Thursday, 28 June 2012

Feeling the fear - and doing it in a scaredy way

As I wheeled my bike towards the junction of Reade Street and West Broadway in lower Manhattan, 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 New York 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, after all, drives on the other side of the road from London, where I’ve done the vast bulk of my urban cycling. Long story short, I was scared.

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 London 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.

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 New York 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 as a city seems still more irritated than London by the effrontery of anyone's 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 New York City police’s reputation as scourges of cyclists, to put me thoroughly on edge.

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
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.

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 London, 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.

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 New York tackling a new challenge. I’d probably never have lived in south London. I’d certainly never have lived in Budapest. I’d ride my bike only down dull little paths in the country, having brought it there specially on the roof of my car.

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 Prospect Heights, thanks to stripped screw threads where it attached to the pedal cranks. Much of the honking one hears in New York 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 Carroll Gardens 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 New York traffic.

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 New Jersey. I’ve climbed up and over the Manhattan Bridge, 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. I looked up the other day riding down second avenue to see the spire of the magnificent Chrysler Building looking down at me.

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.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Of Choppers, Long Haul Truckers and why cycling's future looks like its past


When I was growing up in 1970s Glasgow, the more worldly-wise boy three houses down had a far more obviously cool bike than mine. It had a big, chunky back wheel, a cushioned saddle that curved up to provide back support, high handlebars and a tiny front wheel. Anyone of a certain age from the UK will have instantly recognised from the description that my neighbour had a Raleigh Chopper.
A Raleigh Chopper: it was certainly popular -
but are its riders still on bicycles now?

There has been an outpouring of nostalgia in recent weeks in the UK over the Chopper after Alan Oakley, the man who designed the Chopper for Raleigh in the 1960s, died. Adults now in their 40s or 50s waxed lyrical over how they’d nagged their parents for a Chopper, envied other children who had them or ridden around their street on them.

The conspicuously absent stories, however, were of people riding any great distance on the bike type that, for a while, pretty much every young boy in Britain seemed to want. There were far more stories of people crashing because of the bike’s inherent instability or doing permanent damage to their crotches as they slid off the saddle onto the top tube-mounted gear lever. It could almost have been deliberately positioned, after all, to produce such injuries.

The Chopper looked, to many people at the time, like the wave of the future – but my suspicion is that it planted in many of my generation’s heads the idea that a bike was a toy motor vehicle substitute, rather than a means of transport. It was predicated on the principle that, to succeed, a bike had to look like a motor vehicle – specifically the motorbike that Peter Fonda rode in the film Easy Rider.

The Invisible Visible Man's Surly Long Haul Trucker.
This picture is making its third appearance on this blog -
but it would be churlish to cheat readers
of another chance to ogle it.
The contrast between a Chopper and the bike I mount every morning could hardly be starker. Despite being designed by the fairly “street” Surly brand, my bike, with its drop handle bars, leather Brooks saddle and conventional profile, looks as resolutely traditional as the Chopper tried  to look radical and modern. But, as a machine to ride, it boasts technology that strikes me as a miracle when I think about it – and works so smoothly I barely ever do. I can flick between gears with barely a thought, stop smartly and haul heavy loads.

Most novices nevertheless look at my bike, ask if they’ve heard correctly what I paid for it, and struggle to work out where the money went. Like the children who preferred the gimmicky Chopper to a bike that would actually take one places, they prefer something cheaper but with the flashy features that suggest the bike concerned is superior. It takes an experienced cyclist to know the value of paying out for a bike that, while as uncomplicated as possible, boasts the best possible components and materials.

But no owner of the superficially attractive but rubbishy bikes of which the Chopper was a forerunner is likely ever to become an experienced cyclist. Thousands of scrapyards’ worth of such bikes lie abandoned in cellars, garden sheds or backyards worldwide. People who thought they’d try cycling bought them because they seemed good value for money – then found the tyres were prone to punctures, the frame was heavy and the poor-quality suspension soaked up much of the effort that should have gone into moving them forward.
Nasty bikes (on the right) on Glasgow's Nithsdale Road.
WARNING: some readers may find the cheap disc brakes
and nasty suspensions in this picture distressing.

I encountered a rare excursion for a flock of such bikes on a recent visit to my family in Glasgow. I noticed some nasty-looking cheap mountain bikes clustered round a bike stand on Nithsdale Road in Pollokshields then spotted their owners – two parents and a daughter of around 10 – eating in the same restaurant we were patronising. Their meal finished, the family strapped on helmets, unlocked the bikes – and headed home up the narrow, obstructed pavement (sidewalk). Their unsatisfactory bikes were clearly barely ever used. They had yet to realise how much greater a danger cycling on the pavement – where each side street would raise the risk of a misunderstanding with a car – posed to them than cycling confidently and visibly on the area’s quiet, safe roads.

The question is what it is about bicycles’ aesthetics that leads to such perverse outcomes.

