the sidewalk. Given that some of the other victims will also have been
the victims of driver negligence – hit in unsignalised crosswalks, for example –
it is clear the majority of studied crashes were mainly drivers’ fault.
|Typically dangerous pedestrian behaviour:|
A more comprehensive study, published in 2010 by the city’s own Department of Transportation, attributed blame for 36 per cent of crashes that killed or seriously injured pedestrians to driver inattention. It attributed another 27 per cent to motorists’ failure to yield and said vehicle speed was a major contributor to 21 per cent of crashes. The DoT study reinforces the impression that, while pedestrians undoubtedly cause some crashes, they are probably mainly to blame for only a quarter or so of incidents.
Around the world, a number of research studies have reached strikingly similar conclusions. Many have attributed blame for crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists to motorists in around 75 per cent of cases. For example, in
London, where I lived and cycled for nine years until
August 2012, a Transport for London
study of every reported motorist-cyclist collision in 2010 attributed blame for around 74 per cent of the crashes to motorists. Motorists’
inattentiveness, excessive speed and impatience are the main killers in every
industrialised country of which I’m aware. It's unlikely New York City is a freakish exception.
|It might look to you like the outcome of negligent speed:|
but there's an NYPD statistician who probably thinks
some pedestrian caused this.
Your assertion also seems at odds with the evidence of the fatal crashes involving pedestrians so far this year. I’ve been able to glean enough information about four of the fatal pedestrian crashes up until Friday 17 to guess how blame might be allocated. In only one – the death of Xiaoci Hu, killed on January 2 when a car ran into the back of another car that had slowed down to let him cross mid-block – does the pedestrian appear to have carried even a portion of the blame. The driver who struck Mosa Khatun on January 5 in Jamaica was charged with failure to yield; the driver who hit Nydja Herring on January 11 in Parkchester has reportedly been charged with aggravated driving while intoxicated; numerous witnesses attest that the driver who killed Cooper Stock on January 11 hit him and his father in a crosswalk as they crossed with the light.
Streetsblog, the campaigning website, calculates your department coded only between 7 and 8 per cent of crashes involving pedestrians or cyclists in the first 11 months last year as having resulted from pedestrian or cyclist confusion or error.
My concern is that a mistaken understanding of the present crisis’ causes could lead the NYPD to pursue mistaken or counterproductive measures to halt it. If pedestrian behaviour were indeed the cause of most pedestrian/car crashes, it would be worthwhile and effective to work harder at changing pedestrian behaviour. I note there are already reports of a police crackdown on “jaywalking” around the area on
street in Manhattan
where there has been a cluster of casualties this year. I can imagine it will
be tempting for local police precincts to seek in any crackdown to tackle
pedestrians and cyclists since they are, by their nature, easier to catch and
prosecute than drivers of fast-moving cars.
If, however, cars cause the majority of crashes involving pedestrians and cyclists, it will make far more sense to work at controlling drivers’ speed and ensuring they yield when required to do so. I am worried that, with the crackdown on the
Upper West Side, you are beginning to pursue a
pedestrian-focused strategy – one that targets the victims and not the perpetrators.
|The new mayor during his campaign: before he had a police|
commissioner to explain how pedestrians were
My personal conviction is that a concerted effort to tackle the traffic crisis’ real causes could yield dramatic results quickly. During my nine years in
London, I covered transport issues in the UK and
elsewhere for the Financial Times, winning several awards. London,
which has a similar population to New York’s
and similar traffic volumes, suffers only half the annual traffic fatalities that New York does. Motorists’ adherence to speed limits and other road rules is noticeably
more lax in New York City than in London. I see no reason
why the introduction to New York of systematic
speed enforcement and a general culture of respect for road rules should not
quickly bring New York’s fatality levels
closer to London’s.
I look forward to hearing from you about your figure’s origin and how it is affecting your policies. I would of course be delighted to speak with you or your officials about my concerns.
The NYPD and other city agencies have it within their grasp to save hundreds of New Yorkers’ lives every year. It would be a tragedy if apparently mistaken data led you to pass that opportunity up,
Monday, 13 January 2014
It was one Saturday in November that I happened upon one of
South Brooklyn’s most thoroughly dysfunctional streets.
