As I wheeled my bike towards the junction of
Reade Street and
West Broadway in lower ,
I looked round at the three lanes of traffic waiting at the intersection. Many
of them were big, mean-looking concrete mixers and other trucks servicing the
area’s post-9/11 reconstruction effort. They would be roaring after me the
moment the lights changed. Then I glanced at the road surface – a peculiarly Manhattan mixture of
steel plates and potholes. The sky was so dark with a looming thunder storm
that I’d put my lights on, at 11.30am on a summer’s day. I felt my lower
stomach start to knot up as I fretted about whether, confronted by this, I’d
remember to manoeuvre correctly. New York New York,
after all, drives on the other side of the road from , where I’ve done the vast bulk of my
urban cycling. Long story short, I was scared. London
At its very worst, such fear can be self-reinforcing. At one
point yesterday evening, unsure both of the line I should be taking on the road
and the behaviour of a looming taxi driver, I dithered, wobbling about – and
succeeded in both irritating the driver and making myself feel more nervous
still. It’s when intimidated like that that I sometimes let drivers force me
too close to the side of the road, before passing aggressively and too close.
Nervousness over the close pass then makes things still worse.
|The South Street bike lanes could seem scary -|
or romantically urban, depending on mood
My moment of fear on Monday morning was not the first I’ve experienced over riding my bike in heavy traffic. Unless my fears were so well-founded I’m crushed tomorrow by a truck, it probably won’t be the last. Fear is, at the very least, an understandable emotion for a person riding a light, human-powered vehicle among big, heavy, fast-moving vehicles. It plays an even more important role in the thinking about cycling of people who don’t do it. In most countries with low cycling levels, non-cyclists give fears about safety as their main reason for refraining. Safety worries are a popular excuse at least partly because they sound less lame than admitting one’s lazy. But it’s also reasonable to assume that fear is paralysing a fair proportion of potential riders out of taking to the roads.
I didn’t, however, ditch my old hybrid for the subway. I instead swung my leg over the saddle, headed off down Reade and was soon enjoying a remarkably smooth and speedy ride by the Hudson River Greenway towards my new office.
Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I am impressed with human beings’ irrationality. They consistently let their emotional instincts – the feeling emanating from the guts that I felt knotting on Monday – dictate to higher brain centres.
People particularly consistently miscalculate the risks involved in getting about. Many pedestrians, for example, feel themselves genuinely at risk from cyclists. They vastly underestimate, meanwhile, the extent of the risks motor vehicles present to them.
Yet human beings enjoy such long lives partly because they also have some healthy fears – and strong instincts to avoid the biggest risks. The trick, it seems to me, is to sift the warnings from the useful instinct from the constraining voice of the irrational one.
It was after I narrowly avoided an inattentive car in
the weekend before
last that the distinction between my own fear types struck me. I was cycling
north through Tooting along part of one of London’s ironically-named Cycle
Superhighways when a vehicle suddenly turned out of a traffic jam into my path.
Jamming on my brakes, I screamed at the driver to watch, managed to swerve - and
narrowly avoided being hit. London
The physical danger bothered me far less than what followed, however. Surrounding motorists either shouted angrily at me for having stopped and held them up or shouted mocking abuse over how I had reacted. They were expressing the kind of unrestrained, uncivilised venom and cruelty that surfaces in the worst kind of school playground. Having comprehensively failed to handle such environments well as a child, I reverted to being the little boy of nearly 40 years ago. I felt a pathetic, weak instinct to curl up in a ball and weep. The personal cruelty and anger – which posed no real threat – had got to me far more than the physical danger.
|Taxis rush past the New York Central Building:|
they're almost certainly not hurrying to the aid of a stricken cyclist,
the Invisible Visible Man can confirm.
Something similar was at work as I prepared to embark on my current house-hunting expedition to
New York –
and my forthcoming full-time move across the Atlantic.