It would be nice to say it didn’t matter how a bike looked – but then I remember the reading party I attended during my third year at university. There was a discussion one afternoon of aesthetics, where a lecturer raised the question of whether it counted as art to hang a bicycle wheel on a wall. I, already a little besotted with bicycles, launched into a speech on the beauty of the relationship between the different spokes, the wheel’s combination of strength and practicality and so on. The lecturer grudgingly remarked that I might one day make a useful general cultural commentator.

It’s undoubtedly an attraction that many bicycles’ looks – the combination of strength and lightness, clear lines and the delicate meshing of a wheel’s spokes – are an uplifting example of economy and effectiveness in industrial design.

But at  the same time there’s an attraction in seeing a bike that’s been fitted out neatly to do a job. My bike has front and rear luggage racks, mudguards and a couple of different hitches for hauling children. There’s an argument that the paraphenalia represent unattractive clutter around the bike’s neat lines. But I enjoy the feeling they’re there to do a job – that they make the bicycle useful, rather than the kind of machine whose rider has to hang shopping off his handlebars. Extras start looking like clutter to my eye when they stop being useful. I experience an almost visceral aversion when I see a cheap mountain bike with nasty, low-cost springs masquerading as a suspension. Look closely enough and most such bikes feature somewhere a sticker warning the rider that it can’t safely handle jumps or rough terrain. It doesn’t, in other words, function as its form advertises it should.

A Charge Plug single-speed in the City of London.
Sure, it's uncluttered. But how will its riders' knees feel in 20 years' time?
I find the current vogue for stripped-down, single-speed or fixed-wheel bikes depressing for similar reasons. The lines may be crisp and clean – but I can’t help feeling they reflect the modern era’s pessimism about progress. People seem to have grown tired of imperfect examples of multi-geared bikes or bikes with suspension and given up on the possibility of ever doing better. Fixed-wheel bikes’ recent popularity among commuters may not represent quite the same kind of retreat from progress as radical Islamism or the US’s Tea Party movement – but I’d argue it shares a general intellectual background.

Yet even my own main bike disguises its modernity with a retro-ish cover. That’s the dominant current aesthetic for pretty much any kind of decent bike not intended for top-level road or mountain bike racing. The ironic result is that the more committed someone is to the idea that cycling has a strong future the more likely his or her bike is to look like it comes from the past. It is extraordinarily rare to see a practical, well-made utilitarian bike whose designers had the confidence to make it look modern.

A Scott sub35 hybrid. It may not be perfect -
but it features mudguards, hub gears, sensible brakes
and looks, miracle of miracles, modern.
Nevertheless, manufacturers like Surly making retro-ish but effective bikes are unlikely to suffer as Raleigh has since it put its faith in gimmicky bikes. Even though I never owned a Chopper, my first three bikes – including a bike I was riding regularly as recently as ten years ago – were all Raleighs. Like many British people, I was barely aware other brands were available. Yet Alan Oakley’s death came less than a month after Raleigh, which once manufactured more bikes annually than any other company, sold itself to Accell, a Dutch cycle manufacturer, for just $100m.

I’ve remarked before on this blog on how magnificently the free market serves cyclists, even if many are reluctant to recognise it. It may mark a sad end for a proud British company. But, in ending the independence of Raleigh Cycle, which sold hundreds of thousands of British youngsters a gimmick for a bicycle, the market may have done cyclists yet another favour.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Cops, pedallers and why they're picking on me


It was as I started pedalling across Southwark Bridge from Lower Thames Street in the City of London that I spotted the police car chasing after me, lights flashing and sirens blaring. I was about, for the first time in my life, to be pulled over by the police.
Southwark Bridge: the only place the police
have ever pulled me over

I hadn't broken any road rules, however, as the cyclophobes might assume. In fact, the policemen were angry that I’d signalled at them to leave me enough space to negotiate safely the junction I’d just passed. A lively discussion ensued as they told me that I – the innocent party – could have caused an accident by waving at them. They had obstucted the junction, I pointed out. There had been nothing to tell them it was a junction, they replied. “Except for the telltale meeting of two roads,” I retorted.

I would have minded the City of London Police's zeal far less, however, had it not contrasted so sharply with the attitude of the police officers I've asked to help me deal with far more serious wrongdoing by motorists. Having been knocked off once by a motorist paying no attention, assaulted once by a bus driver and threatened very frighteningly by another motorist, I’ve yet to see anyone lose so much as a single point on his licence as a result of illegal road behaviour around me. It has always been deemed “not in the public interest” to prosecute. Many British cyclists who’ve suffered far more serious incidents have been even worse served.

The emblematic episode for me was a journey home one summer evening along Brixton Road. A series of motorists obstructed the cyclist-only areas along the route, drove too close to me and generally harrassed me – in full view of a British Transport Police car also caught up in the heavy traffic. I eventually concluded it simply couldn't be the job of BTP officers, who police the UK's mainline railways and the London Underground, to deal with illegal driving. But then a cyclist further up the road lost patience with the delays and rode through a set of traffic lights at red. The police car’s flashing lights came on, its siren started and the officers sped up the road after him. The disparity in attitudes was so stark that I briefly contemplated stopping to ask the officers about it - and then, remembering my Southwark Bridge experience, elected to cycle on past.