Seeking to take the Invisible Visible Boy for a trip to Brooklyn’s shorefront
greenway, I naively followed the cycle route signs pointing me down Brooklyn’s 3rd
Avenue towards the waterfront bike path. But,
after a little while, as I rode southward with the boy behind me on his trailer
bike, we found ourselves grappling with high-speed traffic heading onto and coming
off the highways around us.
|The sign that tricked me into cycling down|
3rd Avenue. To be fair, it doesn't read
Sunset Park (via traffic dystopia).
Then, as we rode into
Park – a stretch of Brooklyn along New York’s harbour front, looking across to Staten Island - 3rd
avenue plunged into the shadow of the Gowanus
Expressway. The din of overhead traffic always in our ears, we found ourselves constantly
buzzed by high speed vehicles or cut off by cars turning into or out of auto
repair shops. The street seemed like as complete an example as one could
imagine of a street designed for motor vehicles with no thought for human
So it was a shock when I discovered that, until 1941,
in was the heart of a thriving
community. The street was famous for its restaurants and the food shops that
supplied the area’s people – who were mainly immigrants from Sunset Park Norway, Sweden
and Finland. According to The Power Broker, Robert Caro’s classic biography of
Robert Moses, builder of much of modern New
York, it was only in 1941 with the opening of the Gowanus Parkway - since substantially widened and turned into an expressway - that it
started the decline into traffic-dominated squalor.
Moses insisted, despite pleas from the residents, on building his parkway above
Avenue when it would have done far less damage
above 2nd avenue,
nearer the already industrialised waterfront. Moses dismissed the poor but
proud community in as a slum and
consequently not worth saving. Sunset
I’ve been pondering the Moses story particularly intensely recently as I've noticed how often powerful individuals shape places’ urban fabric – and particularly people’s ability to get around those places easily and safely. That’s in part because of the end of the term in power of Michael Bloomberg, mayor of
York for 12 years until December 31, and the start of
the term of Bill de Blasio. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner, Janette
Sadik-Khan, pushed strongly for the introduction of new, better bike lanes
and pedestrian plazas, chipping away at some of the damage Robert Moses did by
making the city so dependent on cars. Bloomberg’s successor has promised to
continue making decisive changes on the city’s streets. It was part of his
election platform – and critical to winning his endorsement by StreetsPac, the
safer streets action group – that he promised to work towards eliminating pedestrian deaths altogether.
|The George Washington Bridge over the Hudson:|
the world's biggest political plaything?
London, it’s becoming steadily clearer that
the efforts of the mayor, Boris Johnson, to provide both better cycling and
walking conditions and faster journeys for motor vehicles are collapsing under
the weight of their internal contradictions. In Toronto,
it’s one of the emblems of Toronto’s
general civic tragedy that its clownish, crack-smoking mayor has ripped out
some important cycle lanes. Over the past week, I’ve been watching how
political operatives in New Jersey used traffic congestion to punish the mayor of Fort Lee, a small town by the , apparently for
supporting the wrong candidate in the state’s gubernatorial election. George Washington
Taken together, the various cases illuminate some core principles. It’s important that leaders have a clear vision for how they want their cities’ transport systems to work and that they’re prepared to tackle forthrightly the kind of obstructionism that almost any significant change to the urban fabric creates. But it’s also vital that those plans are based in a real, solid understanding of what’s going on at street level, that they’re flexible when there are serious concerns and that the plans are carried out within the rules of the political game. Leaders need to exercise the self-discipline to put long-term policy goals ahead of the need to have concrete successes to show before the next election.
Moses – who wielded power over aspects of transport and planning in
and City in various forms from 1924 to 1968 – provides the most spectacular examples of what can
go wrong. In New York
State , he pushed the
elevated highway down Sunset
avenue because, he claimed, the existence there of
structures supporting a recently-demolished elevated rail line would make
construction along the avenue cheaper. But that probably wasn’t as decisive as
his simple conviction that the people of
were dispensable. It’s a principle he followed all over Sunset Park New York City and State when he encountered
people or environments for which he didn’t care. The more one knows about
Moses, the more one spots around the city problems – whether clogged,
disruptive freeways, crumbling subway lines or ugly, unsuitable public housing
projects – that could have been avoided if Robert Moses had been made to obey the
same rules about planning and due process that others followed. Cyclists pedal on a dedicated lane over Copenhagen's
Dronning Louise Bridge. Key difference between these
lanes and London's Cycle "Superhighways": those in
Copenhagen are good, effective public policy.
