Monday, 11 February 2013

Staten Island and why the Invisible Visible Man is the Opposite of a Canary

It was a brief taste of how most of suburban America and Europe lives and it wasn’t, frankly, terribly pleasant. This past Wednesday, for work reasons, I took my bike and, for only the second time in my life, travelled by ferry to Staten Island, an island off the New Jersey shore that historical accident has made part of New York City. Having mostly developed only in the 1960s after the opening of the Verrazano Narrows road bridge to Brooklyn, it was designed around the private car far more than other parts of the city. It’s the nearest thing in New York City to a chunk of true American suburbia – featureless apart from occasional strip malls and criss-crossed by wide, fast-moving, multi-lane expressways.
A shared cycle route marking in St George: much the likeliest
way to see a bike on the road in Staten Island

I began to have concerns about cycling conditions even before I was properly out of St George, the borough’s capital. A bus driver drove at me, apparently astonished that my being ahead of him in traffic meant I thought I should go first through a pinch point. Later on, I started to wonder if I had put myself in serious danger. Unable to use the seafront cycle path – still blocked with sand from Superstorm Sandy – I headed inland along long, straight six-lane avenues. The 30mph and 35mph speed limits on these roads seemed to be regarded as minimum permissible speeds. Encountering a cyclist, such drivers simply drove straight on, at speed, towards the bike, on the apparent assumption the cyclist would scuttle out of the way.


Duane Square, TriBeCa: not specifically cycle-friendly
- but not hostile either
But I probably shouldn’t have found the conditions surprising. While I have multiple complaints about cycling conditions in brownstone Brooklyn and Manhattan – the places where I currently mostly ride – and in London – where I used to ride – these are actually atypically cycle-friendly environments. Many roads are narrow – inhibiting drivers’ tendency to speed – and the traffic’s sheer volume makes the speeds on Staten Island mostly impossible. The obvious attractions in such an environment of the bicycle – which can slip along such streets while cars remain gnarled in traffic jams – have contributed to recent years’ rapid growth in inner-city cycling numbers. Better provision is slowly arriving in the wake of increased cycling.

Conditions on Staten Island are far more typical of the places that most rich countries’ inhabitants live. Such places provide most inhabitants with a house on its own plot of land – but suffer from the sheer volume of traffic that sprawling, low-density cities generate.  I’ve encountered similar conditions in parts of commuter-belt Oxfordshire, Cheshire and Scotland’s central belt. Cyclists tend not to give much thought to such places for the simple reason that very few cyclists live in them.

The natural reaction might be to conclude that cycling is impossible in such places, to avoid visiting them as far as possible and to leave the bicycle behind when circumstance forces one to do so. The only alternative is a wholesale rethink of the car’s role in such societies.

It’s often said that cycling children are a kind of “canary-in-the-coalmine” of cycling policy. If you disperse pretty much every danger factor for cyclists in your city, you’ll find primary school children riding to school. Let even a few of them creep back and the kids will disappear.

After his Staten Island visit, the Invisible
Visible Man will hardly complain in future
about scenes such as this in Manhattan.
By that standard, I’m closer to being the explosion in the coalmine. I regularly cycle along fairly busy, high-traffic roads, including fast-moving dual carriageways in the UK. If the danger factors somewhere have built up to the point somewhere that they’re intimidating me, it’s a reasonable sign cycling conditions are seriously, dangerously hostile.

I mostly managed in Staten Island to stick to the principle that a cyclist should boldly take the lane and force motorists to manoeuvre safely around him. But even I at points hugged closer to the kerb than normal, darting out into the threatening traffic mainly to get round obstructions such as parked cars. It felt hard to keep taking the lane on seeing a line of fast-moving SUVs, three abreast, bearing down on one, giving no sign whatever of yielding to a cyclist in front of them. I wasn’t confident I wanted to waste my dying breaths explaining to some over-sized car’s driver precisely why my road craft should have prevented him from running me over.

So is there an alternative for cyclists to the appalling conditions that currently exist in Staten Island and many other suburban areas? One standard cycling lobby answer is to argue that entirely separate cyclist provision is needed and that to call for anything less is counter-productive. Cyclists and such heavy, fast-moving traffic can never co-exist.

Yet I left Staten Island doubting that calls for a network of dedicated cycle lanes on Staten Island would get very far under current conditions. I saw, as far as I can recall, one other cyclist during an afternoon and early evening on the island. It’s hard to see that a democratic society can risk spending heavily to create facilities for a group – Staten Island utility cyclists – that might not even emerge in the end. That’s all the more the case at the moment, when my cycle route took me past large tracts of shoreline land that remained flooded and empty in the wake of Sandy’s devastation of the island. Even as a dedicated cyclist, I think finite budgets at the moment are best spent on ensuring all Staten Island’s people again have waterproof, heated houses.