The question I would have loved to have asked the officers, however, would have been the key one to any discussion of cycling and policing: why do so many police officers worldwide seem to be so alive to the relatively harmless wrongdoing of cyclists and unaware of motorists' far more often deadly misdemeanours? It would have been no less worth asking, I think, because the police officers' faces would probably have looked back at me with blank incomprehension. The injustice, like many worldwide, is, I strongly suspect, mostly a result of subconscious attitudes rather than conscious prejudice.

At least part of the answer lies in the conversation I had with the detective handling the last complaint I made to the Metropolitan Police about a driver’s behaviour – when I reported earlier this year the case of the driver who had threatened me with assault. I complained not only about the driver’s threats but also about his deliberately driving across the path of another cyclist. That incident – which struck me as far more dangerous than his threats to assualt me – must, I’m sure, have been captured on a closed circuit television camera.

New York City traffic. If one of those cars
hits your bike without killing you, the NYPD's message
is simple: fuggeddaboutit.
Yet the detective replied that it would not be “an appropriate use of police resources” to try to track down the footage. I didn't necessarily agree with his decision in my case. But his answer highlighted how, however much one might like to see the police investigate and report to prosecutors every offence they notice, not every red-light jumper will be tracked down, nor will every speeding motorist. Every police force in the world has to make some calculation about where the balance lies between tackling the crimes that most worry its political masters, the concerns of the community it polices and the resources needed to address them. Many of the outcomes are entirely rational. There aren’t many policemen worldwide happy to let murders go unsolved. There are mercifully many who have made their peace with letting litterbugs go unpunished.
The problem is that so few police forces worldwide seem to allocate resources for dealing with cyclist crime in the way that natural justice for the victims - and the public interest in boosting cycling - would appear to demand. In New York – a city whose affairs are engaging me particularly closely as I’m about to move there – the police department’s policy is not to investigate road accidents that look set merely to leave the victims maimed for life, rather than killing them. There are almost no prosecutions in New York for careless driving. Even in London, where the situation is less serious, it remains tempting to conclude many British police forces have dealt with the problem of prosecuting dangerous driving the way that Bunny Colvin, fictional commander of Baltimore’s western district in the TV series The Wire, dealt with drug dealing. They have, to all intents and purposes, legalised it.

The City policemen’s attitude towards me hinted, I think, at the subconscious attitudes involved. They spoke to me on the assumption that I had deliberately endangered myself and others out of ignorance. It took ten minutes of arguing before they realised I had taken the most reasoned, sensible approach I could to negotiating a junction where cyclists’ way across was perpetually blocked by rule-breaking motorists. The starting point seemed to be that I belonged to an out-group, beyond the civilised community they were protecting and too ignorant to handle themselves properly. Most police officers I've encountered seem, by contrast, very alive to the pressures that might make motorists break speed limits, take ‘phone calls while driving or commit other offences. That was certainly the message of the behaviour of the BTP officers I observed. The motorist rule-breaking that they ignored posed some significant threats to others. The cyclist they pursued was riding against the lights across a junction unoccupied by motorists or pedestrians.

Such attitudes, nevertheless, aren’t immutable, to judge by the history of London's Gay Pride march. When the march was first held in 1969 – at a time when nothing the organisers advocated was illegal – police officers accompanying the parade disgracefully barracked those taking part. A contingent of gay police officers, in uniform, takes part in the march now. Cyclists face far less pervasive discrimination than gay people – but a similarly comprehensive revolution in attitudes is required.

The effects of the current attitudes came home to me only last night as I cycled home. As I rode down a four-lane road, I spotted a white van speeding down the kerbside lane towards me, at high speed, illegally undertaking the vehicle in the offside lane. I swung in towards the kerb and stopped, the van only just missing me. When I saw the vehicle again at the next traffic lights, the driver shouted, “Sorry about that, mate”. When I pointed out that he was driving illegally and dangerously, he retorted that I, riding around a metre from the kerb, was to blame for “riding in the middle of the road”.

The driver involved poses a clear danger to cyclists. A rational system, aimed at reducing road deaths, would seek to discourage such driving. A serious approach to complaints from cyclists would be a step in that direction.

That, however, is utterly at odds with the approach of any police force I’ve encountered. There was no prospect, I realised, that the police would take any action against the driver. I decided against even trying to photograph the offending vehicle for fear of provoking another assault that the police would also ignore.

The driver involved might well one day soon kill a cyclist. An open police approach to tackling driving like his might conceivably have encouraged me to report him and led to his behaviour’s being addressed. For the moment, however, it remains far easier to chase after and catch a handful of slow-moving, vulnerable cyclists than tackle the sheer, overwhelming volume of motor vehicle misbehaviour.