On a far smaller scale, Boris Johnson’s initiative in
London to build “Cycle Superhighways” along main roads exhibits a Moses-like deafness to criticism. No
cyclist shown plans for the “superhighways” – which are mostly simply painted blue strips along frighteningly busy roads – could have avoided concluding that riders using them would be terrifyingly vulnerable to the
neighbouring traffic. The desire to have achievements to show in the mayor’s
first term and a wish to devise a cycling policy distinctively different from
that of Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson’s predecessor, seem to have trumped any urge for
mature reflection, however. Livingstone had developed the London Cycle Network of quiet routes along back streets.
The Cycle Superhighways look embarrassingly inadequate when compared with the bike lane that Janette Sadik-Khan championed around a mile away from the worst of
Avenue, along Prospect Park West in Park Slope. The
two-way protected lane illustrates, partly, the value of clear thinking and
good planning. The lane wasn’t built by pretending, as Boris Johnson has with the
Cycle Superhighways, that bike facilities can be built with no effect on motor
cars. It took away a lane of car traffic. Sadik-Khan, who had a strong record
of listening to the community boards that provide New York neighbourhoods with
a voice on planning issues, defended the decision to build the lane in the face
of legal action that has now rumbled on for years but served only to highlight
how well worked-out and widely supported the original policy was. Her stance
puts Boris Johnson’s insistence on following incompatible goals in his roads
policy to shame.
Boris Johnson, however, has at least largely avoided the ultimate transport policy error – of taking steps for purely short-term political reasons. Those seem to have been the motives for the closure for four days starting last September 9 of two of the three access lanes from the town of
Fort Lee, New Jersey,
onto the busy George Washington Bridge
to New York City.
An official in the office of Chris Christie, New Jersey’s
Republican governor, seems to have ordered the closures to choke Fort Lee with traffic after the town’s Democratic mayor
endorsed the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Barbara Buono. The incident –
which held up school buses and emergency vehicles, as well as thousands trying
to get to work – was one of the most serious moral failings of transport policy
practice I’ve ever come across. New Jersey
appointees on the board of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the bridge’s operators, seem
entirely to have lost sight of the reason for the bridge’s existence and seen
it purely as a political tool.
Bill de Blasio fortunately seems unlikely ever to lapse into such downright political cynicism. It was in a supportive spirit that I and some other people concerned about road safety turned up outside his inauguration ceremony on January 1 to remind him of his commitment to cut road deaths. There’s a clear sense of optimism abroad that Mr de Blasio and Bill Bratton, his new police commissioner, might have the courage to start tackling New York City’s appalling road safety record – at the time of writing, the city has already suffered nine traffic fatalities this year. Polly Trottenberg, Sadik-Khan’s successor, even came out ahead of the inauguration to talk to the Vision Zero activists and to hear the heart-rending stories of some of the bereaved parents who were there.
But, however optimistic the mood on January 1, I couldn’t help wishing I’d been able to take Mr de Blasio with me on the trip I’d taken the previous day, for a family trip to the New York Botanic Garden. To get to the garden, more than 20 miles from my Brooklyn home, I rode up by Robert Moses’ Hudson River Parkway, taking in how it had cut nearly all western Manhattan off from the city’s stunningly beautiful Hudson River waterfront.
I rode under the
glancing up to take in the traffic conditions. Then, towards Manhattan’s
|Two of the three cars that crashed in northern Manhattan|
on Mike Bloomberg's last day as mayor: just another
part of the legacy handed Mayor de Blasio
A scene we would have encountered on the way back would have been just as instructive. On Broadway, by the bridge leading from the
Bronx – which Moses’ road was meant to free from traffic –
I found a long traffic jam. At its head were three cars, crashed into each
This, I might have told the soon-to-be-mayor, is the legacy you’ve been handed. It’s a city still reeling from a mad effort to make it almost entirely dependent on the private car - and plagued by regular, serious car crashes as a result.
“Please remember the lessons of all the bad and weak leaders who made it like this,” I’d have begged him. “Please try to make it at least a little better.”
Monday, 23 December 2013
A Brooklyn Heights commuter, an untimely Queens death - and how attitudes to roads might be the least of our problems
I’ve come across few sights on
New York City streets that excited such mixed feelings in
me as the one I encountered one morning last month on Clinton Street in .
