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.