There are nevertheless compelling reasons beyond encouraging cycling to stop the cancer of car-dependence from draining the life out of Staten Island. The wide, uncalmed roads, it was clear, were intimidating away people other than cyclists. I saw just as few people walking the sidewalks of the busiest roads as I saw people cycling. The excellent “weekly carnage”feature on Streetsblog, the transport website, features regular stories of Staten Island’s elderly and other vulnerable people crushed by motor vehicles refusing to yield at corners. Many of those fast-moving vehicles end up ploughing into each other, at a high human cost. There’s every reason even for someone who’s not a cyclist to support the installations of road designs that slow drivers down and speed cameras.

Ideally, the United States would increase fuel taxes to cover more of the costs cars impose on places such as Staten Island. A rational system of per-mile charging could calm down the worst of the congestion. Research suggests that cars might even get where they’re going faster under such a regime than they do at present.
Manhattan approaching, from the Staten Island ferry:
a welcome sight, from a cyclist's point of view

A new approach to cars would, of course, produce a better environment for on-road cycling too. It’s far from impossible that in Staten Island calmer, less threatening roads might start to entice out of their hiding places some of the bikes that must be lying unused in the borough’s homes. The island might start participating more fully in the cycling boom that’s taking place, to varying degrees, in New York’s other four boroughs. That, in turn, might make it easy to justify new cycle-only lanes for some future reporter who finds himself heading to a distant corner of Staten Island on an assignment.

As it was, finding dark had descended and contemplating the prospect of a 10½ mile ride on threatening roads back to the ferry, I took, unusually, the line of least resistance. Fending off threatening cars, I rode half a mile to the nearest Staten Island Railway Station and, my bike leaning against my seat, took in the island’s night-time lights as most of its inhabitants do – from within the comfort of a metal shell.

11 comments:

  1. I think there's an underlying issue here which is the speed of motor vehicles and the speed differential is particularly intimidating for cyclits.

    It's striking that I feel most safe in Central London at rush hour where motor vehicles don't have the opportunity to build as much speed as they often do in the outer boroughs or at weekends.

    I think this is as much about attitudes as it is about infrastructure.

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    1. David,

      Thank you so much for your comment.

      It's true that the speed differential is partly a matter of perception. But, after I wrote this post, I came across a report of a (rare) Staten Island cyclist who was hit by a car at high speed on one of the roads I used. The road was one of the few with a marked cycle lane. It struck me that what happened to him could just as easily have happened to me. So I fear that there is a fair amount of genuine danger in tangling with cars at speed, as well as the perception.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
    2. Well of course there is. However cycling is perceived as a far more dangerous activity than is the case in reality. Mainly I think as a result of low level intimidation by motorists (perhaps also by sensationalism among some cycling advocates).

      This is why I think attitudes are so important. Having wide suburban streets which allow high speeds when appropriate for the conditions is not really a problem. Motorists that continue to travel at those high speeds around vulnerable road users is the problem.

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    3. David,

      You're undoubtedly right that people's risk perception is poor. It was the subject of a recent blogpost (http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/11/my-ride-to-work-and-why-cars-resemble.html). It's also a key problem with risk perception that people mostly get away with risky behaviour with no immediate consequences. I escaped Staten Island unscathed - but it doesn't mean that, if I cycled 10,000 miles in Staten Island and 10,000 miles in Amsterdam I'd have the same chance in both of suffering a crash. I also pointed out in that blogpost about risk that cycling's health benefits far outweigh the risks. That's probably still true in Staten Island - but the risks there are still higher than in other places.

      Where we part company, I think, is in your contention that it's not really a problem having wide, suburban streets that allow for high speed. The evidence of Streetsblog's weekly carnage seems to me to suggest there are a disproportionate number of fatalities to pedestrians and others in Staten Island. The road layout encourages that. There are clearly places where high motor vehicle speeds are appropriate - but nearly every thoroughfare in Staten Island is currently blighted by fast-moving motor traffic and it damages both the environment (in the sense that it's just not nice to be outside) and anyone who has to be around the roads.