Just in front of me in the cycle lane on the street, which fills up with cars
and taxis every morning, was the only child – he was probably ten or 11 – I’ve
ever encountered riding on his own to school in Brooklyn Heights New York City on the road.
I was, on one level, hugely excited. It would be an enormous improvement for every city in the industrialised world if the queues outside schools in the morning were of children waiting to park their bikes, not sports utility vehicles waiting to double-park. The boy had clearly been thoroughly trained and looked attentively from side to side at every junction.
But I also, I’ll confess, felt fearful. Motorists are apt to turn left or right suddenly on
Clinton St or lurch into the cycle lane
to avoid a suddenly-stopped taxi.
Drivers are prone to driving through the slow-moving traffic texting or
sending emails. Car doors are apt to spring open or pedestrians to step into
the street without looking. Knowing my own concerns about using the street, I willed
the young man to make it to school safely. He eventually did.
That young boy’s been back in my mind since I heard on Friday about another boy going to school elsewhere in
New York who didn’t make
On Friday morning, Mauricio Osorio-Palaminos, a truck driver, drove his truck out of 61st street in Queens left onto Northern Boulevard, cut well onto the side of the street for oncoming traffic and caught Noshat Nahian, eight, with the trailer’s rear wheels. Noshat, who was hurrying to school with his 11-year-old sister, died shortly afterwards in hospital.
The street Osorio-Palaminos was leaving was not, as far as I can tell, a designated truck route. Pictures showed his truck far over to the wrong side of the road. The driver was also the second in recent weeks to kill a pedestrian in
New York City while driving commercially with
a suspended licence.
Yet commenters on online news reports about the death homed in instead on police reports that Noshat had his hood up and was looking down when hit. There was abuse for his parents. One commenter said Noshat must have been looking for “suicide by truck”.
Noshat’s death is at least the 11th of a pedestrian under 13 so far this year in
New York. Many people’s instinctive reaction
has been to blame the victims.
In November, I attended a rally in
Brooklyn, calling for enforcement of traffic
laws after a speeding driver killed Lucian Merryweather, nine, on a sidewalk. The rally heard a brave and heartbreaking speech
from the mother of Samuel Cohen Eckstein, 12, who died in October when a car
hit him on a crosswalk on Prospect Park West in Brooklyn.
She was speaking a few days after what should have been Samuel’s bar mitvah.
Many internet commenters on Samuel’s death focused on how he was hit after going after a ball that had bounced into the street. They ignored how he had the light when he entered the crosswalk. Several cars stopped for him before a speeding van hit him.
The father of Allison Liao, three, who was killed in October crossing the street in Flushing,
Queens, looked on, weeping, as Samuel’s mother
spoke. Initial reports on Allison’s death
focused on how she had allegedly broken away while crossing the road from her
grandmother, who was holding her hand. Yet Allison’s family insist she was
holding her grandmother’s hand – and the driver who hit her barged through the
crosswalk when he should have yielded.
The circumstances of Noshat’s death are very similar to those surrounding the death in
Harlem in February of Amar Diarassouba, a seven-year-old. He also died under a truck’s rear
wheels as he headed to school. Erik Mayor, a restaurateur whose business is near the
crash site, despicably tried to blame that crash on Amar’s older brother,
saying he “wasn’t paying attention.” The driver involved had, as
in other cases, driven through a crosswalk when he should have yielded.
They’re stories that won’t surprise many adults who walk or cycle around
New York City
– or any other big city in the United
States. When I cross streets on foot, vehicles
constantly barge through crosswalks when I have the light in my favour. I have
found myself caught unawares by the line a truck’s rear wheels have taken
through a crosswalk and been forced to jump backwards out of the way.
On my bike, on the
bike lane in Manhattan,
I need constantly to look over my shoulder at westbound cross-streets, knowing
that cars will try to turn across my path. I have to signal forcefully to drivers
to stop if they’re behaving dangerously. I need the sixth sense of the
experienced urban cyclist to spot the vehicles that are about to pull out
without looking from a parking space.
There’s an invidious assumption that, if children can’t at least match my skills at navigating streets, they shouldn’t be on the streets at all. The attitude is sometimes reminiscent of the sexual harassment that faces single women in some places in southern
Europe. Anyone silly enough to enter the environment, it
seems to be assumed, is fair game for any untoward consequences. A responsible
parent, it’s assumed, transports his or
her children by car, prioritising their safety over that of others.
|A cyclist on 55th Street in Manhattan. Remember: if|
anything bad happens to a kid in this traffic,
it's probably the kid's fault.