The sheer venom of most of the comments accompanying any article about cycling –
including coverage of accidents affecting entirely blameless cyclists at the
hands of hit-and-run drivers – has, I will admit, intimidated me. New York New York as a city seems still more irritated than by the effrontery
of anyone trying to navigate the city on two, human-powered wheels. Many of its
citizens seem openly to wish myself and my fellow cyclists harm. The emotion
picked up from those comments played on my mind. It added to my long-standing
feeling, engendered by the atmosphere of the deep, canyon-like streets, my
nervousness over following a different set of traffic rules and the London police’s
reputation as scourges of cyclists, to put me thoroughly on edge. New York City
|New York City's authorities seem, like so many city governments,|
to have only imperfectly grasped the point
that cyclists need to ride their bikes on cycleways
Yet I’ve been prepared to cope, I think, at least partly because of past periods of deep, far more rational nervousness. Having long boasted I had never been knocked off my bike in
I was hit twice in just over five weeks in early 2009, once by a motorist
turning across my path without looking - and then by a cyclist running a red
light. I found myself grasped by an almost paralysing sense of my own
vulnerability, reaching for the brakes at the slightest provocation. I
recalled, every time I did so, the sensation of being pitched suddenly down to
the tarmac. I felt again the jolt that ripples through the muscles at meeting a
sudden, unexpected physical force. London
My fear gradually distilled, however, into a habit of looking still more carefully than before for signs of sudden, unexpected movements. Even on apparently quiet roads, I now look far more than before over my shoulder, scanning the road for the next motorist seeking to cut across my path. It was at least partly because of those experiences I was able to spot, and avoid, the Inattentive Turner of Tooting.
And, of course, if avoiding fearful situations were my main priority, I wouldn’t be here in
tackling a new challenge. I’d probably never
have lived in south New
I’d certainly never have lived in London .
I’d ride my bike only down dull little paths in the country, having brought it
there specially on the roof of my car. Budapest
The truth is that fear plays a part in the tingling sensation one feels before embarking on something difficult and challenging – whether a difficult bike ride, a new job or some new relationship. It’s the risk of failure that creates the sense of intense alertness that makes them enjoyable. It’s the feeling of having conquered the fears and the difficulties that makes it satisfying to finish.
|The Invisible Visible Man's Marin Muirwoods before|
the Embarrassing Case of the Pedal Incompetence
The 65 miles or so I’ve so far cycled around
Manhattan and Brooklyn
certainly haven’t been trouble-free. It turned out, for example, that I’d
messed up screwing on and off the pedals on my old, spare bike when bringing it
on the ‘plane. A pedal fell off on Sunday in ,
thanks to stripped screw threads where it attached to the pedal cranks. Much of
the honking one hears in Prospect Heights
traffic turns out to be directed at blameless people who have merely chosen to
use their bicycles in parts of the road clearly marked for doing so. I suffered
a particularly long tirade of abuse from a man who thought I should squeeze
against the cars on a narrow road in New York so that he could
drive his RV a few inches from me. I was, after all, delaying by milliseconds
his arrival at the end of a traffic jam. I’ve cycled more slowly and carefully
than normal, listening to my useful fear about the limits of my proficiency so
far in Carroll
traffic. New York
|The Manhattan Bridge: a rare chance to race subway trains|
But I’ve taken my old bike speeding in glorious sunlight up by the Hudson River, looking over to
. I’ve climbed up and over the New
Jersey , relishing the rare prospect of
racing subway trains as we both labour over the bridge then accelerate down the
other side. I’m not yet regularly commuting over the Brooklyn Bridge, as the first ever post on this blog said I aspired to do. But I've enjoyed several times the beautiful vista from New York's oldest bridge towards the towers of lower Manhattan Bridge . I looked up the other day riding down second avenue to see the spire of the magnificent Chrysler Building looking down at me. Manhattan
Those aren’t experiences I’ve enjoyed despite my fear. They’re not feats that have required any special bravery to accomplish. But they’ve been ones that have been all the more rewarding because I’ve overcome a slug of my own cowardice on the way.