      What I'm trying to say in the post is that the issue in Staten Island isn't making it nice for cyclists. It's making it nice. Once it starts being nice, it's going to be nicer for cyclists and there might then be the numbers to start putting on pressure for cycle-specific infrastructure. But I think the urgent issue is managing the general menace of traffic and stopping it blighting such places as it currently does.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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    4. Agreed. Where we share roads with vehicles speed is critical to both safety and *apparent* safety. So in builtup areas vehicles should be slowed, the 30mph at least, 20mph in reidential areas and city centres. On connecting A roads where speeds are faster than this we probably need segregation. Do this and watch cycling increase.
      Like you blog :-)

      Delete
  2. I don't think we do actually diverge in reality. I agree with most of what you say in the blog and in your comments BTL.

    Places like Staten Island and similar in London embody the circular argument of cycling uptake. In order to improve the attitude of the general public towards cycling you need to get more people cycling. It would be great if we had loads of continental style cycling infrastructure to encourage more people to cycle, but there aren't enough cyclists to justify it in most places (in the eyes of planners). So me and you and others like us remain social outliers.

    Anyway, I don't mind so much. The activity which makes me a social outcast means that I can sit here with a glass of wine and a burger (not equine) infront of me with no guilt what so ever :)

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    1. I'm sure we probably don't diverge much in reality.

      But I must say the hairiest bits of New York City biking make me nostalgic for London. There does seem to be a general recognition in London that you shouldn't just drive straight at a cyclist. That seems less widely felt here.

      I think it might just be that there are still far fewer cyclists on the average New York City street than on inner London streets. It reminds me of a time I had to go to Doncaster for work and took my bike. No-one rides a bike there and it was suddenly noticeable how many more close passes and so on I was getting.

      Cycling is increasing even in some unlikely places, however, and I think there's going to be a gradual improvement.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete
  3. I am so glad to have read your post, as so many vehicular cyclists tend to flippantly tell intimidated cyclists to "just take the lane" without regard to safety. As an approaching-middle-age female commuter, my ability to "keep up" in traffic is not as honed as my college-age male cycling companions. My needs and the needs of other non-male/young populations of cyclists are not being met, which is absolutely acceptable among many cyclists. I very much understand the costs involved in separated infrastructure for cycling, however we will not see these untapped populations of cyclists until they are in place. Your 'canary in the coal mine' example not only applies to children, but also families, grandma and grandpa, non-athletes, etc. Until cycling is a method of transportation for everyone, we are not going to increase cycling numbers in the US with any haste.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Spokefolk. It's depressing when one sees only fit young men out cycling. It's also a pity when it appeals only to risk-taking personalities. A lot of the New York City cyclists I meet at present seem to have a greater readiness than most people to take chances with their own safety.

      I have previously tended towards the view that bikes and other traffic needed to share the road (the view I articulated here: http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2012/03/in-which-our-hero-picks-up-cycling.html). But that view was absolutely predicated on the idea that cars needed to be calmed to make the roads safe for all. I think that's a vital first step in getting cycling going in places like Staten Island. It's an all-round good - it would cut the death toll for pedestrians and motorists, as well as encouraging cycling.

      But my view about segregation was formed in London, where roads are narrower and there seems to be a greater recognition that cyclists are allowed on the roads than there is in New York. The wide avenues and parkways that cut across a lot of New York City are a different matter. A lot of other US cities have something similar. I think there should be traffic calming on these streets, to make life safer for everyone. But you're right that, until there are segregated facilities on far more of these streets, there won't be as many older people and women as ideally one might like to see cycling.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

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  4. Coincidentally, your post spotlighting Staten Island appeared the same day that some 50 cyclists memorialized the life and work of the late Steve Faust, son of Brooklyn and lifelong cyclist and cycling advocate, with a ride to Brooklyn shore areas in the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Winning bike access to the VNB was a big part of Steve's lifelong dream and work.

    It's not a stretch to posit that the ability to ride across the Verrazano could be a catalyst toward enhanced bicycle respect, use and provision on Staten Island. You would have been heartened by the commitments voiced by many ride participants (and speakers during the commemorative picnic) to carry on and redouble Steve's efforts and finally induce the NY State legislature to require the MTA to design and construct twin biking and walking lanes on the bridge.

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    1. Charles,

      I read about Steve's death and, more importantly, his life and it sounds like he was a very fine man. I would have attended the ride but I'm otherwise occupied on a Sunday morning attending divine worship.

      I'd love to see a cycle path across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, not least because it would be such a magnificent retrospective one-in-the-eye for Robert Moses, who stopped its having pedestrian and bike walkways.

      I rode down to Coney Island the day nine days ago now past the bridge and would have loved to have crossed it. I accidentally sent out this link with my regular email alerting people to my publishing a new post precisely because I linked to this piece in that post where I described how riding on Cropsey Avenue in Coney Island was as bad as riding on Staten Island.

      All the best,

      Invisible.

      Delete

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