Looked at dispassionately, however, the adults are behaving like stereotypical children. Many of my closest calls are with drivers who simply lose patience with waiting and pull out without looking from a traffic line. Most parents try to teach their children the kind of patience that drivers who drive while using their mobile telephones haven’t learned. Children are encouraged to face up to their responsibilities – yet many commercial trucking companies seem to employ unlicensed drivers. The police seem to shirk their duty to hold the worst drivers accountable.
I’ve come across plenty of children taking road rules far more seriously than many adults. The boy pedalling down
was paying far more attention to road conditions than most of the motorists.
Esme Bauer, a young woman from , was one of the
most powerful speakers at the rally I attended in November. Fort
Many of the adults seem to be products of recent decades when parents feared to teach their children to navigate the streets. Having grown up with parents scared to let them out on the streets, they now sit, sucking their teeth, in their cars. Why, they wonder, are these children wandering about on the streets? What are their parents thinking?
It’s a cycle that it’s obvious needs to be broken. Enforcement, road layout and general attitudes all need to improve to rebalance streets policy in favour of the pedalling boy commuter of
Clinton St and away
from the bad drivers around him.
It’s a question that goes far beyond transport policy, however. The disdain with which I saw some internet commenters react to Noshat’s death toppled over, it seemed to me, into expressing a generalised contempt for the weak and powerless. It’s an ugly attitude at the best of times. In this case, it was being expressed the week before Christmas about a young Bangladeshi immigrant crushed by a truck as he headed to take part in his public school’s holiday play.
In a city where someone can accuse such a young man of wanting “suicide by truck,” I’m tempted to conclude that New York’s transport problems are, perhaps, only a symptom – albeit a serious one – of a wider social malaise.
Sunday, 8 December 2013
It was near a Path subway station in
Jersey City that I encountered a ripple from
a wave of sloppy thinking currently sweeping the English-speaking world. On a
corner on Grove St,
one of the city’s main thoroughfares, a woman wearing a high-visibility vest
approached me and thrust a leaflet into my hand.
The pamphlet contained a series of safety rules for pedestrians – among them “Cross at corners and intersections” and “Before crossing look left, right,then left again”– and threats of fines for pedestrians who broke the rules. There were also instructions to drivers. But, even as motorists barged past people crossing right by her, the woman kept thrusting the leaflets solely on people walking.
The implicit assumption is clear. Vulnerable road users are vulnerable not primarily because they lack protection from the behaviour of motor vehicles but through their own irrational actions. Pedestrians wander heedless, according to this analysis, into the path of cars, whose drivers can scarcely be expected to miss them. Cars hit cyclists primarily because cyclists ignore red lights. It’s a view one can find repeated online in the comments under pretty much any news article about road safety – especially if it concerns bikes.
Yet the worry should be precisely that crashes occur despite the best efforts of vulnerable road users to behave rationally – and because motorists correctly feel themselves largely invulnerable. A study by researchers at
Melbourne University, in Australia, found that 88.9 per cent of cyclists in a study were behaving safely and legally before collisions,
near-collisions or “incidents” recorded on their helmet cameras. The figures
tally with those in a Transport for London
study of all the recorded injuries and deaths of cyclists from collisions with cars during 2010. The London
study suggests around 74 per cent were the motorist’s fault, while the Australian
researchers blamed the motorists for 87 per cent of the incidents. Studies from
around the world regularly seem to find motorists to blame in around 75 per
cent of bike/car crashes.
For pedestrians, a study in
New York found that 44 per cent of those injured by cars were hit when in a marked crosswalk while crossing with the light, while another 6 per cent were hit on the sidewalk. Given that many of
the other crashes will also be a result of motorist negligence, a clear
majority of crashes involving pedestrians also appear to be the fault of the
Pedestrians and cyclists appear, in other words, to behave like people who have a lot at stake on the roads and to take their own safety seriously. The crash on November 25 in
East New York
that killed Maude Savage seems, according to these studies, to be fairly
typical. A surveillance video shows Ms Savage, a 72-year-old pedestrian,
waiting and looking carefully before crossing, with the lights in her favour. A
van then speeds around the corner and through the crosswalk, hitting her at
speed. Robert Brown, the van driver, seems, to judge by the video, to have been
driving like someone who recognised that, for him, the consequences of hitting
a pedestrian wouldn’t be that serious. As things stand, it probably makes more
sense for a busy technician like him – he was working for a cable TV company - to
prioritise speed over avoiding a crash.
|Cars on a crosswalk in midtown Manhattan.|
The cars realise it's vital not to impede uptown progress
on 6th Avenue. So they block the crosswalk.
As with many road safety issues, however, many politicians and police officers seem to base their reaction to vulnerable road users’ deaths mainly on gut instinct and intuition. It’s often easy to sense frustration – “Why won’t these cyclists just get in a car or ride on the subway like everyone else?” Lord James of Blackheath, a Conservative peer, took such thinking to its logical – and absurd – extreme on November 22 when he claimed in a House of Lords debate that cyclists longed to be knocked down – to get motorists into trouble.
Even among people trying to make ostensibly saner points than Lord James, there’s considerable misunderstanding about where the risks lie. Politicians and police officers regularly whine about how cyclists allegedly cause crashes by ignoring red lights – but the Transport for
London study found
cyclists’ failure to obey a light was a contributory factor in only 61 crashes –
against 2,650 involving motorists’ failure to look properly. It wasn’t
significantly more common for cyclists to cause crashes by running lights than
motorists – a motorist’s failure to obey a light was a contributory factor in
36 crashes. There’s a powerful tendency for policymakers to connect behaviour
they observe – “some cyclists run red lights!” – to the
death toll, without any further examination.
There are certainly things that cyclists and pedestrians can do to protect themselves. In the Transport for
safety study, the top cause of crashes caused by cyclists was “failed to look
properly,” just as it was for cars. “Failed to judge other person’s path or
speed” was the second most common cause of crashes for both cyclists and
drivers, while “careless/reckless/in a hurry” was number three for both. The Melbourne study of cycle
crashes found that cyclists who looked over their shoulders a lot were least
likely to be involved in crashes. There is clearly a great deal to be gained
for any vulnerable road user through keeping keenly alert and watching out for
the negligent behaviour of others.
Most people certainly make some trade-off in their road behaviour between convenience and safety. It’s surely worthwhile for the people with most to lose through a crash to let safety rule their judgement all the time – if only because it’s clear that people protected by metal shells feel free to prioritise their own convenience over other people’s lives. Last Sunday, riding down Garfield Place in Park Slope, I heard a woman in a car behind honking at me so violently that I, unusually, pulled over into the parked cars’ door zone so that she could squeeze past. “You should be over to one side!” she screamed at me as she zipped past too close, her face contorted with rage. The mismatch of concerns was precisely the one the TfL and Melbourne studies would suggest it might be. She was anxious I might hold her up by a few seconds. I was concerned her car might crush me to death.
Yet the fact remains that
New Jersey’s police forces, the New York
Police Department and Metropolitan Police are all placing a lot of the emphasis in their road policing efforts on berating the victims rather than the perpetrators of crashes. The tactic is
reminiscent of the times – sadly, not too long ago in some places – where the
answer to preventing sexual assault was meant to be to stop women walking alone
at night or wearing “provocative” clothing. It’s a tactic that, by the nature
of what causes the crashes, can never work. It’s patronising and demeaning.
The correct solution is hiding in the plain sight of that TfL report and
simply aren’t enough incentives for motorists to care as much about vulnerable
people’s safety as they care about, say, making that important ‘phone call. The
driver who ran into Maude Savage appears, according to Streetsblog, the
campaigning site, to face no more than a $500 fine or 30 days’ jail, for
example. He faces that only because he turned out not to have a driving licence. It will
be only when drivers face a good chance of heavy fines, losing their licences
or imprisonment for negligent driving that the convenience/safety trade-off
will start favouring safety more often. Melbourne
Yet the chances of a big change in attitude soon seem remote. Appeals for everyone to “share the road” have the advantage of seeming even-handed and fair. Pleas for vulnerable road users to look after themselves better have the advantage of addressing those with most interest in improving road safety, even if they miss those best placed to improve the position. The alternative is to start acting on the reality of the picture that the research paints. That is that private motor vehicles – the dominant form of transport in most developed countries – pose big risks to those around them, and most drivers drive as if they didn’t. That seems like the kind of truth that politicians will put off addressing for as long as they possibly can.